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A sea trilogy by Sir William Golding: to the ends of the earth

Introduction to the author: Sir William Golding

William Golding is one of the most remarkably gifted and foremost writers from Britain. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1983. He was knighted in 1988. He also won the Booker Prize in1980 for Rites of Passage, which was the first part of his “sea trilogy”. The trilogy is collectively also known as “To the Ends of the Earth”.

The second book of the trilogy, Close Quarters, was published in 1987 and the third book, Fire Down Below, was published a few years later. His sea trilogy is an impressive and illuminating work to pore over, for readers across the globe. The BBC also created a three-part drama series based on it.

Lord of the Flies, is, however, one of his most famous novels. It has an interesting history in terms of its acceptance for publication and translation into various languages. His oeuvre includes The Scorpion God, Darkness Visible, Pincher Martin, The Inheritors and many other novels. He also wrote several non-fiction books, a few essay collections, plays, poems and a few travel journals.

Prior to becoming a writer, Golding had been a small-boat sailor, a schoolteacher and even had an association with music and acting. His formal education was at Marlborough Grammar School in England and then Brasenose College, Oxford.

Born in Cornwall in England in 1911, he passed away in the same place in 1993. His works are copyrighted and looked after by William Golding Limited. More about Golding’s life and works can be read about on their website.

Following is an analysis and review of the three books that make up the sea trilogy, “To the Ends of the Earth”.

Rites of Passage

A classic, Rites of Passage, the first of the trilogy, is an absorbing narrative of a young man’s journey on a ship from England to Australia. The story is set in the early 19th century when the young aristocrat Edmund Talbot sets sail aboard a rundown warship. He sails almost like a representative of His Lordship, a high-ranking official in England, whose name is not mentioned but whose importance in the minds of the reader and the narrator is conveniently carved throughout the novel. With a recommendation from his godfather, that is, his Lordship, Edmund is set to take up a new and important position of employment in Australia.

The protagonist maintains a journal through this sea journey, recording his observations, his experiences, the people he meets, the people he likes or dislikes, his own antiques and myriad other events. Addressed to his godfather, it becomes a record of the unravelling events on the ship.

In the narrowed and secluded setting of a large vessel, his initial experiences are humorous. However, underneath lie some of the real and sad workings of life, as might be expected on a ship that has set sail for a very long journey, with its many passengers, the attendants, poor emigrants and a score of crew members. The crew members, such as the first lieutenants, who initially do not know each other, but gradually begin to, are also a significant part of the plot.

In the journal, Edmund’s own acclimatisation to the ship follows a sometimes fast and often a slow pace, as he discovers the many goings-on on board. He at first comes across as an impulsive and arrogant man, owing to his high-class connections and lofty behaviour. However, his instant repentance, afterthoughts and empathy, as opposed to the dictatorial attitude of the captain of the ship, Mr Anderson, would, perhaps, draw many readers to his side. Captain Anderson is a tyrannical man, who finds himself vexed when bombarded with the detailed knowledge of Edmund’s journal.

Edmund also acquaints himself with the austere co-passenger, Miss Granham. Wheeler and Phillips are the two principal attendants to the cabin passengers. Deverel and Charles Summers are the two lieutenants. Cumbershum and Oldmeadow are two of the other crew members. Some of the passengers also include the old painter Mr Brocklebank, his wife and their daughter, Zenobia.

In a hamlet of such varied characters, there are many accounts of seasickness and injuries and, more severely, instances where hierarchical lines are drawn and people are bifurcated on the basis of class and occupation, and a flurry of events ensues from their almost restricted co-mingling and interactions.

Edmund Talbot portrays with wit and humour, his delicate and astute observations of the people and occurrences on the old ship. However, as the story progresses, irreverence and indifference, become the cause of an empathy-inducing denouement. Humour turns into deprivation brought on by an initially undetected cruelty. Edmund Talbot and his acquaintances open up spaces where a certain story with a dark underside shapes itself.

Trapped in the complicated patterns of obsequiousness and vulnerability, Reverend Colley, a shy and often ignored character, becomes a source of mockery for many. Colley seeks out Talbot for help. However, whether Talbot helps him or not is a revelation the novel proffers in detail.

Edmund Talbot’s heart is in the right place, but perhaps more action from him could have diverted some of the ensuing horrors. In a state of sheer loneliness and humiliation, people sometimes become more vulnerable, acknowledging less the vices they see of others and becoming more sensitive to the atrocities heaped on them while ignoring their own strengths. As a result, one man dies aboard the ship. And another man simply disappears.

Rites of Passage is a journal-like novel, maintained by a basically naïve but good person, “Lord Talbot”, as he is referred to by some of the people on the ship. His deeds, however, are not untainted. They are smeared with ignorance. Not only is he to blame for apathy and unconcern, but so are some of the other crew members.

William Golding’s knowledge of theatre, his experiences as a sailor, all serve to bring smidgens of reality and fact into the first part of the trilogy. It is, in its actions, dialogues, in feelings and emotions and conversations that much of the episodes developing on board, come to light. A unique and unconventional storyline, bordering on and merging with adventure, emotions, justice, fear, embarrassment and learning, start the trilogy and pull the reader in.

The language of the novel is exceptional in its usage and style. Within the narrative, however, there is much sadness, strife and suddenness to everything that unfolds. The story in Rites of Passage is a reflection of the repercussions of human indifference and the desire to inflict harm upon another.

This award-winning book is an open window staring out at the vicious rituals and illustrations of inhumanity, which could mar the very pious essentiality of life. However, in all of this, there is still goodness, marked by sudden consequential and helpful action. It is in this circle of the good and the bad that the “articulate Talbot’s journal” brings to life his days at sea and the events he sees, which he becomes an unknowingly and sometimes intentional part of. Rites of Passage is just the beginning, as Edmund still has more to see and note.

Close Quarters

In the second part of the series, it is apparent that Reverend Colley’s memories and the unfortunate experiences he has to face, still linger in Edmund’s mind. Carity of a different kind, however, lifts the veil from the events unfolding across the ship.

As Edmund has filled his journal, he acquires a new one for the next round of events and addresses it differently this time; and it is not to his godfather. Ennui could eclipse the mind of a traveller on a long voyage, but this consistent journalling, fills a void. The ship’s destination also becomes further transparent.

Tarpaulin language, nautical terminology, language of the 19th-century seamen and landsmen, become a device in the hands of a masterful author. The reader cannot escape the nautical style and vocabulary the author engages in throughout.

Deeper issues addressed in the first part, like those of hierarchy, tyranny and the many human foibles and strengths, come to the fore in this narration. Captain Anderson has his idiosyncrasies, prejudices and biases, and he and Edmund do not get along too well. Charles Summers, his first lieutenant, cannot disobey his captain; even so, a friendship between Edmund and Summers develops in Close Quarters, but due to the unfavourable situations that arise, they also drift slightly apart.

Midshipmen and other crew constantly weave in and out of the narrative, forging together a clear view of the confined settings and the reciprocity that accrues between them. An adventure awaits - another ship, called Alcyon - approaches, causing anxiety throughout the ship as to whether its approach is a friendly one.

The incidents that ensue are best kept a secret. However, there is preparation for battle; worry, angst and love following in tow. Edmund, however, ends up changing his present berth, in the fo’c’sle, to offer separate accommodation to a woman he falls in love with from the other ship. But Marion, that is, Miss Chumley, the woman in question, under the circumstances, cannot accept it. To make things worse, Marion and Edmund’s new and blossoming friendship is cut short, and Edmund hurts himself accidentally.

A portion of the journal-cum-novel chronicles Edmund’s inability to forget Marion and his questioning of the new arrival from Alcyon to the warship, the golden-haired Frenchman, Mr Benet, on account of his acquaintanceship with Marion. Al this, after Alcyon departs.

Mr Benet, reveals less, and obscures more, not only with abstract verses, but also on account of his generally clever nature. He also displays his shrewdness after acquiring an unlikely closeness with the stern Captain Anderson and thereby, with cunning, overshadowing the hard-working and obedient, Charles Summers. Neither does Mr Benet assuage Edmund’s curiosity about his personal association with Marion Chumley.

Edmund, however, does recover from his injuries, as events unfold. He springs back somewhat from his love for Marion, slowly, only to be a witness to his attendant Wheeler’s unnatural death, especially when the ship is under the threat of sinking, as a result of earlier inadvertent damage to it. Wheeler, the man who waits upon Edmund, might cause a flood of sympathy in some readers, for his tragic fate.

Despite everything, however, the story moves forward. The second part of the sea trilogy has as unnatural a thrill and adventure as could be found in a closed setting such as a ship on a long voyage, and its literally out-of-the-blue-encounter with an unknown vessel. Humour in particular passages and scenes continue to enshroud the most decrepit state of affairs onf the ship.

Some characters, like Mr and Mrs Pike, and other important ones lend the story its frailties. Miss Granham, the stoic governess, mellows her earlier severe stance toward Talbot. Edmund sounds mature, but is really a young man, whose reaction to matters of the heart renders him weak. Summers and Edmund regain a somewhat lost friendship, almost at the end of this book.

Golding, in this part of the series, enunciates myriad emotions running through a man’s mind, elucidating his abilities and inabilities. Whether it is a stubborn captain, a hard-working midshipman, an obedient lieutenant, or any seafarer, the fears and joys of men, women and children aboard a ship sailing to Sydney harbour, become the basis of the narrative.

Finally, in the postscript, the ending to the trilogy makes a brief appearance. Edmund Talbot’s ambition as a writer sparks here. Although he admits his second journal ends abruptly, to the reader that may or may not be the case. It ends on a note of friendship, one that was once lost, but is recovered. There is still the possibility the old ship may sink, as thick seaweed hinders its movement. The crew are constantly at work, for the vessel must arrive at its intended destination.

Fire Down Below

As the title of the third part of the series suggests, it has an allegorical and metaphorical meaning and forms the crux of the last series of events. Edmund has a third change of lodging on board and then a re-shifting. In several other instances, including this requisite change of berth, his good friend, Charles Summers comes to his rescue. The narrator also acquires milder and wiser characteristics over the course of the voyage.

Miss Granham marries a senior crew member, Mr Prettiman, on the ship. This couple, who did not have Edmund’s complete focus in the previous two books, although he did gain respect for the former Miss Granham, become the two people he grows close to, even nearly harms, but fortuitously and indirectly he ends up assisting the ailing Mr Prettiman in a recovery of sorts.

Edmund is also surprised by many of the concurrent episodes preceding and succeeding this, on account of his assuming certain responsibilities and because of his close association with Mr and Mrs Prettiman and the resultant gaining of their trust and friendship.

The burgeoning and firm friendship between Charles Summers and Edmund Talbot, on the other hand, occupies much of the other sections of the narrative. Edmund, on several occasions, refers to Glaucus and Diomedes, two characters from the Iliad, to vocalisze in certain aspects the friendship he had come to deeply care about. Fire Down Below therefore, sets the reader up for an appreciation of loyalty and bonding and attaches them to this pair of friends, through the course of the latter part of their voyage from England to Australia. Against the backdrop of a shimmering navy blue sky and the dark sea, at night, a friendship, therefore, gains momentum. The old and damaged ship, too, somehow courses along.

However, Mr Benet’s risky ingenuity, supported by Captain Anderson’s orders against the better judgement of Charles Summers, causes hostility to develop between the two factions formed on the ship. Edmund and Charles continue to support each other and are in the same faction, without voicing it loudly though, whereas Mr Benet continues to put into practice his influence over Captain Anderson.

In addition to the problems caused by groupings, classifications and an inability, on the part of the cruel and daredevil captain, to perceive situations without partiality or to administer wise authority, the ship later draws close to a possible calamitous demise, first at the hands of a storm and followed by a probable fatal collision with a giant iceberg. Mr. Jones, the purser, perishes, while attempting to escape from the ship, but Lord Talbot’s firkin, in his hands, containing Edmund’s journals and some souvenirs from other passengers onboard, survives.

The journals being written, in three parts, by Edmund Talbot do have an ending. Questions such as “Does the ship and its occupants survive?”, “What happens to the ambitions of the two friends, Edmund and Charles, or does it all perish with the ship?”, “If they do survive, then does Edmund finally find his love, Marion, whom he had lost in the second novel?” and other such queries and answers to them are revealed in the imaginative renderings of this last part of the trilogy.

The third book is the culmination of the series of events that Edmund Talbot becomes a part of during the year-long voyage. Nevertheless, the cunning of Mr Benet and Captain Anderson might grip the reader in the end, as well. It is also in a pool of unexpected possibilities that Edmund Talbot’s fate finally delivers him, which could partially shock or unnerve an unwary reader. However, it is for readers to glean whether the outcome befits the earlier outpouring narrative.

The tragedy, romance and comedy of this sea trilogy, marked by brilliant language and the closing of gaps between the readers and the strange but soon to be familiar characters make it a piece of fiction worthy of every adventurous and exploring reader’s interest and engagement.


The first book is intense in its portrayal of human atrocity and ignominy. The second novel shifts from melancholy, apathy and horror, to romance and changes. The third book verges on a deepening of relationships and adventure. The first book sets the pace for the next two. The trilogy is marvellous, with its unexpected twists and turns.

One sees here an enlargement of perceptions, a change in the mannerisms of people, their interactions and their behaviour in times of stress and upset. Expectations should be set aside while the reader turns the pages to discover what lies within. Every enthusiastic reader who loves nautical stories and has not read Sir William Golding’s works before should reach out for this incredible series.

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Photo: The three books of the Sea Trilogy by Sir William Golding, (c) Trisha Bhattacharya

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