Treasure Island (1883): Robert Louis Stevenson


There haven’t been enough pirates around here recently (indeed, are there ever?); and, when I was looking for a quick spritz of a book to get me into autumn, I decided it was time for Treasure Island. This is without a doubt one of the greatest children’s stories or adventure novels ever written, but I’m ashamed to say I’d never read it before.

I’m not quite sure how I managed to avoid it: there was plenty of piratical spirit in my childhood. I grew up in Bristol and we spent our holidays caravanning in Devon and Cornwall, armed with an inflatable dinghy we’d christened the Black Pig. How did I avoid the Great Pirate Novel? On the bright side it means I can come to it now, older, wiser and perhaps even more prone to adore it because I can savour its enormous impact on popular culture. For a little book, it casts a long shadow. Davy Jones’s Locker, pieces o’ eight, rum, parrots, peg-legs, buried treasure and, of course, maps where ‘x’ marks the spot… this is where it all began.

When a grizzled old sailor takes up residence in the West Country at the Admiral Benbow – his mother’s inn – young Jim Hawkins is fascinated. The old Captain takes long walks along the cliff tops looking for ships and sings rum-soused songs, but it rapidly becomes clear that he has a dark past behind him and that history is on his tail. Indeed, when he is visited by an old shipmate one dark night, the Captain becomes the recipient of that dreaded pirates’ warning: the Black Spot. It is too late for the Captain to escape his enemies, but Jim finds himself unexpectedly drawn into a thrilling and very dangerous mystery.

Rifling through the Captain’s sea-chest, Jim has laid his hands on a map which will lead him into the greatest adventure of his life: the chart of an unknown island labelled with evocative names – Skeleton Island, Mizzenmast Hill, Spy-Glass Hill – and, more importantly, marked with red crosses. When Jim shows the map to the local landowner Squire Trelawney and the physician Dr Livesey, they realise that they have the clue to finding the great hoard of treasure buried by the notorious buccaneer Captain Flint, and (as you do) decide to set off in search of it. But all does not go easily. When the squire goes to Bristol to fit out a ship and assemble a crew, word of Flint’s treasure gets out. Soon it will become clear that some of the crew on the Hispaniola have more than a passing acquaintance with the old pirate: none more so than a congenial old fellow with a pet parrot and one leg, who serves as ship’s cook and goes by the name of Long John Silver.

Fifteen men on The Dead Man’s Chest –
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest –
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Of course I loved it. There was never any question that I would. It’s a gloriously old-fashioned tale with a plucky young hero whose resourcefulness and wit is pitched against the dastardly plots of piratical mutineers; and yet there is something rather modern about the subtle humour which underlies it all. Stevenson was writing for children, but he knew that the book would be read to them by their parents, and so there are moments when the novel has a surprisingly psychological edge. I found Silver completely absorbing as a character: you know how interested I am by people who shift in the grey regions between starkly ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Silver is an untrustworthy, unprincipled blackguard of the first water – that goes without saying – but Stevenson gives him a beguiling charisma that means the page sparks into life whenever he appears.

If you’ve also managed to miss Treasure Island, then now is the time of year to read it. It isn’t really a summery kind of story. It’s the type of book to reach for as the nights draw in and the rough winds rattle the windows, and the surface of the Thames grows hard and iron-grey. Wrap yourself up in a blanket, get a cup of tea (or a snifter of rum), curl up by the lamp and lose yourself in a Sunday-afternoon-romp of a story, ‘full of sea-dreams and the most charming anticipations of strange islands and adventures’. For my part, this has given me the impetus to seek out some other good pirate stories for the winter: I think it might be time to revisit that other great literary pirate, Captain James Hook; and it’s probably high time to track down the ever-reliable Sabatini’s Captain Blood.

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5 thoughts on “Treasure Island (1883): Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. Heloise says:

    While I actually have read this way, way back I've been meaning to do a re-read for ages – might be a good time to do that now, as some lighter fare along with the Aubrey-Maturin novels. And speaking of Stevenson, have you ever read his Master of Ballantrae? While not a pirate novel per se, I seem to remember (also a long while since I last read it) that it has pirate in it, and it is even better than Treasure Island, in fact sme consider it the greatest adventure novel ever written. There's also On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers which I have not read yet (but I did read (several times) and love his excellent Anubis Gates) but which is supposed to be very good.

  2. Helen says:

    I have vague memories of reading this as a child, although the edition I had was almost certainly an abridged children's one. I must read the full version at some point. And yes, pirate books are perfect for this time of year. I think you'll love Captain Blood!

  3. jane says:

    Loved Stevenson as a teenager, must re-read soon – do you think writing about pirates had anything to do with being from a family that made lighthouses? Anyway, my obsession at the moment are the Alice books – particularly the annotated version, with Tenniel's lovely prints. Don't suppose you'd fancy reading them – would love to hear your take!

  4. Lucy says:

    Very nice! I started a reread last year, and need to get back to it! Since then I've watched, more than once, the video version, which aired on the SyFy channel in 2012. It stars Eddie Izzard as Silver (very well played) and Donald Sutherland as Flint–I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it.

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