An adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, most famous for his novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Treasure Island is the classic tale of “buccaneers and buried gold.” The story’s influence on popular perceptions of pirates is unrivaled as it introduced the idea of treasure maps with “X’s”, schooners, the Black Spot, and, most notably, one-legged sailors with witty parrots.
At its core, Treasure Island is a coming-of-age story, following Jim Hawkins as he is forced to make the difficult decisions involved with becoming an adult. We see Hawkins’s development from a sheltered, protected young boy into a responsible, freethinking, charismatic young man.
Noted for its atmosphere of tropical islands and romantic views of the sea, dynamic characters that have ascended into archetypes such as Captain “Long John” Silver, and rapid-paced action and drama, Stevenson’s story, in its purest form, is part of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey.
In comparative mythology, the monomyth, as established by scholar/philosopher Joseph Campbell, is the template shared by cultures around the world: the story of a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
Campbell built upon the studies of Edward Taylor, Otto Frank, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Lord Raglan‘s unification of myth and rituals, and most notably Carl Jung‘s teachings on myth, dream, and the psyche. Campell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces describes the narrative pattern as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
In the case of Treasure Island, Hawkins, who lives a mundane life, is thrust into a world full of crisis where he must learn new tactics to overcome obstacles and ultimately claim the treasure.
Stevenson’s story is one that presents us with difficult choices. What is loyalty? What is honor? What value is treasure worth? Is it worth the price of our own humanity?
It is easy to forget these sorts of questions when presented with a good pirate story, but the desires of each character are very clear. There is more to this little buccaneer tale than meets the eye.
Stevenson casts both the reader and Jim into an unknown world of sea and treasure with this call to adventure as Billy Bones stumbles into the serene atmosphere of the Admiral Benbow Inn. Accepting the words of Bones, Hawkins decides to go and seek his treasure.
Aboard the Hispanola, Hawkins will be tested in every imaginable way: physically, socially, and mentally. His naivety will be put to the challenge as he meets charismatic anti-heroes, and he must develop his own moral code. Most notably, Hawkins meets the sea cook “Long John” Silver, a one-legged Bristol tavern-keeper, and becomes entranced by the cook; however, just before the island is sighted, Jim—concealed in an apple barrel—overhears Silver talking with two “gentlemen o’fortune” who have planned a mutiny. It is then that Hawkins’ transformation truly begins.
Hawkins is tested physically when he encounters the evil first mate, Israel Hands. When Hands tries to manipulate him, Jim sees through the deception and, acting with considerable courage and dexterity, manages to outmaneuver the experienced pirate.
The closer to the treasure they get, the more dangerous the events become, and slowly a deeper bond is forged between the anti-hero Silver and Hawkins, including the old pirate protecting Hawkins against his mates.
Jim’s final test of adulthood is not physical but moral when he returns to the stockade. Sent by the pirates to negotiate a surrender of prisoners, Hawkins could choose to remain in the safety of the company. However, he says, “Silver trusted me, I passed my word, and back I go.” Jim puts his word above his life, thus signaling the transition not just from boy to man but, more important to Stevenson, from boy to gentleman.
After the treasure is claimed, some of it at least, the crew members make their first port in Spanish America, where they will sign on more crew. True to character, Silver steals a bag of money and escapes rather than face the authorities back home, breaking Jim’s trust. The rest return home to Bristol and divide up the treasure.
This test also shows us the difference of character between Silver and Hawkins. All critics have noted that Silver is both bad and good, cruel and generous, despicable and admirable. Some have tried to fuse these elements into a single character “type,” a “hero-villain,” in which the good and the evil are traced back to a common source.
Numerous other works of popular fiction have been forwarded as examples of the monomyth template, including Spenser’s The Fairie Queene, Melville’s Moby Dick, Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre, and works by Charles Dickens, Hemingway, Mark Twain, C. S. Lewis, and most notably J. R. R. Tolkien and George Lucas, among numerous others.
We may recast the lead or combine a few characters, but the monomyth is a story told by every civilization. It includes the elements of a story repeated in folk tales, fairy tales, and myths that teach us deeper lessons about life. We find common religious themes such as self-sacrifice and transformation as well as archetypical characters such as the Gatekeeper and the Trickster.
In the same way that commedia del’arte used stock masks to share comedy across languages and regions, it is a way to pass along shared information by using common characters and themes.
Story is a way to communicate deeper truths of mankind. Like the Hispanola, archetypical stories travel beyond the time and culture in which they were written and into the hearts of its audience.
We are all narrative beings. From the days of Oedipus the King and Hamlet to The King of Comedy and Hamilton, we thirst for a good story. Be it on the open seas or endless space, we create these vessels to transport us, not away from reality but deeper into the adventure where “x” marks the spot.