I've never liked William Golding's book, The Lord of the Flies. Why high school English teachers think it helpful to assault students' spirits with the distressing imaginations of disturbed minds, I cannot imagine. My daughter hated it even more than I did, and although she finished reading the book weeks before the school exam, she steadfastly refused to reread or study it in any way. She'd rather fail, she insisted. (Actually, she aced the test. Having a good memory is both a curse and a blessing.)
The Lord of the Flies certainly hit a chord with popular society, and like it or not has become part of our culture. Say to someone, "it's a Lord of the Flies situation there," and he knows exactly what you mean. It has also contributed to a good deal of negative and cynical thinking.
My sister-in-law, who knows my feelings on the matter, sent me this marvellous story about a real-life event that illustrates just the opposite about human behavior. (Warning: if you read the article, you may have to ignore some incidental, intense political ranting; I don't know what extras might be showing when you get there, but the last time I saw it I almost decided not to include the link. But credit must go where credit it due.) Here are some excerpts with the bare bones of the story:
This story [of the degradation and brutal behavior of castaway English schoolboys] never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951—his novel Lord of the Flies would sell tens of millions of copies, be translated into more than 30 languages and hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side. (emphasis mine)
Years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.
I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip ... Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”
It took some work to uncover the source of the story, as the date given was incorrect; the real year was 1966.
The real Lord of the Flies ... began in June 1965. The protagonists were six boys—Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano—all pupils at a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku‘alofa [the capital of Tonga]. The oldest was 16, the youngest 13, and they had one main thing in common: they were bored witless. So they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away, or even all the way to New Zealand.
The boys "borrowed" a small sailing boat, and their voyage started out fine, with fair skies and a mild breeze.
But that night the boys made a grave error. They fell asleep. A few hours later they awoke to water crashing down over their heads. It was dark. They hoisted the sail, which the wind promptly tore to shreds. Next to break was the rudder. “We drifted for eight days,” Mano told me. “Without food. Without water.” The boys tried catching fish. They managed to collect some rainwater in hollowed-out coconut shells and shared it equally between them, each taking a sip in the morning and another in the evening. Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean.
These days, the island is considered uninhabitable. But by the time the boys were rescued, 15 months later,
[They] 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.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat ... and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.
Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”
They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).
They were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen’s perfectly healed leg.
The article has much more of the story, including how the rescued boys were immediately clapped into jail for having stolen the boat. (It ends well.)
This is a much better story than The Lord of the Flies, and it's true. Sadly, it's unlikely to have the social impact of Golding's book. But I hope all English teachers who insist on teaching Golding will be inspired to include the real story in their discussions. At the very least, parents now have an antidote to offer their distressed children.
And we all have an antidote to the evening news and social media.