Treasure Island

The appeal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic

Robert New ton starring in “Treasure Island” (Disney, 1950).

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest — Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” begins one of the most famous adventure stories of all time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The book became so popular it eventually spawned two well known films, the 1934 MGM version (where Wallace Beery played Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper was cast as Jim Hawkins) and perhaps the better 1950 Disney version (where Robert Newton played the squinting pirate with a parrot and Bobby Driscoll the wide-eyed young boy).

The novel began as a map Stevenson drew to amuse his stepson, Lloyd Osborne. The boy demanded a story to go with it, one that featured both treasure and an island, and Stevenson complied.

Treasure is an important ingredient in adventure stories beloved by the disenfranchised, by those too young to qualify for American Express cards. But there must be some risk. The young hero must acquire treasure from a forbidden place where some villain watches over it — whether the youngster be Peter Rabbit stealing vegetables from Mr. McGregor’s garden or Jack purloining the possessions of the giant at the top of the beanstalk. In fact, the risk is everything. Stevenson’s novel is about acquiring treasure; next to nothing is told about how it is spent.

Islands, too, are a favorite ingredient of adventure stories. They are a place outside the pale of law, as the boys in Lord of the Flies discover. And they are a place for “rugged individuals” — characters like Robinson Crusoe (who reappears in Stevenson’s book as that old goat, the marooned Ben Gunn).

I remember [the pirate Billy Bones] 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 observing the contrast the neat, bright [Dr. Livesy], with his [powdered wig] as white as snow and his bright, black eyes, and pleasant manners, made . . with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting, far gone in rum.

Stevenson, it must be remembered, also wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His own life was a similar case of contrasts. He was raised in a highly religious household and trained as an engineer, but he came to prefer the bohemian life and to write romantic adventures stories. It says much that Stevenson was born in Scotland but buried in Samoa.

His novel’s characters also divide in two. On the one hand, there are the pirates with names like Billy Bones, Black Dog, and Blind Pew; and on the other, are the gentleman, Dr. Livesy, Captain Smollett, and Squire Trelawney. As if to make the sinners more obvious, Stevenson’s pirates are scarred, missing parts of their bodies, drunken, disorderly, and extravagant with devilish oaths. The gentlemen are repeatedly described as clean, quick, orderly, sober, healthy, godfearing Englishmen — and a bit smug, at that.

But Stevenson is particularly drawn to characters who (like Jekyll/Hyde) embody both sides. One of these is Long John Silver — certainly one of the greatest literary villains of all time. Like the reader, Jim Hawkins is both attracted and frightened by him at the same time. Jim is first charmed by the old sea dog because of his vitality, his colorful talk, and the interest he takes in the boy. But Silver is two-faced: cheerful but plotting, seemingly deferential and ready to take orders but actually the leader of the buccaneers, apparently weak but not really hobbled that much by his crutch.

Silver is wily, humorous, and courageous; for example, he is the only pirate undaunted when he receives the death threat known as “The Black Spot.” And despite everything he has done, because Jim secretly admires Silver, the boy cannot completely condemn the pirate when Silver gets away at the end of the book.

Jim admires Silver because they are so much alike. Jim’s father dies in early in the book and, in a fashion, Silver takes his place. And like father, like son: Jim, too. is two-faced. Jim appears cheerful but is plotting (once he overhears the pirates’ plans and must pretend he hasn’t). Jim seems deferential and ready to take orders but actually isn’t (and disobeys when he goes ashore when they first come to the island or leaves the stockade when told not to do so). And Jim appears to be weak and just a boy, but he is otherwise (killing Israel Hands and retaking the good ship Hispaniola in a singlehanded fashion). Jim is a hero from first to last, but he is so by being as strongwilled and as duplicitous as Silver.

Treasure Island is a sea dream. When Jim Hawkins sets sail from England, he leaves behind a land of gloom and oppressive laws. Like Maurice Sendak’s Max, he sails to that Other World of freedom and excitement where nothing can hamper the truly rugged individual. It is an inviting dream, captured in Stevenson’s book, which still appeals to boys and girls of any age.


See my related essays on islands and pirates.

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