William Golding Flies classic holds true 60 years on

By Vincent Dowd
Witness, BBC World Service

  • Published
Lord of the FliesImage source, Rex Features
Image caption,
Peter Brook's 1963 version of Lord of the Flies is the one preferred by William Golding's daughter Judy Carver

It's 60 years this month since the publication of William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies. To mark the anniversary his family are giving his literary archive on loan to the University of Exeter - including the very different original version of his famous tale of boys fending for themselves on a tropical island.

"I think probably when my father turned 40 he thought he hadn't yet hit the mark in life. As a young man he had a volume of poems published but after that earning a living intervened and of course the war came," says Judy Carver, Golding's daughter.

"In his heart he knew he hadn't found his voice until he started Lord of the Flies."

Ms Carver has been thinking a lot about her father recently. She's been making arrangements to move the William Golding manuscript archive from a bank vault to the University of Exeter.

"As a family we seem never to throw anything away, so it's a great insight into how he wrote. And there comes a point where conservation has to be considered," she says.

"I'm told often it's modern manuscripts which are in the worst danger. In the 20 Century paper quality got worse and people began using biros. The ink spreads."

Faber published Lord of the Flies in September 1954. It had already been rejected by 10 publishers and one literary agent. Golding, by now a teacher, had earlier written two unpublished novels and some non-fiction.

"There's a memoir of one of our family sailing holidays, which in some ways is better than the unpublished novels. In an imagined part of it he feels guilty because he's made a mistake as captain which led to the family dying.

"He imagines us all being shipwrecked and drowning. The picture of the white bodies turning over in the green sea is very vivid. It feels like authentic later Golding."

Her father was born on the north Cornish coast in 1911. The sea remained important to him until his death in 1993.

Lord of the Flies is a short and superbly written account of a group of English schoolboys marooned on an uninhabited island. As time passes, tensions emerge and disaster comes.

To an extent the book was inspired by RM Ballantyne's classic adventure The Coral Island, published a century before. Golding took names for two of his characters - Ralph and Jack - from Ballantyne's Victorian yarn.

Image caption,
William Golding won the Booker Prize for Rites of Passage in 1980, the Nobel Prize for Literature three years later and was knighted in 1988

Ms Carver can remember her father reading The Coral Island to her and her brother David as children.

In Golding's story there is no clear explanation of why the schoolboys are where they are. But there are hints that war, possibly nuclear war, has preceded the action.

Popular around the world as a school text, millions of copies have been sold. There are some 30 translations into other languages and there have been two film adaptations, in 1963 and 1990.

Ms Carver much prefers Peter Brook's black and white 1963 version.

She says the archive going to Exeter shows how the typescript originally submitted by her father differed from the book which finally emerged. The original title was Strangers from Within.

"The book was rescued at Faber by a young editor called Charles Monteith (who went on to be chairman). He told my father it was publishable but needed changes. Quite a lot was rewritten or taken out.

"Charles suggested my father drop passages that described the atomic war the children were refugees from. And he did quite a lot of judicious cutting around the role of Simon, who became a less religious figure.

"I think under Charles Monteith's influence my father realised the religious references would be more effective if they were more subtle.

"My father was never a fully paid-up Christian but in his own way he was a religious man. But he'd never been baptised or confirmed and he thought his books couldn't be pinned down merely to Christianity."

Lord of the Flies set Golding on the road to decades of success. In 1980 he took the Booker Prize for Rites of Passage and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature three years later. He was knighted in 1988.

His daughter says he grew used to answering the same questions again and again about his first, world-famous book.

"It kept him in funds and of course he was glad of that. He could be generous to his family. He was good-mannered and patient with people who wanted to talk about the only book of his they'd read, even years later."

Image source, Rex Features
Image caption,
The 1990 film of Lord of the Flies was considered to have diluted - or dispensed with - many of the book's themes and thoughts on the universal truths of human nature

Ms Carver says his next novel, The Inheritors, was his favourite. He lamented that far fewer people read it.

She remembers that the only thing which aggravated him was being challenged repeatedly about a plot-point involving the character Piggy and his glasses.

"The boys start a fire using the spectacles. So many people told my father this is physically impossible that he got quite annoyed.

"Eventually he learnt that a few eye conditions do necessitate glasses which could start a fire - so honour was served."

Ms Carver believes the book has remained in demand for six decades for two main reasons.

"Firstly of course it's so well written. But also it deals with moral questions which were current after World War Two and which I'm afraid are still relevant today.

"In 1940 my father joined the Royal Navy and eventually was sent to work for just over a year at a weapons research establishment.

"He told me he saw there how people's desire to do a job well, to do their duty, could remove all human sensitivity.

"He remembered a suggestion that when bombs were dropped from a plane they should be accompanied by fireworks, to get people to gaze up in wonder and amazement.

"He was horrified at that. That perception of what humans are capable of is what stands behind Lord of the Flies."

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