Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies was Golding's first novel. The idea came about after Golding read what he deemed to be an unrealistic depiction of stranded children in youth novels like The Coral Island: a Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1857) by R. M. Ballantyne, and asked his wife, Ann, if it would "be a good idea if I wrote a book about children on an island, children who behave in the way children really would behave?" As a result, the novel contains various references to The Coral Island, such as the rescuing naval officer's description of the boys' initial attempts at civilised cooperation as "a jolly good show, like the Coral Island". Golding's three central characters (Ralph, Piggy, and Jack) have also been interpreted as caricatures of Ballantyne's Coral Island protagonists.
The manuscript was rejected by many publishers before finally being accepted by London-based Faber & Faber; an initial rejection by the "professional reader" at Faber labelled the book an "Absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atomic bomb on the colonies and a group of children who land in the jungle near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless". However, Charles Monteith decided to take on the manuscript and worked with Golding to complete several fairly major edits, including the removal of the entire first section of the novel, which had previously described an evacuation from nuclear war. As well as this, the character of Simon was heavily redacted by Monteith, including the removal of his interaction with a mysterious lone figure who is never identified but implied to be God. Monteith himself was concerned about these changes, completing "tentative emendations", and warning against "turning Simon into a prig". Ultimately, Golding made all of Monteith's recommended edits and wrote back in his final letter to his editor that "I've lost any kind of objectivity I ever had over this novel and can hardly bear to look at it." These manuscripts and typescripts are now available from the Special Collections Archives at the University of Exeter library for further study and research. The collection includes the original 1952 "Manuscript Notebook" (originally a Bishop Wordsworth's School notebook) containing copious edits and strikethroughs.
With the changes made by Monteith and despite the initial slow rate of sale (about three thousand copies of the first print sold slowly), the book soon went on to become a best-seller, with more than ten million copies sold as of 2015. It has been adapted to film twice in English, in 1963 by Peter Brook and 1990 by Harry Hook, and once in Filipino by Lupita A. Concio (1975).
The book begins with the boys' arrival on the island after their plane has been shot down during what seems to be part of a nuclear World War III. Some of the marooned characters are ordinary students, while others arrive as a musical choir under an established leader. With the exception of Sam, Eric, and the choirboys, they appear never to have encountered each other before. The book portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves on a paradisiacal island, far from modern civilization, the well-educated boys regress to a primitive state.