“For thirty years,” he said, “I’ve sailed the seas and seen good and bad, better and worse, fair weather and foul, provisions running out, knives going, and what not. Well, now I tell you, I never seen good come o’ goodness yet. Him as strikes first is my fancy; dead men don’t bite; them’s my views—amen, so be it.” — Long John Silver, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
Having grown up a reader with a penchant for swashbucklers, it stands to reason that I should have read Treasure Island by the time I was 30. For reasons beyond understanding, I never read Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate classic as a boy (nor, even, as a teenager).
Hell, I even managed to read a book about a character obsessed with Treasure Island before I read the book it was based on. I didn’t exactly go about this the right way.
My fear, while reading the book this past weekend, was that, at 30, I’d somehow be “past” Treasure Island. After all, according to Stevenson himself, this was a tale for young boys.
Well young-boys-shmyoung-boys I say (and a yo-ho-ho and a bottle o’ rum!), because, thanks to the expertly drawn Long John Silver, this is a story that is every bit as enjoyable for a (more) mature reader (my earlier “shmyoung-boys” comment not withstanding).
In Long John Silver we have the pirate to end all pirates: he’s cunning, morally ambiguous, peg-legged, and he even sports a parrot on his shoulder. He’s essentially the template on which all other pirate stories relied. After reading the story, I fully believe that HE is the reason this story is still being read over 130 years later. With Silver, Treasure Island is just another story about buried treasure. Instead, it’s the most enduring pirate novel of all time.
The reason? Silver is so much more than the stereotypical cloak-and-dagger villain. He’s as complex a character as you’ll find in a “children’s story.” Like any character worthy of remembering, Silver has both virtues and flaws. He’s a murderer and an unapologetic conspirator without a sense of loyalty, but there’s more going on under the surface than a cold-hearted ne’er-do-well.
Despite the fact that he can be a lecherous son of a bitch, Silver has enough positive attributes to inspire and influence young Jim Hawkins. His ability to trust his impulses, his fierce independence (both his thoughts and deeds), and even the physical gifts that help compensate for the loss of his leg. There are times where Jim is begrudgingly fond of Silver, and he even goes so far as to wish him well at the end of the story.
In Silver, we have a version of young Jim gone wrong. Silver actually tells Jim that he reminds him of himself. Stevenson wanted us to see a link between the two, to make note of how much our hero resembles our villain. If not for Silver’s villainous spirit, Jim may not have had what it takes to do what needed done.
Stevenson forces us to ask ourselves, “How close is the line between good and evil, really?” (There’s a reason why police officers and felons test eerily similar to one another in personality tests.)
Silver, then, brings a layer (or layers) of ambiguity to a simple “children’s story” (a label I reject, for the record).
But Long John Silver is, first and foremost, a con artist. His silver tongue (pardon the very deliberate pun) is his greatest strength, and it’s capable enough to cloak a terrifying rage and violence. He’s incredibly persuasive and charming. How else could a simple ship’s cook (as he was masquerading as) inspire a crew to mutiny? How else could he deceive squire Trelawny into believing him over Captain Smollett?
Simply put, John Silver isn’t like traditional pirates. He’s a cut above the rest. He owns property. He has a wife (who, interestingly enough, is a black woman, in a time when this was not at all socially acceptable). He was well-educated as a boy, and he owns and operates a pub. Where other pirates squander their earnings and whore it away, Silver uses his to build a future. His eventual goal is to settle down and become a gentleman, not just a “gentleman of fortune” (a line he uses that I absolutely love).
And there’s more we don’t know about Long John Silver than what we do know. How and why did an educated, driven young man resort to piracy? How did a sea cook become the equal of the supposedly unrivaled Captain Flint? What happened to Silver after the events of Treasure Island? (Because, while he