Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson
An absolute classic, Treasure Island (first published in 1883) is the original in the “pirates as heroes” genre. A swashbuckling adventure from Bristol to the high seas, it follows the adventures of Jim Hawkins and a motley crew of sea-faring buccaneers on a quest for Captain Flint’s buried treasure. I just finished reading it again, and it’s hilarious to read and compare it to modern adventure equivalents (I’m thinking the modern Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise). The movies have stolen all of their characterization from this book!
The most famous pirate of all time found his introduction in Treasure Island. Long John Silver is the perfect anti-hero… sometimes he’s against the grain, and sometimes he’s with it, but you like him regardless. Johnny Depp studied the mannerisms of Keith Richards when bringing Captain Jack Sparrow to life, but that character is every bit Long John Silver. Silver is not over-confident, he is just sure of what he’s doing, every moment he’s doing it. Whether he’s on your side or someone else’s, Silver is always on his side. Watching the pirate movies of 120 years later, Sparrow’s allegiance to himself is just as sure and steady as is Silver’s.
Everything – from the language, to the descriptions of the environments, to the grittiness of the “gentleman of fortune” – in the modern movies has its root in this one short book. In fact, I would love to see a modern movie adaptation made of the book. I know Disney did it in the 50s (and there are a few other weak attempts), but modern production values added to this book could really do it an honour.
The book itself is written as a narrative, told mainly from the point of view of Jim Hawkins, who ends discovering a treasure map and becoming part of the crew of the ill-fated Hispaniola. Hawkins’ narrative is often breathless and foreshadowing, as if he can’t believe his luck at being alive after all he went through. Robert Louis Stevenson’s talent really shines through, though, when the narrative shifts temporarily from Jim’s point of view to that of Dr. Livsey, another of the book’s main characters. The doctor’s narrative has a much more “official” flavor to it, as if writing it is an understood duty for a humble officer of the Royal Navy itself. The contrasting flavours of the two narrative styles hilight the true class separation of the time – the tavern boy and the worldly educated man, and help you to really feel what it was like to live with these people.
Treasure Island is at once mysterious, adventurous and straightforward. A tale of treasure, mutiny and survival, it’s amazing how much Stevenson packed into such a (by today’s standards) small novel. It’s refreshing to get so much out of something so short. Considering the books I finished reading just prior to picking this classic up again (Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch series), Treasure Island gets a lot done. Four books and several thousand pages later, the tale of Shadowmarch ends… while Treasure Island finishes in less than 200 pages. Stevenson tells the story in a straightforward fashion, start to finish, and doesn’t ever pull a twist or surprise that feels in any way contrived. That’s not to say anything less of Williams’ epic, but it’s just a different (and simpler) way to tell a story.
If you haven’t read Treasure Island, you should; there is a reason it’s considered a classic. From start to finish it’s hard to put down, and reading the gentlemenly talk of the protagonists versus the lilting slang of the pirates is just a fun ride through an excellent and simple adventure. Read it!