In Zebra Forest, Annie and Rew love the book Treasure Island. Rich with symbols, the story allows the kids to create their own adventures in the woods behind their home.
Writer and critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote of Robert Louis Stevenson in his 1902 publication Twelve Types: A Collection of Mini-Biographies:
"... he had to make one story as rich as a ruby sunset, another as grey as a hoary monolith: for the story was the soul, or rather the meaning, of the bodily vision. It is quite inappropriate to judge 'The Teller of Tales' (as the Samoans called him) by the particular novels he wrote These novels were only the two or three of his soul's adventures that he happened to tell. But he died with a thousand stories in his heart."
Treasure Island was one of those "particular novels." While Stevenson may have written many more before dying from tuberculosis complications at the young age of 44, Treasure Island was a pivotal one. It became the iconic pirate story, and some of the objects/symbols within it have become almost synonymous with pirates themselves.
The inspiration for the story came from a hand-painted map that Stevenson made for his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne. Lloyd, himself, was an inspiration for the book. Stevenson said he wanted to write a "a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing." The story first sold in 17 installments under the title Sea Cook to the children's literature magazine, Young Folks: A Boys' and Girls' Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature, to little fanfare, but in 1883, it was published in its entirety with the new title, and was an instant success. As Jonathan Yardley said in The Washington Post, "Treasure Island is an adventure story but it is also a fantasy; it has 'the dreamlike quality of a fairy tale,' according to the Penguin Classics edition, and though book-jacket copy generally should be discounted, that is a fair assessment." Yardley is correct, I believe, on two fronts. First, he advises us to not believe the blurb (see review of Zebra Forest). Second, and more important, Treasure Island truly is a fantasy, which is why, in large part, the symbols within it have become such fixtures in the landscape of our collective imagination. Good fantasy does that for us; it creates symbols that permeate our culture and take on a life of their own.
Treasure maps upon which "X mark the spot," parrots, peg legs and the dreaded black spot have become quintessential pirate symbols because of Treasure Island. Are they based in reality, or did Stevenson make them up? Only some are, according to David Cordingly, an expert on pirates, and author of Under the Black Flag: The Romance & the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. "Peglegs? True losing a limb was a common hazard of piracy. Parrots and eye patches? Quite often, yes. Cunning maps where "X" marks the hiding place of vast treasures? Not even once."
Exotic parrots (and monkeys, it turns out) were often used to bribe government officials. Stevenson credits Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe for Captain Flint, Long John Silver's parrot. Although there were no maps with the symbolic X to mark the spot, treasure was sometimes buried. More often though, pirates spent the treasure they stole right away. The black spot, which was depicted in Treasure Island as a circular piece of paper, blackened on one side with a verdict (or a sort of seal of fate) written on the other, was entirely fabricated by Stevenson. Also of note, Stevenson read Captain Charles Johnson's 1724 General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, which, fact or fiction (probably both), informed much of Treasure Island.
Many movies and novels have used Treasure Island as a starting point. In The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Hector Barbossa, the chief antagonist, names his monkey after the captain, Jack Sparrow. This act is a nod to Treasure Island. In the book, the pirate Long John Silver names his parrot after Captain Flint.
Who knows how many more novels and therefore symbols Robert Louis Stevenson could have created; how many of his soul's adventures could have captured our imagination!
This article was originally published in June 2013, and has been updated for the
September 2014 paperback release.
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