Ahoy There, Mateys! Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island

“John Silver,” he said, “you’re a prodigious villain and imposter—a monstrous imposter, sir. I am told I am not to prosecute you. Well then, I will not. But the dead men, sir, hang about your neck like mill-stones.”

“Thank you kindly, sir,” replied Long John, again saluting.

The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson was born into a family of lighthouse engineers, a heritage that provided him with a solid middle class upbringing. The family’s financial stability proved fortunate, since that meant they could keep the young boy provided with a steady diet of books, necessary since Stevenson was a sickly child, frequently bedridden, which made it difficult for him to fit into school and find friends. He found his comfort in stories, both in those books and in making up his own tales. Despite their not very secret hopes that Stevenson would follow his father into the lighthouse business, his parents encouraged his storytelling, and accepted his later refusal to work as an engineer or in the other field he received training in, law.

His parents also encouraged him to travel in hopes of improving his health. These travels gave him further material for a series of essays that helped pay basic bills, sparked his love of adventure, and led him to his beloved wife, Fanny, who shared his love of adventure and travel. Fanny was technically married, though separated, when they met, but eventually agreed to legalize her divorce from her husband and marry Stevenson.

Fanny had two children from that previous marriage, Isobel and Lloyd Osborne. Stevenson became close to both, especially Lloyd, who, like Stevenson, loved to create maps of imaginary islands. Their interactions led Stevenson to decide to write a story for boys. With those maps in front of him, and with what I can only assume was a complete lack of awareness of ninjas, he naturally chose to write a book about pirates.

The result began to appear, in serialized format, in Young Folks in 1881, before finally being collected and published in 1883. It was an immediate success, possibly thanks to that serialized format, which kept young readers engaged through an ongoing series of cliffhangers, or possibly thanks to Stevenson’s decision to ruthlessly cut nearly everything not directly related to plot. By “nearly everything” I mean character development, descriptions (a flowery phrase here and there remains, and Stevenson provides just enough information to let readers get the geography, but that’s about it) or the usual moral messages included in most children’s fiction of the time, apart from the occasional warning about the dangers of drinking too much, warnings considerably overshadowed by the continuous drinking and singing about rum. (I have no proof of this, but it’s possible that the occasional “rum will kill you!” message was an editorial insertion to counteract all of the rum and brandy talk.)

Also deliberately eliminated: pretty much all women, apart from the narrator’s mother, who vanishes after the first of six parts. This was partly because Stevenson was writing a wish fulfillment story for young boys, and partly to eliminate all hints of romance from the book—something that, in his experience, bored young readers.

So what’s left? Just PIRATES. And treasure. And plenty of proper PIRATE TALK with various people saying things like “YOU SHIRKING LUBBERS,” “SHIVER MY SOUL,” and “SHIVER MY TIMBERS” and “SPLIT MY SIDES I’VE A SICK HEART TO SAIL WITH THE LIKES OF YOU” followed by a round or two of singing “YO HO HO AND A BOTTLE OF RUM!” which all sounds properly authentic and piratey even though it totally isn’t.

(In saying this, I am aware that I am crushing everyone’s childhood images of pirates, but scholarly research has, alas, confirmed that real pirates never talked like that. If you need to go get chocolate to help you deal, I understand. This post will be waiting for you when you get back.)

It’s also filled with death and constant danger and important discussions about how long men can hold out in a stockade if they are fighting buccaneers and gun fights and men vanishing mysteriously, probably overboard, and corpses on ship decks and conversations about ghosts (alas, no actual ghosts; this is, after all, supposed to be a “true” story) and men marooned for years on isolated islands who may have gone slightly insane as a result and of course treasure and gold from every country in the world, in a section where Stevenson reveals his fascination with numismatics.

Most of the book is narrated by Jim Hawkins, a boy who, judging by the illustrations and the text, is probably about fourteen or fifteen—just old enough to make most of his adventures somewhat probable, even if I couldn’t help feeling just a touch of skepticism over some of the stuff he does with his good ship Hispaniola, while just young enough to be someone young readers could easily identify with. The use of this first person narrator leads to some great moments, as when Jim loads himself up with a brace of pistols, ammunition, and biscuits:

I was a fool, if you like, and certainly I was going to do a foolish, over-bold act; but I was determined to do it with all the precautions in my power. These biscuits, should anything befall me, would keep me, at least, from starving till far on the next day.

First, Jim, this “should anything befall me” could also include your death, in which case, biscuits, not useful, especially since, second, Jim, you’re not going to starve after one day without biscuits. Bring water instead. It’s hot in the Caribbean.

Sure enough, a few chapters later, and Jim’s close to dying of thirst. See, Jim?

But mostly, Jim works as an effective wish fulfillment device: a hard-working, intelligent kid who by a series of increasingly improbable events just happens to get to sail the high seas with some pirates and come home with enough treasure to set him up for life.

Largely to avoid later tedious explanatory dialogue, the rest of the book is narrated by the considerably less effective Dr. Livesey. Part of the problem is that Dr. Livesey is considerably older; a larger problem is that Dr. Livesey sounds remarkably like Jim. It’s very safe to say that Stevenson was more interested in pirate adventures than in creating distinctive narrative voices in this book.

But what makes the book come alive is not the narrators, or the adventures, or even the piratey dialogue, but rather Long John Silver, a genial, one-legged man with a parrot who insists—insists—that he is just a friendly cook. Some later American entrepreneurs decided to take Mr. Silver at his word, naming what they hoped would be a genial, friendly chain of fast food restaurants after him. Alas, our Mr. Silver is not entirely wedded, shall we say, to the truth. At one point, indeed, he even assures us that he’s “not a boasting man”—right before spending several paragraphs telling us what an awesome guy he is. and as it turns out, Mr. Silver—and his gossipy parrot—are just a touch more than they seem. So it should perhaps not startle you too much to find out that Mr. Silver is a bit more than just a friendly one-legged cook.

How much of this was planned from the beginning, and how much came from Stevenson not being able to resist the image of a delightfully friendly, one-legged cook and his parrot stomping around and murdering people, is difficult to tell. But Long John Silver’s amiable habit of switching sides and casually murdering whenever it’s convenient, which is often, does serve to march the plot swiftly along, and the pages without him can be—how can I put this—rather dull.

That’s just one reason why Treasure Island cannot be called completely successful. Stevenson occasionally overuses the pirate cant, making portions of the book a little mind-numbing. One or two bits of the plot have, shall we say, suspiciously convenient elements. For instance, one of the few things the marooned Ben Gunn wants—or claims to want—is cheese. As it turns out, the doctor just happens to be carrying Parmesan cheese around in his snuff box (he adds that it’s very nutritious), which (a) seriously? (b) yuck, (c) who puts Parmesan cheese in a snuff box? It belongs on spaghetti and pizza, people, and (d) how did we not hear about this Parmesan cheese before this, and, (e) well, that little idiosyncrasy turned out to be awfully convenient, didn’t it? And this is, of course, ignoring the rather amazing coincidence that Jim, the doctor, and the squire just happened, out of all of the potential ship’s cooks in Britain, to encounter and hire Long John Silver. Then again, these are the same sorts of people that never think to question the convenient discovery of a treasure map, or any of the other rather large coincidences in the book. Then again, this all does lead to actual treasure, so perhaps not questioning convenient coincidences has its advantages.

I also strongly object to the characterization of sea lions as “slimy monsters.” Really, Stevenson, was that necessary? Also, I don’t know what sea lions are doing in the Caribbean. Those should be monk or (less likely) harbor seals, though I suppose Jim can be excused for being too distracted at the time to make correct species identifications.

To be fair to Stevenson, he later readily admitted that he wrote the story in a rush, without any pretenses of accuracy, realism, or literary value. He did consult from—and borrow heavily from—multiple books: historical sea tales and accounts of piracy; considerably less historical novels such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; contemporary travel narratives such as At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies by Charles Kingsley, who had been there; and more questionable travel narratives in lurid newspapers by people who had not been there, but who knew how to make the West Indies sound more exciting than Kingsley’s version.

But he also ignored the facts when necessary, and the final result was Stevenson’s own, a pirate book that rapidly became, whatever its questionable foundations, and however occasionally dense its language, the model for fictional pirates everywhere, especially in children’s literature. Peter Pan, for instance, borrowed several images from the book—although Barrie drew the line at the parrot—as did Ruth Plumly Thompson when she decided to tell tales about Pirates in Oz, as did Warner Bros. Pictures when they filmed Captain Blood, and Disney when they created their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Not to mention, of course, the influence of Disney’s 1950 live action Treasure Island adaptation, featuring the perpetually drunk Robert Newton in a deeply over-the-top performance as Long John Silver. Stevenson may have written the story in a rush, without any pretenses to literary value, later saying it was just a story for boys, with “no need for psychology or fine writing,” but in doing so, he had helped to create a literary and later film subgenre.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Stevenson spent his last years on a tropical island in Samoa, dying there at the young age of 44, in the middle of something he hoped would be a great book. Possibly because his tales tend towards the lurid and the adventuresome, and can rarely be called “realistic,” his literary reputation faltered after his death, making a comeback only at the end of the 20th century. Treasure Island, however, remained beloved and popular, a childhood reading staple, and an inspiration for numerous films. Including a Disney animated film with a development history almost as fascinating as the tale that inspired it.

Two quick endnotes. One: several abridged versions of Treasure Island are currently in print: they will spare you some of the pirate dialogue and shiver me timbers and a lot of the fighting stuff at the barricade and a conversation about whether or not a corpse should be left on a boat, which is to say, you will miss most of the point and all of the good stuff. If possible, try to hunt down the original edition: it’s available for free at Gutenberg and through Dover and other publishers. As said, it can be a bit mind-numbing; I can only promise you that Long John Silver is in a lot of it.

Two: parents reading Treasure Island to small children should be aware that it has a pretty high death count. Also, reading it aloud might result in a temporary increase in piratey talk. You’ve been warned.

Treasure Planet, next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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