12:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016
The term ‘classic’ is heard often, but this famed tale, first published in 1883, must bear the rubric as well as any. I confess I am very late coming to ‘Treasure Island’, the book, and can see why so many suggest it and recall it fondly from a childhood reading list (myself, I recall the 1950 Disney film version played out at Saturday morning pictures). Still, rarely has a fictional literary character been so profoundly absorbed into the national consciousness as Long John Silver. Moreover, on belatedly reading the book, one realizes the challenge of trying to capture, in moving pictures, the sheer scale of this much-beloved adventure and the pale nature of the many attempts.
As an island nation, I suspect we have a particular fascination with the sea, but Stevenson’s use of a maritime backdrop taps into the lifeblood of nineteenth century Britain, from the evocative description of bustling Bristol, steeped in trade, to the skills of the seamen who enabled such trade to flourish. Little wonder perhaps that such men should assume heroic status among landlubbers, nor that sea-faring legends should prove such fertile ground for the anti-hero.
In the main, the story is narrated by Jim Hawkins, young son of an inn-keeper, who is by chance drawn into a dark plot involving the pirate fraternity and the search for the late Captain Flint’s plundered loot. The contrast between the leading protagonists is stark, from the stoic, cultured Captain Smollett, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, of the gentrified classes to the deformed, drunken and duplicitous pirates including Pew, Israel Hands and Long John, although it is the latter ‘have nots’ that display the more intriguing characters. Indeed, Stevenson describes the comic ‘lower’ classes in quite disparaging terms, the worse off for their inferior intellect and a weakness for drink, but on board ship the value of sailors in their ‘natural’ environment proves quite the leveller. Woven throughout is the majestic schooner, ‘Hispaniola’, which sails under the Union Jack and Jolly Roger in the course of the book and provides the means of safe passage across the oceans for the would-be adventurers and a triumphant return.
The book is fairly short and the pages slip past under a full-sail assault on the senses, in which the reader can almost taste the salty air, luxuriate in the warmth of a secluded lagoon and hear the rigging creaking in the mainsail. Only Long John Silver’s irreverant parrot to break the atmosphere…..”pieces of eight!”
Well over a hundred years after its original appearance, Treasure Island remains a wonderful tribute to the adventure genre, replete with a reputation undiminished by the intervening years. Young or old, for sheer escapism, this book can muster a place on most shelves.