Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Reviewed by Annabel

Treasure IslandThe anticipation of re-reading a book first read and enjoyed as a child always gives me a feeling of mild discomfort. Can it work on an adult level? Or, should I keep childhood memories intact and not re-read at all?  Fortunately, if you stick to the acknowledged classics you can’t go far wrong and re-reading later in life usually turns out to be an enriching exercise. In fact, I’m sure I enjoyed Treasure Island more this time around.

This novel sets the bar for everything a child could want from a pirate story – swashbuckling, sea-faring adventure, a misfit bunch of rogues, a treasure map with ‘X’ marking the spot, pirate songs and plenty of grog, with the lynchpin being the narrator –  a plucky young hero who saves the day.

Long John Silver with his single leg and parrot epitomises the wily pirate – and provides a great quiz question: Which leg did Silver lose?  The majority always pick the wrong one!

As I was waiting, a man came out of a side room, and at a glance, I was sure he must be Long John. His left leg was cut off close at the hip, and under the left shoulder he carried a crutch, which he managed with wonderful dexterity, hopping about upon it like a bird.

I can remember enjoying the opening chapters as much as the voyage itself as a child – an experience repeated upon revisiting the novel. From the moment Billy Bones turns up at the out-of-the-way Admiral Benbow Inn, hiding from Silver’s men who are after the contents of his sea-chest, the suspense starts to build up. The moment when he sees Blind Pew who will slip him the ‘Black Spot’ is spell-binding:

The poor captain raised his eyes, and at one look the rum went out of him, and left him staring sober. The expression of his face was not so much of terror as of mortal sickness. He made a movement to rise, but I do not believe he had enough force left in his body.

Jim’s fate is sealed the moment he shares Captain Flint’s treasure map from the chest with the Doctor and the local Squire. Who wouldn’t want join a schooner bound to recover buried treasure from the Caribbean? Trelawney, in his ignorance, manages to hire several former members of the dead pirate’s old crew of whom Silver is the ring-leader. Adventure, mayhem and murder beckon.

What stands out upon re-reading is how morally suspect the entire tale is. Trelawney immediately jumps on the idea of going after the treasure – there is never any mention of salvage and restoring it to those robbed. In the end, the surviving good guys share it out – they might as well be pirates as the baddies.

Silver is marvellously complex; an intelligent man, he constantly plays both sides. He knows that the time to take-over would be on the voyage home, but the rest of the bloodthirsty crew will never let it come to that. Few will leave the island alive – but Silver will be one of them!

As for Jim, his youth plays to his advantage, allowing him to get into both camps, seeing and overhearing, and even when momentarily captured not being in real mortal danger. It is when he re-boards the Hispaniola and Israel Hands tries to murder him that Jim has to grow up really fast, killing Hands. Despite the loss of innocence that this manslaughter bestows on Jim, in this dog-eat-dog situation, we don’t hold it against him and little more is said.

I read a new edition from Alma Classics’ new Junior collection. Each chapter is headed by an appropriate illustration by David Macintosh, who also updates Stevenson’s original map in his own style.  There are some great extras included in the Appendix – including Stevenson’s own essay ‘My First Book: Treasure Island’ that he wrote for the Idler magazine in 1894. He tells of his sources of inspiration for the tale, and:

It was to be a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone. Women were excluded. […]

And then I had an idea for John Silver from which I promised myself funds of entertainment; to take an admired friend of mine (whom the reader very likely knows and admires as much as I do), to deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of temperament, to leave him with nothing but his strength, his courage, his quickness and his magnificent geniality, and to try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin. Such psychical surgery is, I think, a common way of “making character”; perhaps it is the only way.

This essay is a fascinating insight into The Sea Cook, as the novel was originally titled. Also included is an interlude to the tale in which Captain Smollett and Silver discuss The persons of the tale – this was published posthumously.

The essay, interlude, notes on the text and a section for younger readers comprising dramatis personae, a biographical note on Stevenson, quiz and glossary add over thirty pages of extra material appended to the novel and make this a useful and affordable paperback edition of this classic novel.

I loved it, and now have The Hound of the Baskervilles from the same series to revisit.

SNB logo tiny

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (Alma Classics, 2015).  9781847494863, paperback, 250 pp..

BUY Treasure Island from the Book Depository

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *