Real Life Lord of the Flies

Apparently again making the rounds is the story of a “real life lord of the flies.” Six boys were stranded on an island for over a year, but unlike Lord of the Flies they actually worked together and got along. Generally left out of the retelling of the story was that they were all Catholics and kept up a strict prayer life (it is sometimes mentioned in a more general way, such as one made a guitar and then would sing songs and prayers at night). Even neglecting that, these retellings always seem to miss the point, not only of the real-life version, but also of the original story.

(For reference, he’s the article in The Guardian that is the source for many recent retellings. Also, a disclaimer, I’ve never read Lord of the Flies and have no intention to, I’ve only read about it, but that’s quite sufficient.)

The general thrust I’ve seen of the retellings is “in Lord of the Flies, William Golding took a dark view of human nature, that without the restraint of civilization we’re brutal and nasty, but when this happened for real, the boys were wonderful and got along great!” There are some superficial issues this misses, as well as some deeper ones. I’ll deal with them in that order.

To get to the superficial differences, the novel and real life had significant age differences. The boys in Lord of the Flies were all older children or pre-adolescent. The Tongan boys who were stranded on an Island ranged from 13 to 16 years old. This is a significant difference, as a few years at that age makes an enormous difference in emotional stability, self-control, a sense of responsibility, how much civilization they’ve actually absorbed so far, etc. The boys in the novel were also merely schoolmates whereas the six Tongan boys stranded on an island were friends who set out on a boat together and got lost in a storm. The six Tongan boys were all Catholics who regularly prayed together while the boys in the novel, being British from the mid-1900s would have been mostly effectively atheist though nominally Christian; Britain had largely ceased to be a Christian nation by the early 1900s. There were only six Tongan boys while there were a far larger number of boys in the novel, which makes the interpersonal dynamics far more complicated and much more liable to factionalism. There are others, but I think this suffices.

The much more fundamental problem with the common analysis I’ve seen is that it utterly misses the point of the book. I gravely doubt that Lord of the Flies is a good book; I’ve never read it and have no intention of reading it. However, all it takes is a very slight acquaintance with the plot to see that it’s an anti-war book where what happens on the island is a metaphor for World War II. The culmination of the book is the rescue of the surviving children by British naval officers from a cruiser (i.e. a warship) who is disappointed that the boys put up such a bad show, then looked awkwardly at the warship he served on, the obvious point being that the adults are no better than the horrible pointless savagery of the feral boys.

Lord of the Flies is not about what human beings are like without civilization to improve them or rules to control them. Its entire point is that civilization is just as brutal as the wild, it only pretends to be better. Now, one can argue until the cows come home about what people will be like stuck on a desert island and the truth is that it’s going to depend on who, precisely, is stuck on the desert island and what choices they make. There’s no point in arguing that World War II didn’t happen.

Lord of the Flies is probably not a good book and its central message—that World War 2 proves that civilization is a lie and human beings are unredeemable savages—is not true. It was a popular lie shortly after World War II. You can see all sorts of variants of it in the “best” literature of the time (the early 1950s), such as A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc. The thing is, a small group of people who get along with each other on a desert island don’t prove this is a lie. Any number of people could get along on any number of desert islands and it wouldn’t prove this is a lie. After all, World War 2 happened.

What proves that human beings are redeemable is that God, in Christ, has redeemed them.

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