Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island

Ever since Leander posted her review of Treasure Island I have been meaning to re-read it and finally got around to it. While it is not the best of Stevenson’s novels (that would, in my opinion, be The Master of Ballantrae) but his most famous (with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a very close second), and deservedly so, as Treasure Island gave the blueprint for pretty much any tale of rousing adventure to follow it.

And I do not just mean pirate stories – that part is very obvious, for here it is all, and is for the first time, every single ingredient that makes a good pirate yarn – hidden treasure (and of course X marks the spot!), greedy pirates and noble sailors, peg legs and parrots, even “pieces of eight” and “shiver my timber” – everything that later became a cliché, here it is for the first time, and still as fresh as it was in 1883. And this is probably what is most surprising about Treasure Island, that it not only has aged so well, but that it has triumphantly survived having each and every element making up its story turned into a tired cliché by myriads of pirate novels and pirate movies. With most other novels, things would have turned out for the reader the way they did when they finally find the burying-place of Flint’s treasure – they’d find it plundered and empty, a huge disappointment. But Treasure Island manages to bear the weight of its countless imitations lightly on its shoulder, and remain an exciting and highly entertaining read even if you know exactly what is going to happen next, at times even could recite parts of the dialogue without having to read them.

Most of that I think is due to the extremely clever and effective way the story is structured – starting off with the domestic and familiar, in this case a small English town, then introducing some mystery by way of a stranger arriving. The enigmatic visitor then turns out to have danger in his wake, and an encounter with that is followed by a broadening of horizons, our naive hero setting out into the wide world, making friends, meeting challenges, experiencing betrayal and capture, and somehow there always seems to be some kind of siege involved… And if that sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is the general schematic for not just The Lord of the Rings but pretty much every adventure story told in writing or film during the last 150 years or thereabouts, for which Treasure Island instituted the basic pattern. And even if one holds with Joseph Campbell that every human narrative basically tells the same story, then it is Treasure Island that created the monomyth’s characteristic modern-day mold.

So even if Treasure Island is, taken on literary merits alone, a relatively minor work, judged by its influence, which is immense and reaches far beyond the pirate genre, it is one of the most important works of the 19th century. And it is also, even this long after its publication, a hell of a lot of fun to read. Apart from being a compelling yarn told at a cracking pace there is a third reason for that, one without mention of which no consideration of Treasure Island would be complete – and this is of course the character of Long John Silver. Again, depending on one’s inclination, one might view him as the original incarnation of the charming rogue character which has since then become very familiar, or as the updated version of the trickster archetype, but in either case Stevenson here clearly hit a nerve and created a character that would be imitated countless times in the decades since the publication of Treasure Island. Silver stands out even among his fellow pirates – those are portrayed as either terrifying (Blind Pew, Captain Flint) or (pretty much all of the rest) as behaving like children (unable to plan for the future, easily swayed, wantonly cruel, having both irrational respect for and irrational distrust of authority figures), while Silver is somehow both and neither – his total absence of any sense of ethics beyond self-preservation makes him appear both ruthless and gives him a certain innocence, he is a-moral in the truest sense of the word, a character type that continues to exert a  considerable amount of fascination, down to today’s TV shows.

The only serious flaw in what is otherwise a gem of a novel lies with its narrator, “young” Jim Hawkins. He is supposed to a child, but does not come across as one at all, the pirates behave much more in character like he does. When he does something unconsidered and dangerous it appears more due to plot requirements than to any childish irresponsibility in his character, otherwise he shows an annoying maturity, making him easily the blandest character in the whole novel. Which might be a narrative strategy – leaving the narrator and protagonist a blank canvas as a means of letting the reader project themselves in his place – but that does not make him any less boring.

But even a wooden character like Jim Hawkins can not seriously distract from just how fresh this novel still appears, the bit of dust its protagonist has gathered is quickly blown away, and the rest of Treasure Island shines in such brilliant and vivid colours that nobody will pay him much heed anyway. And I really need to read The Master of Ballantrae again….

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2 comments

  1. Oh, glad you enjoyed it! And thank you for the link 🙂 Yes, you certainly have a point about Jim, although as I recall most of the child characters in late Victorian / Edwardian stories are a bit bland. And isn’t Long John Silver fabulous? It’s always wonderful to have a character who brightens up the scene simply by entering it, because you know that something fun is about to happen – and I also really enjoyed the way that Stevenson concluded Silver’s character arc. It’s such a perfect ending. Nowadays of course there’d be a whole raft of sequels 😉

  2. My pleasure; I’m sure you’re going to have hordes following that link and storming your blog now. 😉
    And while it’s true about most Victorian characters being bland, Stevenson avoids all Victorian stuffiniess with such glaring success in all other things, it’s a bit of a pity that he didn’t manage in that regard.
    I think everyone loves Long John Silver, at least I have a very hard time imagining anyone not liking the rogue. He really seems like the perfect role for Orson Welles to play, unfortunately when he actually did, the resulting film rather sucked – a missed chance if there ever was one.
    And finally, just because Stevenson did not write a sequel, does not mean others can’t. 😛 Although for some reason, prequels seem to be more popular for Treasure Island – I remember having read one as a kid (which I can’t seem to find any more) and there even is a very recent one.

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