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wyeth treasure islandThe doctor’s words were incisive.

“Jim… are you afraid of blood?”

Dr. Livesey’s question is as prophetic as the gallows tattooed with spirit on Billy Bones’ arm. Readers of Treasure Island must, with Jim, prepare themselves for blood. Blood runs in glorious, gory rivers over the pages of this story, leaping from veins that pulse with uncontrollable life. Truly, there are few books in the children’s library that require as much caution as Treasure Island. In his introductory poem, R. L. Stevenson promises the hesitating purchaser of his book “…all the old romance, retold, Exactly in the ancient way.” This comfortable, shrewd promise baits the unwitting reader of today for the thrill of reversal and the dark realms of betrayal.

Thanks to the adulterators of children’s literature (a host commanded by Disney), the natural anticipations when approaching this classic have been skewed. Readers will expect flamboyant pirates in gaudy costumes, running their fingers through cascades of glistening coins on an island like paradise with golden sands, verdant palms, surrounded by the sparkling sea. Everything will be picturesque, nice, and most importantly, safe. For reality is far too dangerous, far too harsh a thing, and children must be protected from it at all costs.

Nothing, however, could be farther from the Magic Kingdom than what one unearths in Treasure Island. (We can still drive Mickey Mouse out of the Admiral Benbow as Black Dog was.)

This story staunchly refuses to deliver on the saccharine platitudes of what is generally thought of as a romantic norm. Instead, Treasure Island is composed of the unnatural, unforeseeable, and unimaginable. It presents a reality that is so harsh, so terrible, and so far from the idyllic it is free to become adventure. The necessary role of the ugly in the world is something that children must familiarize themselves with. They will never understand what a hero is if there is no dragon to slay; and incidentally, the very shape of Treasure Island on the battered chart is likened to a fat dragon.

This isle of treasure is not a tropical oasis; but rather a feverish swamp infested with vipers, bristling with grey pines, and deafened by roaring surf. It is a land grown sick of the bloody hoard and butchered men buried in its belly.

These pirates are not gentlemen of fortune; but rather a ragtag pack of brainless brutes, living hand to mouth, sponging for rum, and whining incessantly like spoiled children. They languish in the misery of a witless nihilism that has never known good to come of goodness.

Our heroes are not larger-than-life stereotypes who can do no wrong; but rather fragile men battling fear, devastating circumstances, and daunting enemy numbers. Their only hope lies in the fate that, at every step, their lives depend on the ingenuity and adventurous spirit of a boy.

This “kind of fate,” as Dr. Livesey puts it, has a name: it is a romantic fate. Only the romantic fate will plot a definite course through such haphazard waters. Everything in Treasure Island is constantly on the brink of disaster, but still bears the distant but firm promise of final resolution; deftly navigating the fine line between realism and romance. “Romance is more solid than realism,” G. K. Chesterton writes, “…The things that men happen to get in this life depend upon quite shifting accidents and conditions. But the things that they desire and dream of are always the same.” There is never any doubt that the reliable fate of romance will prevail in Treasure Island; but still, the path to this goal is wholly unpredictable, wild, and fraught with very realistic dangers – requiring caution.

The plausibility of Treasure Island is what heightens its romance. Stevenson is true to his word in delivering the ancient way of the old romance. It is we who are often too naïve in our expectation that this realm will provide a sentimental kaleidoscope of clichés. No. The old romance – true romance – deals instead with the rise and fall of chieftains, with murder, friendship, and insurmountable odds: nothing that can be called “safe.” This ancient mode depicts the romance of reality, giving the reader a vicarious experience of real dangers and real horrors that must be overcome. True romance, unsullied by the mawkish, restores our understanding of what true intrigue is, true appeal, true gravitas, and a true moral universe. Our children suffer from a pervasive insular, sheltered existence – one of the prime diseases of our day. More than ever, there is need for the old romance because it is remedial, because it is real. Books like Treasure Island don’t pander through virtual reality, but challenge us to encounter actual reality in its most vivid and livid colors. It grounds us, forcing us to stare in the face of evil, and join Jim Hawkins’ childlike determination to thwart it like a man.

The most poignant and iconic instance of Treasure Island’s skullduggery is the formidable sea cook, Long John Silver. It is always a joy to watch a master at work—especially a master villain. Silver is a dominating, crippling force—especially for a cripple. One minute oiling his way into hearts with disarming, flattering charm; the next, striking terror into hearts with murderous glances, cold-blooded threats, and mind-bending logic. The root of Silver’s power is this duplicity. He is a man of masks and manipulation. Couple this with a quicksilver intelligence, and you have one of the greatest figures ever imagined, deploying both subtle and bold machinations to his every advantage. Silver manages to keep a foot in as many camps as involve or interest him – which is impressive for a man with one leg. But the most impressive and terrible moment in the puppetry of this mastermind is when he even wins the reader over, who knows full well how thoroughly evil and false he is. No matter. Even armed with such insights, we cannot help but give Silver the benefit of the doubt, always wondering if he truly can be as wicked as he is. We all share Jim’s hope that Long John may dodge the judgment of men, as assuredly he shall. In fact, it is not unlikely that he shall weasel out of his final judgment too, touching his forelock and making St. Peter think him the best of men. May it be so. Perhaps we may all then tip a stave or have a yarn with old Barbeque as he draws ale for the saints at the inn at the end of the world.

Treasure Island is a book that constantly pulls the floor out from under the reader’s feet, thus requiring caution—and thus preparing children for life. It is a book like the sea—nothing is safe; nothing is certain; nothing is as it seems, or as it necessarily ought to be.

And that is what makes it a dream come true.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Hans Christian Andersen has also been Disneyfied–meaning rendered, shallow, superficial and safe–in much the same fashion. When I set out to transform a nineteenth-century translation of his stories into modern English, I discovered that the original tales had far greater psychological depth, spanning both darkness and light.

    I have published one series as Stories for Girls, with several of his classics and some that are not well known. But he so often talks about death, including the death of children that I’ve though about collecting those stories into a book entitled Stories about Dying. Having worked with dying children, I have a strong feeling that some would benefit from hearing about children who bravely face the terrible darkness that comes with dying but who also discover the hope beyond. For instance, here’s how Andersen ends “The Little Match Girl.” Her grandmother is the only one she has every known who loved her.

    She rubbed another match on the wall, and its light shone all around her. In its brightness stood her grandmother, clear and shining, kind and loving. “Grandmother,” cried the little girl, “Take me to be with you. Otherwise, I know you will disappear when the match burns out. You will vanish just like the warm stove, the roast goose, and the bright Christmas tree.” Then she made haste to light the whole bundle of matches, for she wanted to keep her grandmother with her always.

    Burning together, the bundle of matches glowed with a light that was brighter than the noonday sun. In their light, her grandmother had never appeared so loving or so beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both flew up in brightness and joy to a place far above the earth, to a place where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God.

    As the next morning dawned, some people who were out early discovered the poor little match girl, with pale cheeks and a smiling mouth, leaning against the wall. She had frozen to death on the last evening of the year. Now the New Year’s sun shone on her cold and lifeless body. The child still sat, in the stillness and stiffness of death, holding matches in her hand, one bundle of which had burnt almost to her fingers.

    “She tried to warm herself before she died,” said some. No one imagined the beautiful things she had seen, nor the wonder and glory she had entered into with her grandmother on that New Year’s Day.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

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