Title: Treasure Island
Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Pages: 298 (Puffin Classics edition)
Spoiler-free Synopsis: When Jim Hawkins discovers a treasure map amongst the effects of his late friend “Cap’n” Billy Bones, he has little idea the trouble and danger it will cause him. With his friends Dr. Livesy and Squire Trelawney joining him, he sails on the Hispaniola as cabin boy, along with the overtly friendly, yet cunning, Long John Silver as the ship’s cook, and a crew of shifty moods and uncertain loyalties on a remarkable and dangerous quest for the buried treasure of the legendary Captain Flint.
Reason for Beginning: It’s a classic about pirates by a legendary Scottish writer. I love classics and pirates. And Scottish writers. (Also, see my intro paragraph under Key Thoughts.)
Reason for Finishing: This is a genuinely exciting, even thrilling, adventure, and probably the best pirate story that has yet been told (or that I’ve yet come across, to be fair about my inexperience).
Story Re-readability: High, I’d reckon. Stevenson’s a master storyteller, and wastes no time with anything that might be uninteresting. The pace is fairly quick, but the characters and plot fleshed out enough, and the turns of event are fascinating not just for plot reasons, but for what they reveal about the characters involved.
Author Re-readability: Robert Louis Stevenson is regarded as one of the three Scottish literary giants, alongside Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns (to them I would add George MacDonald, who doesn’t get nearly their press but deserves to). This is because he tells great stories that can be reread and reread with great satisfaction each and every time.
Recommendation: Yes, for every reader. This book is everything it promises, and a little bit more. It is the definitive pirate story, yet also a deconstruction of the idea of the romantic pirate. It’s a fast-paced boys’ adventure, full of stormy coves, sun-spangled seas, mutinous rogues, and honorable Englishmen, yet also something of a character study and a coming-of-age story. It is tremendously enjoyable, yet sobering upon reflection. It also one of the few books I can find no fault with.
Many moons ago, when I was a bookish third grader, I had to do a book report and art project on Treasure Island. I got an A. I had read only a few chapters of it. So iconic was the story that it had seeped by osmosis into my imagination, and I could easily recap the plot to my teacher’s satisfaction. Finally (actually, much earlier this year), I picked up the book again and read it cover to cover. And I must say, it’s gratifying to read one of the classics—especially one so oft adapted and clearly outlined in the popular imagination—and have the adventure and characters be so fresh, so lively, and so colorful.
Robert Louis Stevenson has some of the most efficient creative prose around; just see how quickly he sketches the character of the wandering, alcoholic ex-pirate Billy Bones:
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking around the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest –
Yo-ho-ho-, and a bottle of rum!’
in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars. Then he rapped on the door with a bit of stick like a handspike that he carried, and when my father appeared, called roughly for a glass of rum. This, when it was brought to him, he drank slowly, like a connoisseur, lingering on the taste, and still looking about him at the cliffs and up at our signboard. (2-4)
It isn’t poetry, but it’s evocative. From the first page, you can smell the salt sea breeze that sweeps by the Admiral Benbow Inn; indeed, I’ve reread that first page many times just to revisit that place. Later you’ll hear the sounds of harbor bells and snapping sails, the shouts of sailors and the snarls of pirates, and the spouting and bellowing of breakers upon the island’s rocks. Stevenson has a strong sense of place; he knows exactly where his characters are and how to situate the reader in the same environment.
We see and hear the story mostly through the pen of Jim Hawkins, who writes to us after the fact and gives us some insight into the virtues and vices of all the major players. I like him; he’s an honest, observant boy, well-suited to such an adventure, but fairly naïve about the criminal mind. Not nearly so naïve as Squire Trelawney, though; a large, boisterous man whose careless tongue lets the whole Bristol harbor know that their “secret” expedition is for buried treasure, his mistakes—and his fiery, often unsupported, pride—can be exasperating. After all, it’s his fault that over half the crew he hired were secretly pirates planning a mutiny before the Hispaniolaever left port. But he makes up for this with conspicuous bravery and a determination to regain the respect of his peers.
Dr. Livesy is more reliable; a softspoken, stern man who thinks clearly and acts honorably, is absolutely devoted to his healing profession, and has nerves of steel. Consider one of his introductory scenes, where he is making a house call at the Admiral Benbow, while the drunk (and sick) Billy Bones is loudly intimidating and verbally abusing the other guests. When Livesy casually remarks that if Bones continues with his present drinking, the world will soon be rid “of a very dirty scoundrel,” Bones growls and brandishes a knife, threatening to pin him to the wall.
The doctor never so much as moved. He spoke to him, as before, over his shoulder, and in the same tone of voice; rather high, so that all the room might hear, but perfectly calm and steady:
‘If you do not put that knife this instant in your pocket, I promise, upon my honour, you shall hang at next assizes.’
Then followed a battle of looks between them; but the captain soon knuckled under, put up his weapon, and resumed his seat, grumbling like a beaten dog. (10-11)
Quite the cool fellow. Even cooler is Captain Smollet, who is hired to command the Hispaniola with no previous knowledge of its crew or destination. He may be my favorite character, for the surety of his honor, his cool sensibility under duress, and the sheer manliness of his gentlemanly nature.
But why beat about the bush? When people hear Treasure Island, they think of Long John Silver. The first thing you should know is that the literary character is every bit as charismatic, cunning, sympathetic, treacherous, and pretty much awesome as his pop culture reputation says he is. But what I hadn’t remembered from other adaptations is how desperate he is. I said in the Recommendation that Treasure Island is a deconstruction of the idea of the romantic pirate, and this is what I meant. For all of Silver’s picturesque charisma, long experience, entertaining cunning, admirable perception, and, sometimes, rogue’s honor, he is not ultimately an anti-hero or a person to be much admired. We like him because we recognize that God has allowed some good to survive in him despite his criminal lifestyle, and because he himself laments his evil nature and expresses a desire to be good. But he’s a lost soul. His life is full of wretchedness and poverty, filth and backstabbing. He has colleagues, but no friends he can trust—at least, not until Jim Hawkins. The pirate’s life is not one of freedom, dignity, and self-respect, no matter what Jack Sparrow may say. It’s murderous, low, and deeply unhealthy. Silver knows this in his bones, and his last act of piracy is a misguided attempt to be free of that life. Jim’s real moment of growth (into manhood, if we can say that for a young teenager) is when he recognizes this warring dynamic, which is Silver’s struggle against the dangers and addictions of sin.
So that’s what I found to be the story’s great staying power. Silver’s struggle against his sin nature is similar to our own. The friendship between Jim and Silver is so affecting because of its genuineness. And Jim’s coming-of-age is strongly linked to his greater understanding of human frailty, that love for a lost sinner should coexist with condemnation of the sin itself.
Of course, it’s a rollicking, red-blooded, action-packed adventure story, too. That Stevenson can balance such keen observations about human nature with such fun is a testament to his skill. And he makes it look easy!
In closing, I repeat here the poem Stevenson includes before the title page, which he addresses “To The Hesitating Purchaser”:
If sailor tales to sailor tunes, Storm and adventure, heat and cold, If schooners, islands, and maroons And Buccaneers and buried Gold, And all the old romance, retold Exactly in the ancient way, Can please, as me they pleased of old, The wiser youngsters of today:
--So be it, and fall on! If not, If studious youth no longer crave, His ancient appetites forgot, Kingston, or Ballyntyne the brave, Or Cooper of the wood and wave: So be it, also! And may I And all my pirates share the grave Where these and their creations lie!