The sea is a frequent presence in Golding’s writing; it represents isolation for the boys in Lord of the Flies, and is the cause of Christopher Martin’s shipwreck in Pincher Martin. But it is perhaps most important in ‘The Sea Trilogy’ – Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below –, where the ocean is the driving force of the journey to the other side of the world. Golding’s own life had been intertwined with the sea; he was a Navy Captain in the Second World War, and he spent summers in Newquay, Cornwall, which boasts an impressive, and often ferocious, surf. His own relationship with the sea was complicated and he said that ‘anybody who knows the sea enough hates it. It’s really incredibly hateful and loathsome: beautiful, grand, tremendous. It’s really the cruellest bit of nature.’ As Charlotte Mathieson writes, ‘for much of Western history, the sea has featured as unknown and mysterious, viewed from the land as an “othered”, often feared space.’ In ‘The Sea Trilogy’, the passengers are brought into direct contact with this fear, and begin to realise that they are entirely at the mercy of this ‘cruellest bit of nature’.
The journey begins in Rites of Passage and the sea has a predictable effect on the passengers, including Edmund Talbot. Talbot suffers from severe seasickness and the early part of the journey is marked by vomiting, and a retreat to his cabin. He is told by his servant, Wheeler, that he needs to learn to ‘ride a ship’ (11), which in due course, he does. Talbot becomes fascinated with the workings of the ship, and his journal faithfully records the events of the journey.
Familiarity with the sea gives rise to a divide amongst the passengers and crew, in particular Captain Anderson, who is exasperated by the demands of the travellers, and prefers to keep himself separate. He says: ‘I am grateful to the oceans for … their power of isolating a man from his fellows’ (150). Talbot responds that is only true for a captain: ‘the rest of humanity at sea must live only too herded. The effect on them is not of the best’ (150). And, indeed, the cramped quarters and uncomfortable living situation brings out the worst in many of the passengers. This is targeted at Reverend Colley, who is despised, and bullied, by those on board.
The final part of the novel is told by Colley through his letters to his sister, who he tells about the ‘doldrums’. This refers to an area of the ocean when the wind disappears, often trapping ships for long periods, punctuated with bouts of violent weather. Colley describes this as:
‘the sea is polished. There is no sky but only a hot whiteness that descends like a curtain on every side, dropping, as it were, even below the horizon and so diminishing the circle of the ocean that is visible to us’ (233).
The doldrums of the ocean become a metaphor for Colley’s own situation; he too is trapped on the ship, and his existence is under constant threat from the unpredictable crew. His use of the term also foreshadows his subsequent mental state – he becomes depressed and listless, and confines himself to his bunk. Colley himself is deep in the doldrums. He fears what lurks in the water almost as much as he fears what is with him on the ship, personifying the surface of the sea as the ‘skin of a living thing, a creature vaster than Leviathan’ (233).
In Close Quarters, they have passed through the doldrums, but this does not put an end to their troubled journey. The old ship has accumulated far too much seaweed on its underside, which means they make little progress. They are now at the mercy of the wind and the sea’s current; as Lieutenant Summers explains: ‘We can only go more or less where we are driven’ (186). The concern about the seaweed is halted when the ship Alcyone is spotted, and the two groups come together for a ball. Talbot meets Marion Chumley, who he falls hopelessly in love with, only for her to sail away while Talbot is incapacitated.
The encounter with Alcyone gives the crew an opportunity to solve their seaweed problem, as they are joined by Lieutenant Benét, formerly of Alcyone. Against the wishes of Summers, Benét proposes a scheme to rid the ship of seaweed by using a dragrope against the bottom. The dragrope dislodges part of the keel, to the watching horror of Talbot: ‘I could not look anywhere but at this awful creature which was rising from the unknown regions. Its appearance cancelled the insecure “facts” of the deep sea and seemed to illustrate instead the horribly unknown’ (275). John Carey writes that in this moment, ‘we are reminded that beneath the surface glitter of life – the lights and the artificial flowers, and beyond the reach of human intellect, lies something fathomless that only the imagination can enter’.
In the final volume, Fire Down Below, the dangers of the sea threaten to overwhelm the weary passengers. The damage to the keel causes sea water to enter the ship and Talbot is shocked by the possibility that they may sink. The ocean also comes to signify something else to Talbot; he thinks of it as the ‘waters of separation’ (41) from Chumley. The appearance of the sea changes as they come closer to their destination – the ship passes an ‘invisible boundary’ where the colour changes to a ‘clear green’ (41).
In the terrifying climax to their journey, the sea ‘goes mad’ (260). The waves surround the ship like ‘black mountains’ (188), and the unknown deep once again becomes a preoccupation: ‘Everywhere about us and for many hundreds of miles – perhaps thousands – the bottom, the solid globe was miles away down there under the majesty of the liquid element’ (194). The fear of sinking into this dark unknown creates an unbearable tension and the literal strain on the ship is translated into a metaphorical strain on the passengers. Talbot then spots an iceberg, which he first thinks is the arrival of dawn. It is the view of this iceberg that best encapsulates the danger they face:
‘the disorganised fury of the sea, the towers, pinnacles, the bursts of water that had replaced those steadily marching billows which had swung under and past us for so many days together’ (260).
‘The Sea Trilogy’ demonstrates the power of the sea and the unpredictability of nature. It also shows the devastating consequences for human beings while at the mercy of the treacherous ocean. Talbot writes at the end of Rites of Passage: ‘with lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon’ (298).