Arr, matey. If you be wonderin’ who be responsible for all those dastardly pirate cliches, then look no farther than the wretched one-legged scalawag, Long John Silver. It be Treasure Island that be the cause of it all. Arr!
Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of a double-dealing crew aboard a ship in search of a pirate’s lost loot is the basis for most of our romantic notions about pirates. In truth, it’s actually about young Jim Hawke and some friends chartering a vessel to go after the swag left behind by a Captain Flint. Only they inadvertently recruit the one-legged Long John Silver, who in turn vouches for sailors who turn out to be among Flint’s former crew.
Silver is an evil man, a double-dealer, and a much more masculine prototype of Lost in Space‘s Dr. Smith. When cornered, he’ll switch sides in a heartbeat. And indeed, he does so several times before all is said and done.
But you can’t help but like the guy. He has his own code of honor, even if it includes a hefty dose of dishonesty and a penchant for self preservation. He’s the basis for the pirate cliche we know today, but at the same time, he’s such an over-the-top character within the context of Treasure Island that he steals every scene he’s in, and quite a few he’s not.
Originally a serial in a children’s magazine, Treasure Island is an unusually breezy read for 1883. Yet the dialogue rings true, despite being the basis for the Greatest Hallmark Holiday Ever. In context, Silver, Billy Bones, and the other pirates who grace the page really speak in a crass, uneducated English dialect common for its time, just prior to the American Revolution. (Savannah is spoken of in glowing terms by several characters.)
But it is a children’s tale written 110 years after the fact. Whereas Dickens’ historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is bogged down with the heavy prose common in the 1840’s, Treasure Island sheds most of that, having more in common with Mark Twain’s dialect-laden novels and short stories than the thick narratives of Hawthorne and Melville, both of whom Stevenson clearly read.
It’s in a class of novels common in the late 1800’s that foreshadow the slumming stylists Chandler and Stephen King – decent literature dressed up in genre clothing and made accessible to the masses.
And it’s left its fingerprints all over pop culture.
Who else could have made it possible for Keith Richards to play a pirate?