Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
first published January 28, 1882
After visiting the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, it seemed only natural that I should continue my challenge to read more classics with one of the best loved Scottish authors. Let’s be honest though, the main reason why I chose Treasure Island is because my favourite television show, Black Sails, acts as a loose prequel to the events of Stevenson’s adventure story.
In the novel, Jim Hawkins discovers a map among the effects of an old sailor, who dies while staying at the Hawkins’ family inn. Deducing that the map leads to the location where the infamous pirate Captain Flint buried his treasure, the local physician and district squire buy a ship, gather a crew, and set sail. However, the crew turn out to be former pirates from Flint’s crew and plot a mutiny against the honest men.
Sounds interesting right? Wrong! No book about pirates written for children should be this dull! I can understand why Treasure Island would capture the imagination of readers in the nineteenth century but this is one classic that the years have not treated kindly. Never before has 187 pages felt so long!
The biggest problem is that Treasure Island is written in over-descriptive prose that robs the narrative of any sense of urgency or tension. The stakes are never high enough to feel as though there’s any real danger, and the dialogue is filled with nautical slang to the point where it’s difficult to understand what the characters are actually saying.
With the possible exception of Jim Hawkins, the boy narrator, the characters are thinly written. The most enduring character is, understandably, Silver, who shows some promise in his jovial persona but underlying self-interest. Silver unfortunately doesn’t have a large enough role to save this novel though. It’s easy to see why Treasure Island has been adapted successfully, but the source material does not stand the test of time. It’s particularly distressing that Treasure Island is recommended to pre-teen and teenage boys, who are often among the most reluctant readers.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s influence on the depiction of pirates in pop culture cannot be underestimated. Treasure Island created many pirate tropes including X marks the spot, Long John Silver with his parrot, and nautical slang. These have been cemented in our minds through its various adaptations from more traditional films to new classics like Muppet Treasure Island. This contribution to pirate lore is Treasure Island‘s legacy. Stevenson has created a foundation on which more in-depth and engaging pirate stories can grow for future generations. My advice? Leave Treasure Island on the shelf and enjoy the media it’s inspired instead.