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Islands, missiology and literature

23 August 2018

Old saints on millstones float with cats
To islands out at sea
Whereon no female pelvis can
threaten their agape.

So wrote W.H. Auden in a poem called to mind by re-reading

The Coral IslandThe Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think I read this some time in my childhood, but had lost my copy long ago, and when I saw a copy on the toss-out counter of a church bookshop I picked it up and re-read it, mainly in order to compare it with Lord of the Flies, whose plot I do remember, though I first read it a long time ago too.

I had often heard it said that Lord of the Flies was a kind of realistic retelling of the story of The Coral Island, but it was only on re-reading the latter that I realised that the two main characters had the same names. And I also realised how much I had forgotten of the story. Virtually the only thing I recalled was my mental picture of the island on which they landed, and I had a vague recollection that the boys in The Coral Island were a bit older.

What I had completely forgotten was the extent to which The Coral Island deals with Christian mission and missionaries, especially in the second part, and that links with a current project of mine, on missiology in fiction, which was sparked off by reading Things fall apart | Notes from underground about a month ago.

The main difference between the two island books, it seems to me, is the age of the characters — teenagers in The Coral Island, doing resourceful teenage things that could have come out of Scouting for Boys, if the latter had been published by then. Lord of the Flies has pre-teen children, less resourceful, more easily distracted. And where The Coral Island has savages becoming civilised, thanks to the influence of missionaries, Lord of the Flies has the civilised becoming savages, in the absence of such influences.

The comparison is quite interesting, but I said no more in my review on GoodReads, lest I introduce spoilers, so if you haven’t read any of the books mentioned here, and intend to, stop reading now.

It would be interesting to read those two one after the other, and to follow both up with A High Wind in Jamaica, which starts on an island, but ends on the mainland, at least if you can call the island of Great Britain a mainland.

I also recently acquired a secondhand copy of Pears Cyclopaedia, 1968 edition. That makes it about my vintage, 1968 was my last year as a full-time student. In the Literary Companion section it described Lord of the Flies as an allegory of the fall. I felt rather vindicated by that, as I had said as much in an English I essay, on whether Lord of the Flies was an optimistic or a pessimistic book. The lecturer wrote some sarky comments about approaching books with preconceived notions, which struck me as a bit silly and unfair. If you approach books as a tabula rasa, with no ideas and no experience, what on earth can they say to you?

And both Lord of the Flies and The Coral Island deal with the Fall of Man, though in very different ways. In The Coral Island the island where the boys are marooned is an idyllic paradise, and evil comes to it from the outside, in the form of savages and pirates. The island, protected by its coral reef, is paradise, and evil comes from out there. And the contrast is drawn sharply. The pirates and savages are almost pure evil, with no redeeming features, until the missionaries get hold of the savages. Then the transformation is as instantaneous as it is miraculous. Within two days of the missionary’s preaching, people who were deceitful, treacherous and violent become honest, gentle and peaceful, without exception. I believe R.M. Ballantyne was a Presbyterian, and the total depravity shines through.

In Lord of the Flies the ones who are marooned are schoolboys from a choir school. They to find themselves in a kind of paradise, but in this case the evil does not intrude from outside, but, as in the biblical paradise, it arises unaccountably from within. And it is salvation, not evil, that comes from outside in the end.

In A high wind in Jamaica there are pre-teen children who are captured by pirates, but the pirates are not the pure evil villains of The Coral Island. Instead they are rather shocked by the callousness and sometimes unconsciously evil behaviour of the children. It shows good and evil mingled in all the characters, and often misinterpreted because of cultural differences. Children and adults live in different cultural worlds, as do pirates and respectable citizens of London, and the media.

So there’s another aspect of missiology where I found A High wind in Jamaica very useful: different cultures and different cultural perceptions, but that’s a bit different from the fall. I’ve written about that in Notions of a white or black culture in SA are pure bollocks | Notes from underground.

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