R.M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island

In writing about The Coral Island and two books that use it as a starting point I have revealed myself to have read Chris Kent’s Coral Island Boys (or the gay porn version). Which is rather a strange book in general but descends into the truly bizarre at the point when Jamie (‘Peterkin Gay’ in the original; one cannot accuse Ballantyne of making things difficult for his parodists) kills a pig. This is an incident that occurs in both books: the other boys return from their unsuccessful hunting expedition to find the youngest triumphant. But in Kent’s version (which I thought it best to leave out of the official column) the narrator notices that Jamie has used the animal for purposes other than food. Then we get this: “My heart went out to the little pig. Not only slain but right royally rogered into the bargain. I hoped Jamie had used the animal before it had given up the ghost. I did not fancy having a pervert in our midst!” (Emphasis mine)


Below, a version of last week’s Left of Cool column in which I discuss Ballantyne’s book and mention Golding’s and Kent’s.


For the third time this year I am going to draw attention to a birth centenary. This time it is that of the author Willian Golding. Golding is best known for Lord of the Flies, a book in which a group of young boys are stranded after a plane crash on an uninhabited island. At first they band together to survive, but power struggles and paranoia take over, they descend into savagery, and a child is killed.

But this column is not about Golding’s book, but about a book that inspired it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s 1857 book The Coral Island has three British boys shipwrecked upon a beautiful Polynesian island. The three find it easy to survive on the island – there are fruits, fish and wild pigs to eat – but though they manage to build a small boat they have little hope of getting home. Yet for a deserted island it seems quite busy, as they are visited first by cannibals, and then by pirates. The three boys heroically save a beautiful young island girl from the cannibals. Ralph, the narrator, is kidnapped by the pirates; one of them, Bloody Bill, he befriends and causes him to repent of his evil deeds. Later the three boys are held prisoner by “savages”, but they are saved by the timely intervention of a missionary; the native islanders are converted to Christianity, heathen gods are burnt, and the boys can finally leave for home. They will reappear in The Gorilla Hunters, where they travel to Africa and are (unsurprisingly, on the evidence of this book) hilariously racist.

It’s possible that at the time, or even for many years afterwards, one could read The Coral Island unironically. But the sheer, one-note goodness of the boys, the muscular Christianity (religious activism alongside a preoccupation with sports and physical fitness) and insistence on the superiority of the English make it seem almost a parody of itself. It doesn’t help that the narrator will occasionally digress into meditations upon such subjects as the moral benefits of cold baths:

The feelings of freshness, of cleanliness, of vigour, and extreme hilarity, that always followed my bathes in the sea, and even, when in England, my ablutions in the wash-tub, were so delightful, that I would sooner have gone without my breakfast than without my bathe in cold water.

Golding’s contention is simple: would a group of teenaged and pre-teen boys really be this saintly, cut off from all forms of social control? With Lord of the Flies he suggests that they would not; and with the multiple references to classic boy’s adventure stories (The Coral Island is mentioned a couple of times and Stevenson’s Treasure Island at least once) he draws attention to the unrealistic aspect of these as well.

But would boys in this situation really only fight? Lord of the Flies is not the only book to be based on The Coral Island. Chris Kent, in his parody Coral Island Boys, takes a different approach – surely, he suggests, a group of young boys in this situation would be tempted into sexual experimentation? Kent’s book is an uncomfortable read, being as it is a work of pornography featuring characters, many of whom are children or teenagers. But I am forced to wonder to what extent my discomfort is hypocritical – while reading Ballantyne’s book I certainly giggled at some rather homoerotic moments. Kent’s parody only recognises and magnifies things that are already in the text.

An aspect of The Coral Island that is rarely touched on is the baffling appearance of a flock of penguins. There is no explanation of why penguins should spend so much time on an island whose climate is more conducive to growing coconut trees. It will remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Having said all of which, The Coral Island remains rather charming. Robinson Crusoe-style shipwreck-survival stories are always fun, and Ballantyne’s descriptions of the island are about as good as anything you’re likely to see in classic children’s literature.


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