20 classics in 2011 #3: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

Yarrrr, I was in the mood for some adventure! And so much legend exists because of this one book: one-legged pirates, parrots, treasure maps marked with an X and more.

When was it published?

It was originally published as a serial in the children’s magazine Young Folks from 1881-82 (under the pseudonym Captain George North), and was published as a novel in 1883. My copy is a very cool complete and unabridged 1988 Aerie Books edition, which includes information on the life of Robert Louis Stevenson and a great foreword and afterword by Jane Yolen. Of course there are plenty of other editions. Here’s a good-looking illustrated one from Walker Books (also unabridged).

What’s it about?

A mysterious seaman shows up at the country Inn where young Jim Hawkins works with his mother and father. The seaman is hounded by strangers, drinks them out of rum and then he dies. As a result, Jim becomes the owner of a map of a tropical island and a hidden fortune, which he shares with Squire Trelawney and Dr Livesey.

Soon the doctor and squire have amassed a ship, the Hispaniola, and crew of questionable individuals including the one-legged, parrot-shouldered Long John Silver. They set sail for the island and all sorts of deadly adventures follow.

Tell us more about the author.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1850 and struggled with illness all his life. At university he ‘turned into a Bohemian and atheist, dressing oddly, spending a great deal of time in taverns and bars, and making friends his parents considered low and unsuitable’ (from Jane Yolen’s foreword). He earned a literary reputation with stories and essays while mooching off his parents and pretending he was going to study engineering, then, to his parents’ dismay, married an older, divorced American woman and gained a stepson.

Despite being seriously ill with tuberculosis, Stevenson began writing Treasure Island for his stepson Lloyd. While still ill he also wrote other famous works A Child’s Garden of Verses, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He and his family travelled around from warm place to warm place trying to beat his illnesses, but he died young, of cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 44.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Treasure Island was great fun to read, though I wish I’d read it as a kid of about 11 or 12. It would have been absolutely thrilling, then. Reading it as an adult, I partly wished for more fleshed-out characters and I’m not such a fan of action (and it’s action sequence after action sequence). It’s a fast-paced book and even a little confusing at times (those mutineers are tricksy) but definitely light, rollicking and fun. I wasn’t keen on the chapters narrated by Dr Livesey either. I could see the reason for them, but I wanted to stay with Jim. Arguably, Long John Silver is a more complex character than the rest – not all good or all bad – and has certainly stayed in the minds of many readers.

What I find fascinating about Treasure Island is the role it has played in creating the myth of the pirate. Jane Yolen tells me in the foreword that the book may not have existed without the precursors of Robinson Crusoe and the true, bloody, history of pirating in America and England. ‘Stories of pirates, buccaneers, and even privateers… were already highly popular’, says Yolen. But Treasure Island built on and contributed to pirate mythology perhaps more than any other book. Yolen includes a great set of pirate ‘myths’ which Stevenson built on. Pirates were rarely rich from their adventures, for example, many pirates (or privateers) were actually working for political and patriotic reasons and not for their own pleasure; only sometimes did pirates sail under the Jolly Roger; and in fact many pirates were women. Yolen says:

‘In fact some of the bloodiest, wickedest, and best pirates in the world were women… There were female pirates like Pretty Peg who sailed for love, Anne Bonney and Mary Reade who sailed for adventure, Jeanne de Belleville who sailed for revenge, and Madame Ching who led a battalion of 2000 Chinese junks in the early nineteenth century.’

Looks like Jane Yolen has even written a couple of books on these female pirates, which I think would be fascinating. There are not really any women in Treasure Island, apparently as per Lloyd’s instructions (Stevenson’s stepson).

The other thing I like about it is the fact that apparently the book broke new grounds in children’s literature by ‘refusing to be a thinly-disguised moral lesson’. It is a seriously bloody book, and the protagonist is a young boy – a witness to gruesome deaths, injury, trickery and greed. He gets up to his own mischief in it too (for the good of the crew). It definitely would have been a thrilling thing to read as a kid, imagining yourself in young Jim’s shoes, hoping you could be as clever as he if you were in his situation. If you have kids aged around 11 or 12, get them onto it!

What’s next?

I’ve picked up a copy of Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains (more cult than classic, but I’m including those). And I’m definitely thinking I should read Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray soonBut I have a few new books on my radar at the moment, too…

What do you remember of Treasure Island? Did you read it as a child? Have you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s other works? I think Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is great, too.

‘Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!’

3 thoughts on “20 classics in 2011 #3: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

  1. I agree it’s a great book but I think you’re being overly optimistic if you expect a lot of 11 or 12yos will take to it. Different times: as a kid I had no problem reading Poe, Stevenson, Haggard or Verne- enjoyed them greatly; now the C19th is a long way away and contemporary kid fiction is very fast paced and quickly read so it’s hard to convince a 12yo to persist with a classic like ‘Treasure Island’. Of course, if a kid can be convinced to read one of these richly-detailed books they’ll probably never forget it; I can smell that island just thinking about it.

  2. I get rather upset when Treasure Island is refered to and discusssed with relevance to the fact it was published in a children’s magazine; especially when reviewers resort to silly pirate voices. By doing so you take away so much from the exquisite prose, evocative descriptions and vital message that Stevenson was conveying. The plot should really be secondary to the skill, craft and genius – the same goes with Kidnapped. I have taught Treasure Island to Year 8’s before and they absolutely loved it – there are so many alleys and possibilities to explore. My favourite (and in my opinion best) work by Stevenson is The Master of Ballantrae – a much colder, bitter novel.

  3. Read it when I was 8 or 9 and loved it.
    One thing that I remember was the tension and fear in the book (which I, like many kids, couldn’t get enough of).
    The first chapters are a nightmare exploring the experience of good but weak people forced to live with a psychopath. Young Jim gains strength by realising that he is better able to deal with the drunken sea-captain than his cowed father. That strength helps him adapt when thrown onto the island with a pack of buccaneers, and to bond with characters like Silver and Ben Gunn.
    There’s a great sinister feel to the second half of the novel too, with the eerie pirate songs and the Black Spot.
    Any kid who can read the first Harry Potter book can read this and would have a whale of a time.

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