By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, April 17, 2006
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
By the early 1880s the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson had, as he recalled more than a decade later, "written little books and little essays and short stories, and had got patted on the back and paid for them." He had "quite a reputation," yet he was frustrated and unhappy, puzzled "that I should spend a man's energy upon this business, and yet could not earn a livelihood."
He was "the head of a family" and "had lost my health" to the tuberculosis that finally killed him at age 44 in 1894, and he "was indeed very close on despair," when in this darkest of moments an astonishing thing happened. Back in Scotland after sojourns to southern climes in search of weather that would restore his health, he fell in with a schoolboy who was doing boyish drawings and, in the spirit of things, Stevenson "made the map of an island" the shape of which "took my fancy beyond expression." The child "ticketed my performance 'Treasure Island,' " and the rest -- in this case the old saw is absolutely true -- is history.
The novel that this map inspired was first called "Sea Cook" and, when it was published in serial form in 1881 and 1882, aroused no particular attention. But after Stevenson revised it for book publication in 1883 and retitled it, everything changed. "Treasure Island" almost immediately found innumerable readers, and ever since has been one of the world's most beloved books. It has been translated into heaven knows how many languages, has been adapted heaven knows how many times for films, the stage and television, and generally has worked its way into the public consciousness to a degree achieved by few other books. It is at once a thrilling adventure story and an acute psychological study of men in groups; it can be read with pleasure and profit at many levels.
Thus this reconsideration of "Treasure Island" can scarcely be called a rediscovery, because "Treasure Island" has never been lost. Still, it is now 125 years old, and it has been more than half a century since I first read it. Even the best and most beloved of books lose some of their steam over the years, as their stories become universally familiar and as their language gradually comes to seem dated and stilted. We know intimately the story of "Treasure Island" and its characters -- Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones, Captain Smollett and, most especially, Long John Silver -- but have the story and its people become so Disneyfied over the years that the book itself has vanished?
A rereading of Stevenson's novel after all those years says nothing to me so much as that good books -- and "Treasure Island" is a very good book -- really have lives of their own, entirely apart from movies and other adaptations of them. Some of the adaptations of the book are very good, but none is as good as the book itself. "Treasure Island" is a genuine classic that still somehow retains its power to surprise, to amuse and -- even though we all know how it ends -- to raise the reader's blood pressure.
Over the years "Treasure Island" frequently has been pigeonholed, and dismissed, as a book for boys. To be sure, Stevenson had boys in mind as he wrote it, but many girls have gotten great pleasure out of it and so, for that matter, have many adults, this one included. If we insist on literary categorization, then someone really must invent a category into which could be fit all those books -- Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" novels, Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer," Johanna Spyri's "Heidi" -- that are routinely filed in the children's section yet are often read by adults, and for that matter all those books that are rated "adult" yet can, and should, be read by children of a certain age: Russell Baker's "Growing Up," Richard Wright's "Native Son," Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
"Treasure Island" is an adventure story but it is also a fantasy; it has "the dreamlike quality of a fairy tale," according to the Penguin Classics edition, and though book-jacket copy generally should be discounted, that is a fair assessment. Set on a small, distant island in an unidentified part of the world -- John Seelye, in his introduction to the Penguin edition, makes an interesting argument that it is off the coast of California -- the story rises above time and place to achieve what Penguin calls "the power of myth." By Stevenson's own ready admission he was heavily influenced by Daniel Defoe, Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving and others, to the extent that one almost senses great swaths of the world's literature being gathered into this relatively slender book that then rises above all of them. From the moment young Jim Hawkins first glimpses the island, the reader is transported into a world that is at once of and apart from our own:
"The place was entirely land-locked, buried in woods, the trees coming right down to high-water mark, the shores mostly flat, and the hilltops standing round at a distance in a sort of amphitheatre, one here, one there. Two little rivers, or, rather, two swamps, emptied out into this pond, as you might call it; and the foliage round that part of the shore had a kind of poisonous brightness. From the ship, we could see nothing of the house or stockade, for they were quite buried among trees; and if it had not been for the chart on the companion, we might have been the first that had ever anchored there since the island arose out of the seas."
The crew of the Hispaniola knows that there are structures on the island because they are indicated on the map that has guided them there. But this is not the same map that inspired Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey to undertake the mission. It is a copy of the original, with an important omission: It does not include the exact site of the treasure buried by the legendary pirate Captain Flint, or the precise written directions to the site. The original map (removed from the cantankerous old Billy Bones's sea chest after his death) is carefully hidden from the crew by the squire and the captain, at first out of the officers' natural suspicion of the motives of their crews, but then they go on full alert when Jim inadvertently discovers that Long John Silver is preparing to lead a mutiny, seize the map and take the treasure for the mutineers.
The book has many splendidly realized characters, but two stand out. The first is Jim, who narrates most of the story (Livesey takes over the narrative for three important chapters) and who is boyishness incarnate, or, perhaps more accurate, romantic ideals of boyishness incarnate. He is still in his teens, bereft at the death of his father (complicated relationships of fathers and sons being a theme to which Stevenson returned over and over again), yet "full of sea dreams and the most charming anticipations of strange islands and adventures." He is independent and resourceful -- "a noticing lad," as Livesey puts it -- and even when he knows he shouldn't be doing what he has in mind, he does it anyway: "I was only a boy, and I had made my mind up."
The other is of course Long John Silver, that utterly amoral scoundrel with a heart of, well, not gold, but not lead, either. He has a peg leg and a parrot (in his reminiscence of the novel's creation, Stevenson writes with wry gratitude to Defoe, "No doubt the parrot once belonged to Robinson Crusoe") and he is so jolly with Jim when first they meet that the boy imagines him "one of the best of possible shipmates." Then Jim hears Silver muttering mutiny, and sees him in a far darker light: "I had, by this time, taken such a horror of his cruelty, duplicity, and power, that I could scarce conceal a shudder when he laid his hand upon my arm." Yet after the mutiny begins and the island is swept by violence, Silver saves Jim's life. As the old pirate sleeps, Jim regards him with something close to affection: "my heart was sore for him, wicked as he was, to think on the dark perils that environed, and the shameful gibbet that awaited him."
Ah yes, "environed" and "the shameful gibbet." Here we come to the problem of language. In Stevenson's day, environed meant "encircled." As to the gibbet, not many of today's readers will know that it is the gallows. "Gibbet" has gone the way of the gallows itself, and probably more than a few readers will be drawn up short when they encounter it now. Some of the dialogue also will slow them down. Here for example is Silver talking down a mutiny within the mutiny: "Did any of you gentlemen want to have it out with me? . . . Him that wants shall get it. 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? You know the way; you're all gentlemen o' fortune, by your account. Well, I'm ready. Take a cutlass, him that dares, and I'll see the colour of his inside, crutch and all, before that pipe's empty."
Quaint, to be sure, but is it really very hard to figure out that Silver is challenging his men to pick a fight with him? No, it isn't, and it isn't hard to figure out that none of these guys will get the best of the one-legged rascal. Nor is it a surprise that, in the end, Stevenson can't bring himself to send Silver to the gibbet; he's come to love the old crook too much, and so has the reader.
A century and a quarter after its publication, "Treasure Island" apparently still is finding plenty of readers. Many different editions of it are available, some (like the Penguin) with scholarly apparatus and appendices, others unadorned and aimed, obviously, at younger readers. This reader, no spring chicken, has no doubt that they will enjoy it as much as he did when he was their age -- and that their parents will, too.
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson (Penguin Classics, $7.)
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.