Great Books: William Golding’s The Spire

  • Themes: Great Books

The social hierarchy of medieval cathedral building is the jumping-off point for Golding’s masterly exploration of faith, delusion and obsession.

Salisbury Cathedral at dawn
Salisbury Cathedral at dawn. Credit: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

What does it take to build a cathedral? What great feats of will and faith are necessary to construct something that does justice to God? Where might we need to cajole, to beg, to flaunt authority and to sin in pursuit of that higher goal? These questions are answered — and plenty more posed — in The Spire by William Golding; perhaps the greatest work of historical fiction of the twentieth century.

British writer and Nobel laureate Golding is known best for his 1954 Lord of the Flies; a story of paranoia and social breakdown amongst a group of prepubescent boys stranded on a desert island. His later novel, The Spire, published in 1964, takes a radically different world, the social hierarchy of medieval cathedral building, and creates a similarly closed and fraught context in which to probe the depths of the human psyche.

The novel is centred on Jocelin, the dean of an unspecified English cathedral. Jocelin is wholly overcome by a drive to build a huge spire atop the unfinished crossing tower of the cathedral. His wayward, worldly Aunt Alison — a former mistress of the king — is willing to front the costs of the construction project, hoping to gain her place in heaven by expending her earthly lucre. Her lover had promised her a grave in the royal chapel at Winchester, a promise now broken, and Alison hopes Jocelin might provide her final resting place. To fulfil his dream, Jocelin ensnares the services of Roger Mason, a talented master-builder with an ‘army’ of labourers, who roam about the country, in search of building projects with good pay.

For Jocelin, his vision to build the spire is a manifestation of divine inspiration, the wholly necessary task of curing the sin of the world by continuing the project of the previous builders of the cathedral:

He would stand, thinking with what accuracy and inspiration those giants had built the place, because the gargoyles seemed to burst out of the stone like boils or pimples, purging the body of sickness, ensuring by their self-damnation, the purity of the whole.

But he is not without opponents. Those he thought friends in the hierarchy of the church are dismayed at the disruption to the work of faith brought by the project, which brings rain and floods right into the heart of the cathedral. This is the medieval building site as it really was: constantly threatening to succumb to muck and mire, dust and smoke. The caretaker Pangall, whose family had cared for the cathedral for generations, fears the violence and the lust of Roger Mason and his army. Even Mason doubts that the spire can be built, taking every opportunity to point out the structural impossibility of the work, attempting to abandon the project, but always bound back by Jocelin’s indomitable will.

Golding’s vision of structural precarity was a common problem in medieval cathedrals. They were not typically built in a single campaign, masterminded by a single designer, as we usually envisage architecture today. Instead, they were the product of centuries: as the availability of funds, labour, materials, and craftspeople waxed and waned. This accretive process of construction often posed major structural headaches. High vaults and thrusting towers were often built decades after the laying of foundations. Working structural knowledge was equally accretive, built up across generations of good practice, and always threatening to be overturned by catastrophe.

Many spectacular failures of cathedral structures took place during the medieval period. On the boggy fenland at Ely, in England’s Cambridgeshire, the Norman crossing tower collapsed in February 1322, leaving its architect Alan of Walsingham ‘grieving vehemently and overcome with sorrow.’ The tower was replaced by a lighter wooden octagonal lantern, which gives the crossing at Ely its remarkable brightness. In 1311, after several major collapses, England’s Lincoln Cathedral finally became the tallest building in the world, with a central spire standing at 525 feet. It survived until the mid-sixteenth century, when it was brought down during a particularly stormy season. Beauvais Cathedral, in northern France, has the highest vault in the world, but is only a third of its intended length, because every attempt to build a nave dramatically failed.

What would it take to build like this? To overcome every justified and rational fear that man shouldn’t go so high. As one labourer says of Roger Mason in The Spire, ‘He’s drunk and he’s crazy. But then, you have to be crazy to build as high as this.’ For Golding, the motivation is more complex and tortured than simple faith. Jocelin’s fixation on the cathedral is wholly bodily. The critic Raymond Carter Sutherland claimed the book lacked a ‘genuinely medieval spirit’ instead holding ‘a concentration on a certain type of dark sexuality which comes only after Freud.’ But we hardly need to be seasoned psychoanalysts to see something a little phallic in these vast erections. Jocelin’s feverish fixation on the building work in the novel is a deferral of his lust for Pangall’s wife Goody, whose red hair and holy innocence inspire a specific sort of devotion.

Over the course of the The Spire, we come to infer that Jocelin is succumbing to spinal tuberculosis. As the construction progresses, he imagines himself embodying the cathedral, and feels the searing pain of the whole church weighing upon him. As construction on the tower grows, the great piers of the crossing tower begin to bow, and the stones emit a high-pitched whine. Jocelin believes that his mastery of physical pain is integral to keeping the cathedral standing up.

The singing of the stones pierced him, and he fought it with jaws and fists clenched. His will began to burn fiercely and he thrust it into the four pillars, tamped it in with the pain of his neck and his head and his back, welcomed in some obscurity of feeling the wheels and flashes of light, and let them hurt his open eyes as much as they would … he knew that the whole weight of the building was resting on his back.

This is Jocelin’s vision. Not solely of a mighty project for the glory of God, but a project with him at the centre, literally reliant on his bodily strength.

As the book marches on, Jocelin’s dedication manifests itself in ever more vivid and hallucinogenic fixations, and all around him the catastrophes pile up. The masons, terrified of the impossible task foisted on them, turn to Pagan practices to protect themselves, leading to the implied sacrificial murder of Pangall in the foundations of the crossing. Meanwhile Roger Mason, succumbing to suicidal alcoholism at Jocelin’s impossible demands, adulterously pursues Goody, who in turn dies in childbirth. At a crescendo of self-doubt and derangement Jocelin discovers that his deanship was only won at the connivance of his Aunt Alison, the product of a post-coital word in the king’s ear.

Despite all of these ill omens, Jocelin refuses to desist from his path. The project is self-justificatory; the symptoms of his bodily and mental collapse only proof of its divine necessity. The catastrophes serve as proof that out of a fallen world, through feats of faith and will, mankind might achieve the truly divine.

I had to build in faith, against advice. That’s the only way. But when you build like this, men blunt like a poor chisel or fly off like the head of an axe. I was too taken up with my vision to consider this; and the vision was enough.

Where they didn’t collapse, the achievements of medieval cathedral-builders stand as testament to these singular visions today. It is, I think, ontologically impossible to truly conjure exactly what it must have felt like to be a medieval person holding witness to these triumphs. In the twelfth century, the chronicler Gervase of Canterbury wrote: ‘All this, if one wishes to understand it, will be revealed more clearly by the sight of the church than by words.’ We are lucky that so many of these grand achievements survive today, even if we can no longer see them exactly as their makers did. The Spire is a remarkable novel that conjures, in its own idiosyncratic way, the great feats of will required to build such monuments.


Matthew Lloyd Roberts