To the Ends of the Earth

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To the Ends of the Earth is the name given to a trilogy of nautical, relational novels—Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989)—that were written by William Golding, and that explore themes of class (assumed status) and man's reversion to savagery when isolated.[not verified in body] The first of the books, Rites, was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1980,[not verified in body] and the trilogy as a whole served as the basis for a 2005 BBC drama series of the same name, directed by David Attwood and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, that aired in the United States in PBS' 2006 season of Masterpiece Theatre.

First edition cover by Cathie Felstead[1]


Rites of Passage (1980), the first book of the trilogy, was awarded the 1980 Man Booker Prize (ahead of Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers).[citation needed]

Plot summaries[edit]

Rites of Passage[edit]

Rites of Passage (1980) is an account of a trip to Australia in the form of a journal written by Edmund Talbot, a young, aristocratic passenger aboard a British warship. Having secured him employment with the Governor of New South Wales, his influential godfather presents Talbot with a journal to record the significant events of the journey. Talbot begins by detailing the passengers and crew members, who encompass a motley yet representative collection of early 19th-century English society. The journal quickly becomes concerned with the downfall of a passenger, the Reverend Colley. Talbot has a somewhat ambiguous role in this; although he quickly assumes a mediator's role between the Reverend and Captain Anderson, the initial problem was caused by Talbot's presumption of preference and status within the group of passengers and, inappropriately, the crew. Ultimately, as the story closes, narrator and principal character Talbot is ambivalent about presenting the account to his godfather, which he fears may not show him in the best light. Ultimately, he does not consider that he has a choice, and eventually he has the journal sealed so he cannot tamper with it.[clarification needed]

Close Quarters[edit]

Despite the intervening years between publication of Rites and Close Quarters (1987), the writing continues the account from a point not long after the first journal was completed. Talbot starts the new journal in a different tone, as this edition would not be presented to his godfather.The book describes the romantic feelings of a clearly unwell Talbot, for a young woman whom he meets on a different ship they come across, HMS Alcyone, and describes his fears about the seaworthiness of his own ship and its ability to complete the journey. The book has a more traditional structure with chapter breaks at dramatic moments (rather than the day by day account presented in Rites).

Fire Down Below[edit]

Fire Down Below (1989) closed the trilogy with a description of the ever-more perilous voyage (given the old ship and old charts), of Talbot's maturing and his growing admiration for the Prettimans, of the rivalry between the two principal officers, Summers and Benét, for Captain Anderson's respect and trust, and of the conclusion to Edmund's affaire de coeur with Miss Chumley. Much detail is given on ever-more frantic measures to repair the ship and steer it towards Australia.

Literary themes[edit]

Rites of Passage is characterized by the theme of class division, in particular, the assumption of a higher status by individuals than is warranted.[citation needed] As well, in Rites, the leitmotiv of proper gentlemanly conduct is explored in the often stormy friendship of Talbot with one of the officers, Lieutenant Summers, who sometimes feels slighted by Talbot's ill-thought-out comments and advice.[citation needed] Like many of Golding’s books, Rites also looks at man's reversion to savagery in the wake of isolation.[citation needed]

Miniseries adaptation[edit]

We found Benedict Cumberbatch fairly early. We needed a very good actor, someone young enough to be believable as an aristocratic, an almost slightly dislikeable character who is an adolescent in terms of his views of the world, his upbringing. But we also needed someone who could hold the screen for four and half hours, in every scene. We needed someone with experience who was not only a very good actor, but also with terrific comic timing. Benedict was the ideal answer to that.

Director of To the Ends of the Earth David Attwood[2]

In 2005 the books were adapted as a BBC drama serial, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The miniseries, named To The Ends of the Earth, was directed by David Attwood. It also aired in the United States on PBS as part of Masterpiece Theatre in 2006.

The third part of the trilogy, which is set in 1812, indulges in some historical inaccuracy by having Captain Arthur Phillip as Governor of New South Wales when he was leader of the colony from 1788 to 1792. By 1812 there had been three intervening Governors and the then incumbent was Lieutenant Colonel Lachlan Macquarie.

The series received very good reviews. The Guardian said, "The performances are superb ... The best TV drama of the year by a nautical mile."[3]


  1. ^ "Modern first editions". Retrieved 24 May 2016. 
  2. ^ "Masterpiece Theatre - To the Ends of the Earth - Production Notes". Retrieved 24 May 2016. 
  3. ^ "Masterpiece Theatre - To the Ends of the Earth". Retrieved 24 May 2016. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Booker Prize recipient
Succeeded by
Midnight's Children