Treasure Island

It’s been a while. Blame it on moving house, school holidays, work, lethargy…

Anyway, it’s Friday and there’s time for a few quick notes about a book I just read.

Anyone who hasn’t read Treasure Island yet, seriously needs to do so. Robert Louis Stevenson is a lean, fierce writer (by 19th century standards, anyway) and Treasure Island is probably the most violent children’s book of its time. Even by today’s standards, it’s pretty brutal and morally ambiguous. It’s also pacy, vivid and utterly trimmed of narrative fat.

The major barrier, of course, is that the reader has by this time read or seen all of this pirate malarkey a million times over. But until you’ve experienced Stevenson’s Long John Silver, you haven’t tapped into the piratical mother-lode. The one-legged Silver is clever, brave, physically dangerous and charming – an anti-hero of the highest order. And yet, he has his own peculiar integrity. He’s wonderfully loyal to his black inn-keeping wife and consistently and whole-heartedly supports whoever the strongest party is at any given time, whether it be himself or the treasure hunters.

I mentioned violence. Silver brings down a man with a throw of his crutch and knifes him to death. Jim Hawkins, the hero (probably about twelve or thirteen), blows away a pirate with single shot pistols and and tips another dead body into the sea after him. Brains are blown out. Chests opened. Twenty-five men (unfortunately, the equal opportunities agenda Stevenson follows so faithfully with Long John Silver doesn’t extend to women) are gradually whittled down to eight (three of whom are marooned to starve to death and/or go mad) via blade, musket ball or marlin spike.

Eventually (spoiler alert!), the establishment, in the form of the squire, the doctor, the innkeeper’s boy and honest ship’s captain, get the upper hand and sail away with seven hundred thousand in doubloons and other currencies. Silver slips off one night, never to face justice in this world – an image of the winners’ unacknowledged bad consciences, perhaps.

Ultimately, Treasure Island is a Reservoir Dogs for its time with no moral to the story beyond the edge that clean living and an education gives you when stealing treasure from pirates. Finders, keepers; losers, weepers, you might say.

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About Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

Writing, reading, listening, parenting... On Twitter as @dadwhowrites. View all posts by Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

13 responses to “Treasure Island

  • phoenixaeon

    Oh, Treasure Island. A story of Empire! A story of ‘You might feel bad for doing the things that you do, but you’ll get rich doing them. And you’ll have a splendidly gory adventure along the way!’ Yet that’s not what I think about when I think about Treasure Island now. Well, okay, it partly is, but it’s the parrot symbolism that sticks in my head. The parrot, who is as old as the Empire, relaying the history of what has gone before. The female parrot who reminds Silver of his ‘exotic’ home, yet is also symbolic of the role of the mother as the housebound teacher, highlighting the parrot fashion of education.

    That damned parrot. Yarg.

    (Good post, btw!)

    • Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

      I think we’re all agreed on the importance of the parrot. But is it really more like the voice of the previous winners and therefore writers of history, a voice now getting steadily more aged and querulous as the new historians in town prepare to re-write that particular text yet again? And in the pivotal blockhouse scene, is it not the parrot who highlights Jim’s nightmarish near-awakening to the fact that history entirely depends on where you are standing and is little more than the hideous cyclical exchange of one viewpoint for another – but always standing in the same place?

      • phoenixaeon

        ‘Tis very true and more or less what Stevenson was doing. Which is why the parrot fashion of education is insidious, and why Silver’s wrapping the parrot up in his lies about the bucaneering lifestyle and the joys of adventure and colonialism in order to glamour Jim was subversive. (Think about it. At that time, most boy’s literature did champion adventure, fighting for your country, and Empire building.) By saying that the parrot had lived through such an age of piracy and colonialism, Stevenson subtly highlighted the forced, and for all intents and purposes the barbaric, nature of Empire via the symbolism of the captured and caged parrot (it’s not like it could fly home once it’s stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean), therefore subliminally asking questions about the ethics of invasion and colonial rule. This also forced Jim to become the invaded country as both sides – Silver vs. the Doctor et al. – fought over whom he belonged to, allowing his awakening to the dichotomy of ideology.

      • Dad Who Writes (Gabriel)

        You should have a think about Kidnapped whilst you’re at it – another ‘simple’ adventure story full of ambiguity and anxiety about the ownership of capital, not to mention the backdrop of the Highland Enclosures and the recently crushed Jacobite rebellion.

  • Nexie Romanov

    An island of treasure – buried treasure on a far off island which takes guts determination and courage to acquire – I suppose now i see it as a sort of modern Olympus – a capitalist Utopia

    and of course there is the parrot – arguably the main protagonist of the novel – who gives Silver that edge of empirical class over his fellow adventurers

  • Nexie Romanov

    – utopia in the sense that its where they want to go due to their belief that the place can fulfill their desire – in this case wealth.

  • Rol

    Welcome back. Not sure I have read any RLS, which is surely a grave omission on my part.

  • J

    I’ve not read any RLS either. You make a very good case for it! I’m actually sort of tempted, esp when you say he’s lean and mean, because wow, some of those 19th century writers could go on and on a bit, no? No TV or internet to distract one…

  • Barbara

    Have just gone and bought Treasure Island, having realised that I’ve never actually read it (hangs head in shame). Thank you, I’m looking forward to a rollicking good read.

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