Robert Louis Stevenson
(Penguin Classics, 2000); pbk, £5.99
Even those who have never read Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling tale will be familiar withTreasure Island to some degree. The story about parrot-adorned be-crutched villains, mutiny and buried treasure has become the quintessential pirate adventure from which many others have been informed. As one of a selection of twenty books chosen for the 2013 World Book Night event, the novel should enchant a new generation of readers and perhaps provide older generations with an opportunity to reconnect with a story they loved as children.
The story is narrated predominantly through the written testimonies of 17 year old Jim Hawkins. At the request of his former shipmates, Hawkins recounts the troubles that arose during their eventful voyage to seek fortune on the mysterious Treasure Island. The story begins when the mysterious Billy Bones, who has been lodging with Jim, and Jim’s mother, and sick father at their family’s Inn, suddenly drops dead after receiving a sheet of paper bearing the dreaded “Black Spot”. The Black Spot warns of the imminent arrival of a group of ruthless pirates who are searching for something contained within a chest owned by Bones. Searching through the chest, Jim discovers an oilskin packet. When the pirates arrive, they ransack the inn but are unable to find “Flint’s fist” which, unbeknownst to Jim, is a logbook and map contained within the oilskin packet he has acquired. Jim takes the packet to Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey who, upon inspection of the contents, discover that the book and map indicate the location of the treasure of the late Captain Flint, a once ferocious pirate. With the information they have acquired they decide to charter a ship, the Hispaniola, and with a crew handpicked by the ship’s duplicitous cook, Long John Silver, they set sail for the Caribbean in search of Flint’s horde.
What follows is a tale of treachery and murder as a gang of vicious pirates demonstrate the lengths that they are willing to go in order to acquire the treasure for themselves. But as well as being a riveting adventure, Stevenson’s novel is also a coming-of-age story like that found in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published the following year. Through the challenges he faces, Jim Hawkins must make the transition from childhood into manhood. The fate of himself and of those around him rests on his ability to cope with the pirate threat. It is Hawkins, hiding in an apple barrel, who first learns of an imminent mutiny by members of the crew of the Hispaniola and his actions thereafter are integral to the outcome of the story.
The novel also examines the nature of morality. Whereas stories written for children have traditionally tended to present characters that are clearly defined as either good or evil, in Treasure Island Stevenson’s characters are somewhat morally ambiguous. Long John Silver, of course, is revealed to be the pirate leader – formerly the quartermaster of the deceased Captain Flint – and, with his band of pirates, orchestrates the mutiny on theHispaniola. Yet prior to this mutiny, Silver is a strong role model for Hawkins and serves as both a mentor and surrogate father figure to the boy. It is also the case that the respectable Dr. Livesey, described as “a gentleman and a magistrate”, and Squire Trelawney appear little better than their pirate enemies. They too are profiteers who seek a bounty to which they have no legitimate claim.
One hundred and thirty years after its first publication,Treasure Island remains culturally significant. One need only look at the enormous success of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise as evidence of this. The pirate motifs that exist in today’s popular culture, for better or for worse, owe a debt to Stevenson’s creation. This is an adventure that is well worth revisiting.