Faith Matters

Telling a better story: The real Lord of the Flies

The classic novel Lord of the Flies vividly captures author William Golding's belief that 'man produces evil as a bee produces honey'. But are humans inevitably and unavoidably wicked towards each other? A real-life 'Lord of the Flies' episode suggests not, writes Dr Brian Wilson, who explores what it means for faith

William Golding imagined unrestrained evil would ensue when a group of boys were shipwrecked on a desert island. The reality, however, was rather different...

STORIES shape our lives and the way we view the world. Some stories influence us more than others. One of these involves a plane going down on a deserted island, the only survivors being some British schoolboys who can't believe their luck.

The young boys think they have crash-landed in one of their adventure books, with nothing but beach, shells and water for miles - and no adults. The boys make plans to survive, have fun and make smoke signals for passing ships.

But they soon become restless and reckless. When a ship does finally pass by in the distance, they've abandoned their post at the fire. They develop overpowering urges - to pinch, to kick and to bite.

Yet one boy, Piggy, manages to keep a cool head and becomes the voice of reason, which nobody listens to. "What are we?" he wonders sadly. "Humans? Or animals? Or savages?"

Weeks pass, but one day a British naval officer comes ashore. The island is now a smouldering wasteland. Three of the children are dead. One of the survivors approaches the naval officer and says, "We wept for the darkness of man's heart."

This story never happened. An English schoolmaster made it up in 1951. "Wouldn't it be a good idea," William Golding asked his wife one day, "to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave?"

Golding's book, Lord of the Flies, would ultimately sell tens of millions of copies and be hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. Golding is regarded to have had a remarkable ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. As he once put it himself, "Man produces evil as a bee produces honey."

The book was published not long after the atrocities of the Second World War. People then wondered whether Auschwitz had been an anomaly, or whether human beings are programmed to act aggressively towards each other.

In Lord of the Flies, Golding suggested the latter and scored an instant hit. Golding later won a Nobel Prize for his life's work, with the selecting committee saying his work "illuminates the human condition in the world of today". He was one of the earliest novelists to see kids as bad to the core.

Lord of the Flies paints a gloomy view of human behaviour - but is it a fully accurate one?

More recently, the historian Rutger Bregman delved into the author's life and learned, "what an unhappy individual he'd been. An alcoholic. Prone to depression."

In Golding's own words, "I have always understood the Nazis," he confessed, "because I am of that sort by nature."

And it was partly out of that self-knowledge that he wrote the book. Bregman wondered whether anyone had ever studied what real children would do on a deserted island.

He wrote an article in light of modern scientific insights and concluded that in all probability, kids would act very differently. He cited a biologist, "there is no shred of evidence that this is what children left to their own devices would do." And so began his quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies.

After some searching online, Bregman came across an Australian newspaper article from October 1966: "Sunday showing for Tongan castaways."

The story concerned six boys who had been found three weeks earlier on a rocky islet south of Tonga. Caught in a huge storm whilst on a fishing trip, the boys became shipwrecked.

They had been rescued by an Australian sea captain, Peter Warner, after being marooned on the island of 'Ata for more than a year. "Their survival story is regarded as one of the great classic stories of the sea," the piece concluded.

Another article had a picture of Warner with Mano Totau, one of the survivors, 15 years old at the time of the incident. Bregman set out to Australia and met both of them. The real Lord of the Flies, Mano told us, began in 1965.

The protagonists were six boys, all pupils at St Andrew's, a strict Anglican school in Tonga. The teenagers were bored witless and longed for adventure instead of assignments, so they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away.

"Lots of other kids at the school knew about it," Mano recalled, "but they all thought it was a joke." They 'borrowed' a boat from a fisherman and the journey began without a hitch.

But on the first night the boys made a grave error. They fell asleep, waking up a few hours later to water crashing over their heads. They drifted for eight days before ending up on a harsh rocky island called 'Ata, now considered uninhabitable.

Sea captain Warner had been out fishing when he noticed a fire on the island and decided to investigate. But as Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, "By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination."

The kids worked in teams of two and quarrels were sorted out by imposing a time-out and a change of scenery. Their days began with song and prayer. One of them fashioned a guitar out of a piece of driftwood and steel wires. When they were rescued in September 1966, they were in peak physical condition, to the astonishment of doctors.

As the historian Bregman puts it: "This is the real-life Lord of the Flies. Turns out, it's a heart-warming story - the stuff of bestselling novels, Broadway plays and blockbuster movies. It's also a story that nobody knows. Golding's book is still widely read, whilst the real-life story of the boys of 'Ata has been consigned to obscurity.

"Media historians credit Golding as being the unwitting originator of one of the most popular entertainment genres on television today: reality TV. The premise of so-called reality TV shows, from Big Brother to Temptation Island, is that human beings, when left to their own devices, behave like beasts.

"MTV's The Real World, begins with the simple line, 'This is the true story of seven strangers... Find out what really happens when people stop being polite and start getting real'...

"But take the time to look behind the scenes of programmes like these and you'll see candidates being led on, boozed up and played off against each other in ways that are nothing less than shocking. It shows just how much manipulation it takes to bring out the worst in people."

Rutger Bregman, author of Humankind: A Hopeful History and Utopia for Realists

We might say that stories are just stories. But this is rarely true. As Bregman notes: "Cynical stories have a marked effect on the way we look at the world. In Britain, a study has demonstrated that girls who watch more reality TV also more often say that being mean and telling lies is necessary to get ahead in life."

"The real Lord of the Flies is a story of friendship and loyalty, a story that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other," he says.

"Of course, it's only one story, but if we're going to make Lord of the Flies required reading for millions of teenagers. Then let's also tell them about the time real kids found themselves stranded on a desert island."

One of the boys' teachers at St Andrew's High School in Tonga recalled years later that she had used their survival story in our social study classes. "My students couldn't get enough of it," she said.

The Bible has often been interpreted as a call to reject and deny ourselves and our 'fallen state'. Emphasis was put on our sinfulness rather than our grace, and on seeing ourselves as 'the fallen children of Adam' rather than as the 'redeemed children of God'.

The book of Genesis is often interpreted to support the view of our 'fallen state', ignoring the 'original blessedness' and goodness of all God's creation. This led many people to believe that the more badly we thought of ourselves, the less worthy we thought ourselves, the more pleasing we were to God.

In truth, the Bible has a very healthy view of humanity, which is in agreement with the heart-warming real-life Lord of the Flies. God's words to the Prophet Isaiah - "You are precious in my sight" - are found at the central position of the Bible.

One of our spiritual directors in Valladolid, Bishop Tom, thinks that the central location of this line is no accident, as it is the central message from God to humanity. The Church understands that each person is made in the image and likeness of God, with a conscience "ever calling us to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil".

We are likely to sin and to stray from goodness, but, thankfully: "We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church."

To stand up for human goodness and to believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ has always been challenging. It's easier to be a cynic than an idealist. But Christ told us that the right way to live is to 'Treat others as you would like them to treat you', and the story of the boys on the island of 'Ata shows us that we're predisposed to do just this.

The challenge is to grow in freedom and courage, to see all the goodness in the world which surrounds us daily. As Captain Warner says: "Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people."

Brian Wilson grew up in Ballymena, Co Antrim and holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Oxford. He is currently a seminarian at the Royal English College in Valladolid, Spain.

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Faith Matters