(An essay that’s away from my usual topics, nothing to do with the Great War. But I thought I’d upload it anyway.)
“The forest near them burst into uproar. Demoniac figures with faces of white and red and green rushed out howling… the tallest of them, stark naked save for paint and a belt, was Jack”
It’s one of the iconic images of twentieth century literature, known to anyone who takes fiction seriously, and to a vast number of ex-GCSE students, for some of whom Lord of the Flies has been the only grown-up novel they have ever read. The book has been a predictable fixture on the English Literature syllabus for decades. Yet this is an image that raises one or two questions of a different type from the ones they set on the exam papers.
The first question is: where do they get their green face paint from?
In chapter four, Golding tells us that Jack paints himself with red and white clay and draws black lines with a charcoal stick, but says longingly, “If only I’d some green,” because that would be the best colour for camouflage when pig-hunting. By chapter eight, some of the boys have magically acquired green paint. Golding doesn’t tell us where it has come from. This mystery needs investigating.
As every GCSE student ought to know, Lord of the Flies is a book that takes pot-shots at a sitting target – R.M.Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, a book decidedly out of fashion even when Golding published in the nineteen-fifties. Writing a hundred years earlier, Ballantyne lands his three young sailors, Jack, Ralph and Peterkin on an island where they have to struggle for existence, and the best chapters of the book describe them discovering foodstuffs, building shelters and so on, in the spirit of Robinson Crusoe. When dark-skinned “savages” come to the island, the three boys show their British pluck by defending a (slightly lighter-skinned) woman from a ferocious male, whose utter savagery is demonstrated when he dashes out the brains of a baby. Eventually, and rather implausibly, the boys help some missionaries to convert the native islanders to Christianity.
Ballantyne had researched the South Seas carefully before writing. He was annoyed when he discovered that he had committed a small ‘blunder’ in The Coral Island, describing coconuts growing without husks, ‘in the same form as that in which they are usually presented to us in grocers’ windows’. He vowed never again to write an adventure novel without first visiting the location.
Apart from its racial stereotyping (and I know that that’s a very big “apart from”) The Coral Island is a cheerful and positive book, encouraging a can-do spirit in its readers, and presenting its characters as able to adapt to difficult circumstances, make the best of a recalcitrant island and change for the better. Which is the opposite of Golding’s grim and negative fable.
Golding’s Island is a paradise, and belongs to theological rather than Darwinian nature. The boys find fruit so plentiful that fruit and blossom are found on the same bough, just as in John Milton’s Garden of Eden, promising an eternal supply, unaffected by the rotation of the seasons. None of the plants on the island seem to be poisonous or harmful; eating too much of the fruit gives some of the littluns the runs – but that is their fault, not the fruit’s. There are no dangerous animals (the wild pig is represented in the least aggressive of all acts, suckling its young). This paradise’s only snakes are in the dreams of the littluns. Every prospect pleases; only the boys are vile.
Which brings us back to the face-painting. Anyone who has attempted pottery knows that clay wouldn’t make very effective warpaint. Not only would it quickly dry out to a lighter muddy colour, it would powder off very soon, and the wearer would be left looking more grubby than warlike.
The people of the South Seas used vermilion for their red paint, but they didn’t produce it locally. It came from European traders, who could charge very high prices for the pigment. Yellow came from grinding the dried roots of the Curcuma longa plant (which we know better as turmeric). So far as I can discover, they had no recipe for green.
Golding imagined the boys on his island painting on black with a burnt charcoal stick, in the way that some of us gave ourselves moustaches with burnt cork when we were children. This would be more effective decoration than the clay, but would probably soon fade. The Fijian method of making a usable black face or body paint was from the soot of burnt candlenut or kauri resin, or from fungus spores or charcoal, mixed with coconut and other oils.
Golding’s whole book seems to be based on an implicit assumption that any product of an indigenous culture could easily be knocked up by English prep-school boys in a few minutes. But could an inexpertly-made wooden spear really penetrate a pig’s hide? When thrown by a twelve-year-old? Do even privately-educated humans so quickly generate scapegoat rituals?
I’m not just complaining about the factual implausibilities in the book (though it’s well-known that poor myopic Piggy’s glasses wouldn’t really be any use for starting fires). More importantly, the novel is based on certain cultural assumptions.
For Ballantyne’s heroes, the savage was black, cruel and in need of conversion to Christianity; he was definitely the Other, someone else. The more perceptive of Golding’s boys come to understand that “the savage” is within themselves. But this realisation still depends on thinking of “the savage” as an inferior, a native in war-paint flourishing a spear. The symbolic pattern of Lord of the Flies implies a fixed hierarchy of cultures. No more than Ballantyne can Golding see body adornment and face-painting as the indicator of a complex and developed indigenous way of life. He does not consider that wearing vermilion face paint was something that could only happen when islanders were part of a complex trading culture. No. For him, there are British standards and there is savagery.
Golding presents Piggy as the character who sees most clearly what is happening on the island. In his desperation at the end of the book he calls the other boys “a pack of painted niggers.” He surely has Golding’s approval when he uses this racist term to denote a degeneration from British civilisation.
Lord of the Flies is a novel that many school students respond to, because it makes them think about complex matters. But I do think it odd that teachers and exam boards so regularly choose this particular book as the one serious novel that some of them will ever read.