Not so timeless: Lord of the Flies has overstayed its welcome

Anna Roosen and Catherine Burrows explore the famous English literature work, Lord of the Flies, to understand whether it still has relevance in the classroom.


In the early 1950s, a schoolteacher sat down to write his first novel, about “…children who behave in the way children really would behave” when left to their own devices, with no order and no adult supervision.[1] The result was a story of division, destruction, violence and murder.

His novel was published in 1954 as Lord of the Flies, and it became a classic literature choice in schools. As a result, most of us over a certain age have read the schoolteacher’s story.

Recently, we were discussing Lord of the Flies and questioned the purpose of studying the book in schools. What do we want the next generation to learn by having them read Lord of the Flies? Does it still have a place in our current context? Or is it just a story of horrible events that we hope would never happen?

What’s the story?

Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction.

A British evacuation aeroplane crashes into a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean. The only survivors are a group of school-aged children, some of whom are in a choir together.

The group elects one of the boys, Ralph, to be their chief. His only opposition comes from the choir group, who prefer another boy, Jack.

It doesn’t take long for the tribe to deteriorate. An unpopular boy, nicknamed Piggy, is cruelly treated by the boys. Some boys are consumed by a new religion they develop which revolves around a terrifying beast they claim to have seen. The beast is actually a dead pilot, still attached to his parachute. Both the parachute and the corpse move when the wind blows, horrifying the boys.

Jack seizes on their fear of the beast as an opportunity to control the group. Ralph, who is more concerned with necessities, like gathering food, loses ground to Jack.

During a ritual feast and dance, Simon, a smaller boy, discovers that the beast is actually the dead pilot. He rushes to tell the others but they mistake him for the beast and kill him. Ralph and a few of the other boys sever ties with Jack’s tribe. Jack’s tribe kidnap and torture two boys, murder Piggy and then set fire to the island in an attempt to hunt Ralph down. The island becomes an inferno.

Because of the smoke, a naval vessel arrives. An officer saves Ralph and, at the sight of the adult, the other boys stop what they were doing. The officer fails to understand the gravity of the situation, saying, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys — -you’re all British, aren’t you? — -would have been able to put up a better show than that…”

Who was William Golding?

Sir William Golding (1911–1993) was a Booker Prize and Nobel Prize winning author.[2] He served in the British Navy in World War II and saw action in the sinking of the Bismarck and the Normandy landings. He was a teacher before and after the War.

Golding is known for his subsequent belief in the brutality of people. He wrote, “…after the war…I had discovered what one man could do to another.”[3] He also wrote, “I must say that anyone who passed through those years [of World War II] without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”[4] It was with this mindset that Golding wrote his most famous work.

Lord of the Flies and The Coral Island

Golding said that Lord of the Flies was written in reaction to a novel called The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean.[5] The Coral Island, written in 1858, was truly a work of its time; books like this were based on a world view that very few people would support today.

In The Coral Island, three brave boys, Ralph, Jack and Peterkin, are shipwrecked on a desert island. They thrive together, swimming, hunting, foraging and fishing. The three boys rescue islander people from cannibals, survive a pirate attack and end up converting the local people to Christianity. Although few people have heard of it today, The Coral Island was once very popular.

Golding said that Lord of the Flies depicts what would really happen if a group of boys were stranded on an island.[6] To make sure people understood that he was rewriting the story of The Coral Island, he incorporated references to The Coral Island including by using the names, Ralph and Jack, for his oppositional protagonists.

The original title of Lord of the Flies was Strangers from Within,[7] said to be a reference to his belief that evil would be found within the children rather than external to them, as it was in The Coral Island.

Lord of the Flies was a best seller, with millions of copies sold.[8] It was translated into 30 languages and made into a film by Peter Brook.[9] Two other films followed[10] and the novel is frequently referenced in popular culture, including in The Simpsons (Das Bus episode)[11] and The Walking Dead TV series.[12]

Although Lord of the Flies was written as a criticism of The Coral Island, it is clear that imperialist views underpin both stories. Piggy reflects this viewpoint when he asks, “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”

What is the place of Lord of the Flies in the Twenty-First Century?

Discussion of Lord of the Flies started up again recently when Dutch author and historian, Rutger Bregman, wrote about it in his 2020 book, Humankind.[13] Bregman describes the true story of a group of six Tongan boys who were marooned on an island after a storm; and an article he also wrote about this was used to publicise the book.[14]

After the publication of Bregman’s article, one of the boys, now in his 70s, came forward to tell his own story.[15] “Mr Totau told the ABC he and his friends needed to rely on each other to survive.

“‘A group of people…don’t know where they are and don’t have enough food and water…maybe they don’t agree on the same thing, but they have to try to get together and work together and make everything work so they can survive,’ he said.” [16]

The six boys survived on the island for 15 months before being rescued and taken home.

This uplifting story was greeted warmly around the world. But Bregman’s retelling “…ignited discussion by Pasifika people… ‘When we find other Tongans we stick together; that is very much in our value system and it’s very different to how those fictional boys would have been raised,’” said Torres Strait Islander and Tongan storyteller, Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, as reported by the ABC.[17]

She further argued the story of the six young Tongan boys had been told through a colonial lens and so missed the Pasifika point of view.

Where to from here?

Does Lord of the Flies still belong on reading lists in schools? We don’t think so.

Although Lord of the Flies was listed as one of the 100 best young adult books of all time by Time Magazine in 2015 [18], its popularity seems to be waning. Of the people we know who are Gen Y and younger, only one studied it at school. He said it was exciting to read as a 12-year-old, unlike some other books he was studying at the time, and “My best recollection is that it rang true that schoolboys my age would go mad without somebody to hold them back, draw boundaries, etc.”

In the US, Lord of the Flies has been challenged and even banned from some school reading lists.[19] In Canada, the novel has been removed from the Ottawa school curriculum, after a student wrote an article saying, “…she does not need to learn more about White, male supremacy, which tells the story of a group of boys in a hierarchical order who fight for power and degrade one another.”[20]

While we do not believe in banning books, we challenge the privileged position that Lord of the Flies has had on school syllabuses. This is important when we consider that some students only read the books they are required to, making Lord of the Flies one of the few books some people have ever read. To have this privileged place in society, a book needs to be one of the very best there is.

In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, The Coral Island was considered a classic for children in the Western world. It is hard to imagine people arguing for the inclusion of this book, with its imperialist world view, in school syllabuses today.

Golding wrote Lord of the Flies in the post-World War II recovery period, when people were attempting to make sense of what had happened and why.

In the face of today’s environmental, social and political challenges, and polarised opinions, is the brutal behaviour of a fictional group of boys the most important story that young people should read?

We think the student from Ottawa is right: Lord of the Flies has overstayed its welcome.



[2] William Golding — Biographical —

[3] War — William Golding (

[4] Golding, W. 1965. The Hot Gates. Faber:

[5] Ballantyne, R. M. (1911) [1858], The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean, Thomas Nelson and Sons

[6] Lord of the Flies and The Coral Island — William Golding (

[7] The Stranger From WithinWilliam Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies; Peter Green, Book Review, 1 September 2010, New Republic:

[8] Lord of the Flies,

[9] Lord of the Flies (1963) by Peter Brook, Clip: Ralph runs for his life/white socks… — YouTube; the whole film,; Peter Brook on the Making of Lord of the Flies | Current | The Criterion Collection

[10] Lord of the Flies,

[11] ‘Das Bus’ Simpsons Episode,

[12] ‘The Walking Dead, Lord of the Flies and Rick’s Ultimate End’ The Polygon,

[13] Bregman, R. 2020. Humankind: A Hopeful History, Little, Brown & co.




[17] Ibid.



[20] Lord of the Flies removed from Ottawa school board curriculum | True North (