Mar 28, 2010

Critical Monkey entry #6 - Treasure Island - “The secret has been told to the parrot.”

Having suffered mightily at the hands of James Patterson and his abysmal King Tut “non-fiction” meanderings (I still don’t have peripheral vision in my left eye), the Critical Monkey had to take a well-earned rest for a bit. But time heals some wounds, although not altogether cleanly. There is still a scar on my soul, and I find I cannot bear to try and conquer another bottomless pit of despair just yet.

So instead, I’m going old-school. 19th century old, to be precise. I’m taking to the high seas to read a youthful classic I have somehow avoided up to now:

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Why I might like it: As per the rules, I have never read Stevenson, nor have I watched any of the cinematic adaptations of Treasure Island (not even the Muppets version). I have, however, greatly enjoyed the movie versions of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the Frederic March version in particular) and The Body Snatcher. And there must be something to it; Treasure Island is a novel that has withstood the test of time and has entered the lexicon and popular culture. You may not have read the book, but if you haven't heard of Long John Silver, you must be living in a cave or something, and should really get out more.

Why I might hate it: I hold no particular affinity for pirate stuff, or novels about seafaring. This doesn’t go for films: I enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean (all three movies, actually), I can watch The Sea Hawk endlessly, I love submarine films, I'll never get tired of Gregory Peck battling giant whales, and I consider the movie version of Master and Commander to be one of the great ignored classics of the 21st century. But reading and watching are entirely different things, and frankly, I find most of my readings to date on naval goings-ons to be as dull as dirt (and I include pretty much half of Moby Dick in this). I claim no expertise on the matter, I do not mean to malign artists or their craft (I really should read at least one Patrick O’Brian), and I fall back purely on my own ignorance of the genre.

The verdict: Fun. Not earthshattering, not spectacular, but a decent-enough adventure novel for the younger set.

The plot is standard adventure story boiler-plate, but considering the age of the text, I’ll give it a little leeway for a lack of originality. Jim Hawkins is a young lad bound for adventure, chosen by circumstance to join a gang of buccaneers on their search for buried treasure. While consumed with the headstrongedness of youth, he’s also savvy enough to survive many scrapes that would kill lesser boys. Or men. I admit to being unprepared for Stevenson’s body count, quite high considering the novel’s reputation as a classic of young adult literature. I thought this might be because it was written more for adults, but as it was apparently written first as a serial for Young Folks magazine, I guess that people gave kids a little more credit than they do now. Still, I rarely hear of challenges to Treasure Island, but I guess that’s because killing is fine, but finding love among one’s own gender, now that's unacceptable (sorry, editorializing).

For a young adult novel, Treasure Island has a surprisingly malleable take on morality, embodied through Silver's handling of events. Most of the pirates take rather a bleak view of mankind; as the two-timing Israel Hands eloquently puts it:
For thirty years...I’ve sailed the seas, and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it.
Silver, however, twists and turns all people to his advantage, but somehow still ends up on top. He's not all evil, just opportunistic, which is some instances is even worse. At least with evil, you know where you stand. It is this flexibility of moral coding, as well as the theory that a gentleman's word is his bond and honour, that adds a weird ethical ambiguity little seen to such an extent in young adult literature.

Yet as the pages flipped by, I admit to a fair degree of boredom on my part; this despite the presence of copious amounts of pirates and pirate-related mayhem. Jim may be a daring avatar for a younger reader, but to an adult he reads as woefully one-dimensional; shrewd and capable, yes, but as a character he's rather flat. The adults are either upper-class English types or roguish layabouts, and while the latter is infinitely more preferable to read about, neither group (outside of Silver) is much fun. I also am perplexed by the reputation of some of the characters; I had heard of Blind Pew before, and on the rear cover of the book jacket Pew is described as being evil incarnate. But he's barely in the novel, he's dead long before the actual seafaring begins, and while he's undeniably unpleasant, I fail to see why he has garnered any reputation at all.

I'm glad I read it, though, even if I was underwhelmed, and I'll put Dr. Jekyll on my list, as I'd like to see how Stevenson wrote for adults.



Anonymous said...

Almost all "pirate literature" was ruined for me when I took a "Survey of Pirate Literature" course in college. After reading almost nothing but Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson, if I never read another nautical adventure again I'll be able to die happily.

John Mutford said...

I recently read a graphic novel adaptation of Treasure Island but like you, was underwhelmed yet still gave it a passing grade. I was curious as to how it compared with the actual book.

Steve said...

Corey, you simply must read Patrick O'Brian. Must, I say! Fantastic period detail, interesting characters, superb writing.

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