Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion,Crown Publishers, 2012.
The last few years have seen a number of new books about Long John Silver, the charming and treacherous one-legged pirate created by Robert Louis Stevenson in his adventure masterpiece Treasure Island (1881-1883). John Drake’s Flint and Silver (2008), which announced itself as a prequel to Treasure Island, recounts how English sailor John Silver had to choose either a life of piracy or death after his Portuguese vessel Ria de Ponteverde was defeated in a battle with the pirate ship Victory under Captain Nathan England. He chose to live–and thus began his first service on a pirate vessel. Meanwhile, the story of Joseph Flint takes shape elsewhere until that destined time when Flint and Silver shall meet and clash over the treasure. The events that set the stage for Treasure Island are spun out in this opener and two subsequent books by Drake, Pieces of Eight (2009) and Skull and Bones (2010). Also in 2008, Edward Chupak gave us his version of Silver in a book whose subtitle is as colorful as its subject, Silver: My Own Tale as Written by Me with A Goodly Amount of Murder. He envisions Silver’s early life as threaded with crimes, petty and otherwise, from the beginning, and lets Long John Silver narrate his life’s story in his own words.
Jim, Long John Silver, and his Parrot, N. C. Wyeth, 1911
Instead of taking Stevenson’s characters backwards to explain their origins, Andrew Motion’s novel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island sends them forward. As a full-fledged sequel, it assumes the story line of Treasure Island and then makes a plausible leap to carry it into the next generation. Whereas Drake’s style and pacing reminded me of a writer like Bernard Cornwell, opening with battle and rarely stopping the action for long, and Chupak’s first-person narration swaggers like a pirate, Motion’s style and tone come much closer to Stevenson’s, in cadence, verbal grace, and reserve. Motion’s narrator is more directly comparable to Stevenson’s, as we shall see.
Skipping to the next generation provides a solid framework for any sequel, because the main characters who have survived the originating story can, if the sequel-writer wishes them to, make dramatic, but brief appearances to validate, ground, and still advance the new story. These venerable characters get to show how they are ending their days and how they are parentingthe next generation. They may also have unfinished business to take care of before it is too late, which is unquestionably the case here. When we meet Long John Silver, we are not surprised that he is still obsessed with the treasure. But that meeting does not take place right away.
In Motion’s sequel, as in the original, the story opens at an inn and with Jim Hawkins, but this time the inn is not the Admiral Benbow but the Hispaniola, and the young man working there—or rather, evading his father’s orders–is Jim Hawkins, Jr., son of the Jim Hawkins, who is now middle-aged and moody, grieving for his wife who died after the birth of her only son; this haunted man brightens only when recounting his youthful adventures to all who frequent his public house by the Thames. Because his father relives his past so often in the telling, we can be certain young Jim knows the details of the Treasure Island adventure, however reluctantly he carries its legacy. Young Jim is the restless son of a once very restless father, and Jim, Jr. is considering his options for striking out by himself—escaping his life so far–when the appearance in the fog of a small rivercraft, the Spyglass, and its mysterious female pilot pull him swiftly into the spell of adventure and, more important, into the grasp of Long John Silver. The girl in the boat is none other than Natty Silver, the old pirate’s daughter, who has come to fetch him to meet her father (and also her intriguing mother). In her boat Natty carries a cage holding a mynah bird named Spot—only the first indication that she is indeed her father’s daughter.
As Natty cautiously begins to reveal the facts of her life, Jim is attracted by nearly everything about her. He feels a natural kinship, since their childhoods were both dominated, if not quite blighted, by “the shadow of our fathers’ adventures.” Contemplating Natty’s beauty and compelling self-possession, and setting her beside his mental picture of Silver, young Jim wonders, “Was my companion an innocent, sprung from ancient corruption? Or was she an expert in the art of dissembling, as her father had also been?” (p. 29). Just as his own father was ambivalent about Long John, so Jim is both drawn to Natty and suspicious of her. At the very least, Natty has her father’s art of persuasion, because soon young Jim finds himself seated in her boat, headed toward her home in Wapping, and on his way to meet the legendary man who had shaped not only Natty’s life so far but also the lives of both boys named ‘Jim Hawkins.’
As in Stevenson’s classic, this story is narrated in the first person by Jim, and the fifth chapter, “I Meet a Ghost,” provides a dramatic climax to this first part; it is full of memorable, lyrical writing. When Jim first sees Silver, it is powerfully discordant with the image he has long held of the smooth villain, nimble even on his wooden leg. Natty’s father is old, emaciated, and blind, ill almost to the point of death but fiercely holding on to reach this moment. When finally apprised of Jim’s presence, it is clear he has been waiting to meet “Mr. Hawkins” with an eagerness that fascinates Jim with its intensity: “I thought that if I were to lay my hand on Mr. Silver, he would quicken into his former self, and my own fingers would become my father’s, clutching at him for help, or to repel him” (p. 48). Aware himself of the shimmering contradiction he represented, Silver says:
“It is me! Long John Silver as was. But neither of these any more. Not for many a day. It is Mr. Silver now—the same man but different. Like music set in a different key, you might say.” (p.52)
Motion brings a very natural poetic cadence to Silver’s speech, and this special rhythm serves to show how careful the old pirate can still be when choosing the words that will achieve his purposes.
Silver has longed for this moment of reunion across generations, but more than that, he has been waiting for this opportunity—the chance to recover something he’s been missing these long years, the treasure map still in the possession of Jim Hawkins, Sr., in a chest kept locked at the foot of his bed, with the only key held close by a cord around his neck. Will young Jim betray his father to the extent of stealing this map, or “borrowing” it, as Silver entreats him to do? Silver knows the weaknesses of a young man’s heart–his urge for independence and adventure and his discomfort in the yoke of his father’s commands; he especially intuits how to persuade this young man, with the path made smoother by the budding friendship between Natty and Jim (aloof interest on her side, romantic longing already on his). Andrew Motion has prepared the way admirably and subtly with his picture of the strain between father and son, showing the faults and wounds that made the older Jim a difficult father.
Why “borrow” the map? To recover the barred silver still cached on Treasure Island, even many years after enough gold had been recovered on that earlier voyage to make prudent men rich and secure for life–not that the older generation had been exactly prudent with their wealth. This unfinished business from the first novel becomes the engine for the sequel, and it surely would stall right here if Jim did not agree to obtain the treasure map by stealth—so I am not revealing much in this. But I leave it to the reader to embark on the adventure of the “Return to Treasure Island”—to accompany the voyage out on the Silver Nightingale, and to learn what horrors (not too strong a word) the crew and passengers discover on the lonely island. I will only say that before they reach Treasure Island the novel has a trancelike quality, as if it were occurring in the dream-time. (Perhaps this poetic rhythm is not surprising, coming from this author who is a former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and current President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.) After they reach the island, however, the trance is broken: the brutality disclosed to them exceeds even their imaginings of the dangers such an isolated society might present, if left to itself. In the end, this will lead Jim to reflect on “the persistence of evil, and the thousand ways in which we are likely to be disappointed when we look for a better world” (p. 382). Motion does have a habit of telling the reader what to think about whatever is happening, often by having Jim repeatedly interpret himself, drawing conclusions about his own motives, disavowing some and affirming others. Sometimes this comes off as natural, while at other times it feels like an authorial intrusion; in most cases, however, these observations are trenchant and therefore largely welcome on their own terms.
In his excellent New York Times piece, “To Be Continued: The art of the sequel,” Motion considered the varieties of sequels and their distinctive place in the shape-shifting web of ideas fostered by online communication, with its diverse channels for self-expression. Interestingly, he locates their function primarily as agents of continuity rather than change. To be sure, a good sequel will do more than imitate its original or simply finish an unsettled thread of a story; it will develop and teach something new about the original characters, plot, or themes, placing them in a different or expanded context. But Motion fastens on sequels as modes of preservation–even conservation–safeguarding what we have already inherited as familiar and true about a narrative and the fictional people who live within its bounds. In this view, a sequel (or prequel) that too drastically alters the foundational plot or tampers too much with its characters may strike readers as a misrepresentation. The “art” of the sequel must surely, then, consist in finding clever ways of respecting these boundaries while sometimes inventively skirting them. For example, CBS’s new series “Elementary” keeps enough of the canonical features of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (even when Watson is named “Joan” and played by Lucy Liu), including their dynamic partnership and Holmes’s singular methods of detection, to pass muster as a related, though highly unconventional, sequel (or so it seems to me). The BBC’s “Sherlock” maintains continuity with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s plots, but performs rather astounding transformations on them, retaining enough to convince. By contrast, as a moviegoer, I didn’t feel that Beastly (2011) kept enough of the threads of the original to tie it to the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale.
Motion follows his own rules in his sequel to Treasure Island. The sacred original is respected and readers can comfortably assume it as a limiting framework within which the new story will consistently unfold. The elder Jim Hawkins seems to have changed the most, and yet there is license for him to differ, since he was still a boy when the action of Stevenson’s novel closed. Motion makes a convincing case that Jim had trouble “coming home” after his youthful exploits were over, and some of his efforts at “normal” landlubbing life turned to sorrow. His obsession with telling tales from his youth provides familiarity and ensures continuity into this younger generation. And Silver is still Silver. When Jim sees Natty and the captain of the Nightingale so faithfully carrying out John Silver’s bidding, he muses that “the old man’s force of personality was evidently still extraordinary, although his body had almost ceased to be” (p. 115). As Silver’s body atrophied and weakened (symbolically extending his loss of a leg), his personal force was still radiantly alive and powerful. Thus, while crafting the changes to a character in a sequel (or in a prequel, anticipating changes that will solidify in the foundation narrative), the sequel author must choose among those characteristics which are deemed to be defining and central to the character’s personhood in the fictional universe. Motion has done a splendid job of this, and the new characters he has launched—Jim Hawkins, Jr. and Natty Silver—are attractive and complex enough to support their own sequels to this inaugural voyage.
- Andrew Motion, “To Be Continued: The Art of the Sequel,” The New York Times Book Review, August 17, 2012.
- James Pope Hennessey, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1974. [an illuminating biography of the creator of Long John Silver]
- Treasure Island (2012) [DVD], starring Eddie Izzard, Donald Sutherland, Elijah Wood, and Toby Regbo. [This adaptation takes some liberties with Stevenson’s story but Eddie Izzard’s outstanding realization of Long John Silver redeems all]