I never read this classic as a child and was prompted to rectify the omission by an extract in the Autumn 2011 edition of The Reader magazine. That, and the fact it was Christmas. Looking back, I’m not sure what train of thought led me associate pirates and a desert island treasure hunt with a ‘Christmassy’ read – unless it was a subliminal association with panto. (Oh, no, it wasn’t! Oh, yes, it was!) And no, it wasn’t the televised adaptation on New Years’ Day that made me think of it as I only found out about that after I’d finished the book.
But back to the book. So many elements of the story have become so much a part of popular ‘pirate’ culture – the one-legged Long John Silver, his parrot saying ‘pieces of eight! pieces of eight!’, the black spot, the ‘X’ on a map marking where treasure is buried – that sometimes it felt more like revisting an old favourite than reading something for the first time. Even the ‘old sea-song’ on the first page resonated reassuringly: ‘”Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”‘
So far, so familiar. But then there were those other elements, the parts that are easily lost in a simple precis of the story. Like, say, Long John Silver. He’s an ambivalent character throughout. Right from the off the narrator, young Jim Hawkins, is paid to be a look out for ‘a seafaring man with one leg’ and he has nightmares him ‘in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions.’ When Jim first meets the man himself, though, he trusts him absolutely: ‘I would have gone on bail for (his) innocence.’ It is the trust he inspires that allows LJS to influence the make-up of the crew and mastermind the mutiny. But when the plot looks like failing LJS changes sides again and cuts a deal to escape both the island and prosecution (which would mean hanging). How does he pull it off? Well he is charismatic, intelligent, amoral, ruthless, self-serving: the ultimate politician, in other words. There is also a touch of the exotic about him. The last we hear of LJS is when, on the way back home, he jumps ship with one of the sacks of treasure. ‘I daresay he meet with his old negress,’ narrates Jim. ‘and perhaps still lives in comfort with her.’ I, for one, don’t begrudge him that comfort.
Because, when you come to think about it, is LJS really all that different from the establishment figures? What right have of Squire Trelawney, who funds the expedition, or Dr Livesey, the magistrate who enthusiastically goes along, to claim the treasure for their own? ‘”If we have the clue you talk about…I’ll have that treasure if I search a year,”‘ says the Squire. Hear, hear, sir! Spoken like a true pirate!
Moral complexities aside, though, there is no denying it is a rip-roaring boy’s own adventure story. Young Jim Hawkins is at the heart of the action. It is Jim who finds the treasure map; Jim who uncovers the mutineers plot; Jim who finds and befriends Benn Gunn; Jim who re-captures the Hispanola. Stevenson’s Introductory Ode sums it up better than anything else:
‘If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons
And Buccaneers and buried Gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wisest youngsters of today:
– So be it, and fall on!…..’
Overall rating: *** highly recommended