For those who want something different for Christmas than the usual panto, the National Theatre is staging an exciting new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Mention Treasure Island and everyone thinks of sunny climes and dark hearts, hidden loot and one-legged sea dogs with cod-cockney accents and parrots on their shoulders. Indeed, the book is so embedded in our culture, that what many believe a traditional sea shanty is Stevenson’s invention: ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!’
Since its publication in 1883 Stevenson’s book has established its place in literary tradition, and is constantly rediscovered, filmed and imitated. Without Treasure Island’s Long John Silver, Peter Pan would not have his Captain Hook; there’d be no Jack Sparrow; certainly no Talk Like a Pirate Day.
But the original Seven Seas bad boy was no pantomime villain like his offspring. Stevenson’s writer friend William Henley, who had lost a leg through tuberculosis, supplied the initial spark for Silver. But for further fleshing out of Silver and his crew, Stevenson looked not to the Caribbean, but to wet and draughty Edinburgh, where he lived the larger part of his life.
As a young man, like other privileged students from the modern, spacious New Town, Stevenson spent plenty of time in pursuit of alcohol and other vices in the crowded slums of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Initial youthful rebellion against his puritan upbringing, however, quickly gave way to a real fascination with this twin world and its residents.
In Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, London is a thinly disguised Edinburgh, with Jekyll and Hyde personifying the social inequality between New Town and Old Town and the hypocrisy of Victorian Britain in general. With his lank hair and threadbare velvet coat Stevenson cut a Bohemian figure, and ‘Velvet Coat’ became a well-known sight in Old Town.
He took to writing in seedy pubs’ backrooms and was ‘the companion of seamen, chimney sweeps and thieves’. Cheap prostitutes went there too: ‘I saw a good deal of the girls – they were really singularly decent creatures, not a bit worse than anybody else.’ He was considerate towards people of the lowest class, and they in turn first tolerated and then accepted him.
Stevenson pitied the drunks of Auld Reekie, old before their time, destitute and degraded; because he knew that once they had been young men like himself, with hopes and dreams. That rollicking drinking song, ‘Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum’ reminds us that characters in Treasure Island also come to ruin because of alcohol, like the blind Billy Bones. But though he may be a drunk, a wastrel and a rabble rouser, we still feel some sympathy for him.
Stevenson shows an endless fascination with characters who are morally dubious, with both the pirates and the good guys motivated by greed for the hidden treasure. Without doubt, most memorable in the book, which was originally titled The Sea Cook, is the ‘clean and pleasant-tempered landlord’ who joins the treasure seekers as ship’s cook, but then reveals himself as Long John Silver, the bloodthirsty mutineer.
Loyalties are tested and betrayed throughout the story, and Jim Hawkins finds himself at a moral crossroads. Though a pirate, Silver shows himself a courageous man too, and perhaps the only true friend Jim has. Because of this Stevenson allows him to escape with his life at the end of his book, though not with the treasure.
Stevenson dedicated the book to his stepson Lloyd, for whom he made the map of an imaginary island that eventually became Treasure Island, but the book could equally have been written for the sick child that Stevenson himself had been. All young readers can identify with Jim Hawkins, the boy narrator who winds up on a treasure hunt after encountering an old seadog on a mysterious errand. Though Jim Hawkins begins the novel as a young boy, he is soon forced to take responsibility for himself and others in order to leave Treasure Island alive.
Beneath varying shades of grey, Treasure Island has a surprisingly dark core: it’s about going from civilization to barbarism, and whether one can survive. Stevenson had seen men in Edinburgh, down on their luck and desperately trying to hold on to respectability, before succumbing to the oblivion of Old Town. Treasure Island’s young Jim Hawkins does survive his ordeal, and grows up in the process.
Stevenson found his very own Treasure Island when he travelled to the Tropics at the insistence of his doctors. He spent the last half-decade of his life on the Samoan island of Upolu with his family, taking an active interest in the indigenous people: he assisted in their politics and in fought for their civil rights. Among them, he found affection and esteem, and they called him Tusi-Tala, Teller of Tales.
Robert Louis Stevenson passed away in 1894 at the age of 44, having been dying most of his life. He was buried at the very top of the Vaea Mountain, overlooking the sea.
Oxford Children’s Books have published a new edition of Treasure Island in their classics series, 978-0192737458, £4.99 pbk. Templar’s version, 978-1840111149, £14.99 hbk, is illustrated by Robert Ingpen.
Find out more about Robert Louis Stevenson.