Thoughts on ‘Treasure Island‘ by RL Stevenson
‘His left leg was cut off close to the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird.’
I would have been about eight years old, and developing my reading skills, when I read Treasure Island for the first time. Buried treasure, pirates, and adventure on the high seas was, I suppose, high on the agenda of my childhood dreams – and perhaps on the dreams of most boys my age. And, being denied the travel experiences, books were the ideal vessel for satisfying those longings.
Reading the novel again after many decades, I was struck – a bit unexpectedly – by what a great story it is! To describe it as a ‘great novel’ is probably going too far. Many of the characters are cardboard cutouts, stock figures we meet in many similar stories of the time. Moreover, as a novel, Treasure Island has a narrow focus; it does not delve deeply into the human condition, or consider too much the probability – so it seems to me – of the places and events it describes. However, the narrative makes up for those deficiencies by being as fast-paced and as absorbiong an adventure as romantic fiction can be. [I use the term romantic in its older, classical sense; there is no sex in Treasure Island!]
The book is also surprisingly free of the ‘cringe’ moments which abound in some other novels of the same period – overt racism, wanton destruction of wildlife and overweening Christian piety, for example, though the plot is, given the target readership, strongly male oriented.
The main character and narrator, Jim Hawkins, lives with his parents at The Admiral Benbow, a Bristol inn owned by the family. Jim’s father dies and he and his mother are left to manage the premises and its long term drunken guest, the old sea-dog Billy Bones. When Bones dies of a stroke, he leaves behind a seaman’s chest, some gold and silver and a pirate map. The ‘X marks the spot’ on the latter sets Jim and his adult friends, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, on a voyage to the Caribbean in search of Captain Flint’s treasure.
Brave but somewhat reckless and rebellious, Jim manages to get into all kinds of trouble. However, it is largely due to him that any of the party get back to Blighty alive. He uncovers the mutineers’ plot and scuppers the pirates’ escape route by beaching the ship, The Hispaniola. Witness to enough murder and bloodshed to send most ‘boys’ running scared back to their mothers, he is also instrumental in foiling the villains’ attempt to capture the treasure.
‘….. [He] was not destined to go far. With a cry, John seized the branch of a tree, whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, ….. in the middle of the back.’
The best character, and best remembered by far, is John Silver, one-legged cook on The Hispaniola, who ingratiates himself with the ‘goodies’, including the stiff and distrustful Captain Smollett. Livesey, Trelawney and even Jim are easy meat to his charm. However, Silver – Long John as he is known – is a murderous scoundrel, a former pirate who rallies his self-picked crew to mutiny. Yet, for all his villainy, John Silver is one of those figures who occasionally turn up in literature – the lovable rogue, whom readers can never bring themselves to hate, and whom they generally hope will get away with it. If you get a chance, watch the 1950s movie with Robert Newton in the role and enjoy, or be scared by, his rolling eyes as he hobbles about on his crutch.
Another unforgettable character, who makes brief but critical appearances is Ben Gunn, marooned on the island several years earlier. A figure of fun to the pirates, past and present, it is Ben who has the last laugh. It is such a pity the ‘heroes’ treat him so badly at the end with a miserly share of the treasure. He might have spent it all anyway, but that would have been his choice!
‘The worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears -“Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” ‘
I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to my own past and recommend Treasure Island to any of the ‘older generation’ who still remember the excitement of those their literary adventures.
Of the three Scottish writers who feature at the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum, I often feel it is Stevenson’s work which is least explored today [the others are Burns and Scott]. Yet in some respects it is he who was the most versatile. How else does one explain the range of his fiction, from the juvenile Treasure Island through his comedic The Wrong Box and the much darker Master of Ballantrae to the gothic novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Then there are his short stories, his political writing and his collection of poetry, as well as the descriptions of the considerable travels he enjoyed during his short lifetime.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, novelist and literary critic of the early 20th century, in an introduction to my present copy of the novel, from the Everyman Library, describes RL Stevenson thus: It was in his nature to rejoice in the successes of other men at least as much as in his own triumphs ….. so long as good books were written, it was no great concern to him whether he or others wrote them.
I wonder whether, a century from now, the same may be said of novelists of today.
4 thoughts on “A Story for Boys”
True, I read a lot of Enid Blyton when I was younger, but went on a course and re-read some of her work. It wasn’t the best writing, not really. That didn’t stop me enjoying it.
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Yes, I understand that ‘buzz’, Diana. The best route to literary appreciation is, I believe, to cram as much as possible into one’s young brain – good or bad – as quickly as possible. Discernment comes later in life.
And Enid Blyton is still popular with children today, in spite of many distractions, literary or otherwise.
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True, and her characters are always well thought of.
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