word craft


Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

Treasure Island Robert Louis StevensonTrea­sure Island, by Robert Louis Steven­son (1850–1894), first pub­lished seri­al­ly under the title, The Sea Cook, has enor­mous­ly impact­ed me since I first read it as an ado­les­cent. Writ­ten, as the orig­i­nal sub­ti­tle had it, “for boys,” it has been the hall­mark of all pirate tales, and many oth­er adven­ture sto­ries since it first appeared. It was not, curi­ous­ly, high­ly suc­cess­ful as a seri­al­ized sto­ry, but when it appeared with a new title in book for­mat, it estab­lished Stevenson’s high reputation.

For those who don’t know the story—if such is possible—it con­cerns the buried trea­sure of Pirate Cap­tain Flint on a remote island (the loca­tion care­ful­ly not cit­ed) which his old crew is deter­mined by hell or high water to recov­er. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, two British gen­tle­men, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney, are equal­ly deter­mined to get it. They are aid­ed and abet­ted by young Jim Hawkins, who lives the adven­ture of a life­time and is the essen­tial nar­ra­tor of the sto­ry. So it is Jim’s book in deed and word. 

I can­not attest to the accu­ra­cy of all its rich nau­ti­cal ter­mi­nol­o­gy, or ways of a ship, but suf­fice it to say it reads with the pre­sump­tion of great knowl­edge. That goes for all the ver­bal word­play, which is as dynam­ic as it is cap­ti­vat­ing. Indeed, the sheer ener­gy of the book is quite breath­tak­ing. It is tru­ly a non-stop adventure. 

Jim Hawkins Long John Silver Treasure Island
illus­tra­tion of Jim Hawkins and Long John Sil­ver from Trea­sure Island
by Robert Louis Steven­son, pub­lished by Charles Scrib­n­er’s Sons, 1911

But while the boy, Jim, is the book’s pro­tag­o­nist, the por­tray­al of Long John Sil­ver is the great tri­umph of the book. To describe him as charis­mat­ic is but half his fas­ci­na­tion. A won­der­ful talk­er, sly, evil, a liar, gen­er­ous, fun­ny, clever, he is alto­geth­er won­der­ful to behold, a one-legged man who (metaphor­i­cal­ly) out-races all the oth­er char­ac­ters in the book. It’s not that Jim is a poor or dull char­ac­ter, it’s that Long John Sil­ver is a bril­liant cre­ation. When I first read the book—and again, just recently—it is he who gives the sto­ry its greatness. 

That said the oth­er char­ac­ters are won­der­ful­ly pre­sent­ed, Cap­tain Bil­ly Bones, Blind Pew, and many more are all quite fine. And if you can get hold of the old Scrib­n­er edi­tion of the book—it has been reprinted—with illus­tra­tions by N. C. Wyeth, you’ll be even more reward­ed. For years I had a repro­duc­tion of Wyeth’s por­trait of a des­per­ate Blind Pew over my writ­ing desk. Oh, if only I could write a book and char­ac­ter like that!

Blind Pew Treasure Island
illus­tra­tion of Blind Pew from Trea­sure Island
by Robert Louis Steven­son, pub­lished by Charles Scrib­n­er’s Sons, 1911

But there is a secret in the book which is right there in the open for all to find. The trea­sure that the pirates are after is stolen loot. The pirates are mur­der­ous scoundrels. Their only claim to the trea­sure is that they took it by theft and murder. 

That said, Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawny, the Eng­lish gen­tle­men who go after it, have no claim to it either. They are not inter­est­ed in giv­ing it back to those who lost it even though there is a record (in the sto­ry) of when and where it was stolen. What does Trelawney say? “We’ll have favor­able winds, a quick pas­sage, and not the least dif­fi­cul­ty in find­ing the [trea­sure], and mon­ey to eat—to roll in—to play duck and drake with ever after.” Indeed, the gen­tle­men will get the trea­sure via their own theft and murder. 

In the end, it is Long John Sil­ver, alone among the pirates, who escapes to his free­dom. Steven­son was not about to hang his glo­ri­ous cre­ation. No fool he. 

Read Trea­sure Island.

You’ll be singing:

      Fif­teen men on the Dead Man’s Chest

      Yo-ho-ho and a bot­tle of rum!

1 thought on “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum”

  1. I was going through your “Sto­ry behind the Sto­ry” blog series again, and real­ized there is one more book that was left out. “Strange Hap­pen­ings: Five Tales of Trans­for­ma­tion”. Please write a blog post about that book and also what spe­cif­ic mes­sage and moral you were try­ing to con­vey in the sto­ry “Bored Tom” and “The Shoe­mak­er and old scratch”. Thank you.


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