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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

William Golding (1911-1993); in full Sir Willam Gerald Golding


English novelist, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. The choice was unexpected, because the internationally famous novelist Graham Greene (1904-1991) was considered the strongest candidate from the English writers. William Golding wrote of isolated individuals or small groups that are pushed into extreme situations. His work is characterized by exploration of "the darkness of man's heart," and deep spiritual and ethical questions.
"Twenty-five years ago I accepted the label 'pessimist' thoughtlessly without realising that it was going to be tied to my tail, as it were, in something the way that, to take an example from another art, Rachmaninoff's famous Prelude in C sharp minor was tied to him. No audience would allow him off the concert platform until he played it. Similarly critics have dug into my books until they could come up with something that looked hopeless. I can't think why. I don't feel hopeless myself." (from 'Nobel Lecture', 7 December, 1983, in Nobel Lectures: Literature 1981-1990, edited by Sture Allén,  World Scientific, 1993, p. 28)

William Golding was born in the village of St. Columb Minor in Cornwall. His father, Alec, was a schoolmaster, who had radical convictions in politics and a strong faith in science. Golding's mother, Mildred, was a supporter of the British suffragate movement. She claimed that her aquiline nose derived from Phoenician voyages, who had sailed to Cornwall in search of tin.

Golding started writing at the age of seven, after reading Tennyson and Shakespeare. But following the wishes of his parents, he studied first natural sciences and then English at Brasenose College, Oxford. Golding's first book, a collection of poems, appeared in 1934, a year before he received his B.A. in English and a diploma in education. The book was published as a part of Macmillan's Contemporary Poets series. From Oxford, he moved to London.

Between 1935 and 1939, Golding worked as a writer, actor, producer, and a settlement house worker.  He married in 1939 Ann Brookfield, an analytical chemist; they had two children. After the wedding, he moved to Salisbury, where he began teaching English and philosophy at Bishop Wordsworth's School. In his private journal Golding described how he once set two groups of boys against one another. These psychological experiments most likely inspired later his novel Lord of the Flies (1954).

During World War II, Golding served in the Royal Navy in command of a rocket ship. His active service included involvement in the sinking of the legendary German battleship Bismarck in 1940 and participating in the Normandy invasion; his target was the central beach, Gold. Recalling his feelings as an ordinary seaman he later said that he was "the lowest form of life among more than six hundred men." (William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey, 2010, p. 83)  In 1942 he was promoted to temporary lieutenant.

Demobilised in 1945, Golding returned to writing and teaching, with a dark view of the European civilization. Religion was a central issue in Golding's fiction, especially the nature of evil, but he remained aloof from religious activities – he once said in an interview that he "belonged to nothing." (Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down by Paul Crawford,  2002, p. 124) In his essay 'Fable' (1965), referring to the war years, Golding remarked: "but I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil, as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head."  (The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces, Faber and Faber, 1984, p. 87)

Golding resigned as a schoolteacher in 1961, a job he had never enjoyed, and spent then a year as writer-in-residence at Hollins College in Virginia, USA. His students there soon realized that he did not like teaching, he frequently looked at his watch, and when the bell rang, "he shot out the door like a mad thing." (William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey, 2010, p. 257) The last years of his life, from the mid 80s, Golding lived quietly in Cornwall, gaining the reputation of a mildly eccentric and reclusive person. He had a problem with alcohol, but with the help of Antabus he stopped drinking for a period. While suffering from insomnia, he took Mandrax to sleep.

In Salisbury Golding wrote four books, but did not get them published. Lord of the Flies, an allegorical story set in the near future during wartime, was turned down by twenty-one publishes until it finally accepted by Faber and Faber after substantial revisions. E.M. Forster named it Book of the Years and in the late 1950s it became a bestseller among American readers. At the time of its appearance, Golding was 44. In the gripping story a group of small British boys, stranded on a desert island, lapse into  violence after they have lost all adult guidance. Ironically, the adult world is devastated by nuclear war. As a reply to the questions of the influence of Joseph Conrad on his work, Golding once said: "I am pretty much tired of always being told how much I owe to Heart of Darkness. I read the book after I wrote Lord of the Flies!"

Lord of the Flies was followed by The Inheritors (1955), which overturned H.G. Wells's Outline of History (1920) and depicted the extermination of Neanderthal man by Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals are portrayed compassionate and communal, and when they meet the more sophisticated Cro-Magnons, their tribe is doomed. The Finnish professor of paleontology, Björn Kurtén has offered in his novel Dance of the Tiger (1978) the explanation, that the Neanderthals disappeared because they fell fatally in love with their black and beautiful Cro-Magnon neighbours. In The Inheritors, which Golding himself considered his finest work, there is no understanding or love between these two races. First the events are perceived from the point of view of Lok, a semi-human creature, and after his death, the new protagonist is a Cro-Magnon, Tuami.

Pincher Martin (1956) was story of a naval officer, Christopher Hadley Martin, who faces death after his ship is torpedoed. Like in Ambroce Bierce's 'Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge,' the protagonist imagines his survival and struggle against the sea and cold - Christopher believes he is on a rock island in Mid-Atlantic. The rock he clings is metaphorically analogous to his diseased tooth. The Free Fall (1959) was set in contemporary society. Sammy Mountjoy, the narrator, is an artist, who looks back over his past to find the crossroads of his life, and the moment he lost his freedom.

In 1965 Golding received the honorary designation Commander of the British Empire (CBE) and in 1988 he was knighted. Golding died in Perranarworthal on June 19, 1993. The night before his death, he made an entry in his diary and played Chopin upon the piano. His last novel, The Double Tongue, left in draft at his death, came out in 1995. Set in the ancient Greece, the story depicted the life of the last Delphic oracle, the Pythia, who witnesses the rise of the Roman power, and the decline of the Hellenistic culture.

The Spire (1964), which shared some motifs with Iris Murdoch's novel The Bell (1958), concerned the construction of a cathedral spire. Jocelin, a medieval dean, has decided to erect a 400-foot spire to the top of the catdedral before his death. But its construction causes sacrifice of others, treachery, and murder; the Dean's own faith is tested. From this novel Golding's work developed into three directions: novels dealing with contemporary society without mythical substructure, the metaphysical novels in which the theme of fall from innocence into guilt was central, and sea novels imitating an 18th-century style. Golding also used in his works ideas familiar from science fiction, such as the origin of man, nuclear holocaust, and highly advanced inventions.

The Brass Butterfly (1958), Golding's first and only play, was based on his own short story 'Envoy Extraordinary,' about an Greek inventor Phanocles, who tries to get his steam engine, gun, pressure-cooker, and printing press accepted by the Roman emperor. The play premiered at the New Theatre, Oxford, on February 24, 1958.

In 1971 Golding began to keep a record of his dreams to revitalize his creative process. Prior to the publication of Darkness Visible (1979), about saintliness and human evil, he had been silent for a long period. His later works include the historical trilogy Rites of Passage (1980), which portrayed life abroad an ancient ship of the line at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. It was awarded the Booker Prize.

Originally Golding had intended writing only one novel, but then he realized that "I've left all these people sitting around in the middle of the ocean, and I keep thinking things that Edmund would say." Other parts of the trilogy, narrated by young Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, were Close Quarters (1987) and Fire Down Below (1989). "The author seems intent on making the ship's voyage parallel what is supposed to be Talbot's inner voyage of self-discovery, but once the ship docks, the young man is little more than the opinionated fop he was at the novel's beginning." (Dierdre Bair, in The New York Times, April 2, 1989) Benedict Cumberbatch, who played the role of Edmund in David Attwood's TV adaptation of the trilogy, made the young self-confident aristocrat more sympathetic than he was in the book. "He  is always open to learning. He's a product of his time," Cumberbatch said.

The Paper Men (1984), dismissed by reviewers as Golding's worst novel, focused on a battle between the world-famous English novelist Wilfred Barclay and the American academic Rick L. Turner, who has decided to write Barclay's biography. "In this book, however, Barclay and Tucker are not only poorly defined as individuals, but are also wholly inadequate as symbols. They are indeed no more than paper men." (Michiko Kakutani, in The New York Times, March 26, 1984)

Golding's most widely read work, Lord of the Flies, has been translated into many languages and filmed in 1963 and 1990. It is an ironic comment on R.M. Ballantyne's Coral Island, using also the names of its characters. The story describes a group of children, who are evacuated from Britain because of a nuclear war. Their airplane crashes on an uninhabited island, and all the adults are killed. The boys create their own society, which gradually degenerates from democratic, rational, and moral community to tyrannical and cruel. "They cried for their mothers much less often than might have been expected; they were very brown, and filthily dirty." Stephen King, who read the novel at the age of twelve, has said that it was "the first book with hands – strong ones that reached out of the pages and seized me by the throat. It said to me, 'This is not just entertainment; it's life or death.'" (Lord of the Flies, with an introduction by Stephen King, 2012)

The older boys take control, a boy called Piggy, who is asthmatic and nearsighted, becomes a target of teasing and torment. Leaders emerge, two of the older boys get killed, and they begin to hunt another, just as a ship arrives. Golding's view is pessimistic: human nature is inherently corruptible and wicked. Thus the 19th century ideals of progress and education are based on false premises. Although the boys have been taught social skills, their desire to kill is unleashed when there are no strict rules of the English public-school system to control their behavior. This is the world of freedom, that is ruled by savages and the ultimate evil, the Lord of the Flies, Beelzebub, Prince of Devils, whom the boys worship in the form of a decapitated boar's head.

For further reading: William Golding: a Critical Study by I. Gregor and M. Kinkead-Weekes (1967); The Novels of William Golding by H.S. Babb (1973); W. Golding: Lord of the Flies by J. Whitley (1970); William Golding by S. Medcalf (1975); William Golding: Some Critical Considerations, ed. by J.I. Biles and R.D. Evans (1978); William Golding: A Structural Reading of His Fiction by Philip Redpath (1987); The Modern Allegories of William Goldman by L.KL. Dickson (1990); William Golding by Lawrence S. Friedman (1992); William Golding by Pralhad A. Kulkarni (1994); The Robinsonade Tradition in Robert Michael Ballantyne's the Coral Island and William Golding's the Lord of the Flies by Karin Siegl (1996); Readings on Lord of the Flies, ed. by Clarice Swisher (1997); Language and Style in the Inheritors by David L. Hoover (1998); Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down by Paul Crawford (2002); The Novels of William Golding by Indu Kulkarni (2003); William Golding: The Unmoved Target by Virginia Tiger (2003); 'Adaptationist Criteria of Literary Value: Assessing Kurtén's Dance of the Tiger, Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear, and Golding's The Inheritors', in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature by Joseph Carroll (2004); William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey (2010); From Francis Bacon to William Golding: Utopias and Dystopias of Today and of Yore, edited by Ligia Tomoiagă, Minodora Barbul and Ramona Demarcsek (2012) - See: Daniel Defoe and Robinsonade, a story of a person marooned on a desert island.

Selected works:

  • Poems, 1934
  • Lord of the Flies, 1954
    - Kärpästen herra (suom. Juhana Perkki, 1960)
    - Films: 1963, dir. Peter Brook, starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards, Roger Elwin, Tom Gaman; Alkitrang dugo (uncredited), 1976, prod. NV Productions (Philippines), dir. Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara; 1990, prod. Castle Rock Entertainment, directed by Harry Hook, starring Balthazar Getty, Chris Furth, Danuel Pipoly, Badgett Dale
  • The Inheritors, 1955
    - Perilliset (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1985)
  • Pincher Martin, 1956 ( radio play in 1958)
  • Envoy Extraordinary, 1956 (in Sometime, Never: Three Tales of Imagination)
  • The Brass Butterfly: A Play in Three Acts, 1958 
  • Free Fall, 1960
    - Vapaa putoaminen (suom. Leevi Lehto, 1986)
  • Miss Pulkinhorn, 1960 (radio play)
  • The Ladder and the Tree, 1961 (The Marlborough College Press)
  • Break My Heart, 1962 (radio play)
  • The Spire, 1964
  • The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces, 1965
  • The Pyramid, 1967
    - Pyramidi (suom. Rauno Ekholm, 1987)
  • The Scorpion God, 1971
  • Darkness Visible, 1979
    - Näkyvä pimeys (suom. Kersti Juva, 1983)
  • Rites of Passage, 1980 (trilogy: To the Ends of the Earth; Booker Prize)
    - Merimatka (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Hanno Vammelvuo, 1981)
    - To the Ends of the Earth, TV mini-series 2005, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. David Attwood, screenplay by Leigh Jackson and Tony Basgallop, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brian Pettifer, Victoria Hamilton, Jamie Sives, Sam Neill, Jared Harris
  • A Moving Target, 1982
  • The Paper Men, 1984
    - Paperimiehet (suom. Kersti Juva, 1985)
  • An Egyptian Journal, 1985
  • Close Quarters, 1987 (trilogy: To the Ends of the Earth)
    - Laskusilta (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Hanno Vammelvuo, 1990)
    - To the Ends of the Earth, TV mini-series 2005, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. David Attwood, screenplay by Leigh Jackson and Tony Basgallop, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brian Pettifer, Victoria Hamilton, Jamie Sives, Sam Neill, Jared Harris
  • Fire Down Below, 1989 (republished in 1991 under the general title To the Ends of the Earth)
    - Laiva tulessa (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Hanno Vammelvuo, 1991)
    - To the Ends of the Earth, TV mini-series 2005, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. David Attwood, screenplay by by Leigh Jackson and Tony Basgallop, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Brian Pettifer, Victoria Hamilton, Jamie Sives, Sam Neill, Jared Harris
  • The Double Tongue, 1995
  • Lord of the Flies: A Novel, 2016 (foreword by Lois Lowry introduction by Stephen King)

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