In any discussion about a group of kids being left alone, it won’t be long before someone mentions ‘Lord of the Flies’.
That’s not too surprising. William Golding’s story was a huge hit; translated into more than 30 languages, and selling millions of copies. It also won him a Nobel Prize:
“for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.”
Yet we sometimes forget it was just that… a story. Written by Golding, an English schoolmaster with a plan.
One morning in 1951 he asked his wife:
“Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave?”
As someone who has long been fascinated by human behaviour, there’s another version of Golding’s story which captivated me when I first heard it. This version of events has a slight advantage over ‘Lord of the Flies’. It actually happened.
Making a muck of it
For Golding’s group of British schoolboy castaways, left alone on a deserted island following a plane crash in the pacific, things start out well. The boys find themselves living in one of their adventure books.
Spoiler alert: things quickly take a turn for the worse. Adventure turns to drama. Before long, the boys are painting their faces, casting off their clothes, and punching/kicking/biting through their many problems.
Several weeks later, a British naval officer arrives onshore. Far from paradise, he finds a smouldering wasteland. He also finds three of the boys dead.
We get an idea of Golding’s intentions for the book from the first letter he wrote to his publisher:
“Even if we start with a clean slate our nature compels us to make a muck of it.”
What Golding likely didn’t anticipate at the time is that his story would come true (the start of it at least), 14 years later.
The search for adventure
In June 1965, a group of six boys set out on a fishing trip from Tonga, sick of the meals at their Catholic boarding school, bored, and in desperate need of adventure.
They were caught in a huge storm. With a broken sail and rudder, they drifted for 8 days with nothing to eat or drink. The hollowed out shells of coconuts they had brought with them were used to collect rain water. The boys would ration a sip for each of them, morning and night.
Eventually, they found a deserted island. Not one like in the story, with white sandy beaches. The island of ‘Ata was a small mass of unwelcoming (yet still a welcome sight after 8 days) rock, sticking 1000 feet out of the water.
Like in Golding’s story, the boys were found. This time, it was more than a year later.
What really happened
They were rescued by Australian sea captain, Peter Warner, on Sunday, 11th of September, 1966.
Understandably sceptical of their story when he found them, Warner used his two-way radio to check their story. Twenty minutes later, he got a reply:
“You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, it’s a miracle!”
When Warner arrived on ‘Ata, it wasn’t much like what the British naval officer from Golding’s story had found.
The boys had set up a commune. There was a food garden, water storage in the form of hollowed-out tree trunks, a gym (complete with badminton court), chicken pens, and a fire (kept burning for more than a year). There was even a guitar to accompany their singing, made from driftwood, one of the hollowed-out coconut shells, and 6 steel wires salvaged from their boat.
When one of the boys fell and broke his leg, the others launched a careful rescue mission, and set his break with sticks and leaves. Following their rescue, a doctor carried out physical examinations and was astonished at the perfectly healed leg (as well as their impressive physiques).
They worked in pairs, and to a strict rota. Any arguments were settled with a self-imposed time-out.
And yet the story of the six boys from Tonga remains relatively unknown, certainly in comparison to Golding’s smash hit.
Further from the truth
Part of the book’s success can perhaps be explained by the mood at the time. A generation was growing up in the 1960s, questioning what had happened during the second world war.
Golding’s writing was perhaps less a work “illuminating the human condition” and more a work of an autobiographical style:
“I have always understood the Nazis, because I am of that sort by nature.”
He also had many problems of his own. He was as an alcoholic, suffering regularly from depression, who would beat his children.
So has popular culture learned the lessons taught by these two stories (one of imagination, and one of truth)? Not exactly.
One of the original ‘reality TV’ shows, Survivor, has Golding’s work to thank according to it’s creator:
“I read and re-read Lord of the Flies. I read it first when I was about twelve, again when I was about 20 and again when I was thirty and since we did the program as well.”
As a work of fiction, there’s no doubt it captivates. Where we go seriously wrong is by referring to it as we would a peer-reviewed study carried out by psychologists.
Golding’s work is what we’re told to believe will happen when people are left to their own devices. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.
The content of this article is mostly based on the writing of Rutger Bregman in his excellent book, Humankind, where he first read of this incredible story.