Content warning: racism, including quoting the N-word
The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.
Stripped of a name, our hero begins. What follows will be built up from nothing from a blank start, with only human nature to guide.
It's worth pointing out that Lord of the Flies is, for all its artistic merits, a fundamentally racist book. The English boys revert to a state of savagery without the saving elements of civilisation, and this is explicitly racialised: Piggy, the voice of 'sense', yells 'Which is better - to be a pack of painted niggers like you are or to be sensible like Ralph is?', and his cry creates a moment of thematic climax. Civilisation and 'savagery' are diametrically opposed here: the idea that jungle hunters might have a civilisation of their own that merely differs from English culture is simply not part of the book's thinking. There is civilisation, and there is Other, and children revert to Other when exposed to tropical conditions and removed from adults. It may be the 'darkness of man's heart', as the final page has it ... but the very phrase evokes Heart of Darkness, published fifty years before, and Chinua Achebe had plenty to say about that.Jungles are not good for man, whispers the book. For its message to be accepted, we must accept the notion that some people are more 'savage' than others - not just more aggressive, more malicious or more unreflective, but more primitive. Portraying children as savages is the cultural brother of portraying 'savages' as children.
In the light of all this, it is significant that the first thing we hear about Ralph, the first words of the book, are a reference to the colour of his hair. White boys can have many colours of hair, not all of them immediately indicative of whiteness, but Ralph is blond, the fairest of the fair. Without having to state it directly - this is, after all, an elegantly written book - the narrative tells us that we are dealing with Caucasian children.
Caucasian children, but in a tropical setting. As we slide down the rock with Ralph we could be in a forest or on a moor; it's only when we reach the last word that we realise we cannot possibly be in England. 'Lagoon' is positioned for impact, a mild shock. Ralph's hair clashes with his surroundings - and it's notable, too, that he is not entirely at ease in them. He doesn't slide or jump down the rock, but 'lowered himself'; he doesn't walk towards the lagoon but 'pick his way'. He's sure-footed enough to navigate this environment - his physical superiority to Piggy will be quickly demonstrated - but it's the grace of a healthy English schoolboy, cultivated on the playing field and climbing the odd apple tree, carefully used to move through an unfamiliar environment. Ralph is not in his element here, and he never will be. He is strong and neat enough to get through it, but it's the attitude of a civilised boy: mens sana in corpore sano. Keep your feet and keep your head; don't get too comfortable here.
Of course, it's also a storytelling device: Ralph is moving away from a plane crash, already on the go when we see him. The crash itself is the last instant of civilisation, the death of all the adults responsible for the boys, and it is over before the story begins. We will be witnessing the Fall of Man, or at least the fall of boys, and we enter the story at the moment it begins. The boys are, according to the story's notion of children as unsentimental, unconcerned by the crash: it lifts off their memories leaving little trace just as the jungle grows back in the earth it damages, and since it will not be important to them, we do not need to see it. The story will operate in a space that becomes more and more as if there has been nothing before the island with only Ralph and Piggy to insist that there is another life to return to, and the narrative will not help them. Civilisation is only a memory here, and we will see it present only in hints and aftermath. Like the boys, we can only grasp what has preceded the island through half-remembered details and increasingly ambiguous traces.
It's also a character presentation. Ralph, to the annoyance of his rival Jack, is a foresightful boy who rejects immediate delights in the name of the long-term goal of rescue: Ralph is focused on solutions and practical about necessities, and he has staying power. When we first see Ralph, he's already trying to cope with his situation, navigating his way through a hostile environment with deft caution, heading towards the least hostile place he can find. Ralph is relentless in his commitment to order, and in the opening sentence he is working towards it.
This active start makes an interesting narrative mirror to the ending: we begin with Ralph, and we end with Ralph (almost; the last paragraph shows the embarrassed reaction of the rescuer, unable to understand the trauma the boys have undergone), and the sensible boy on the move ends as an overwhelmed boy weeping for 'the end of innocence'. Ralph will struggle for survival right up until the end, will give in to despair only when the arrival of adults makes it safe, but despair will finally get him. He starts by moving towards his goal of 'law and rescue', but by the time it's attained, it will bring nothing but the chance to mourn.
Ralph, in other words, begins the book already carrying the standard of civilisation. He will cling to it with heroic persistence right until the last minute, but will no longer have the conviction that drives him through the first sentence, that 'law' is the natural way to behave. Ralph's fair hair and careful steps are doomed. [ kit whitfield ] (less)
Are you ever worried about offending people? pullman: I think there's a difference between (a) offending people for its own sake, which I don't necessa...moreAre you ever worried about offending people? pullman: I think there's a difference between (a) offending people for its own sake, which I don't necessarily want to do, because some people are good and decent and it would be unkind to upset them simply to indulge my own self-importance, and (b) challenging their prejudices, their preconceptions, or their comfortable assumptions. I'm very happy to do that. But we need to be on our guard when people say they're offended. No one actually has the right to go through life without being offended. Some people think they can say "such-and-such offends me" and that will stop the "offensive" words or behaviour and force the "offender" to apologise. I'm very much against that tactic. No one should be able to shut down discussion by making their feelings more important than the search for truth. If such people are offended, they should put up with it.
Why do you think it's so important that young people read? pullman: For the same reason that I think it's important that they breathe, eat, drink, sleep, run about, fool around, and have people who love and look after them. It's part of what makes us fully human. Some people manage to get through life without reading; but I know that if I'd had to do that, an enormous part of my mind, or my soul if you like, would be missing. No one should be without the chance to let their soul grow.
If you've read any Tolkien, what do you like about the way he writes? Did it inspire you to write any of your books? pullman: I read The Lord of the Rings when I was 18 – I read it greedily, lapping it up, eager for more. But I haven't read it since then, though I've tried. It doesn't satisfy me any more, and I think that's because Tolkien, who created this marvellous vehicle, doesn't go anywhere in it. He just sits where he is. What I mean by that is that he always seems to be looking backwards, to a greater and more golden past; and what's more he doesn't allow girls or women any important part in the story at all. Life is bigger and more interesting than The Lord of the Rings thinks it is. (joe's comment: ♥)
Despite its big overseas earnings, the novel-based film The Golden Compass might not be followed by a sequel following its disappointing run in the United States last year due in part to boycott calls by Christian conservatives.
Before its release, The Golden Compass received heavy criticism from some faith-based organizations for the source material's anti-Christian and atheistic themes, as well as from secular organizations and fans of His Dark Materials for the dilution of the religious elements from the novels.
While the film was successful overseas, making around $300 million, it made only $70 million in the United States, which some attributed to the boycotting of the film.