Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, with its dastardly plot and motley crew of rogues and villains, is the most well known tale of piracy ever written. It contains all the elements of a perfect adventure yarn: a mysterious map and a search for buried treasure; an engaging hero (Jim Hawkins) and a cunning villain (Long John Silver); mutiny and murder on the high seas; and, of course, a happy ending. The story is told through the eyes of Jim Hawkins, a boy who first encounters tales of buried treasure while working at the Admiral Benbow Inn. One day, a man called "Captain" came to stay at the inn. Jim was unaware that he used to be a pirate. But when some other pirates came after him, "Captain" told Jim that he should get the keys to his sea chest and take a map out of it. The action moves from the inn to the high seas and on to uncharted islands. All the while, never did the virtues of loyalty, friendship, and honesty so reward a young man as Hawkins.
Robert Louis Stevenson based much of Treasure Island on fact and in many ways it provides a very accurate description of pirates. While there never were any pirates named Captain Flint, Pew, or Long John Silver, there was a real pirate named Tew, and there was a pirate named Israel Hands. Hands was second-in-command under Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard). One night when they were drinking in Blackbeard's cabin with a pilot and another pirate, Blackbeard shot him in the knee for no apparent reason, crippling him. In addition, Stevenson may have based the character of marooned pirate Ben Gunn on a real person by the name of Alexander Selkirk, who was also the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on November 13, 1850. His mother came from a family of lawyers and church ministers. His father was a civil engineer who was raised in a family of engineers that had built many of the deep-sea lighthouses around the rocky coast of Scotland. Robert was their only child. He was very fond of the nurse who took care of him, and many years later he dedicated a book of poems, A Child's Garden of Verses, to her.
Robert suffered from a respiratory disease, so he was rather sickly as a child. He spent a lot of time in his nursery playing with blocks, drawing, painting, and making up stories about faraway lands and exciting adventures. His formal education began at age seven, but his poor health made regular schooling difficult. Although his schooling was inconsistent, he read widely and he liked to write. What he loved most about school were the magazines he created, like "Sunbeam Magazine" and "Schoolboy Magazine" which featured "fact, fiction, and fun."
At the age of seventeen, Stevenson enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, with the aim of following in the family firm. Then he went on to study law. However, he was much more interested in literature, and what he really wanted to do was write. On his summer vacations he went to France to be in the company of other young artists, both writers and painters. His first published works were all about traveling, which he enjoyed.
In September of 1876, Stevenson met and fell in love with Mrs. Fanny Osbourne. They met at a riverside village southeast of Paris. He was twenty-five, and she was thirty-six year old American woman, separated from her husband. Two years later she obtained a divorce, and the following year when he learned that she was ill in San Francisco, he decided to go see her. He traveled as a steerage passenger and crossed the United States in the immigrant train. Stevenson wrote two stories in 1879, "The Amateur Emigrant" and "Across the Plains," which made use of his travel experiences in the United States. Early in 1880, Stevenson married Mrs. Osbourne. They spent a three-week honeymoon at an abandoned silver mine in California. Then he returned to Scotland with his new wife and her ten-year-old son, Lloyd.
While on holiday in Scotland in the summer of 1881, cold rainy weather forced the family to amuse themselves indoors. Stevenson and his stepson drew, colored and annotated the map of an imaginary 'Treasure Island'. Stevenson's began to write a story based on it as entertainment for the rest of the family, and he continued to work on it while receiving medical treatment in Switzerland. It first appeared in the British magazine "Young Folks" as a weekly serial under the title "The Sea Cook," from 1881 to 1882. However, it didn't receive much attention until it was published as a book in 1883. Treasure Island marks the beginning of Stevenson's popularity and his career as a profitable writer. It was his first full-length fictional narrative, and the first of his writings for children.
Stevenson's writing career flourished from 1880-1888. At the same time, his search for health took him to many corners of the world. In 1888, he decided to sail around the Pacific. When he and his family arrived in the Samoan islands in 1889, they built a house and settled there. This brought him a better climate for his still declining health, distance from distractions, and acted as a new stimulus to his imagination. He was inspired by the beauty and peaceful simplicity of island life. He wrote about the Pacific islands in several essays that would have gone towards a large work on the area that he had planned.
The Samoan people on the islands loved Stevenson and looked up to him. They called him "Tusitala," meaning "teller of tales." Stevenson was a handsome man who was a great conversationalist, and he loved children. He was at the height of his writing career when he died suddenly of a stroke on December 3, 1894, when he was just 44 years old. As he had wished, he was buried on top of the mountain overlooking his home on Samoa. Appropriately it was his own short poem, 'Requiem', that was written on his tomb: 'Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie…Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea.'
Over the course of his life, Stevenson created some of the world's best-loved classics. For a long time, he was thought of mainly as a writer of adventure stories for children. Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, Kidnapped, and Catriona all have youthful protagonists and were first published in magazines for young people. But they are also clearly intended for adult readers. They are fictional narratives based on careful documentary research, exploring both history and culture. The stories are exciting, not because of exaggerations, but because they give an accurate picture of the action, so the reader feels like he is seeing everything as if he were there.
Stevenson's stories are known for their realistic characters, memorable action, exciting suspense, vivid imagination, and clear, almost poetic style. He wrote plays, poems, essays, literary criticism, literary theory, biography, travelogues, reportages, romances, boys' adventure stories, fantasies, fables, and short stories-everything, it seems, except a traditional Victorian novel. Stevenson's love for travel is apparent in his works of fiction, most of which involve foreign or exotic lands. He has a brilliant way of combining a sense of wonder with an interest in well-researched topics. Stevenson's works earned him great popularity because of his clear and careful style, his ability to establish a personal relationship with the reader, and his extraordinary power as a storyteller.
Did You Know…?
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest! Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!" This verse conjures up some colorful images, but have you ever wondered what that famous pirate song really means? One of the books Stevenson used to research his novel mentions an actual Caribbean island called Dead Man's Chest. From a distance the shape of this island resembled a coffin, and it was said to be a rendezvous for buccaneers and smugglers. The real-life pirate Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) supposedly once marooned fifteen of his men on that small island. He put them ashore with no weapons, equipment or supplies-just a bottle of rum.
Make Your Own Treasure Map
You will need a 9x12 piece of white construction paper, a black ballpoint pen, and a damp, used tea bag. Sketch the shape of your island on the white construction paper. On your island you may include symbols for the following: hills, mountains, ponds and lakes, trees and forests, and your treasure. Draw a compass rose in the lower right hand corner. Name and label any ocean, cove or bay that surrounds your island. When your map is finished, press the damp tea bag over it. Fold the map carefully and tear the edges to make it look old.
Books by Robert Louis Stevenson
AN ISLAND VOYAGE, 1878. (His first book.)
VIRGINIBUS PUERISQUE, 1881. (A collection of essays.)
FAMILIAR STUDIES OF MEN AND BOOKS, 1882. (A collection of essays.)
THE NEW ARABIAN NIGHTS, 1882. (A volume of fanciful, entertaining stories.)
TREASURE ISLAND, 1883. (The ever-popular pirate classic.)
THE BLACK ARROW, 1883. (A historical adventure tale about the War of the Roses.)
A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES, 1885. (A classic treasury of children's poems.)
PRINCE OTTO, 1885. (A lovely romance.)
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, 1886. (A horror story in which physical change in man symbolizes moral change.)
KIDNAPPED, 1886. (An exciting adventure story about one of Stevenson's own ancestors, David Balfour; also an interesting study of Scottish history, landscape, and culture.)
UNDERWOODS, 1887. (A collection of poems.)
THE MASTER OF BALLANTRE, 1888. (An excellent and widely read story of Scottish life.)
CATRIONA, 1893. (A continuation of Kidnapped.)
SALTY DOG, by Brad Strickland. (A Wishbone adventure in which the story of Treasure Island is retold from a dog's point of view.)
FLINT'S ISLAND, by Leonard Wibberley, 1972. (A well-written sequel to Treasure Island.)
MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND, 1996, G. (Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the usual Muppet silliness, with great songs and a great opening sequence.)
TREASURE ISLAND, 1934, not rated. (A good adaptation with Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper.)
TREASURE ISLAND, 1950, G. (Disney version with Robert Newton as the Long John Silver everyone knows.)
TREASURE ISLAND, 1990, G. (The best and most faithful version, starring Charlton Heston.)
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