Reading: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson
Published: 1885
Type: Fiction
Finished: July 17, 2020

Rating: ★★★

Image from Amazon

This is it! “X” marks the spot – the canonical pirate story. While there were others before, this 19th century novel is the one which establishes the Romantic pirate folklore we all know. In it we have:

  • A one legged sailor. Sure, the captain of the Pequod in Moby Dick had only one leg; but Ahab did not have
  • A parrot to sit on the sailor’s shoulder
  • Large brimmed hats with one side flopping down.
  • A treasure map, where “X” marks the spot
  • A treasure chest
  • A marooned castaway
  • So much rum
  • That quintessential  song:
    “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest … Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.”
  • “Shiver my timbers”
  • And more

Young Jim Hawkins is the hero, and narrator, of the story. He helps his mom run the small Admiral Benbow Inn on the English coast. One day a fearsome sailor with a big sea chest checks into the inn. When drinking his rum – which is a lot of the time – Billy Bones regales his audience with tales of the high seas.

“By his own account he must have lived his life among some of the wickedest men that God ever allowed upon the sea; and the language in which he told these stories shocked our plain country people almost as much as the crimes that he described.” [p 7]

Billy Bones spends most of his days on the cliffs above the seashore looking for we know not what. Obviously worried, he enlists Jim’s help in keeping his eye out for a sailor with just one leg. One thing leads to another, Billy Bones dies, Jim finds a package in Bone’s sea chest which turns out to have a treasure map. Yadda, yadda, yadda, and a ship is commissioned, a captain and crew found, and they set off on a treasure hunt. The good guys are Jim, the local doctor Dr. Livesy, the chief landowner of the area John Trelawney, and Captain Smollett. And who is crewing? Long John Silver! Jim meets a one legged man who runs a local tavern; but after talking with him is sure he can’t be that man Billy Bones carried on about.

“Now to tell you the truth, from the very first mention of Long John in Squire Trelawney’s letter, I had taken a fear in my mind that he might prove to be the very one-legged sailor whom I had watched for so long at the old ‘Benbow.’ But one look at the man before me was enough. I had seen the captain, and Black  Dog, and the blind man Pew, and I thought I knew what a buccaneer was like – a very different creature, according to me, from this clean and pleasant-tempered landlord.” [p 31]

“I would have gone bail for the innocence of Long John Silver.” [p 33]

Along the way, Jim learns of the treachery Long John Silver and his fellow pirate shipmates have in mind. Good guys and bad guys split and a deadly contest for the treasure is on. 

Long John Silver is, by far, the most interesting and complex character in the book. Most of the time he is charming but it is obvious that he is always scheming and planning; he is always trying to keep his options open. He is as apt to use his wit and wiles as he is a gun or sword. As for the rest of the characters we see what kind of people they are immediately and they continue to act as you’d expect. Trelawney, the local noble man is an idiot. Against strong warnings from Dr. Livesy he spills the word on the purpose of the voyage and hires Long John and his cohorts to crew the ship.

Of course all the characters are fictionalized, but Jim is the most unrealistic. He takes some chances that no one – especially a child – would take in his position. But of course what is unrealistic also makes for a great hero for the young readers.

Regardless, it is a fun short read – perfect to recapture a bit of your youth this summer.

This novel was written in serial format from 1881 to 1882 and grew from a treasure map Stevenson’s step son had painted. Being almost 140 years old, it is only logical that some of the language is a bit strange and unclear. I had to read a few passages a few times to make sure I understood what was happening, but sometimes I stumbled upon passages like this:

“Have I lived this many years, and a son of a rum-puncheon cock his hat athwart my hawse at the latter end of it?” [p 106]

As a result, it may be difficult for young people to plow through it. Perhaps a parent reading to their children would do better. 

My dad received a 1915 copy of Treasure Island from his father. I never read it though it was around the house and I filled myself up with other books from my dad and mom’s library. In the 1980s my dad inscribed it and passed it along to my boys. I found it in a bookshelf last year and passed it to my youngest son to share with his two boys. So this copy has spanned 5 generations and counting. 

Having said that, I read a Kindle edition. While Kindle editions of classic novels can be hit or miss, I found this Ici-Ebook (see the link above) to be very good. However you read this, get a copy with illustrations. The Kindle edition actually had dual illustrations from different a first. Interestingly enough, they mostly picked the same scenes to illustrate. It was nice to use my tablet to zoom in on the beautiful drawings.

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