11 Things You Might Not Know About Lord of the Flies

istock (blank book, background)
istock (blank book, background)

A fixture of English class syllabi, William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies keeps winning over new generations of readers. And if you've been hearing a lot about it in the news this week, that's because the Hollywood powers-that-be have decided to give it an all-female big-screen reboot—a decision that hasn't sat well with some fans of the book. So here are a few precious gems we dug up to celebrate the dystopian island.

1. NOBODY WANTED TO PUBLISH THE NOVEL.

Since it was Golding’s first book, Lord of the Flies was met with little interest from the multitudes of publishing companies to whom he sent his manuscript. Golding’s daughter Judy Carver remembered her cash-strapped father struggling with many rejection letters. “My earliest memory is not of the book itself but of a lot of parcels coming back and being sent off again very quickly,” she told The Guardian. “He must have been grief-stricken every time it returned. Even paying for the postage was a commitment.”

2. THE EVENTUAL PUBLISHER TRIED TO HIDE IT FROM T.S. ELIOT.

Even Faber and Faber, the London-based house that ultimately released the book, was resistant at first, yielding only because new editor Charles Monteith was so passionate about the story. The company even went so far as to not discuss the title within earshot of its literary advisor, acclaimed poet T.S. Eliot.

Eliot allegedly first heard about Lord of the Flies via an offhand remark made by a friend at his social club. In his biography William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies, John Carey recounts that Eliot’s friend warned him, “Faber had published an unpleasant novel about small boys behaving unspeakably on a desert island.” In the end, Faber’s fears were unfounded: The poet loved Golding’s novel.

3. THE BOOK WAS A COMMERCIAL FLOP.

Upon its release in September 1954, Lord of the Flies underwhelmed at bookstores, selling only 4662 copies through the following year and falling out of print shortly thereafter. Critical acclaim and the respect of the academic community steadily grew over the rest of the decade, and the novel eventually found enough of an audience that by 1962 it had moved 65,000 copies.

4. IT HAS ALSO SUFFERED ITS SHARE OF CENSORSHIP.

The American Library Association ranks Lord of the Flies as the eighth most challenged “classic” book in American culture, and the 68th most challenged book overall during the 1990s.

5. GOLDING WAS UNIMPRESSED WITH HOW HIS STORY TURNED OUT.

Although he was initially enthusiastic about the text, Golding’s appraisal of his breakthrough work dimmed over time. After revisiting Lord of the Flies in 1972 for the first time in a decade, Golding gave it a less-than-stellar review. According to Carey's biography, the author said he found his own book “boring and crude. The language was O-level stuff.” (O-level is the lower level of standardized testing in the UK, which assesses basic knowledge—so Golding was saying his novel was the rough equivalent of middle school English writing.)

6. LORD OF THE FLIES IS A PERSONAL FAVORITE OF ANOTHER FAMOUS AUTHOR.

Stephen King has cited Lord of the Flies as one of his favorite books. In a foreword to the 2011 edition of the novel, King wrote that, “It was, so far as I can remember, 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.’”

King’s books even include a nod to the text. King named the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine—the setting for a number of his novels—after the geological structure featured prominently in Lord of the Flies.

7. THE BOOK HAS ALSO INSPIRED MANY POPULAR MUSICIANS.

A slew of bands have nodded to Lord of the Flies in their songs, including U2 (whose “Shadows and Tall Trees” is named after the book’s seventh chapter title), The Offspring (whose “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” references the book by name), and Iron Maiden (whose “Lord of the Flies” is a song about the book itself).

8. GOLDING FIELDED LOTS OF QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ALL-MALE NOVEL.

In an audio recording published on TED-Ed, Golding said that “When girls say to me, and very reasonably, ‘Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?’ my reply is ... If you, as it were, scale down human beings, scale down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls will be. Don’t ask me why. And this is a terrible thing to say, because I’m going to be chased from hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing to do with equality at all. I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men; they are far superior and always have been.”

9. AN EARLY DRAFT OF THE STORY OPENED AND CLOSED DIFFERENTLY.

Golding’s original version of Lord of the Flies began not on the island, but aboard the airplane upon which the boys were passengers, just prior to its fateful crash landing. Additionally, the first draft closed its story with an ominous cataloguing of the story’s time and date: “16.00, 2nd October 1952.”

10. SIMON WAS INITIALLY MORE OF A CHRIST FIGURE.

One of Monteith’s more substantial edits involved toning down the Simon character’s “Christ-like” characteristics. Golding originally designed the boy as a sanctified, ethereal character, which his editor thought was too heavy-handed. The Simon that appears in the final draft of Lord of the Flies is indeed a good deal more peaceful and conscientious than his peers, but lacks the ostentatious godliness that Monteith found problematic.

11. GOLDING HAD A FUNNY EXPERIENCE AT A SCHOOL PRODUCTION OF LORD OF THE FLIES

Author Nigel Williams recalls accompanying Golding to a student production of Lord of the Flies at King’s College School in London’s Wimbledon neighborhood. After the performance, Golding visited the student actors backstage to drive home the novel’s lesson.

As Williams writes in The Telegraph, “He went backstage afterwards and said to the boys, ‘Did you like being little savages?’ ‘Ye-e-eahhh!!’ they shouted. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘but you wouldn’t like to be savages all the time—would you now?’ They looked, suddenly, like the boys in the story do when the adult comes to rescue them at the end—cowed and, indeed, awed by what the world might hold in store.”

10 Surprising Facts About J.R.R. Tolkien

Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Phil Romans via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are plenty of things even the most ardent fans don't know about The Lord of the Rings author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. In honor of Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th), here are 10 of them.

1. Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic.

As a linguist and expert on Old English and Old Norse literature, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University from 1925 until 1959. He was also a tireless instructor, teaching between 70 and 136 lectures a year (his contract only called for 36). But the best part is the way he taught those classes. Although quiet and unassuming in public, Tolkien wasn't the typical stodgy, reserved stereotype of an Oxford don in the classroom. He went to parties dressed as a polar bear, chased a neighbor dressed as an axe-wielding Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was known to hand shopkeepers his false teeth as payment. As one of his students put it, "He could turn a lecture room into a mead hall."

2. Tolkien felt many of his fans were "lunatics."

Tolkien saw himself as a scholar first and a writer second. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were largely Tolkien's attempt to construct a body of myth, and their success caught him largely unaware. In fact, he spent years rejecting, criticizing, and shredding adaptations of his work that he didn't believe captured its epic scope and noble purpose. He was also utterly skeptical of most LOTR fans, who he believed were incapable of really appreciating the work, and he probably would have been horrified by movie fandom dressing up like Legolas.

3. Tolkien loved his day job.

To Tolkien, writing fantasy fiction was simply a hobby. The works he considered most important were his scholarly works, which included Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and A Middle English Vocabulary.

4. He was quite romantic.

At age 16, Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt, three years his senior. His guardian, a Catholic priest, was horrified that his ward was seeing a Protestant and ordered the boy to have no contact with Edith until he turned 21. Tolkien obeyed, pining after Edith for years until that fateful birthday, when he met with her under a railroad viaduct. She broke off her engagement to another man, converted to Catholicism, and the two were married for the rest of their lives. At Tolkien's instructions, their shared gravestone has the names "Beren" and "Luthien" engraved on it, a reference to a famous pair of star-crossed lovers from the fictional world he created.

5. Tolkien's relationship with C.S. Lewis was complicated.

Tolkien's fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) is often identified as his best friend and closest confidant. But the truth is, the pair had a much more troubled relationship. At first, the two authors were very close. In fact, Tolkien's wife Edith was reportedly jealous of their friendship. And it was Tolkien who convinced Lewis to return to Christianity. But their relationship cooled over what Tolkien perceived as Lewis's anti-Catholic leanings and scandalous personal life (he had been romancing an American divorcee at the time). Although they would never be as close as they were before, Tolkien regretted the separation. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote in a letter to his daughter that, “So far I have felt ... like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots.”

6. Tolkien enjoyed clubbing.

Well, the extra-curricular, after-school sort. Wherever Tolkien went, he was intimately involved in the formation of literary and scholarly clubs. As a professor at Leeds University, for example, he formed the Viking Club. And during his stint at Oxford, he formed the Inklings, a literary discussion group.

7. He wasn't blowing smoke about those war scenes.

Tolkien was a veteran of the First World War, and served as a second lieutenant in the 11th (Service) Battalion of the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was also present for some of the most bloody trench fighting of the war, including the Battle of the Somme. The deprivations of Frodo and Sam on their road to Mordor may have had their origins in Tolkien's time in the trenches, during which he contracted a chronic fever from the lice that infested him and was forced to return home. He would later say that all but one of his close friends died in the war, giving him a keen awareness of its tragedy that shines through in his writing.

8. Tolkien invented languages for fun.

A philologist by trade, Tolkien kept his mind exercised by inventing new languages, many of which (like the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin) he used extensively in his writing. He even wrote songs and poems in his fictional languages. In addition, Tolkien worked to reconstruct and write in extinct languages like Medieval Welsh and Lombardic. His poem "BagmÄ“ BlomÄ" ("Flower of the Trees") might be the first original work written in the Gothic language in over a millennium.

9. Tolkien been published almost as prolifically posthumously as he was when he was alive.

Most authors have to be content with the works they produce during their lifetime, but not Tolkien. His scribblings and random notes, along with manuscripts he never bothered to publish, have been edited, revised, compiled, redacted, and published in dozens of volumes after his death, most of them produced by his son Christopher. While Tolkien's most famous posthumous publication is The Silmarillion, other works include The History of Middle Earth, Unfinished Tales, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

10. Tolkien called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus."

Tolkien's academic writings on Old Norse and Germanic history, language, and culture were extremely popular among the Nazi elite, who were obsessed with recreating ancient Germanic civilization. But Tolkien was disgusted by Hitler and the Nazi party, and made no secret of the fact. He considered forbidding a German translation of The Hobbit after the German publisher, in accordance with Nazi law, asked him to certify that he was an "Aryan." Instead, he wrote a scathing letter asserting, among other things, his regret that he had no Jewish ancestors. His feelings are also evidenced in a letter he wrote to his son: "I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler ... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

This piece originally ran in 2017.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

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