By Percival Buckingham-Jones
PB-J: So you’re really into the religion thing in Lord of the Flies.
MM: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. But why are you interviewing me. I’m just a high school teacher, not a literature professor.
PB-J: Well, we had a lot of more impressive people scheduled, but you were the only one who showed up.
MM: Weird. When do you think this will air?
PB-J: Well, no report of mine has ever actually gone on the air, so we’ll have to wait and see.
MM: I’ll try to hook you up with some kick-ass answers, Percy, so they’ll have no choice but to put this baby on in prime-time.
PB-J: Percival. And please watch the language. This is BBC, not one of your American cable channels.
MM: Fine, Percival. Were you named after that sniveling little wuss in the book we’re talking about?
PB-J: (ignores the question) Anyway, about religion in Golding’s novel…
MM: You know, I read an essay once in which the author described Ralph as a Jesus figure in the story, and because I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind it, I shunted it aside. Later, while reading for pleasure the first few books of the Old Testament, I came across a couple of passages in Exodus that made my literary sonar go madly a-pinging. First was the scene when God first calls upon the adult Moses to save the Hebrews. Moses wants no part of the affair, mostly because he is petrified of speaking in public, thanks to a serious speech impediment. And involuntarily I thought, that’s just how Simon is in LotF, terrified of speaking in assembly, and when he does speak, he’s practically incoherent, except for one moment of clarity when he tells Ralph that he’ll be saved.
PB-J: You’re going to base your case on a single incident? That seems a little flimsy.
MM: Are you mocking me, Percy? Or are you going to let me finish?
MM: I push Simon aside, because I’m reading for pleasure, not research, and I stay with the story. Genesis and Exodus are really wonderful books of narrative. And then I get to chapter 32 of Exodus, the scene when Moses returns from the mountain to the feasting around the golden calf Aaron had made for the fearful Hebrews. The scene has obvious parallels to Lord of the Flies: a prophet who has received a revelation from the mountain comes down to tell his people the news; once there, he encounters, feasting, dancing and “sexual immorality” (witness Golding’s description of the killing of the pig whose murder the boys are re-enacting as Simon enters the ring). Here the stories diverge. The Hebrews are chastened by Moses’ return. He divides them into two groups, and the group on the side of “right” slaughters the wrongdoers. But in LotF, the tribe slaughters the prophet.
What I’d like to know is, is Golding asking us to consider a what-if question: What if the Hebrews had killed Moses?
PB-J: Is that a useful question?
MM: I don’t know. I mean, if he wants us to question whether human nature is inherently weak or evil, then the conscience exhibited by the Hebrews on Moses’ return doesn’t support his thesis. Why would he stage Simon’s death scene by re-enacting the breaking of the Ten Commandments if he didn’t want us to consider some alternate way of looking at the first story?
PB-J: So you think his intent is to use Simon to represent Moses, the biguns and littluns to represent the Hebrews, and to have their interaction show the savage godlessness of humankind?
MM: That might be a useful summary, if Golding didn’t do so many other things to obscure, and maybe even undermine his intent.
PB-J: What do you mean?
MM: Well, look at Simon’s name.
MM: You’re an interviewer. You’re supposed to offer a response that motivates me to keep going. No wonder you’ve never been on the air.
PB-J: You don’t have to get personal. Simon is just a name Golding picked, the same way he picked Ralph and Jack. You can’t tell me that those names have any sort of biblical relevance.
MM: No, they don’t have biblical relevance. Ralph and Jack are names Golding took from a book called The Coral Island, which was written in 1861 to glorify the British imperialist impulse. In it, a group of British schoolboys are stranded on a deserted island. There, led by three characters – Ralph, Jack and Peterkin – they conquer challenges in a way that illustrates the power of Anglo-Saxon virtue.
You’d think that he would call his third character Peter, but instead he calls him Simon. Put Simon and Peter together, and what do you have?
PB-J: Um, is that a rhetorical question, or am I supposed to answer it?
MM: You have Simon Peter, the closest of Jesus’ disciples.
PB-J: But that’s the New Testament, not the Old.
MM: That’s my point. Golding can’t decide who he wants Simon to be. Here and there, he wants Simon to be Moses, but in a lot of other places he wants him to be Jesus.
PB-J: Such as?
MM: Well, I had read before, in another critical essay that I’ve discarded, that the fainting spells and the hair had something to do with Simon’s Jesus-ness, but I don’t see anything in the New Testament to suggest that Jesus was a weakling. But Golding uses a combination of imagery and allusion to make Simon his “Christ-figure.”
PB-J: Imagery and illusion. Like David Copperfield or David Blaine.
MM: Allusion, moron. A, uh, allusion. The reference to one work embedded within another work.
PB-J: What’s the point of allusion? And please, no more personal attacks. I’m very sensitive.
MM: I apologize. I’m working on my impatience. Anyway, an allusion is a way of bringing one story into another to deepen the meaning of the newer story. Let’s say I make an allusion to the Bible in a story I write. I might use certain words from the other text, or use a scene like the one from Exodus that I talked about before. The allusion doesn’t disrupt the story for the reader who doesn’t get it, but it adds a layer of depth for the reader who does. If you have read the Bible and you see my allusion, you bring everything you know about that story to your reading of my story. The allusion allows me to add meaning without having to tell you what I mean.
PB-J: So how does our friend Golding use allusion?
MM: First he uses imagery, but there’s no way to tell that the image has a religious tone to it. As Simon is inexplicably selected to explore the island with Ralph and Jack, he comes across some candle bushes, and the word candle is repeated seven times in the space of a single page. At that point, however, you can’t read anything into it.
Later, in chapter three, Simon is seen feeding the littluns from the fruit trees. Looking at the language of the scene – Golding writes about “the endless, outstretched hands” – you can make an argument that he is referring to the New Testament story of Jesus feeding the multitudes. After all, the reader knows that there are only a certain number of littluns (twenty, thirty?), so there is no way Simon could have faced an endless sea of hands. In that same scene, as Simon pulls for them the choicest fruit, one could argue that Simon’s actions recall Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in Matthew to “Suffer the little children and let them come unto me.” But both of those points are just arguments.
On the very next page, Golding has Simon sneak off into the forest by himself, into a little place of contemplation, a sanctuary. The candle imagery takes center stage again, and the color imagery has a suggestion of stained-glass window to it. A close look at the language of the scene allows you to make an argument that the place Simon is escaping to is a Christian church.
PB-J: I’m unconvinced. If this were a criminal case, your evidence would be, under American law, very circumstantial.
MM: No doubt about it, Percy. You’re better at this than I thought. But a couple of things happen later which make more explicit the connection between Simon and Jesus.
For one thing, look at his encounter with the pig’s head, the self-proclaimed Lord of the Flies, which is a translation of a Hebrew word that is more familiar to us in the Greek. The Hebrew word ba’al-shev’ev can be translated as “Lord of the Flies.” Ba’al-shev’ev is more familiar to us in the word Beelzebub, a name commonly associated with the devil. Just as Jesus goes into the wilderness alone to face temptation by the devil in the Gospel of Luke, Simon goes it alone into the forest to face temptation by the pig’s head on a stick.
And it is after facing and rejecting that temptation that Simon goes to the mountaintop, discovers that the “Beast” is not a beast, and seeks to deliver the good news to the people who deliver him to his fate. While that deliverance was Exodus in its imagery, the beatification and disposition of Simon’s body is overflowing with images of angels and heaven.
PB-J: My understanding is that your theory takes a big leap here.
MM: Percy, you old dog! You really did do some research before we sat down. I need to buy you a pint after we’re through.
PB-J: I don’t drink, thank you.
MM: Well, then, we’ll get a big old mug of tea. I’m impressed!
PB-J: (straightening in his seat, trying to suppress a proud grin). Right-o, then. Tea. But first, will you discuss the leap I’ve mentioned.
MM: Sure, but I want to say that it’s a theory, and I don’t mind being argued with about it. It’s safe to say, right, that Golding has clear command of literary conventions?
PB-J: Do you need to get all Socratic now? You can just advance the theory without the insecurity.
MM: Ooh, look who’s taken control of the interview now.
PB-J: (stifles a cough, but the intent is obvious)
MM: OK. He closes the book with a deus ex machina ending, which Microsoft Word automatically changes to dues ex machine, pain in the ass that Microsoft Word is. Oops, sorry about using the a-s-s word. We know that this is a Greek device, used when the hand of God descends to provide a contrived and artificial solution to an apparently insoluble problem, according to the Encyclopedia of Literature sitting on my bookshelf.
So Ralph is running to the beach, the whole island is in flames thanks to the Devil, by whom I mean Jack, not the pig’s head on the stick, and the savages with their little tridents are ready to stick their points you-know-where, and they’re saved, even the evildoers.
Now, according to Christians, who died in order that mankind might be saved? That’s right, Simon. I mean Jesus. But can you argue that a Simon who represents Jesus had to die in order that his prophecy to Ralph might come true? Of course you can. You can argue anything. But anyway, that’s sort of my clinching point for the argument that Simon is meant to represent Jesus in a way that would make Jonathan Edwards proud.
PB-J: Jonathan Edwards?
MM: Ever read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” It’s a very entertaining read. My favorite image in it is the one in which God is holding mankind like a spider over the flame, and it is only the pleasure of God that the spider is not dropped into the flame. Edwards held the same Hobbesian views that make Golding turn his tribe into a group that would kill instead of heed its Moses.
PB-J: You’re losing me. Can you close with a coherent thought?
MM: Sure. If Simon is Moses, then he can’t be Jesus. If Simon is Jesus, then he can’t be Moses. If Simon is both, then he’s neither. So in the end, I have no idea what the hell Golding is actually saying with all this religious imagery.
PB-J: Can you rephrase that so we can use it on the air?
MM: My bad, yo. So in the end, I have no idea what Golding is actually trying to say with all this religious imagery.