Welcome back to my bookshelf!
Like so many children, I wanted to be a pirate.
This started young. I had a little pirate action figure set complete with ship and skull-shaped island (I’ve since leased this, if you will, to my niece to play with when she visits her grandmother’s house). Peter Pan was one of my favorite childhood stories, and Hook and Smee my favorite Disney villains (apart from Scar, admittedly, but you never forget your first). When Disney came out with Captain Jack Sparrow and updated my always-favorite ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, needless to say I was in hog heaven.
But even if I weren’t a literature fan, I would have all of this owed to Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scottish author from the late 1800s.
If you read Treasure Island, or watch one of the many television or film versions (seriously, take your pick, there’s so many), you might roll your eyes and think it’s cheesy. A stereotypical show if pirates, with X marking the spot on an island where treasure is buried, and a peg-legged pirate with a parrot on his shoulder. I mean, that’s in every poorly conceived pirate story, right?
Where do you think those stereotypes came from?
As many great novels from this era, Treasure Island was serialized, and Robert Louis Stevenson released it in segments to a magazine (or maybe a literary journal, minor distinction, and I’ll admit that I haven’t carefully researched this; I just happen to know it and I don’t remember why). In those segments, he not only told an adventurous tale that young boys could play with and relate to as a coming of age story, but he literally wrote the book on over-the-top pirate lore that has become canonical, thanks to many Disney imaginings of pirates since based on this original brilliance.
It’s important to remember when we read old books that we’re reading the baseline. Classics aren’t classic necessarily because they’re any better than what we have today. Some things are classic because they did something significant first. Treasure Island formed the conception of pirates in the way Ivanhoe romanticized the Crusades and chivalry for future generations to play with, but it did much more than that.
Apart from crystallizing my pirate obsession as a child, this novel also presented me with a story that creates almost an antihero in Long John Silver (who has his own seafood chain because he’s that cool). Unlike many children’s books, of the era or of our era, good and evil aren’t so clearly delineated. Like our modern Jack Sparrow, Long John Silver makes you wonder if up is down on many an occasion, and this resonates with children, even if we adults don’t want it to.
The world isn’t black and white, and even though children seem to want it to be, this isn’t natural to them. They think it’s that way because we present it in that way to them, but they are remarkably perceptive about the complexities of life. They know that things aren’t always fair in the numerical sense, and they know that right doesn’t always win. They also know that the “wrong” choice often looks very tempting, reasonable, and even good.
It’s this moral complexity that Robert Louis Stevenson appeals to in children when he writes this book, and generations of young children (admittedly mostly boys) were just as captivated as I was by a story that tells it like it is while still capturing the imagination with adventure, puzzles, and a world where rules are a little bit more flexible.
Because seriously, who didn’t mark the spot with X?
(If you didn’t, shame on you.)