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The Government of Boys: Golding's Lord of the Flies and Ballantyne's Coral Island

From: Children's Literature
Volume 25, 1997
pp. 205-213 | 10.1353/chl.0.0478

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

government: . . . 2. The manner in which one's action is governed. a. In physical sense: Management of the limbs or body; movements, demeanor; also, habits of life, regimen. b. In moral sense: conduct, behaviour; becoming conduct, discretion. Obs.

Oxford English Dictionary

Perhaps in the twentieth century, the sort of fables we must construct are not for children on any level.

William Golding, 19621

A memorable scene early in William Golding's 1954 Lord of the Flies eloquently suggests the ambition of Golding's fabulist intentions. On the island that at this point in the text is still an innocent playground, one of the younger boys, Henry, who is building castles in the sand, is covertly observed by an older boy, Roger:

Roger stooped, picked up a stone, aimed, and threw it at Henry —threw it to miss. The stone—that token of preposterous time—bounced five yards to the right and fell in the water. Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dared not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger's arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.

The "space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter," into which Roger dare not throw, is nothing other than the shrunken dimensions of civil society—the restraints taught by parents, school, policemen, and the law. What Roger is unable to disobey is not the express prohibition of civil society against violence, but an internalized restraint—that is, civility. Significantly, in the penultimate chapter of the book, it is Roger who hurls the mighty rock that sends Piggy crashing to his death (181): more starkly than any other character, he represents the erosion of restraint, the return to a sort of Stone Age. If the project of government may be understood macropolitically as civilization, then its micropolitical counterpart is education, with civility as its project. Golding's text is notable for making explicit this cluster of associations, which has long been the implicit staple of the literature of boyhood.

Lord of the Flies is an overseas adventure story, the self-conscious culmination of a long line of boys' adventure stories. "It's like in a book," Ralph announces after their initial exploration of the island:

At once there was a clamour.
"Treasure Island—"
"Swallows and Amazons—"
"Coral Island—"

"This is our island. It's a good island. Until the grownups come to fetch us we'll have fun."


Golding's story seeks to dispel this intertextual glamor with grim realism; it both participates in and criticizes the history of the adventure story, whose originating canonical text is Robinson Crusoe. But the adventure story that was almost schematically Golding's pre-text was Robert Michael Ballantyne's 1858 Coral Island, one of the earliest such stories to have boys, in the absence of adults, for its main characters.

Children's literature has so naturalized this device that we forget how important a narrative innovation it must have been: we may be reminded of its innovative quality by the analogy of an exclusive dogs' club, where pampered pets may watch 101 Dalmatians and other canine classics starring their own kind. The Coral Island is for boys and about boys, and it is even narrated by a boy, or, at least, by a former boy:

I was a boy when I went through the wonderful adventures herein set down. With the memory of my boyish feelings strong upon me, I present my book specially to boys, in the earnest hope that they may derive valuable information, much pleasure, great profit, and unbounded amusement from its pages.

The Coral Island preserves the homiletic form of the educational tract, but it delivers the homily in user-friendly terms—and thus inaugurates a dominant tradition in the literature of boyhood. R. L. Stevenson gratefully acknowledged Ballantyne in the verses that preface Treasure Island(Stevenson iii); and G. A. Henty, the most...