Treasure Island

I loved adventure stories when I was young, everything from Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series to J M Ballantyne’s Coral Island, and many, many others in between!  For some reason, many of the books I went on to read in my junior school years came from many years ago.  There was Sir Walter Scott with Ivanhoe, Roby Roy and Kenilworth; Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and Hereward the Wake; Jules Verne’s two epics, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She; and the Alexandre Dumas thrillers The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo.  Even if it was in a lower key and read to us as Cubs (young boys in the junior stage of the Boy Scout movement), I could add in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books.  Looking back over, I can’t help feeling ‘what a great list’.  And then there was Treasure Island.

While the plots and details of most of those stories are lost to the past, I can’t forget Treasure Island.  You would think that Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th Century adventure story for boys would have dropped out of my memory long ago.  It shares some slight similarities to the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, but without the fantasy elements and with almost no women, let alone the absence of any A-list Hollywood actors.  A period swashbuckling adventure, it was written some 150 years ago with, as was once memorably said in another context, ‘an awful lot of words’.  It first appeared in 1881-1882, serialised in the children’s magazine Young Folks, under the title Treasure Island or the Mutiny of the Hispaniola, credited to the pseudonym ‘Captain George North’. The book was published in November 1883 by Cassell & Co., with a 2,000 first run.  Popular, but who would have guessed it was to become one of the most dramatized and adapted of all novels, eventually in several different media.

The audience for Treasure Island was primarily young boys who sought adventure stories. In fact, the original book’s title was The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys.  There’d been a growing demand for books like this, with pirates and hidden treasure.  Back in 1850, male literacy was around 65% (and 50% for females), but by 1880 it had shot up to 80%, a reflection of the investment in compulsory schooling (it reached 75% for women around the same time).  You could say the market was booming, (with cannons?), and this was an ideal contribution.

Written for young boys, yet one of the reasons Treasure Island stays stuck in my mind is that in various places it terrified me!  Of course, it was meant to thrill a youngster, but in my case it did much more than that.  First up, the edition I read had the Mervyn Peake’s pen and ink illustrations (I had the 1949 Edition).  A highly successful artist,  having recently illustrated Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Peake was commissioned to illustrate a new edition of Treasure Island for publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode. I saw that his drawings were described as “tense, eerie and dramatic” and “beautifully complimented Stevenson’s tale’.

You’ve got to be joking!  Every figure he drew was dark, foreboding, and the stuff of nightmares (which is exactly what they gave me), with the exception of Long John Silver who first appeared as a sunny young man (but we’ll return to him later).  As each stage in the story unfolded, there was one of Peake’s drawings, adding a frisson of tension, anticipation and fear.  Even the ‘goodies’ in the story, Trelawney and Livesey, appeared to have some slightly scary attributes, quite apart from also being clearly overweight and bossy.

If the illustrations gave me sleepless nights, they did so by making real the frightening elements of the text (frightening for a nice middle-class London boy like me).  Within the first couple of paragraphs, this was clearly going to be a about a dramatic, dark world:

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

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 shoulder 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 round 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!”

According to Wikipedia, Stevenson based his idea for the novel on a map of an imaginary, romantic island which he drew with his stepson during a holiday in Braemar, Scotland in the summer of 1881. He had begun the book that August, writing to a friend, “If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day. Will you be surprised to learn that it is about Buccaneers, that it begins in the Admiral Benbow public house on the Devon coast, that it’s all about a map and a treasure and a mutiny and a derelict ship… It’s quite silly and horrid fun – and what I want is the best book about Buccaneers that can be had”.  A romantic island?  I guess that it is romantic in the sense of something that is exciting and mysterious, but certainly not in terms of our contemporary association of romantic with love stories!

Like many young readers, the fact almost the whole story was told through Jim Hawkins was important.  It gave the adventure immediacy.  It also served to blur or even hide some of the moral ambiguities it included.  The story begins with Jim living at The Admiral Benbow, the inn and lodging house run by his parents.  A scary ‘Captain’ comes to stay and asks Jim to watch out for “a seafaring man with one leg”.  His image scares Jim, and it scared me, and that was only the beginning.  By the next chapter we are introduced to Black Dog, another disreputable character, who is missing two fingers on one hand.  The two fight, Black Dog runs off, and the Captain falls sick.  No sooner have we recovered from all that drama when another ghastly visitor arrives, a blind man, who passes something over to the Captain before leaving, who starts talking about receiving a ‘black spot’, some kind of summons.  A few hours later the Captain falls down dead.  We later learn this visitor was known as Blind Pew.

By now, you will have grasped something of the nature of this story:  it is full of frightening people and scary events, designed to reduce me to considerable anxiety, several taking place before we’ve even reached Chapter 4.  While I won’t summarise the whole book, you might want to know Jim discovers the black spot is a warning, comprising a piece of paper folded around a coin, black on one side, with writing on the other side (in this case ‘You have until 10 tonight’).  Jim also finds a map hidden in the Captain’s possessions.  Blind Pew is killed when Jim’s friends, Dr Livesey, and Squire Trelawney, come to rescue him and his mother.  They realise the map reveals the location of buried treasure on a small island somewhere ‘off Caraccas’.  In no time at all, Jim is taken by the adults to Bristol, where he will join them and a full crew on the Hispaniola, on a voyage to the island and the treasure hoard.  Why is this young boy included in the party?  Who knows, but it is essential to the story!

We are now about to move into the second part of this adventure, as the group get their ship provisioned (nice word?) and take on a crew.  Squire Trelawney is busy recruiting sailors (most of whom sound extremely rough).  He lets Livesey and Jim know “the most remarkable stroke of fortune brought me the very man I required.”  This man was longing to go back to sea “I was monstrously touched – so would you have been – and, out of pure pity, I engaged him on the spot to be the ship’s cook.  Long John Silver, he is called, and has lost a leg; but that I regarded as a recommendation as he lost it in his country’s service under the immortal Hawke.  He has no pension, Livesey.  Imagine the abominable age we live in!”  Surprise: Long John Silver helps Trelawney find the rest of the crew they need.  They were set.

In many ways, the relationship between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver is at the centre of Treasure Island.  Jim finds Silver “tall and strong … intelligent and smiling” despite having lost one leg.  He’s swept up by this colourful character, his adoration ensuring he misses the flood of half-truths Silver tell him (as we later discover).  Black Dog appears and runs away; Long John Silver reluctantly acknowledges he might have heard of him.  No matter, Jim’s entranced.  Once they’ve they set sail, Jim has work to do, but would go along to the kitchen in the evening, always kept clean and tidy, and listen to Long John Silver as he described his life at sea and the adventures in which he had been involved.  Jim was fascinated by this man; their relationship becoming closer than a father to his son, almost homo-erotic.

When the Hispaniola was no more than a day away from Treasure Island, (and readers are one-third of the way through the book), we reach a turning point.  Jim, hidden inside an apple barrel, hears Silver talking to some of the crew in the evening.  To his horror, Jim realises that Long John Silver was ‘silver-tongued’, planning a mutiny as he talks with his friends in the crew.  But Silver is smart and wants Trelawney and Livesey to find the hidden treasure, as they have the map and no-one else has seen it, have it loaded on to the sailing ship, and only mutiny when all that was done.  Jim realises they had been tricked, his one-legged friend is a pirate, a liar, and totally untrustworthy, yet he remains magnetically attractive.  Hmm!

This wasn’t just a turning point in the story, but it was the first place in which we begin to confront the moral tangles hidden inside this ‘boys adventure’.  Things become even more complex once the Hispaniola reaches Treasure Island.  Jim goes off alone, believing he can keep an eye on the pirates who’ve gone on to the island.  He meets Ben Gunn, who’d been marooned there three years earlier, who adds more content to the confusing picture of pirates, murder, and hidden treasure.  One thing is clear, it is the small group of Trelawney, Livesey and a few others on one side, and the pirates, led by Long John Silver on the other.  Stevenson does a great job is continuing to make Long John Silver enigmatic, on the one hand friendly and thoughtful and on the other dark and dangerous.

If this is a book for young boys, it doesn’t hold back on fighting, deceit and death.  I would imagine anxious parents today might ask a library or a school for a sanitised version of the next section of the book when the two sides fight and characters we have come to know are killed.  Jim Hawkins consistently ignores the orders of the captain and his colleagues.  We are left in no doubt that he knows what he was doing is what he had expressly been told not to do, but each time Jim disobeys orders we read it turns out “it was a help towards saving all of us”.  What is the meaning of this?  This was doing the wrong thing for no justifiable reason, and only, much later in time, did it turn out to be a choice that had a positive outcome.  Did I say the book was morally ambiguous.  It is:  you should follow the rules, unless you are a boy, in which case you can do what you want – after all, it might work out to be for the best!

Complications on top of complications, Jim manages to get back on board the Hispaniola, and beach it on another part of the island, killing one of the pirates in doing so (he has two pistols!).  He returns to look for his friends, but is caught by the remaining pirates, and taken hostage.  They have the map, find the site of the treasure, but the cache is empty.  Jim is rescued by Livesey, and they realise Tom Gunn has found and hidden the treasure.  The expedition loads a portion of the treasure on to the Hispaniola, and they leave with Long John as a prisoner.  Inevitably, this ambiguous figure isn’t finished, and he escapes on the way back, with a bag of gold.  Back in Bristol, we are left in suspense:  Jim has his share of the treasure they brought back, knowing there’s more on the island.  He claims he won’t go back for the rest … but Long John Silver is still on the loose.  Is a follow-up book a possibility?

To be clear, Jim Hawkins is more than just a naughty boy, behaving disobediently.  He is willing to kill, to lie and to trick.  He is counterposed against Long John Silver who, although bad, is portrayed as attractive, willing to make deals, as well as having a soft spot for Jim.  When I first read Treasure Island, I was focussed on the story, an adventure with buried treasure, pirates and daring action.  Swept along, I didn’t think about how Jim behaved, how Long John Silver treated him.  It was simply fun.  Now I wonder about the underlying ethos of the story.  In swashbuckling adventures, death and deceit are fair game, and so are morals.

With Treasure Island on my mind, I happened to glance through a recent issue of The New York Times Book Review.  I wasn’t being systematic, but my impressionistic scan revealed that authors were being praised for their social values. Books that criticised slavery, the exploitation of women and minorities, or that had characters with other than heterosexual preferences were being praised, books based on the ‘right’ values.  Story was secondary to a good liberal approach.  What about the boys’ adventure I’d been reading?  Should Treasure Island be rewritten to fit with contemporary liberal sympathies, or should it join the significant number of other books that have been banned by libraries, as ‘unsuitable’.

Books do get banned, especially in the USA.  They include Charlotte’s Web because talking animals are disrespectful to god; Strega Nona because it promotes witchcraft; Where the Wild Things on the basis of child abuse (Max is sent to bed without supper), let alone its supernatural stuff (as with attempts to ban Harry Potter on the same basis).  Art Spiegelman’s Maus has been banned for profanity, nudity, violence, and suicide, but how else can you honestly portray the Holocaust?  Attempts to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and even Fifty Shades of Grey illuminate another issue.  Banning books to do with sexual morality is a common practice, but banning books including murder, even vicious murder, is less common

Recently, I watched Reacher, a television serial based on Lee Child’s books, rated MA, supposedly restricted to people over 15 as it has scenes involving sex or drugs, (an incentive, surely, rather than a barrier to young viewers?).  Reacher is a morally flexible, extremely violent man, taking the law into his own hands, following a personal moral compass.  Full of vicious action, it offers a violent parallel with Treasure Island.  It is very realistic.  If we don’t ban Reacher, Treasure Island must be OK.  After all, it’s fantasy, set in an imagined past.

What are the criteria we should apply today?   Are young children still encouraged, or even allowed, to read Treasure Island?  I believe young people are hardy realists about fiction.  However, I don’t want to mislead you:  when I first read it, I found parts terrifying, sleepless nights worrying about Blind Pew, the black spot, and hordes of bloodthirsty pirates.  I didn’t get the relationship between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver.  It slipped by me, missed in the drama of the events.  Perhaps that’s another legitimate concern, along with the other values in the story.  One critic has suggested “Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London, instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan”.  I think he’s wrong, but maybe I am.