51–56: The Coral Island; Lord of the Flies; Wuthering Heights; The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood; Lavinia; and A Song for Summer

I read The Coral Island as a preliminary to a run through Lord of the Flies, so I’ll write about them together. The differences are, I suppose, instructive, and Golding himself is supposed to have said that Lord of the Flies grew from the rotten remains of the Coral Island model of boys’ castaway story.

The dangers which might threaten the principals of a castaway story come in three categories, usually. First are the conditions – including such trivia as food and fresh water. Second are wild animals (it is not uncommon for this to be a danger greatly feared but never manifested). Third are “savages”, by which we mean human beings who lack civilisation. The goals are always two: survival and escape. In the true castaway story, it is always discipline and foresight which secure these objectives, and they are always cleaved to. A castaway who no longer wishes to be rescued is not a castaway any longer; he is an emigrant; and although the islands are almost without exception paradisiacal, the desire to stay forever is generally fleeting.

Lord of the Flies has all of these elements. There is the fire to secure rescue. There are hunters to provide food (in The Coral Island also, the native pigs are a source of meals). There are shelters to be built to protect against the elements. The shelters, indeed, provide us with the first sign of decay – the first glimpse of the inexorable collapse of civilised foresight. They are begun in a rush of energy, and abandoned by almost everybody before the first one is finished. There are no wild animals, but there is nonetheless a terror of them which borders on the religious. And the savages are not foreigners; not people who can’t be expected to know better, like Crusoe’s Friday or The Coral Island’s Tararo. They are the boys themselves, driven to abandon civilisation by a heady cocktail of bloodlust and fear.

The morality of Lord of the Flies is not very different, all things considered, from that of The Coral Island. It would be a mistake to suppose that Golding rejects the “oughts” of the castaway genre – discipline, civilised values, decency. The hero of the typical castaway story is frightened of wild beasts, so he builds stockades, plans his defence, labours to impose his will on his surrounds and nullify the threat. The threat never materialises, but Golding’s “Beast” shows us the far more insidious threat which these practical preparations directly neuter – the feeling of impotent terror that leads to superstition, irrationality, and the frenzied beating to death of a young boy. A combination of fear and ill-discipline means rescue opportunities are missed; the boys pay lip service to rescue, but fail to prioritise it as they ought to do.

Instead, Golding denies the psychology of works such as The Coral Island. He denies, as a matter of fact, that this code of civilisation will win out over selfishness and savagery; that the rules of the game are deeply enough implanted that we will adhere to them even in the absence of supervision. The boys on the island are not decent, hardworking, cooperative; they are petulant and petty, spiteful and sadistic. Even Ralph Rover in The Coral Island admits to feeling the blood rise at brutal and warlike scenes, but in Ballantyne’s world the well-brought-up Christian is repulsed by such feelings and can conquer them. In Golding’s, there is no such certainty. He does not think that our notions are false. It is worse than that. He thinks they are weak. “Nature, in most of us, is stronger than training,” says Rafael Sabatini. Lord of the Flies is Golding carrying that to its conclusion.

I heard you like frame narratives and terrible people, so I read Wuthering Heights. Seriously. Everyone is selfish and vain.

My copy is actually the copy I studied at GCSE (those were the days), so it’s full of terribly scrawled notes. “Cathy immensely irritating little wretch, highly full of herself and very arrogant.” (For those keeping track at home, this is young Cathy.)  “Hindley a real bastard.” They made it quite a fun experience for me. Still, nobody is likeable, per se, and that’s half the skill of it. It would be simplistic to called Cathy (elder Cathy) and Heathcliff just star-crossed lovers for whom we should feel only sympathy.

Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. I’d as soon put that little canary into the park on a winter’s day, as recommend you to bestow your heart on him! It is a deplorable ignorance of his character, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He’s not a rough diamond – a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man. I never say to him, “Let this or that enemy alone, because it would be ungenerous or cruel to harm them”; I say, “Let them alone, because I should hate them to be wronged”: and he’d crush you like a sparrow’s egg, Isabella, if he found you a troublesome charge.

Their love story is powerful, of course, and tragic and touching; but they are not, in and of themselves, lovable characters. It is their obvious fitness for each other that powers the story, not their objective desirability as mates. Every vaguely angsty teenage girl who reads it and falls madly besotted with Heathcliff is committing exactly the mistake Isabella is warned against and makes anyway (if you are familiar with the Wendy Cope poem “Two Cures For Love”, that is what Isabella’s narrative arc reminds me of). “I love him,” says Cathy, “because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” It’s more than reasonable to have that as a romantic ambition, of course; but for our own self respect, we should perhaps avoid wanting a Heathcliff or a Cathy on the other end.

That said, this is an amazing book. “I’ve dreamt dreams in my life that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through me and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.” And a good book can do that too.

So apparently the Middle Ages basically involved dressing up in other people’s clothes, and then fighting them until they respected you enough to come and work for you.

Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is a work with a lot of influence on later tales, and does draw from several of the original ballads. It’s well written and highly enjoyable. My only gripe is the absence of Marian, who is mentioned once by name and referred to very tangentially at another point. It’s almost more aggravating than if she had been written out entirely – once acknowledged, it’s not plausible that she shouldn’t feature in the overall narrative arc of the book. And a vaguely action-y, competent Marian is almost guaranteed to be a firm favourite character of mine.

Ah well. Still a lovely read. And provides us with weird and wonderful similes like “his heart as free from care as the yolk of an egg is from cobwebs”. What more can we ask (except Marian)?

Lavinia is fantastic. Le Guin has long been one of my favourite authors, and my notes for this start with the simple phrase: “Compellingly fragmented.” I think that’s pretty accurate. The novel is spun out of the Aeneid, and centres on Lavinia, who according to Virgil became Aeneas’s wife when he reached Italy after the Trojan War.

The untold story of a minor character has a good pedigree as a “hook”. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and its sequels play it very straight. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays with the notion a little bit more. Lavinia confronts fictionality head on – the title character meets and talks with Virgil himself, as his mind wanders during his final illness. It is, in my opinion, a tour de force, “set in Vergil’s semi-mythological, nonhistorical landscape, defined by a poet, not by the patient uncertainties of archeologists”, as Le Guin says in her afterword. A recurring theme is how minor and overlooked a character Lavinia is in the Aeneid – “I thought you were a blonde!” exclaims the Poet. “In truth he gave me nothing but a name, and I have filled it with myself.” “My life is too contingent to lead to anything so absolute as death. I have not enough real mortality.” Virgil’s famous request that the manuscript be burnt is, in Le Guin’s interpretation, his reaction to the omissions that his conversations with Lavinia reveal. “Though all my poet sang was true and is true, yet there are small mistakes in the truth of it, and I have tried to mend those tiny rents in the great fabric as I tell my part in it.” “Not even a poet can speak the whole truth.”

Poetry is the constant, a foreign concept to Lavinia at first but dominating everything. “I remember every word because they are the fabric of my life, the warp I am woven on,” she says, and elsewhere, “it’s not death that allows us to understand one another, but poetry.” Willing suspension of disbelief is made quite impossible when the characters themselves remind us that they are invented, and the reading experience is therefore singular.

I realise that I’ve quoted a lot from the book in this – it’s a habit I have, but in the case of a Le Guin I think it’s justified. “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” I may decline to exegete without support.

From the founding myth of Rome to twentieth century Europe and A Song for Summer. I think this book is also stunning. It’s not about the rise of Nazism, per se, but of course we can’t escape it. But it’s heartwarming and encouraging and wonderful to balance the sense of creeping corruption. The main theme is love, probably, in all its forms; the nobler human sentiments that act as our only antidote to such poisons. Isaac, a secular Jew, is to be taken to safety by the deeply devout Jews who work the waterways, who in the ordinary way would have nothing to do with him, “but Hitler had created a new kind of Jew – someone who existed to be hunted and killed – and these unknown men had accepted him as a brother.” There is a glorious pageant scene which deserves to be read in its entirety and should not be diluted by prior quotation of excerpts. There is wonderful understatement like “Vienna is not a good place for a man fleeing from music”, and an affection for champagne of which I heartily approve. And in reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets before a marital liaison, Bennet considers that “after Number 116 it was impossible not to feel love for someone, and with luck it could be channelled in the direction of an avid wife.”

If this is a book about love, it is also a book about music. The combination is hardly surprising; Twelfth Night was not the first or the last work to speak of them in the same breath. “She did not care for waltzes, but was aware they were considered beneficial for romance.” In a Manx internment camp either based on or intended to be Hutchinson Internment Camp, only Bach’s Mass in B Minor will suffice to give the internees their spirits back. What this drives home, incidentally, is how important it is that music is not the sole preserve of the musically expert; the absurdity of that is highlighted elsewhere:

You’re so right, so absolutely right! The idea of sharing my bed and board with someone who doesn’t understand tritones and enharmonic intervals is absolutely abhorrent to me. I can conceive of nothing more dreadful. I am particularly attached to conversations about enharmonic intervals before breakfast – and species counterpoint too, though in general I prefer to discuss that in my bath.

Yeah. Wonderful book. Unfolds fabulously. No more to say from me.

The Coral Island
Author JM Ballantyne
Published 1858
Pages 177
Best character I actually really like Peterkin.

Lord of the Flies
Author William Golding
Published 1954
Pages 186
Best character Simon. Piggy and Ralph both improve, though.

Wuthering Heights
Author Emily Brontë
Published 1847
Pages 245
Best character Hareton Earnshaw, honestly.

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
Author Howard Pyle
Published 1883
Pages 296
Best character Well it would have been Marian, but… Anyway. Always had a soft spot for Will Scarlet in this.

Author Ursula Le Guin
Published 2008
Pages 287
Best character Virgil. Because come on. He’s Virgil, in his own story. That’s cool.

 A Song for Summer
Author Eva Ibbotson
Published 1997
Pages 280
Best character Leon. Not as he is at first, but as he is by the time the war has started, speaking truth even to the object of his hero-worship.


10 thoughts on “51–56: The Coral Island; Lord of the Flies; Wuthering Heights; The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood; Lavinia; and A Song for Summer

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