Ralph has more pressing concerns in light of this crisis. As the leader, he feels the obligation to lead the way into the unexplored territory at the castle rock, even though he is initially as frightened as everyone else. He even suggests that Jack go first, perhaps daring Jack to live up to his declaration that this is "a hunter's job." Yet Ralph is unable to overlook his own pressing sense of responsibility and takes the lead alone around the cliff. In a credit to the conditioning he received back home, politeness is his default even in this tense moment.
As he is about to embark, Simon mumbles, perhaps in an attempt to comfort him, that he doesn't believe in the beast; Ralph "answered him politely, as if agreeing about the weather. 'No. I suppose not.'" British culture is famed for such civilized reserve in emotional times; by the standards of the society he's left behind, Ralph is a gentleman. The calmness of his reply is also a testament to his strong alliance with reason, further characterizing Ralph as person who values thought and logic.
When Ralph is actually on the path, he "realized with surprise that he did not really expect to meet any beast and didn't know what he would do about it if he did." This realization underscores Ralph's ability to remain calm and realistic in stressful situations. During the showdown with Jack during the morning's assembly, his clearheaded response helped him maintain his authority; the boys found his hope for rescue during this height of fear more appealing than Jack's desire to hunt. Jack self-indulgently seeks the glory of the hunt while Ralph seeks safety for the group, a fact not lost on the other boys at the time.
Inevitably, once Ralph has accepted the obligation that comes with leadership and has made his way alone toward the castle rock, Jack follows. "Couldn't let you do it on your own," he explains, motivated less by concern than by an inability to allow Ralph his full share of glory as a solo explorer. Immediately, Jack claims the area as ideal for a fort and identifies a loose boulder as a weapon. The other boys warm up to Jack's plan right away and prefer to remain there playing fort and feeling secure rather than follow Ralph's command that they all make the journey to the fire site to re-light the fire.
The group's favor swings back and forth from Ralph to Jack ever more rapidly. After the successful hunt led by the swaggering Jack, Ralph in contrast has begun to seem to the boys like the absurd, stodgy authority figures back home. Samneric mock his justifiable anger later when they are out of its reach. "Eric sniggered. 'Wasn't he waxy?' . . . 'Remember old Waxy at school?'" Imitating the schoolmaster they had nicknamed Waxy for consistently waxing angry at his students' classroom antics, Samneric laugh at Ralph as well, despite the fact that their desertion of duty caused his anger and the loss of possible rescue. Perhaps they laugh to dispel their guilt or because their childish perspective has already allowed them to forget the loss they caused. Either way, Ralph's priorities are lost on them.
In this chapter, even Ralph begins to lose sight of his priorities. When he reminds Jack that they need to keep the signal going, he explains "That's all we've got." In the previous chapter, Ralph uses the same phrase about the rules when Jack challenges their usefulness. The rules represent a certain civility of domestic order, which Ralph was hard pressed to create or maintain prior to this current crisis. Now his focus narrows from civility to survival. The smoke signal is truly all they have because he doubts they can kill or control a beast that can't be tracked; all he can hope for now is rescue. Once inside castle rock, however, the area that becomes Jack's domain, a "strange thing happened in his [Ralph's] head. Something flittered there in front of his mind like a bat's wing, obscuring the idea" — the hope for a return to the ponies and tea time of which he dreams. The figure envisioned by Simon of "a human at once heroic and sick" could be a composite of Ralph and Jack. Now getting worn down by the hardships and incomprehensible fears of primitive life and out of reach of the conditioning of civilization, Ralph is gradually becoming infected by the savagery that is rapidly eating away at Jack's humanity.
waxy [Brit. Informal] enraged.
polyp any of various cnidarians, as the sea anemone or hydra, having a mouth fringed with many small, slender tentacles bearing stinging cells at the top of a tubelike body.
plinth a course of brick or stone, often a projecting one, along the base of a wall.
embroil to draw into a conflict or fight; involve in trouble.
diffident lacking self-confidence; timid; shy.