As a special “Talk Like A Pirate Day” treat, here’s an article about Treasure Island, which we wrote some years ago for the Books for Keeps website.
Robert Louis Stevenson and the Long Shadow of John Silver
For those wanting something different for Christmas than the usual panto fayre, the National Theatre stages a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Children and adults will be familiar with its sunny climes and dark hearts, hidden loot, one-legged sea dogs with a parrot on one shoulder, walking the plank and hoisting the Jolly Roger.
Without Treasure Island’s Long John Silver we wouldn’t have Captain Hook in panto, and certainly no Jack Sparrow! But the original Seven Seas bad boy was no pantomime villain like his offspring; Stevenson looked for inspiration not to the Caribbean, but to wet and draughty Edinburgh.
Stevenson was born in 1850, into a devout Edinburgh household. He was a sickly but precocious child who possessed the spirit of adventure – adventures that mostly played out in his head. Later, when not absent due to tuberculosis, he only attended his University lectures when the weather was bad: like other students from Edinburgh’s modern, spacious New Town, Stevenson spent plenty of time in the crowded slums.
But where most of his well-heeled schoolfellows used and abused Old Town and its residents for their drunken gambling forays, Stevenson was considerate towards people of all classes, realising that an invalid beggar he encountered on the street was once a young man like himself, with hopes and dreams. He mingled with chimney sweeps, seamen and thieves and became well-liked by them.
Though he passed the Bar in 1875, he’d never practice law: it was literature that obsessed Stevenson. His first published works were travelogues documenting the trips he took for his health. They are full of anecdotes from various journeys, even to America. On one of these trips he met his future wife, Fanny Osbourne, and her children Belle and Lloyd.
It was for his stepson Lloyd that Stevenson drew the map of an imaginary island that was the genesis of Treasure Island. The book is dedicated to Lloyd, but could equally have been written for the sick child that Stevenson himself once was. All young readers can identify with Jim Hawkins who encounters an old sea-dog on a mysterious errand and finds himself on a treasure hunt.
Stevenson knew the value of terseness and economy of style and wrote in a persuasive, journalistic style mixing fact and fiction. His characters reflections of people Stevenson knew in both Old Town and New Town. When he describes “A blind man, with a voice so cruel, cold and ugly,” it is not a caricature but drawn from life.
Treasure Island first appeared as a serial in the magazine “Young Folks”, but it is with its 1883 publication in book form that Stevenson became a celebrated author. While it offers a rollicking adventure, the book has a surprisingly dark core: it’s about going from civilisation to barbarism, and whether one can survive. Young Jim Hawkins does, and grows up in the process.
Treasure Island is so embedded in our culture and has inspired so many imitators, that what many hold for a traditional sea shanty is Stevenson’s invention: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” Yet for all the vistas of foaming sea, creaking masts and tropical islands these lines conjure, they underline an intentionally sober message: Stevenson had witnessed drunks in Old Town, old before their time, destitute and degraded, but he didn’t denounce them from the literary pulpit. Blind Billy Bones from Treasure Island may be a drunk and a rabble rouser, but we still feel some sympathy for him.
Stevenson shows an endless fascination with characters who are morally dubious, with both pirates and good guys motivated by greed for the buried treasure. Focal point of the book is the ship’s hearty cook, who reveals himself as Long John Silver, the bloodthirsty mutineer. Loyalties are tested and betrayed throughout the story, but trough his friendship with Jim and the courage he displays, Silver earns our respect, and he is allowed to escape at the end of the book.
Stevenson found his very own Treasure Island when he travelled to the Tropics at the insistence of his doctors. He spent the last half-decade of his life on the Samoan island of Upolu with his family, taking an active interest in the indigenous people: he assisted in their politics and in fought for their civil rights. Among them, he found affection and esteem, and they called him Tusi-Tala, Teller of Tales.
Robert Louis Stevenson passed away in 1894 at the age of 44, having been dying most of his life. He was buried on the very top of the Vaea Mountain, overlooking the sea.
X marks the spot.