Lord of the Flies and Adventure Stories
Although Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel, it draws a great deal from adventure literature, a genre that pits humans against nature to explore the personality traits necessary for the survival of the species. Both William Golding and his fictional characters were familiar with Robinsonades, a 19th century genre that took its name from Daniel Defoe’s desert island novel, Robinson Crusoe. Written in the eighteenth century, Robinson Crusoe is an adventure tale about a shipwrecked sailor who survives by his wits for several years before finally returning home to England. Writers as influential and varied as Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Goethe wrote novels about sea faring adventures that pitted man against the elements. For Golding, though, the most influential Robinsonade was R.M. Ballantyne’s 1858 novel, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean, a novel about three British schoolboys marooned on an island who show bravery and valor in a series of adventures and conquests. Golding said in interviews that this novel was a boyhood favorite of his, and was part of the inspiration for Lord of the Flies.
Golding was more interested in subverting traditional adventure tales like The Coral Island and reversing their moral messages than in continuing their themes. The boys reference adventure stories in the first chapter, citing Coral Island and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as models for their experience. The events of the rest of the novel will correct their naïve ideas about fun and games in the sand. In Ballantyne’s novel, his schoolboys exhibit honor and valor that Ballantyne considered to be British virtues. In contrast, Golding’s characters exhibit cowardice, selfishness, sadism, and savagery. By having his characters turn into anarchistic tribalists, Golding pokes holes at racist, imperialist myths about the supremacy of British culture or virtues. The officer who rescues the boys at the end is a caricature of macho British insensitivity, misreading their life and death struggle as “fun and games,” and chastising them for allowing two boys to be killed: “I should have thought that a pack of British boys… would have been able to put up a better show than that…” He also directly references Coral Island, mischaracterizing the boys’ ordeal as a fun adventure and thereby skewering the adventure genre as a whole.
Although Golding satirizes many conventions of the adventure novel in Lord of the Flies, many contemporary novelists cite Golding’s book as a model of the psychologically complex adventure story. Stephen King, in novels like It, drew from Golding’s depiction of children as capable of violence. Suzanne Collins, the author of the Hunger Games , considers Lord of the Flies to be a primary influence for her work. Like Golding’s, her characters are young people who go to war with each other, and fight for survival. As in classic adventure novels, Collins’s books detail the ways her characters overcome nature to survive harsh and hostile conditions, but she also presents her characters as capable of violence and cruelty, just as in Lord of the Flies. While the adventure genre can read as dated today, Golding’s complicating and updating of the conventions continue to influence nearly all writers writing contemporary adventure novels with realistic, morally complex characters.