Monday, January 31, 2011

Treasure Island: In Which Stevenson Singlehandedly Creates Our Perception of Pirates

Everyone knows that Treasure Island is about pirates. And everyone knows what I mean by pirates: parrots on the shoulders of treacherous one-legged sailors, an old map with a red "X" to mark the secret location of the buried treasure, schooners, mutinies, maroonings, tropical islands, scalawags with names like Black Dog and Billy Bones, shipwrecks, muskets and cutlasses, the black spot, pieces of eight, rum, rum and more rum, even the guy with the red stocking cap who climbs the rigging with a knife in his teeth.  Guess what? Robert Louis Stevenson made it all up.



Birth of a Subgenre
Before Treasure Island, none of the above ideas were specifically connected with pirates in the popular imagination.  The birth of the novel can be traced to the day Stevenson's stepson painted a map of an island, and Stevenson, looking over his shoulder, was intrigued enough to make up a story on the spot.  Within 15 days he wrote 15 chapters.  The remainder of the book was finished later that year, Stevenson having been interrupted in the middle by a prolonged illness.  Stevenson based his ambiguous one-legged mutineer and sea-cook Long John Silver, one of the most well-known literary characters of all time, on his friend, William Ernest Henley, who had lost his leg to tuberculosis.  If Henley's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the author of  the poem "Invictus"  (you may know its oft-quoted lines, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul", penned shortly after Henley lost his leg).  The personality and determination that shine through in "Invictus" have also been captured in Stevenson's portrayal of Silver.

The story garnered little attention when it was first serialized in a magazine, but when published as a book, it gained instant popularity.  Without Stevenson, we'd be missing an entire segment of halloween costumes, kids' books, films, themed birthday parties, niche seafood restaurants and amusement park rides. There would likely be no Talk Like A Pirate Day, nor would Facebook provide the language option "English (pirate)".  Would not our world be a little less merry and whimsical without Captain Jack Sparrow?  (Can't say I'd miss Captain Feathersword of The Wiggles though....)  These items are shallow in themselves, but the world of adventurous and imaginative play in which children engage while drawing on this cultural legacy is quite valuable.

The book itself is, of course, an excellent adventure novel.  It's a classic coming-of-age tale intended for a juvenile audience, although it differs significantly from more recent children's works in its frequent descriptions of enthusiastic rum guzzling.  Must be a pirate thing... The plot contains enough twists to interest adults, and the morally complex character of Long John Silver is also unusual in children's literature.  At 250 pages, you could read it aloud to your grade-schooler in a week.  In fact, I think I'll do just that, even though I read it to myself last week.  It's that good.

Stats:
Favorite character: Long John Silver
Guy you want to slap: Squire Trelawney
There was a lot of: piratical elements...as mentioned above
There should have been more: dangerous island creatures. I'm thinking a big snake would have intensified the savage wilderness feel of the island.
Conflicts existed between: civility and savagery, truthfulness and deception, drunkenness and sobriety, loyalty and disloyalty
Eccentricity I'd most like to emulate: Dr. Livesey carrying a piece of parmesan cheese with him in a snuff box.

2 comments:

bren j. said...

If you ever DO start carrying cheese in a snuff box, I'll know things are near The End.

Debbie said...

I think I'll read the book just to see what Dr. Livesey ultimately does with that cheese.

And don't anyone give it away!