"Ralph Wept For the End of Innocence..."
And you may well weep when you realise just how quickly you too could turn into a savage, having spent most of a book hoping that half the characters- little boys no older than twelve- would meet with grisly ends. Whilst William Golding's 1954 novel was more focussed on the nature of mankind in general, he clearly was under no illusion that close to the surface of most children lurks a tyrannical savage.
The Story at a Glance
During an unspecified war, a plane full of boys gets shot down and crashes on a deserted island, with no adult survivors. One of the boys, Ralph, shows natural leadership ability from the start, and he is voted the leader of the group, which is comprised of mostly unnamed littluns (around six years old) and a group of bigguns, who themselves are no older than twelve.
From the get-go, Ralph's authority and the civilised way he tries to run things are contested by the supremely irritating Jack Merridew, the leader of a small group of choirboys who proves to be anything but heavenly. Jack's priority is hunting wild pigs whilst Ralph insists that the most important thing that they can do is to keep a fire burning that might alert a passing ship to their whereabouts. The group quickly split into Jack and his hunters on one side, with the other group led by Ralph and assisted by Piggy, a fat, bespectacled boy who is wiser than his years and who is always on hand with practical suggestions on how to stay alive and get rescued. Piggy is also the butt of most of the jokes amongst the others.
But it's not long before the boys' latent savagery surfaces. Jack and the hunters, at first repelled by the "unbearable blood" involved in killing a pig, soon learn to put on warpaint and become something else, something driven by blood-lust and savagery. After the first kill, he revels in the knowledge that they "had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away it's life like a long, satisfying drink." And just like the best savages, he is able to get most of the boys onside by throwing a meat-themed party.
As more and more boys are lured by Jack to his gang, a small group consisting of Jack, Piggy, and interchangeable twins named Samneric is all that's left. Them, and Simon, who provides the story's most pure example of goodness. For Simon is a kind of seer, given to headaches and visions and wandering alone for hours. He is the first to recognise that the biggest danger to the boys is not 'the beast' that gives the littluns nightmares, but the inherent evil of the boys themselves.
Needless to say, Simon is the first to get killed, ripped apart by the group in a a re-enactment of the pig's death that goes horribly wrong. Next to go is Piggy, who goes to look for the glasses that Jack steals in order to be able to start a fire. In the end, only Ralph is left as the twins defect to Jack's gang. As if that wasn't bad enough, Ralph's old nemesis isn't content to just let him go rogue; he organises for the entire group of boys to hunt Ralph down and kill him in the most brutal fashion.
In a twist of irony, it's the group's attempt to smoke Ralph out of hiding that gets the boys rescued, as they foolishly set the entire island on fire. Just as Ralph thinks it's all over for him, he runs straight into the arms of a naval officer. And you are left thinking that if there was any justice in this world, they would have only taken Ralph with them and let the others roast in a giant boy barbecue.
The Childhood of Lord of The Flies
It's not surprising that the book often appears on school reading lists. In addition to being a warning about mankind's ability to warmonger, it also reminds us that if anyone knows what utter little shits kids can be, it's other kids.
There's nothing noble about these savages; they've been on the island for about sixteen seconds before some of them turn feral, and it doesn't take long for most of the others to follow suit. And even the 'good' boys aren't exactly shining examples of morality. Jack and Piggy are more civilised because they hang on to the adult world, but even they get caught up in the frenzy that leads to Simon's death. Being civilised is not enough; the only antidote to evil is purity of heart, and out of all the boys, only one has this. And that one boy is seen as odd and possibly crazy by the others. And then torn to shreds.
Essentially, civilisation in Lord of the Flies is a thin veneer, one that can be rubbed off with little effort. Upon the arrival of their rescuers, Jack transforms almost instantly from the painted barbarian that he has become back into "a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair."
It's the opposite of the view of childhood that many stories take. Rather than childhood being a state of purity and innocence, the childhood of Golding's book serves to remind us that darkness lurks within all of us from the moment that we're born, and it doesn't take much to summon it. And anyone who's ever been to a pirate-themed birthday party with a lot of sugar available would be hard-pressed to disagree.