LORD OF The Flies still makes a reader’s stomach churn, from the moment we have a quorum of characters
Last year I became curious about a novel my teenage niece was reading, The Butterfly Revolution by William Butler. In it, a young boy goes unwillingly to summer camp, where the older boys stage a revolution. The back cover compared the novel to William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. After that line, we don’t even need to read Butler’s story. We know the new regime will be far worse than the old. We know innocents will die.
The book, published in 1961, may be described as Golding Lite. It is 13-year-old Winston Weyn’s diary. The boy is a mild-mannered reader of classics whose most subversive act is to sneak books into the bag he’s packing. Once at camp, he keeps his head down. But when the older boys imprison the counsellors and the nurse and write new rules, Winston unexpectedly becomes their right hand man. They put him in charge of propaganda and laud him for always doing his job better than expected.
None of these boys is a patch on Ralph and Piggy from Golding’s Lord Of The Flies. That book still makes a reader’s stomach churn, from the moment we have a quorum of characters. A group of evacuees during wartime must survive entirely unsupervised on an island. At some point they break up into two groups, one armed to hunt and the other, led by Ralph, responsible for shelter. The boys step imperceptibly from small betrayals and indiscipline to raging murder. The reader, like Piggy, looks on helpless.
In book after book, Golding shows us the fearsome face of males in the aggregate. Rites Of Passage, the first of three fictional diaries by a young toff on a ship to the colonies, has the Golding ingredients: a group of mostly men in a confined space, with emerging and shifting hierarchies based on class, sailing expertise, and brute strength. At the bottom of the totem pole is the parson, who has none of these. The brilliance of the book lies in the narrator’s incongruous drawing-room tone, which half-veils the underlying tensions among the characters, even after they explode into tragedy. The unreliable narrator adds rich layers to a work of literature.
Compared to Golding, Butler writes feebly, but “Colonel Winnie”, as his uncle fondly calls him at the end of the story, is a disturbing hero. Once the surviving campers are sent back home, Winston’s parents and the police scold him for having read political philosophy and brought on all this trouble. Then again, while Winston looks marginalised and harmless, in hindsight the reader remembers that as soon as he arrived at camp and was voted cabin leader, he wrote a book of rules. And once the revolutionaries flattered him and put him on their committees, he became an eloquent voice for the oppressor. Why was he so ready to employ his intelligence in the service of violence? This boy is no Piggy. He’s not even Ralph. I’d watch out for Colonel Winnie.