The Dionysian myth in Golding’s conception

Published: 21st September 2009
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William Golding’s Lord of the Flies appeared in 1954 to limited critical appreciation; by the mid-sixties, the novel was attracting the kind of close study that accompanies the recognition of a compulsory classic. ( Reilly 1992; 3-4;12-21). In 1962, Time dubbed Golding “Lord of the Campus” on the basis of the book’s status as” the most influential novel among U.S undergraduates since Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye” (Time June 22,1962; Beidler 1994:82-84) , but in 1970, James R. Baker lamented what he saw as the diminishing appeal among students and teachers of Golding’s “ vital fable for our times” ( Baker 1970, 446). That fable, according to several researchers (Dick 1964; White 1964; Baker 1970: 454-55; Dick1987 :9-29), owes much to Greek tragedy generally and to Euripides’ Bacchae in particular. Golding himself acknowledged the influence of Euripides at the time he was writing Lord of the Flies ( Dick and Rok Mejak 1965:481). Mark Roncace has traced how the interpretation of Euripides’ tragedy influenced Golding’s tale about British schoolboys, who are stranded on an uninhabited Pacific island and compelled to create and then destroy their own society

( Roncace 1997).

According to the “Bacchae interpretation” of Lord of the Flies, Ralf embodies the Apollonian drive toward reason, balance and order, while his rival Jack represents the Dionysian allure of primitive regression to the chaotic energies of blood lust and intoxication. Therefore, when the idol that Jack sets up by affixing the pig’s head to a stake speaks to Simon, we hear the god’s revelation to mortals: “ Fancy thinking the beast was something you could hunt and Kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are? “ The laughter shivered again. (Golding and Rok Mejak 130).

The God identifies himself with the beast, the bogey of the boys’ imagination, and affirms his presence not only within the individual person but throughout all nature. Earlier Simon had imagined the beast as ‘the picture of a human at once heroic and sick” ( Golding :93), that is, as an image of both man’s power and vulnerability. Now the voice elevates that natural vitality and decay ( in which humans have a share) into the cosmic principle that makes “things the way they are”. In effect, Golding’s laughing victim-god provides a psychological and religious explanation for Ralf’s sociological observation: “Things are breaking up. I don’t understand why. We began well; we were happy. And then […] people started getting frightened” ( Golding ;74) The Dionysian deity undermines the boys from within. And tests them from without.

In one respect, the tendency to read Lord of the Flies through the lens of a Nietzschean Apollonian /Dionisian duality is somewhat misleading, since only one true divinity exists on the island: the Dionysus-like force that speaks through the head of the victim has no divine Apollonian rival. The contest between Apollo and Dionysus is a mismatch from the start. Ralf, Piggy and Simon must speak for the Apollonian world, in which, as Piggy says, rules exist – if only because without rules, “ things wouldn’t make sense. Houses an’ streets, an’ – TV – they wouldn’t work” ( Golding and Rok Mejak 83) Although the boys organize themselves against the disintegrative aspect of “the way things are”, they also sustain themselves through the entropic energy of nature. The Dionysian in Golding’s conception, is not altogether malignant. Jack’s hunting and rituals provide them both with meat and a transient sense of participation in the amoral vitality of the natural world, the experience of which must be paid for, as Jack realizes when he leaves the pig’s head as a gift for the beast. With an offering to the double god who both hunts and allows himself to be hunted. There is no alternative to the monopoly of the beast-god; his gifts must be gratefully accepted and his predations endured.

Author of this analysis is Rok Mejak. For further information and other reviews you might want to visi my home page. Visit Rok Mejak web site.

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