Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

“One more step, Mr. Hands,” said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out! Dead men don’t bite, you know,” I added, with a chuckle.

You weren’t expecting Treasure Island, were you?   Well, we never are and that is part of its beauty.

Here am I reader, on the coast of Maine. In trying to frame my thoughts in this morning’s grey sea light, I gave consideration to what touchstone passages of literature most potently conjured up the journey into summer.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The first and obvious claimant was Homer and his Odyssey. Followed perhaps by the Aeneid, but—to be perfectly honest, are these truly good books of summertime? Do they not have the slanting light of autumn or the sudden rain of March upon them?  Would The Lord of the Rings be a better contender?   No, that is not a work of a single season. Watership Down? Wind and the Willows? Captains Courageous? The Prisoner of Zenda?

I thought all these things in the soft fading mist of a late Spring morning, but thought it better to frame my words with those of the book, the boy’s book of books, the single greatest adventure story ever written under heaven: Treasure Island.

Why Treasure Island? Let us go back to that striking passage and hear it out in full:

Now that I had a moment to myself, I lost no time in changing the priming of my pistol, and then, having one ready for service, and to make assurance doubly sure, I proceeded to draw the load of the other, and recharge it afresh from the beginning.

My new employment struck [Mr.] Hands all of a heap; he began to see the dice going against him; and after an obvious hesitation, he also hauled himself heavily into the shrouds, and with the dirk in his teeth, began slowly and painfully to mount. It cost him no end of time and groans to haul his wounded leg behind him; and I quietly finished my arrangements before he was much more than a third of the way up. Then, with a pistol in either hand, I addressed him.

“One more step, Mr. Hands,” said I, “and I’ll blow your brains out! Dead men don’t bite, you know,” I added, with a chuckle.

It is not simply the powder and shot, the salt air and sea voyage, the cutlasses and shanties, tobacco and rum. It is not simply that it has the best characters in any work written shy of divine script. It isn’t because it has the best battles and best description of breakfast ever written. No my reasons are not these. Not merely.

Let us return to the Hispaniola and to Jim Hawkins up in the mizzen shrouds with Israel Hands creeping slowly towards him. Jim is everyman or perhaps everyboy, not a coward by nature, nor brave; curious, good hearted, loyal to his mother, yet ready to go on an adventure, but utterly ignorant of what an adventure really means.

Under the tutelage of Captain Smollet, the Squire, and Doctor Livesey, he is taken away from home and grows into a man. His loyalties, his wits, his stamina are tested. And like all of us, he is most severely tested, when tested alone out of sight of friends and with very little hope of a hopeful end. At that critical juncture in the book, Jim—unable to recover the ship—disables it and so thwarts the pirates’ evil intent. Yet evil is vindictive and it creeps relentlessly on.   Israel Hands has passed beyond hope; he only desires to kill Jim. And Jim—with a threat that thrills every boy—Jim actually does not wish to kill Israel Hands. He is prepared to do it, but he does not desire it.   It is the pirate’s own deceit and attempt on Jim’s life that causes both pistols to discharge and send Mr. Hands down, head first to his death.

Without spoiling the even better scenes of the book, I will say only this: the best and hardest moment for Jim is yet to come.

I present Treasure Island as a touchstone or perhaps better a vademecum, a work you should carry around in life. Never let a copy be too far away, gentle reader. The reason is simple but profound.

As you move along in this life, you will come to think that you are less of a Jim Hawkins, and you may recognize something of a Squire Trelawney or a Ben Gunn or George Merry in yourself and those around you. Life is rather like being on the Hispaniola or marooned on a desert island. We set our hearts on adventure and earthly riches. We find hardship and mutiny, but if we keep at it, we find mercy as well.

Most men turn pirates at some point.   I hope that you never do. The odds, we must realize, are against your success.

You may find at some point that you have fallen, but pirates, gentlemen of fortune, and thieves are not be imitated. That life is not to be sought or imitated, except in juggling shows and pantomimes.

The hard truth is that few really seek out the rogue’s life. Most set out like Jim. One day they reach out for an apple, some fall in a barrel and are saved. Some fall into a moral abyss and are not. Most make small decision after small decision and wake one day to find that they have become mutineers, rebels, thieves.

What then?

Well, I hope I write nothing unorthodox when I say that reading Treasure Island gives us a glance of things from the eyes of eternity. In that critical scene Jim Hawkins arms himself, but he does not kill Israel Hands with intent. The good man must always prepare for the worst, even prepare for doing actions that are hard and bitter. The good man uses force with some regret. The good man gives himself over to Providence in the face of this world and its demands, because he knows he is weak. Convinced that all ends in death, and thirsting for blood and booty, the pirate seals his own fate. It is a fall from which there is now new ascent.

Treasure Island shows us a boy and shows us men. It is not a child’s tale. We see sin and we see brokenness. Yet while the sins are foul and terrify us—even while captivating our attention—we are trained to see the sinner in a different light. We see the crimes and hear the lies of John Silver over many a page. Yet is there any reader who is not moved by mercy for him? Even though we realize with Robert Louis Stevenson that Long John Silver’s “chances of comfort in another world are small,” we are happy, so very, very happy that Stevenson wrote at least that one true and hopeful word—“small.” John Silver is physically crippled—an outward sign of an inward disposition; we can see in Silver’s missing leg, our own wounds—especially the invisible wound of sin.

And readers of the tale know why the Author has granted at least a “small” chance to Silver: For all his wickedness, John Silver acted with love in response to Jim’s goodness—love mixed with human things. He acted with swagger, he acted in his own interest, but still he turned, if ever so slightly, back towards the light because of a boy’s virtue.

 Introibo ad altare Dei … Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

When we have received a good education, we read certain books at a certain times. As we age, we remember and revisit them. One of the joys that lies ahead of a young reader of Treasure Island—and it is a joy that increases with the years—is the joy of remembrance.

Introibo ad altare Dei … Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.

I will go in unto the altar of God… Unto God, who giveth joy to my youth.

It is the joy spoken of by the Psalmist. It is the joy spoken of in the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, a joy-filled knowledge that our hearts will break at the recollection of God’s particular mercy for each of us—His mercy, which has manifest itself in our work and our play and our study; in our friends and mentors; in the strangers who took us in.

That mercy was won for us on the Cross. The Cross. The ultimate mizzen shroud by which the fallen ascend. To Our Lord’s right and to his left were mutineers, thieves. Yet one thief we call “good.” “Good” like a beaten, but still humble man; “good” like a man upon whom the hardness of this world is visited but who does not despair; “good” like John Silver who still has enough of a boy’s goodness in him to respond to virtue and its undying call. “Good” ultimately because Our Lord is all Good.

There is still treasure to be lifted, as all readers of Treasure Island know. It is my selection for summer’s best book—to be read again and again. And there is much wisdom in its recurring admonition to “keep a weather eye open for a sea-faring man with one leg!”

Editor’s note: The Treasure Island illustration above was painted by N.C. Wyeth in 1911.


  • William Edmund Fahey

    Dr. Fahey is president and fellow of the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hamphsire.

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