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Lord of the Flies at 65: The Environment

William Golding would have been 108 years old today, and this week also marks the 65th anniversary of the publication of Lord of the Flies. This astonishing novel is still read by millions of people every year, and its themes of the breakdown of civilisation, democratic failure, war and violence, feel as relevant now as they did then. I’ve written before about its relevance in contemporary politics, with Lord of the Flies frequently mentioned in the reporting of the US Presidential election in 2016, and the EU referendum vote in the UK same year. Lord of the Flies has often appeared in popular culture, from television shows, to films and in music. In 2019 one of the book’s lesser-explored themes seems to be particularly relevant – the environment.

Golding wrote Lord of the Flies in 1952 (it was eventually published in 1954) after the end of the Second World War, and during the early years of the Cold War. The Cold War was characterised by the threat of nuclear weapons and in the original manuscript, the opening pages described atomic warfare which the boys were being evacuated from. In the published version this has been excised, but Piggy says to Ralph early on: ‘“Didn’t you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb? They’re all dead”.’ Thus, the threat of nuclear annihilation haunts the story from the very beginning, and we see a subtle link to it later on in the boys’ own behaviour. As they explore the island, they push a large rock off a cliff which smashes a ‘deep hole in the canopy of the forest’. ‘“Wacco”’, they exclaim. ‘“Like a bomb!”.’ Their excitement in this act of destruction is an uncomfortable moment as it reminds us of the ruin caused by the nuclear bomb.

Golding wrote that the pleasure he got ‘from writing the book stemmed from being on a coral island. Hence the elaborate description of natural phenomena’. And indeed, Golding presents a beautiful landscape, entirely untouched by humans:

‘The shore was fledged with palm trees. These stood or leaned or reclined against the light and their green feathers were a hundred feet up in the air. The ground beneath them was a bank covered with coarse grass, torn everywhere by the upheavals of fallen trees, scattered with decaying coconuts and palm saplings. Beyond this was the darkness of the forest proper and the open space of the scar. […] Perhaps a mile away, the white surf flinked on a coral reef, and beyond that the open sea was dark blue. Within the irregular arc of coral the lagoon was still as a mountain lake – blue of all shades and shadowy green and a purple. The beach between the palm terrace and the water was a thin bow-stave, endless apparently, for to Ralph’s left the perspectives of palm and beach and water drew to a point at infinity; and always, almost invisible, was the heat.’

This is a world dominated by nature, and by the animals who live on the island. The plane crash has already caused a change to the landscape, represented by the ‘long scar smashed into the jungle’. However, as the boys take over this place, they have a further negative effect on its ecosystem. A subtle change is in the insects – Golding describes the abundance of butterflies in the early stages of the book: ‘the air was thick with butterflies, lifting, fluttering, settling’. By the time Jack displays a pig’s head on a stick, the butterflies have been replaced in the stifling heat by the stench of decay: ‘Over the island the build-up of clouds continued. A steady current of heated air rose all day from the mountain and was thrust to ten thousand feet; revolving masses of gas piled up the static until the air was ready to explode. […] Nothing prospered but the flies who blackened their lord and made the spilt guts look like a heap of glistening coal’.

The two fires on the island are most significant in exploring Golding’s theme of environmental destruction. In the second chapter, the boys light a fire which spirals quickly out of control with fatal consequences. As the flames destroy the surrounding flora and fauna, Piggy comments, wryly: ‘“You got your small fire all right”.’ The boys’ thoughtlessness is the first act of destruction and death, but it is not the last. In the final terrifying chase of Ralph, Jack orders his group to smoke him out of the hiding place:

‘Smoke was seeping through the branches in white and yellow wisps, the patch of blue sky over head turned to the colour of a storm cloud, and then the smoke billowed round him’.

In their desperation to catch Ralph, they set the entire island alight, without considering their survival. Ralph thinks to himself, ‘The fire must be almost at the fruit trees – what would they eat tomorrow?’.

These damaging blows to nature are similar to the devastating fires in the Amazon rainforest, which have been reported in the news in recent weeks. The reports state that the fires have been caused by human hand, in order to expand cattle grazing land to satisfy the growing demand for meat. Just as Jack wants the forest burned for his short-term gain, the Amazon inferno represents a similar kind of recklessness. If the rainforest continues to be destroyed, humanity’s long-term survival is very much at risk. In Lord of the Flies, Golding shows how easy it is for humans to threaten nature and the earth’s endurance; both on the microcosm of the island, and in the wider world destroyed by nuclear war.

The environmental crisis has stirred huge numbers of young people to take action, through school strikes and campaigning across the globe. While these young people have been praised for their actions, many commentators have also criticised the campaigns. One of the figureheads for this movement is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who has received some horrendous bullying from adults on social and mainstream media, and even by politicians. Groups of children and young people have often been accused of behaving like they’re in Lord of the Flies in pejorative terms but here we see this same behaviour from adults. As a parallel, Piggy is not listened to in the novel, and his attempts to provide scientific reason in response to the boys’ actions are met with derision. Golding’s main point in the book, particularly shown by the arrival of the Naval Officer at the end, is that the boys are merely mirroring exactly what the grown-ups are doing. There are still lessons to be learned from Lord of the Flies.