Between the Covers: 8 Fun Facts About Treasure Island

Jim Hawkins points a gun at a pirate
Category: Reading

Shiver me timbers, if it isn’t International Talk Like a Pirate Day again! Where has the year gone? Now, we could regale you with detailed anecdotes on the origins of the Jolly Roger, but instead we thought we’d talk about one of our all-time favourite pirate stories: Treasure Island. Behold! A treasure trove of trivia about Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel!

Stevenson himself admitted to plundering other writers’ works to feed the story

We have lousy weather to thank for its existence

The idea for Treasure Island was born while Stevenson was entertaining his teenage stepson, Lloyd, on a rainy day in Braemar, Scotland. The pair drew up a fanciful map of an island, sparking Stevenson’s imagination. He set out to write an adventure story purely for boys, which, according to Stevenson, meant there would be ‘no need of psychology or fine writing.’ He counted himself lucky to have ‘a boy at hand to be a touchstone,’ and, indeed, Lloyd proved to be a helpful beta reader for his stepfather’s novel.

Stevenson was an astonishingly fast writer

He completed 15 chapters in as many days, and probably would have continued at that pace had he not fallen ill, which meant he had to take a break.

Good writers borrow, great writers steal

Stevenson himself admitted to plundering other writers’ works to feed the story. Captain Flint’s skeleton point was lifted from an Edgar Allan Poe story, and Billy Bones’s history came from work by Washington Irving, one of Stevenson’s favourite writers.

It was published under a pseudonym

When the story began appearing in Young Folks magazine a mere month after Stevenson came up with the idea, it was attributed to Captain George North. The original title was also different: it first appeared as The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys. When the story was released as a novel, it took the title we all know: Treasure Island.

Captain Hook is said to be the only man Long John Silver ever feared

Long John Silver was based on the worst version of one of Stevenson’s best friends

Silver, the murderous, peg-legged pirate, was based on William Ernest Henley, an influential poet, critic and editor who was a close friend of Stevenson’s. Stevenson consciously set out ‘to take an admired friend of mine…to deprive him of all his finer qualities and higher graces of temperament, and to leave him with nothing but his strength, his courage, his quickness, and his magnificent geniality and to try to express these in terms of the culture of a raw tarpaulin.’ There’s no public record of how Henley felt about this.

Silver has a cameo in Peter Pan

Long John is mentioned in Peter Pan and Wendy (written by fellow Scot J.M. Barrie). Supposedly, Captain Hook is the only man Silver ever feared.

…And Jim Hawkins has a Pan connection as well

Treasure Island has been adapted for film and television more than 50 times, starting all the way back in 1918. One of the most famous adaptations was done by Walt Disney in 1950. This was Disney’s first completely live action film, and Robert Newton’s performance as Long John Silver is so iconic it’s seen as the origin of today’s stereotypical ‘Arr’-style pirates. Bobby Driscoll, who played Jim Hawkins in the film, went on to voice and serve as the animation model for the titular character in Disney’s Peter Pan, released in 1953.

Treasure Island gave us maps marked with an X, tropical island locations, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders

It gave us fictional pirates as we know them

Treasure Island was Stevenson’s first really widely popular novel, and it gave us most of the popular perceptions of pirates that persist in fiction to this day. These include treasure maps marked with an X, tropical island locations for their adventures, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders.

Get into the spirit of Talk Like a Pirate Day by checking out our lists of books about pirates for adults, 3-7s, and 8-11s.

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