William Golding’s fifth book, The Spire, was originally published in 1964 and, according to the blurb on Faber’s 2005 edition is ‘a dark and powerful portrait of one man’s will, and the folly that he creates’. This description of the novel is entirely accurate. Briefly, it’s about a senior cleric in England who becomes obsessed with his vision for a spire to be built on the cathedral. He refuses to listen to advice from the master builder, Roger Mason, who insists that the spire cannot be supported because there are no building foundations and the spire becomes known as Jocelin’s folly. Jocelin states that the spire is ‘God’s folly’ and demands that it be built despite the ‘cost’. This cost is not financial, although the funding for the spire provides an important twist in the plot. The cost that Jocelin acknowledges is the human cost of the spire; for example, the murder of Pangall, the death of several builders, the tragedy of Goody Pangall and Roger Mason, and ultimately Jocelin’s descent into the madness of obsession and desire. As the building reaches higher and higher, the ground under the cathedral begins to ‘creep’ and the pillars ‘sing’ under the enormous strain. Everyone involved in the building and resident at the cathedral also become unbearably affected by the strain of this seemingly impossible task.
I am currently re-reading The Spire just a month or so after I originally read it. It is rare for me to read a book for the second time so close to the first but The Spire is a book that demands another reading. It is superbly written and plotted but at times, the narrative is so subtle that only after reaching the end of the book can the reader fully appreciate Golding’s achievement. Thus, a re-reading offers such reward in understanding the symbolism and events that one cannot fully comprehend at first.
The lack of an entirely omniscient or reliable narrator allows readers to draw many of their own conclusions about incidents in the novel. Key examples of this are the fate of Pangall, Jocelin’s desire for Goody, and the truth behind the ‘angel’ on Jocelin’s back. The story is told in a mixture of third and first person but always from Jocelin’s point of view. However, his view of events is skewed by self-denial, his unshakeable belief in the feasibility of the spire and his utmost determination to complete his vision. He justifies his actions throughout the novel – many of which are distinctly unfitting for a man in his position – as necessary in order to fulfil his vision of the spire. Therefore, when Pangall, the lame and impotent caretaker, reports that the workmen employed to build the spire ‘torment’ him and warns that ‘one day, they will kill me’ (14), Jocelin fails to do anything of note to help him. Pangall begs him to send them away but Jocelin only requests that the master builder speaks to his men and ask them to stop bullying Pangall. It appears later that Pangall’s prediction is correct although Jocelin’s description of the event is far from conclusive as he watches the workmen chase Pangall near the pit.
‘He saw men who tormented Pangall, having him at the broom’s end. In an apocalyptic glimpse of seeing, he caught how a man danced forward to Pangall, the model of the spire projecting obscenely from between his legs – then the swirl and the noise and the animal bodies hurled Jocelin against stone, so that he could not see, but only hear how Pangall broke…’ (90)
After this, the next we hear of Pangall is that he has ‘run away’ (92). Jocelin occasionally wonders ‘where is Pangall’ and images of the incident by the pit run through his mind but he quickly dismisses this as ‘the cost’ of the spire (105). It is only towards the end of the novel that the reader can finally begin to understand Pangall’s fate, and this is only revealed because of Jocelin’s madness.
After becoming concerned at Jocelin’s neglect of his religious duties and the spiralling cost of the spire, a group of church officials come to interview him, which Jocelin describes as a trial. He begins to tell the story of the building work and declares ‘there were three sorts of people. Those who ran, those who stayed, and those who were built in’ (166). The Visitor asks him to elaborate on what he means about ‘people being built in’ but he cannot answer. Later, Jocelin visits Roger Mason who has ‘turned to drink’ after his experience working on the spire. Jocelin asks him rhetorically: ‘what holds [the spire] up Roger? I? The nail? Does she, or do you? Or it is poor Pangall, crouched beneath the crossways, with a sliver of mistletoe between his ribs?’ (212). With this, Jocelin reveals that he ‘knows’, or at least very strongly suspects that Pangall was part of a sacrifice made by the workmen to guard against the evil of the stinking pit and the creeping ground. A second reading of the novel elicits further clues to this; the recurring symbol of mistletoe and the workmen’s references to ‘bad luck’ and their paganism. Although Jocelin’s insanity is so far advanced at this stage that the reader still cannot be sure if his accusation is true, it is likely that this was indeed Pangall’s fate and Jocelin knew it all along. Thus, his failure to punish or remove the workmen is even more abhorrent. He allows himself to be so utterly determined to complete the spire that Pangall is also Jocelin’s sacrifice.
Ultimately, Jocelin is also sacrificed. The warmth on his back, which he often referred to as a ‘guardian angel’ is revealed to be an illness, which eventually kills him. In keeping with the style of the narrative, the reader only discovers this through Jocelin’s rare moments of lucidity in which he hears snatches of conversations. When he is attacked by the villagers, a woman shouts: ‘Holy Mother of God. Look at his back’ (215). On his deathbed he hears: ‘It is a wasting, a consumption of the back and spine’ (218). Jocelin’s fate seems linked to that of the spire. As the building work begins to disintegrate, the pain in his back becomes unbearable. ‘Then his angel put away the two wings from the cloven hoof and struck him from arse to head with a whitehot flail. It filled his spine with sick fire and he shrieked because he could not bear it yet knew he would have to’ (188). However, as Jocelin lays dying he manages to ask of the spire: ‘Fallen?’ to which Father Adam replies, ‘Not yet’ (218). At the novel’s conclusion, Jocelin is dead but the spire still stands.
The Spire is a remarkable novel, filled with immense symbolism and a narrative that so finely captures the complexities of the protagonist. It is also beautifully written; with many passages exquisitely describing the spire’s construction and potential fall. I have included two of my favourite quotations here. First, Jocelin’s initial response to the building work: ‘There was outside and inside, as clearly divided, as eternally and inevitably divided as yesterday and today’ (12). Later, Roger Mason explains the problem of the spire to Jocelin:
‘Sooner or later there’d be a bang, a shudder, a roar. Those four columns would open apart like a flower, and everything else up here, stone, wood, iron, glass, men, would slide down into the church like the fall of a mountain’ (118).
Golding is, of course, best known for his debut novel, Lord of the Flies, which is regularly cited as one of the best novels ever. The Spire certainly deserves the same level of attention.