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Teaching The Spire

The Spire is undoubtedly my favourite Golding novel and I was recently lucky enough to teach it to third year English Literature and Publishing undergraduates. The majority of the students had read Lord of the Flies, of course, but hadn’t really been aware of Golding’s other books and it was really rather wonderful to witness their enthusiastic and positive responses.

The Spire is a novel that absolutely demands literary study. It is rich with portentous symbolism and portrays its medieval world so vividly that the reader cannot help but be transported back into the early Middle Ages. Its narrative structure is unusual – Golding tells the story in the third person, but the narrative is in no way omniscient. All the events are told through Dean Jocelin’s eyes which can, at times, lead us through a bewildering journey of Jocelin’s refusal to acknowledge the true cost of his building obsession. We get our view of how Jocelin himself looks through the stone carving that the mute stonemason makes of him. Jocelin denies his looks – ‘I’m not as beaky as that!’ (20). His eyes are ‘blind’, a metaphor for the falseness of his ‘vision’ and for later events that Jocelin becomes deliberately blind to. Later, he sees his reflection in a metal sheet in the cathedral. His first thought is to perform an exorcism on the beast he sees, until he realises that it is himself in front of him.

Teaching a text with such an uncertain narrative is fascinating. For instance, we discussed the true fate of Pangall and some students were misled by Jocelin’s denial of what must have happened.  Deciphering the clues Golding provides – particularly in Jocelin’s ‘trial’ towards the end of the book – it was clear that Pangall had ended up in the pit at the crossways of the cathedral. However, we debated whether or not the builders had pushed Pangall into the pit, or whether he had been chased and had fallen to his death.  This is something I hadn’t considered in my many re-readings of The Spire and is evidence of the pleasure of teaching a text you love – there’s always something new to discover!

Our main objective in studying The Spire was to think about the way in which Golding uses place in the novel.  After the Second World War and throughout the 1950s, Golding was a school teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s school in Salisbury, and he watched the reconstruction of the spire on Salisbury Cathedral, from the window of his classroom. The novel itself went through a number of drafts and surprisingly, Golding initially created a twentieth-century narrator, telling the story ‘at a hot point of the Cold War, when nothing is even as certain as usual’ (Golding’s 1961 Ewing Lecture, quoted in Carey, William Golding, 260).  The Spire was eventually finished after he had given up teaching but the echoes of Salisbury Cathedral, and the surrounding town, reverberate throughout the novel. However, Golding never names his fictional cathedral or town and as John Mullan writes in his introduction to Faber’s new edition of the book: ‘The cathedral in The Spire is Salisbury Cathedral, and it is not.’

The students and I visited Salisbury Cathedral as part of our study and had a special tour geared towards The Spire. We were thrilled to discover some key places from the book. For instance, Dean Jocelin describes how he would like his tomb to look:  ‘himself without ornament, lying stripped in death of clothing and flesh, a prone skeleton lapped in skin, head fallen back, mouth open’. Thomas Bennet’s tomb in the cathedral is remarkably similar to Golding’s description and it is likely that it provided the inspiration. We gazed at the pillars supporting the mighty spire and saw how they had bent under the strain, reflecting the metaphorical and literal strain of the spire from the novel. Standing at the crossing beneath the spire and witnessing the beauty and tranquillity of the cathedral but imagining Golding’s interpretation of its construction was an interesting experience.  The builders disturb the peace with their ‘lewd songs’ and ‘blaspheming’ and eventually the cathedral has to be closed for even religious services. Today, all activity is paused for prayer, and despite a healthy number of visitors, the silence was respectfully observed.

Golding didn’t do a great deal of research into medieval construction methods as he explained to critic Frank Kermode: ‘I just came here [the crossing beneath the spire] and said to myself, “If I were to build a spire, how would I go about it?”’ Visiting this site was not only illuminating for studying the actual events of the novel; it also helped us to understand Golding’s creative process as he developed it. Just like Golding, we imagined how the spire was conceived and we followed his steps in climbing to the very top of the tower, at the base of the spire. There were differences here too, as the cathedral added a number of steps for visitors in the late 1960s; Golding would have had to scale round on the outside of the tower to get as high as we did (a terrifying prospect!).  We were also extremely lucky as Bishop Wordworth’s School allowed us to visit two of Golding’s old classrooms, complete with view of the spire. It was amusing to watch the students try to figure out where Golding’s desk would have been, and to follow his gaze out of the windows!

Teaching The Spire really has been an immense pleasure and visiting Salisbury Cathedral certainly added to our understanding of Golding’s vision. The scale of the novel cannot be underestimated and to be in the shadow of the spire is a humbling experience.