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Treasure Island

Style: Classic

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive

In Brief: “Buccaneers, and buried gold”. The original Boys’ Own Yarn combining youthful bravery, charismatic villainy and buried treasure. A slow start for the modern reader and never as racy as Alex Rider but very readable nonetheless once you’re immersed in its world

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

Published in: 1880

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: 18th C

Genres:  AdventureBoysClassic


Characters:

  • Jim Hawkins is the first-person narrator, the epitome of the daring young lad who’s in the right place at the right time and is not afraid to take his chances as he finds them.
  • Long John Silver is a crafty pirate who wears a mask of respectability. A con-man before the name was invented he’s a master manipulator with a greedy heart.
  • Squire Trelawney is bluff, hearty and generous but also blustering, indiscreet and impetuous.
  • Doctor Livesey is the Squire’s foil: thoughtful and intelligent but not afraid to face down a pirate who has a knife in his hand.

Synopsis:

A dead pirate’s chest throws up a map showing the way to treasure buried on a secret island. The Squire, the Doctor and the Boy set sail with a crew of rogues and are hard put to overcome them when they reach the island, even with the help of that unlikely ally Ben Gunn, a half-crazed maroon.

Read a précis of the entire story (will contain spoilers)

Notes:

The first-born among many such stories, this tale of action, adventure and derring-do set the tone for many tales to comes with its central conceit of treasure buried on a desert island and its cast of famous figures, including resourceful Jim Hawkins, wild-eyed Ben Gunn, sinister Blind Pew, and the iconic Long John Silver. Its characters and story have stood the test of time and these days are easily available as free etexts or in cheap paperback editions.

But does it appeal to the modern reader? And is there anything in it which should worry parents?

The plot certainly raises issues which could be discussed. What right, for example, do the Squire and his party have to the treasure? And are they not motivated principally by greed? Are the crew right to leave the remaining mutineers stranded on the island albeit with provisions? But taken as a whole the story isn’t morally problematic even if I cared to cavil over some minor points.

The underlying plot is simple: a mysterious lodger with a reasons to be fearful; an adventurous expedition; a villainous crew; a daring solo attempt by the resourceful lad; and the final race to the treasure. For the most part you know where the lines are drawn and on which side people stand. Impetuous Squire Trelawney is financing the search for treasure. No-nonsense Captain Smollett simply wants to get his job done. The greedy pirate crew want the treasure and don't want anyone in their way. Daring Jim Hawkins moves from one perilous escapade to the next. And towering over them all is the colourful, charismatic rogue Long John Silver who knows which way the wind blows and is good at setting his course in the most profitable direction. With his one leg and his piratical parrot, his name and character above all are identified with this classic tale.

So will modern readers enjoy it? Probably not at first. The opening is slow and is set in an unfamiliar milieu and filled with unfamiliar speech. The generation brought up reading Alex Rider and playing Call of Duty likes its narrative direct and easily understood and its action violent. It expects a fast-paced opening chapter, usually showing off the hero’s virtuosity in foiling some minor plot or demonstrating the villain’s ruthlesness. And it likes the excitement to pile up with each chapter that passes. In this respect, Treasure Island fails to deliver: aside from a rather muddled night-time scuffle with the pirates early on, everything’s talk and rumour until Jim hears Silver’s plotting from his hiding place in the apple barrel some time in chapter 13 and runs to tell the Captain. That’s well over a third of the way through the book. I asked a 13-year-old if he'd read it, and he immediately admitted that he'd found the beginning “very boring”, had struggled on and then had given up “just over half way through”.

Yet the story's basic ideas and motivations are understandable by an 10-year-old or even someone younger with a little explanation. Perhaps there’s a case for this as a book to read aloud with younger children (mostly boys, I imagine: there’s not a female figure in the story beyond the insigificant Mrs Hawkins).

On the surface Jim Hawkins is no Alex Rider: he’s not trained in a dozen key skills; he doesn’t have useful pieces of information squirrelled away to bring out when some dangerous situation arises; he’s not especially strong or athletic. And yet, there are surprisingly strong parallels. He acts on his own initiative several times without really considering the consequences but somehow things comes right for him. He’s likeable and makes surprising and useful allies. He’s not afraid to use the weapons which come to hand including a pair of pistols with which he — half-accidentally – kills an attacking pirate. Even after he’s been tossed in a small boat for hours and pinned by a knife to the mast he just dresses the wound and sets about rowing back to the shore and uncertain danger.

Of course it’s really Alex Rider who is the literary descendant of Jim Hawkins. But today’s youngster is far more likely to have read Horowitz than Stevenson so if you were in the business of encouraging them to give Treasure Island a go, you might do worse than point out where the similarities lie. The irony, of course, is that Stevenson in his opening verse “To the Hesitating Purchaser” worries that today’s “studious youth no longer crave... all the old romance, retold”, leaving the Pirates in their literary graves. Substituting some other adjective for “studious” he could well be expressing the self-same fear nowadays.

Themes:

  • Who has a right to stolen treasure?

“This here's an unlucky ship, this HISPANIOLA, Jim,” he went on, blinking. “There's a power of men been killed in this HISPANIOLA—a sight o' poor seamen dead and gone since you and me took ship to Bristol. I never seen sich dirty luck, not I. There was this here O'Brien now—he's dead, ain't he? Well now, I'm no scholar, and you're a lad as can read and figure, and to put it straight, do you take it as a dead man is dead for good, or do he come alive again?”

“You can kill the body, Mr. Hands, but not the spirit; you must know that already,” I replied. “O'Brien there is in another world, and may be watching us.”

“Ah!” says he. “Well, that's unfort'nate—appears as if killing parties was a waste of time. Howsomever, sperrits don't reckon for much, by what I've seen. I'll chance it with the sperrits, Jim. And now, you've spoke up free, and I'll take it kind if you'd step down into that there cabin and get me a—well, a—shiver my timbers! I can't hit the name on 't; well, you get me a bottle of wine, Jim—this here brandy's too strong for my head.”

Now, the coxswain's hesitation seemed to be unnatural, and as for the notion of his preferring wine to brandy, I entirely disbelieved it. The whole story was a pretext. He wanted me to leave the deck—so much was plain; but with what purpose I could in no way imagine. His eyes never met mine; they kept wandering to and fro, up and down, now with a look to the sky, now with a flitting glance upon the dead O'Brien. All the time he kept smiling and putting his tongue out in the most guilty, embarrassed manner, so that a child could have told that he was bent on some deception. I was prompt with my answer, however, for I saw where my advantage lay and that with a fellow so densely stupid I could easily conceal my suspicions to the end.

“Some wine?” I said. “Far better. Will you have white or red?”

“Well, I reckon it's about the blessed same to me, shipmate,” he replied; “so it's strong, and plenty of it, what's the odds?”

“All right,” I answered. “I'll bring you port, Mr. Hands. But I'll have to dig for it.”

With that I scuttled down the companion with all the noise I could, slipped off my shoes, ran quietly along the sparred gallery, mounted the forecastle ladder, and popped my head out of the fore companion. I knew he would not expect to see me there, yet I took every precaution possible, and certainly the worst of my suspicions proved too true.

He had risen from his position to his hands and knees, and though his leg obviously hurt him pretty sharply when he moved—for I could hear him stifle a groan—yet it was at a good, rattling rate that he trailed himself across the deck. In half a minute he had reached the port scuppers and picked, out of a coil of rope, a long knife, or rather a short dirk, discoloured to the hilt with blood. He looked upon it for a moment, thrusting forth his under jaw, tried the point upon his hand, and then, hastily concealing it in the bosom of his jacket, trundled back again into his old place against the bulwark.

This was all that I required to know. Israel could move about, he was now armed, and if he had been at so much trouble to get rid of me, it was plain that I was meant to be the victim. What he would do afterwards—whether he would try to crawl right across the island from North Inlet to the camp among the swamps or whether he would fire Long Tom, trusting that his own comrades might come first to help him—was, of course, more than I could say.

Sunday 17th June 2012