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William Golding (1911-1993)

Few British writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in the period since the Second World War. These include Winston Churchill, probably from sentiment about other achievements rather than actual literary excellence. His various histories, though well written, are not especially ground breaking, certainly not like those of Theodore Mommsen, the other historian to win the Prize. If I recollect right, the only other non-creative writer to win was Bertrand Russel, in his more anarchic phase, so he refused to accept it.

Perhaps the least controversial English winner was Willam Golding, who received it towards the end of a career of half a century. He came to prominence with what is still his best known work, Lord of the Flies, which turns traditional schoolboy adventure stories on their head. The plot involves a group of schoolboys cast ashore on an island after a plane crash, a situation that leads the reader to expect a tale of resourcefulness as they use their intelligence and their skills to survive – as happened in Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson and most notably, without adults, in Coral Island. However what happens here is much more realistic, as the boys degenerate into savagery.

A few boys manage to cling to civilized values, two of them being punished for this by death at the hands of the herd. The sole surviving proponent of decency, the original leader Ralph, who had been deposed, was being ruthlessly hunted when rescue finally arrives, to restore civilization in a fairy tale ending that is nevertheless appropriate since it helps to set things in perspective – the naval officer who finds the group sees a host of little boys with their faces painted, and assumes they have been having a game with the fugitive.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2010
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