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Golding, William

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1911-1993) UK teacher and author, who published a pre-World War Two book of Poems (coll 1934), but remained a provincial schoolmaster until the publication of his first and best-known novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), later filmed twice as Lord of the Flies (1963, 1990). It is the superficially simple story of a group of schoolchildren trapped on an Island when their plane is shot down while evacuating them from what in the published version may be a nuclear Holocaust, but which – in the original manuscript – is exactly that. The original frame story, omitted along with some revealing narrative sequences in the text, places the tale in the Near Future, in the immediate aftermath of World War Three; the boys are evacuated refugees, who land in giant capsules detached from aircraft; they are not crash victims. The decision to focus directly on the children clearly strengthened the book; but knowledge of the excised frame helps clarify some ambiguities in the published version.

In either version, once left alone, the boys – who bear the same names as the schoolboy heroes in The Coral Island (1858) by R M Ballantyne – soon revert (see Devolution) to tribal savagery. Beyond its obvious revisionist repudiation of its model – and of the hearty nineteenth-century version of the Robinsonade from which that model exfoliated – the novel constitutes a complex utterance about the darkness of the human condition and the shapes human nature takes when "free" to do so. Lord of the Flies inspired many subsequent uses of Island tales in which conventions about human nature are tested, the most recent (and thus the most famous) being the Television series Lost (2004-2010).

Golding's second novel, The Inheritors (1955), written in part as a reaction to H G Wells's "The Grisly Folk" (April 1921 The Storyteller), is Prehistoric SF (see Anthropology; Origin of Man), viewing through the eyes of a Neanderthal the morally ambiguous triumph of Cro-Magnon Man. Pincher Martin (1956; vt Pincher Martin: The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin 1957) is as much sf as Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (13 July 1890 San Francisco Examiner), with which it has frequently been compared; it can also be read as a massively compressive essentializing of the protagonist's fate in Gentleman Overboard (1937) by Herbert Clyde Lewis (1909-1950). A castaway on a tiny rock in the ocean (see again Island; Robinsonade; Zone), Pincher seems to be surviving with desperate defiance; but, as the ending makes clear, the rock he clings to is the same shape as a diseased tooth he touches constantly with his tongue, and his "survival" may well be no more than a last flicker of pre-purgatorial consciousness. Golding's contribution to Sometime, Never (anth 1956) edited anonymously, a book including also stories by John Wyndham and Mervyn Peake, is "Envoy Extraordinary", a long tale subsequently made into a play, The Brass Butterfly: A Play in Three Acts (1957 chap; rev 1958 chap), about Alexandrian Greek inventor Phanocles' attempts to gain patronage from the emperor in Rome for his premature Inventions: the steam engine, gun, pressure-cooker and printing-press (see also Automata). The Roman emperor, in refusing these gifts, proves philosophically wiser than the inventor. The original story also appears in The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels (coll 1971), along with two fantasies. The depiction of extremities of immurement, as experienced by its protagonist in a prisoner-of-war camp in World War Two, comes very close to the fantastic in Free Fall (1959). Two later novels – the extraordinarily complex Darkness Visible (1979), in which a child mutilated in World War One exposes to contemporary London his saintly/devilish double face (see Doppelgangers), and The Double Tongue (1995), the memoir of a prophetess who had served at Delphi and "tongues" true Apollonian prophecies – contain significant elements of fantasy. The essays and reviews assembled in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (coll 1965) include the previously unpublished "Fable", on Lord of the Flies, where he defines his protagonist children as "suffering from the terrible disease of being human"; and "Astronaut by Gaslight" (9 June 1961 The Spectator), on Jules Verne. Along with other material of interest, A Moving Target (coll 1982) contains the acerbic "Utopias and Antiutopias" (address delivered 13 February 1977 Lille, France).

Golding's relation to sf is almost as tangential as his relation to the conventional mainstream novel, but his hard-edged Equipoisal daring as to subject matter, and the surreal theatrical clarity of his presentation of stripped selves, links him more closely to the worldwide literatures of the fantastic than to the British establishment tradition, which remained uneasy about his work for decades; especially in his early years, he treads the line between allegory and novel with astonishingly fruitful results. James Lovelock credits Golding for suggesting in the late 1960s that his evolving hypothesis – according to which Earth is a self-regulating Homeostatic System analogous to a living organism – should be named after the Greek earth-goddess Gaia.

Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 and knighted in 1988. [JC]

see also: Conceptual Breakthrough; History in SF; History of SF; Sociology.

Sir William Gerald Golding

born St Columb Minor, Newquay, Cornwall: 19 September 1911

died Perranarworthal, Cornwall: 19 June 1993



about the author

Critical literature on Golding is very extensive and widely available. But a sophisticated tribute volume, and a recent and invaluable critical biography which discusses the manuscript version of Lord of the Flies, are listed directly below.


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