Under the Influence: Lord of the Flies




For those who know me, this entry's title may come as a shock. "Ryk, you hated Lord of the Flies! How can you list it as an influence?"


Well, sometimes things that really suck can influence you, too.


For those (fortunately) unfamiliar with Lord of the Flies, it is something of a deconstruction of the "shipwrecked people" subgenre of stories (codified by Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Mysterious Island) and often said to be specifically a response to The Coral Island. In it, a number of British boys are marooned on an island. Instead of working together to survive, they quickly separate into two groups – one (weaker) trying to maintain some form of civilized order, and the other, composed mostly of the bigger kids, degenerating into tribal savagery – over a period that appears to be weeks, no more than a few months.


This is not (in case you hadn't guessed) the sort of book I'd choose to read on my own. It was one of the books assigned us in high school (10th grade, if I recall correctly). Reading Lord of the Flies was a textbook (pardon the pun) example of the torment that is assigned reading. The book managed to be simultaneously dull as ditchwater, horrific, and hair-tearingly wrong in multiple ways. But it was an assigned book and I dragged my way through the whole mess, right up to the end where the survivors are found by a completely clueless Naval officer.


The novel offended me on multiple levels – and not in a good way, as some novels that offend can manage. I didn't agree with Golding's basic premise (the inherent savagery of mankind – I think the existence of civilization itself is an absolute and conclusive disproof of that premise). I didn't agree with the way in which he explored his premise (I didn't believe the actions or the way in which they progressed). And I was specifically annoyed when details crucial to the plot itself were physically impossible.


The most significant of these issues was the use of the nearsighted character Piggy's glasses to start fires; the glasses of farsighted people can be used as magnifying glasses and thus burning glasses, but nearsighted people's glasses (like mine and Piggy's) disperse the light, they don't concentrate it.


If that were simply a side issue in the plot – i.e., there were many ways for them to make fire and they just happened to use the glasses – it would simply have been a minor facepalm "did not do the research" moment. But the glasses, and their ability to start fires, are a major plot point; the savage group of boys attack the civilized ones specifically to capture the glasses for firemaking, after they were previously used to start the fires earlier in the book.


Piggy himself is probably one of the reasons I really violently detested the novel. In many ways he was almost an avatar of me; I was bullied, weak, highly intelligent, wore very thick glasses, and suffered from asthma. The major differences between us were that I was skinny as a sheet of paper in those days, while Piggy was fat, and I was more willing to confront people (even those much more physically capable than I was).


But instead of using his intellect, which was mentioned multiple times, Piggy became a passive resource, and his "intelligence" became what TVTropes calls an "informed ability" – something the text told us, but his actions didn't confirm. This frustrated me as a reader no end because I could see – and even at the characters' ages would have seen – multiple other things that the group could and should try to do, and that might have averted some of the conflicts. Instead, the "good guys" – Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and the younger kids – were universally depicted as ineffective, weak, and stupider than they should be, while Jack, almost singlehandedly, manages to undermine everything they do.


"We get it, Ryk, we get it, you hate the book. How's this influential?"


Lord of the Flies was the book that taught me one of the most valuable lessons that any young reader needs to learn: you don't have to finish books that suck. Admittedly, I only came to this realization after finishing it, but I was able to apply that principle very shortly thereafter (to the next assigned book, A Separate Peace) and I have stuck by it ever since. At the time, though, it was a revelation; I'd finished every other book I picked up, even those I didn't like. But I finally realized that my reading time was limited, and I shouldn't have to spend it in pain.


In terms of writing, this novel also helped me articulate for the first time what I felt I believed about people. It's somewhat funny, perhaps, given that I was myself bullied extensively as a youngster; many people in similar circumstances have said that those experiences made them feel that Lord of the Flies was deadly accurate in its depiction of people.


But I didn't agree. When I thought about it, I realized my disagreement came from two divergent sources. First, I really feel that on average people are more constructive and cooperative than divisive and destructive; if that were not true, how could we ever have left the caves and plains where we evolved? We'd never have gotten beyond the "bash people over the head" stage. Thus, Lord of the Flies was directly arguing with my most essential belief in humanity in general.


But the second was a much more technical issue. I simply didn't believe the story. Even accepting the postulate, I didn't think things would work that way. Honestly, I would have expected an attempt to build a raft to escape the island which would have drowned most of the kids or left them drifting, to indulge in cannibalism later. (Insert your own Monty Python "Still No Sign Of Land" joke here)


This told me that what made a story work wasn't just agreeing with what it said, but making the story's events agree with what the reader's expectations would be.


The incident of the glasses-that-couldn't-light-fires also solidified a related conviction: your world has to make sense. If it doesn't make sense to the reader, nothing that happens in it will matter. In a story set in what is ostensibly our world, using mundane objects like glasses wrongly is a grave error, because a number of your readers know better – or will know better in four seconds after they read that passage and say "wow, I didn't know I could start fires with my glasses!" and then discover they can't.


If you're writing SF/F and you're talking about something that doesn't exist in the real world, well, you have an advantage over poor Golding; there's no one in your readership who can say "Hey, magic doesn't work like that at all!" and be able to prove it. But the related principle – and one that is at the heart of all worldbuilding – is consistency and limitations. Your world must be self-consistent – if action A leads to consequence B, and consequence B implies that consequence C should also follow, then you'd darn well better have consequence C… or a good reason why consequence C won't happen.


Limitations are related to consistency, in that they are part of the key parts of the world description. Your new shiny technology, or magic, has to have limitations of some sort, or your characters (or their opponents, if it's the bad guys who have the technology or magic in question) are literally unstoppable gods at worst, or at best can simply pull out some new trick whenever the plot absolutely demands it, with nothing to give the reader an expectation of this new trick.


Lionel Fanthorpe was legendary for this kind of thing, just pulling out new technobabble to solve a problem his characters had; perhaps the most infamous example was the Flaz Gaz Heat Ray, a superweapon literally taken out of a cabinet at the last minute of a battle and used to wipe out the enemy in two seconds. No prior mention of the Heat Ray had ever been made, no implication of such technology was in the prior text, it was simply and solely a matter of "I'm almost to the end of the story length and my characters need to win, I'll give them a new super weapon. It's science fiction, after all!"


Paradoxically, of course, the issue of Piggy and his glasses demonstrates the other side of the coin: you can easily get something wrong when you don't know that you don't know it. This is a hard, hard problem, and not one that any author can fully avoid. You can't research everything, and the things that will trip you up are the things that you think you already know enough; you'll spend your research effort on things you know you don't understand.


The same issue also shows that there are a huge number of different audiences for any given book, and details which will alienate some are utter non-issues for others. I know many other people who found the "glasses" issue to be highly annoying, but I also know many who are utterly bemused by the fact that I care about the issue at all; to them it's just a minor detail that hasn't any relevance to the book itself.


But though I hated (and still hate) Lord of the Flies, I have to conclude that, through experiencing it, I was influenced in both my reading and writing life, significantly enough that I cannot help but acknowledge that influence.


Still, I really wish this depressing piece of crap would be taken off assigned reading lists. But for some reason it seems that only depressing pieces of crap are ALLOWED on assigned reading lists, for the most part. (I recall one piece of assigned reading I enjoyed: To Kill a Mockingbird).


I obviously do not recommend this book, except possibly as kindling if you are ever marooned on a desert island.







  1. I agree the book is absurd, and disgusting, and apparently written by someone loath to do research. I had to read it twice as I bounced back and forth between public and private school. (Lost is in the same genre and gets its facts better).

    Yet another example of some of the garbage the education curriculum shoves down people’s throats; all it does is disgust young people who understand the plot holes; it convinces those who’s physical strength will fade that their bullying is more valuable than intelligence (and Ryk; bullies learned to stop reading books they don’t like a lot earlier than you :/ They don’t get anything from the ending at all.)

  2. I like what you did here. I’m stuck in a Lit. class in college, reading Hemingway, whose style I personally find annoying. I will take a different tack and see what I can learn not to do from him, thank you Ryk.

    • Well, I didn’t *set out* to learn those lessons from LotF, so I’m not sure how much that’s going to help you with Hemingway (whose novels also didn’t do anything for me, either), but I’m glad you liked the article.

  3. Michael Ross says:

    Whew! For a moment there I (before I clicked through the link) thought you approved of ‘the lord of the vileness’.

    I am gladdened that your apparent sanity remains intact (oh how I hated that book). Hmm I also enjoyed: To Kill a Mockingbird. On the subject of required reading a lot of it seems intended to prevent students from developing a love of reading.

    And no I wouldn’t even suggest using ‘The bored and horrified’ as kindling; some poor unfortunate might pick it up and start reading, and would You want that on your conscience?

  4. I had much the same reaction.

    We had to read “Lord of the Flies”, “1984”, and “Brave New World” one year. I’m glad to have read them – once – but even though the 1984 and BNW were better written than LotF I’ve never felt even the slightest urge to read any of them them again.

    It made reading “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” the next year much less onerous since we knew how depressing the assigned reading *could* have been. I didn’t like any of the protagonists in the Rand books at all, but at least they were able to act to change their circumstances rather than hopeless victims trapped in an inescapable maze.

    And yes, even though I, too, was a bookish kid I never thought that even the worst of my classmates were as stupidly bad as the characters from LotF. Perhaps British schoolboys are made of nastier stuff? Or they had been students at the male counterpart of St. Trinians?

    Though it was – on the surface – a much more cheerful book I had a similar reaction to Skinner’s “Walden Two”. Even as a teen, I knew that people *just don’t work like that*. And Skinner’s proposals on how to shape people so they *would* work like that struck me, even then, as candy-coated mind control.

    Might I recommend Ira Levin’s “This Perfect Day?” it starts out looking much like “Brave New World”, but soon morphs into a much more optimistic story of resistance.

  5. I managed to get through high school without ever reading “Lord of the Flies”. Reading lists were always “N of M from this list”, and so many *other* students read LotF and gave book reports on it that I knew I didn’t ever want to read the damn thing, and that the plot was completely spoiled for me. I think at that period of my life I was reading classic sci-fi and Alastair Maclean thrillers instead.

    For some reason, people *want* to believe the worst of humanity, instead of the best. Look at the completely untrue racist garbage *still* circulating about Hurricane Katrina–I was down here for all of that, and the only shootings and mayhem were committed by the police. Most people were pretty sane, even the poorest.

  6. Yes!

    LotF broke one of my cardinal rules of good writing — “Don’t bore me.”

    Plus, before the 1960s and the “New Wave”, SF genre-ly appealed to a “Let’s solve this problem” sensibility in its readership. LotF collides head-on with that audience sensibility. As the best English student in my high school; one of the best science students; a skinny, extremely myopic kid who none of those guys with bullying propensities bothered twice — “Hi! My father and step-father killed people for a living. Do you want me to demonstrate what they taught me?” — and as a Boy Scout, LotF appalled me with its 1] bad science, 2] defeatist attitude, 3] lack of intelligent behavior, and 4] dullness.

    LotF was required reading in my 1975 10th-grade “SF and Society” English quarter-course, along with Mordecai Roshwald’s “Level 7” and “Walden II”. [Why are non-tech, softy-squishy humanist types so drawn toward and enamored of unfeasible, untenable, unworkable totalitarian societies? Wups! Rhetorical question.]

    Skimmed A Separate Peace, of my own accord to see what the acclaim was about, in about ten, fifteen minutes and couldn’t discern the point, beyond “remain mired in useless anguish”.

    I read, of my own choice, in 1972 during 7th-grade, Brave New World and 1984. The first immediately broke on the daunting shoals of my “upward mobility” Americanism. I recognized that Huxley, writing as an elite member of a class-stratified society to that same society, could not perceive the central flaw in his refutation island experiment wherein ultimately none of the Alphas wanted to dig latrines — Heinleinian Americans could not only dig latrines but would salvage the potassium nitrate for gunpowder! — but had to represent the Noble Savage Romantic as a depressed loser.

    1984 for was and remains a delightfully prophetic cautionary tale about the dangers of Communist and Fascist tyrannies in a surveillance-permeated society, as long as one realizes that from the outset that it’s a horror story. [Not that anything like that could happen around here… Besides, RAH wrote it from the successful revolutionists’ POV with cool battle scenes as “If This Goes On–“.]


    PS: Ryk, the e-arc had me laughing aloud in Chapter 2.

    • I actually detested 1984 (it joined LotF in my elite “bounce” category, as in, things that bounced off the wall when I finished them).

      Thanks! I’m guessing that was when Wu Kung realized how he wasn’t dressed?

    • Your comment about “If This Goes On –” reminds me of how my reaction to this piece (having somehow managed to dodge reading Lord of the Flies) is that it seems like Heinlein also wrote Lord of the Flies better as Tunnel in the Sky. Apparently, it came out about a year after Lord of the Flies, too, so I can’t help wondering if it was partially intended as a rebuttal.

      (FWIW, I’m sort of ambivalent about the attitudes conveyed in Heinlein’s works, of the few I’ve read, at this point. They’re interesting, but I’m not convinced they’re desirable.)

      • Heinlein was quite advanced and forward-thinking in many areas. From today’s point of view, he’s reactionary in may areas with peculiar ideas. Don’t read him assuming his ideas are meant to be desirable (in some cases, he deliberately writes things he doesn’t agree with) but just for the skill with which he creates his world and tells his stories.

  7. saintonge235 says:

    I’ve never read LORD OF THE FLIES, and everything I’ve ever heard about it convinces me that I’ve made a wise choice.

  8. One of the things NOT discussed when mentioning “REQUIRED Reading” is why these dreary things get chosen again and again and again.
    I cant speakk for other places and times but here in Germany one should note that there exist “teacher handbooks” outlining 3 to 15 lesson plans for certain books. 8 definitely for LotF . These laborsavind devices highly motivate teachers. Also using those will not get you into trouble with the burocrats in school administration should they ever check what you teach.

    As I trained to become teacher ( English and Physics ) , I had a few of those handbooks in my hand ( I decided I am NOT NOT NOT teacher material )

    • Oh, there’s plenty of reasons, but the key question is why do *those* books get chosen over other books INITIALLY? Why is it that a very justified trope in lit awards is that you need to kill a dog or a kid tragically towards the end of the book to get a Newbery Award? Why, in short, do teachers or their bosses select boring or depressing books instead of ones that are fun to read?

      My guess is that anything not depressing is assumed to be “escapist”, and thus unworthy of study. I don’t agree, but I’ve seen this attitude multiple times.

Your comments or questions welcomed!