If you’ve ever eaten fried fish from the fast food chain, Long John Silver’s, visited the Las Vegas strip and walked by the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino, sung along with Tim Curry’s Long John Silver while watching Muppet Treasure Island as a kid, or if you can close your eyes and picture a pirate with a peg leg, a parrot on his shoulder, and a map for buried treasure marked by an ‘X’, you’ve experienced the influence of the novel, Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Originally published in 1883, Treasure Island has captivated audiences for over 136 years. At time of publication, it presented new role models for Englishmen and anti-Imperialist themes at a time when Britain was only gaining more and more power. Over the years, it’s become a favorite of literary scholars for studying the complexities of characters, the themes within children’s literature, and how to apply what we learn from stories to our own lives. However, not everyone chooses to look so closely at the novel, because it remains a story treasured by many, pardon the pun, and whether or not someone has read it it is highly likely that they’ve come across pieces of Treasure Island’s legacy.
Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish author who originally published the story of Treasure Island as a serial in a magazine under a pseudonym, however, when it was compiled and published about a year later as a novel, it was Stevenson’s first success. Treasure Island is an adventure that follows Jim Hawkins, the young son of an inn owner, when he gets swept up in a hunt for buried treasure. A long-time, mysterious patron of the inn is hunted down by a band of pirates- former shipmates- and Jim finds what the pirates are looking for: a map to untold riches buried on an island by notorious pirate, Captain Flint. Taking the map to officers Jim trusts, Dr. Livesy and Squire Trelawney, he begins a voyage to search for the legendary treasure that soon becomes treacherous after a mutiny against the Captain Smollett led by the ship’s cook, a one-legged man known as Long John Silver, puts Jim and the honest adults in a precarious position. Outnumbered by the pirates, Jim embarks several daring solo missions to disadvantage the mutineers at the risk of his life and the trust his companions have in him. Long John Silver eventually turns against his mates to strike a deal with the doctor so with his aid and the help of a marooned man they encounter named Ben Gunn, Jim and his companions are able to locate and secure the treasure, eventually all returning home.
Treasure Island was originally published in 1881 as a serial in the magazine Young Folks, but despite it’s inclusion of almost every element young boys would find exciting- danger, guns, buried treasure, fighting- it wasn’t well-recepted by this audience. However, after being compiled and sold as a novel in 1883, adults across Victorian England were fascinated by the story, the characters, and the subliminal themes throughout the text. At the time, Englishmen were struggling with their own identities and what it meant to be an educated man, a husband, a father, a gentleman. According to Chamutal Noimann in his scholarly paper titled from a line in the novel, “He a Cripple, And I a Boy,” Treasure Island was a direct challenge to typical ideas of a male’s role in English society and Jim and Long John Silver serve as the two sides of what Stevenson believed a man should be. Jim is a boy, antithesis of masculinity in his youth, lack of education, and willingness to act alone and against authority. As for Silver, Noimann describes him as “an outlaw, physically deformed, and morally questionable, yet seen by all as a gentleman.” Silver even refers to himself as a “gentleman o’ fortune” and Noimann asserts, “his violence and greed are the ailments of an imperialistic society that condones the practice of stealing the treasures of others in the name of God, Gold, and Glory.” Both Jim and Silver represent a modern gentleman for the era by being honorable and responsible for their own actions, dutiful to each other, and untraditionally domestic.
As Noimann touched on, the boy and the pirate also represent Robert Louis Stevenson’s anti-Imperialist views at a time when England was well-known as the Empire “on which the sun will never set.” The gentleman and pirate figures in society were directly created by colonialism and greed. In an article published in the journal, Victorian Studies, titled “Imperial Boyhood: Piracy and the Play Ethic”, Professor Bradley Deane explores the fascination with perpetual boyhood in late-Victorian England and traces it back to Treasure Island as one of the earliest representations of boyhood and piracy being intertwined to support a new moral code. Pirates throughout history and especially in literature in the mid-Victorian era were painted to be barbaric criminals and enemies of civilization itself, but Stevenson is the first to turn this notion on its head. Long John Silver is a pirate, but he is also educated, honorable, kind to Jim, and by Noimann’s conclusion, a gentleman. Deane’s writing takes this conclusion one step further. The pirate is a gentleman, the boy is a pirate, and the British Empire itself is the source of moral ambiguity within men. The fantasy of never-ending boyhood, prevalent in the late nineteenth century, finds its roots in Treasure Island and inspired stories like Peter Pan– a boy who never grows up and his counterpart, a gentlemanly pirate. As Deane points out, however, this is just a fantasy. Peter Pan “represents a crucial reformulation of the ethical order of imperialism and its intersection with masculine identity, an enlivening dream of manhood reconstituted as the exhilarating play of clever and heartless boys in empire’s great game.” Treasure Island was able to offer Englishmen at the time an alternative to their known roles in society by way of the Empire and gives them the ability to question what is right and wrong, what makes a gentleman and what makes a scoundrel, and if being a man means holding on to boyhood and promoting the fantasy to our own children. Thanks to this novel, historians can pinpoint the shift in political views during the Victorian era from a liberal Imperialist nation to one questioning the lengths their country is going to acquire power.
Treasure Island has not only been studied by history scholars, but it is also a favorite among English academics. Michael Mendelson, professor of English at Iowa State University, believes that Long John Silver is the perfect character for classroom discussions to begin a deeper, more critical discussion of humanity. In his essay, “Can Long John Silver Save The Humanties?” he describes the stages of the discussions taking place in his own classroom when studying Treasure Island and believes that the complex nature of Silver and his relationships with his crew, enemies, and Jim Hawkins teach us abstract ideas about people and situations that can help us not only when studying literature, but also within our own lives outside of school. His course is targeted towards undergraduate students who have yet to choose a major or who only desire the required humanities credit towards their non-humanities major. “Specialized literary theory doesn’t serve this population well, nor does it nourish a desire in students to become life-long readers,” Mendelson points out, “Alternatively, […] practical judgment is a staple in the daily routine of every student […] or any independent individual with the freedom and resources to make her own decisions.” By looking closer at Long John Silver’s personality and actions, such as his independent nature and willingness to cross his own crewmates, students are forced to question what they know about people and making judgements. While Long John Silver is Mendelson’s jumping off point, there are countless themes, characters, and important moments to look at within Treasure Island that are still studied by scholars of Victorian, children’s, and classic literature.
The novel, however, is not only a staple of classrooms meant to be dissected and studied, but is also a timeless story children and adults alike enjoy. For example, for as long as people have been making films, people have been retelling the story of Treasure Island on screen. Richard Dury, a retired scholar whose sole focus is on Robert Louis Stevenson’s work, has compiled archives of all known adaptations of Stevenson’s collection and published them on a non-profit website devoted to educating academics and the public alike on who Robert Louis Stevenson was, what he accomplished, and where you can find and enjoy his art. According to Dury’s list, there are fifty film and television adaptations of Treasure Island, the earliest known of which was made in 1908 and the most recent being Black Sails, a television series that aired 2014-2017 on the premium cable network, Starz. Jon Steinberg, co-creator of the successful series, was interviewed before the premiere of the first season by David Crowe for a pop culture news site, Den of Geek. When asked how long it took this project in his head to form, Steinberg answered that he’d been wanting to explore the reality of the Treasure Island characters and world for a while and after doing research on the time period, historical pirates, and where Treasure Island came from and what it represented, he was able to bring a classic story to life in his own way. He remarked that most people don’t have “any real idea what this is about if you’re basing it on the movies you’ve seen.” Even with 49 adaptations before Black Sails, the show was able to combine the world of Treasure Island with our own history to tell a unique story that mirrors Robert Louis Stevenson’s anti-Imperialist themes, morally ambiguous gentlemen characters, and a thrilling adventure to captivate any audience and spark our own fantasies- perhaps even inspiring the next great Treasure Island adaptation.
Left to right: Robert Newton as Long John Silver in 1950, Tim Curry as Long John Silver in 1996, Luke Arnold as Long John Silver in 2017
While Black Sails is the most modern adaptation, there are several others of note. Disney’s first live action film was Treasure Island and premiered in 1950. Robert Newton’s iconic portrayal of Long John Silver went hand-in-hand with the novel itself in promoting pirate stereotypes in the media including the accent we hear when we think of ‘Arr’ing pirates. Treasure Island, the novel, also gave us images like the wooden peg leg, the talking pet parrot, the ‘black spot’, and marking buried treasure with an ‘X’ on a map. We wouldn’t be able to have Captain Hook, Pirates of the Caribbean, and many other popular stories about pirates without the popularity of Treasure Island to give the genre traction in the first place. We see the cultural influence of Treasure Island almost everyday. People can stay the night in a hotel of the same name in Las Vegas, order a fish sandwich from a fast food chain sharing a name with Long John Silver who has also inspired the title of an album by the band, Jefferson Airplane. We market the story to children by having the Muppets sing songs in a movie, and we even named an entire artificial island in the San Francisco bay after the place where Captain Flint buried his treasure. Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by a map he drew for his son to write his first novel and the impact it had on Victorian England was only the beginning of the legacy Treasure Island would leave on society. It is quintessential for scholars of history, psychology, and literature, but it remains a story beloved by many and impactful on all- whether they’ve read it or not.
Crow, David, and Jon Steinberg. “Interview with Black Sails Co-Creator Jon Steinberg.” Den of Geek, Den of Geek, 14 Oct. 2013,www.denofgeek.com/us/tv/black-sails/209608/interview-with-black-sails-co-creator-jon-steinberg. Accessed 22 July, 2019.
This one on one interview provides insight from a man involved in the creation of the most recent and wildly successful adaptation of Treasure Island, the TV series, Black Sails. David Crow asks Jon Sterinberg about his plans for the show, but what I’m focusing on his motivations in creating the series. Steinberg mentions how, yes, it has been done many times before but never in the tone or style that he and his co-creators wanted to do it. He uses Treasure Island as a jumping off point for telling a story that gives a more complex view to pirates that we’ve lost recently with the cartoonish stereotypes or historical inaccuracies of modern pirate stories. This harkins back to Stevenson’s original purpose of Long John Silver as a character and the popularity of the series proves that audiences continue to respond to that character and that method of story-telling despite the tonal differences of the television prequel series and the novel it’s based off of. This interview is a primary source of someone’s personal motivations and what they took from Treasure Island so I’m choosing to use it as a credible source in my paper and offer variety from some of the other scholarly sources that focus on the novel’s literary or societal impact and look at it’s impact instead on modern-day pop culture.
Deane, Bradley. “Imperial Boyhood: Piracy and the Play Ethic.” Victorian Studies, vol. 53, no. 4, Summer 2011, pp. 689–714. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2979/victorianstudies.53.4.689.
This essay looks closely at the role children and pirates play in Victorian literature and what they represent within society of the time. Bradley Dean explores the importance of boyhood, what the values and pitfalls of idolizing it are, and how Treasure Island played a role in promoting the idea of perpetual boyishness. I’m using this source to illustrate a large impact that the novel had on the people who read it at the time of publication and how it shaped emerging ideas of a man’s role in an Imperialist society. I am also using it as evidence that Treasure Island also inspired Peter Pan, another classic of children’s literature. Bradley Deane is a scholar of Victorian era literature and the article is published in an academic journal focusing on studying that time period so I find the source to be credible enough for use in my paper.
“Film Versions of Treasure Island.” The Richard Dury Archive, RLS Website.
http://www.robert-louis-stevenson.org/richard-dury-archive/films-rls-treasure-island.html. Accessed 22 July, 2019
This archive compiles 50 different titles of Treasure Island film and television adaptations beginning from the earliest in 1908 all the way up to the most recent in 2014. The titles include feature-length films, television shows or episodes, animation, and parodies. With 50 listed titles, this makes it the second most adapted work by Stevenson, following only Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For over one hundred years, people have been retelling the story of Treasure Island onscreen in new and inventive ways, the most recent being the television series Black Sails which is a prequel with it’s pilot airing in 2014 and finale airing in 2018. The archive is named after Richard Dury, the scholar who compiled the titles of adaptations of every work of Robert Louis Stevenson. He is an English professor dedicated to the works of Stevenson and has since retired to focus on running the non-profit Robert Louis Stevenson website with the purpose of providing the most comprehensive information on Stevenson’s life and works to academics and the public alike.
Mendelson, Michael. “Can Long John Silver Save the Humanities?” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 41, no. 4, Dec. 2010, pp. 340–354. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s10583-010-9113-0.
Mendelson’s essay proposes the study of Treasure Island as a starting point for a solution towards solving the problem of declining interest in the humanities among undergraduate students. The process for which he uses Long John Silver as an agent for classroom discussion, gives students more familiarity and certainty when discussing more abstract ideas about humanity and encourages them to consider the importance of critical thinking in our own daily lives and in academia. This source demonstrates the timelessness of Stevenson’s novel and how studying the complexities of the characters and themes within it can propel creative classroom discussion. Even though Treasure Island was published and is studied as a children’s novel, Mendelson argues that Silver is as important to studying humanistic knowledge as studying Shakespeare and Jane Austen. I trust his assertions not only because they are published in an academic journal but because he is also an undergraduate professor and shares his own experience using Long John Silver in classroom discussions, even providing real responses from his own students, proving that the provocative thought can come from his methods.
Noimann, Chamutal. “‘He a Cripple and I a Boy’: The Pirate and the Gentleman in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.” Topic: The Washington & Jefferson College Review, vol. 58, Nov. 2012, pp. 55–71. EBSCOhost.
In his essay, “He a Cripple and I a Boy,” Noimann claims that Stevenson’s Treasure Island redefined what most Victorian era Englishmen believed a gentleman should be. Both Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver challenged traditional ideas of masculinity and emphasize a more contemporary goal for Englishman of a safe home and economic security rather than marriage and duty to one’s nation. Noimann points out that Stevenson is also challenging imperialistic society as a whole, creating Silver as a self-proclaimed “gentleman o’ fortune” and giving him many domestic skills not associated with masculinity at the time. By challenging these traditional views of gentlemanly traits, the importance of romance, and the unimportance of fatherhood, Stevenson was able to reshape a society’s ideas of what it meant to be a pirate, gentleman, boy, father, and manly man just in time to usher in a new century. This article perfectly illustrates and backs up the importance of this novel at the time of publication and not just later on as a ‘classic’ work. Originally unpopular among boys because of the protagonist Jim, what made it unappealing to the young audience made it wildly popular among adults who found thrill in adventure and the idea of challenging Imperialist notions of who they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to achieve and giving rise to the ‘Victorian gentleman’ who can look to traits of both Jim and Silver and learn from being part boy and part pirate rather than just a man. This work was originally published by the Washington and Jefferson College Review and Chamutal Noimann is a scholar who focuses on Victorian young adult and children’s literature giving him credible authority on the subject.