Friday, January 29, 2010

The anonymous pirate

I re-read Treasure Island during the long flight to Tokyo, and there's something about it that's always intrigued me. I'm sure people have written on the subject before, so if I'm treading on someone's literary-critical toes, I assure you it was unintentional. Except if you're John Sutherland, the writer of those really cool 'Literary Detective' essays, in which case yes, I'm unashamedly copying your style. Imitation, flattery, etc.

Throughout the book, narrator Jim Hawkins keeps an almost pedantic tally of how many of the twenty-seven men who set sail on the Hispaniola are still alive and whose side they're on. So when Jim returns to the island after his thrilling confrontation with Israel Hands on the schooner and stumbles into the hands of the pirates, the reader who's been paying attention knows even before narrator-Jim has told him so that there are now only six of them remaining. Drink and the devil have done for the rest.

This is the first time Jim has been in close contact with the mutineers, and so the first time we the readers get to really know them. The emphasis not just on plot, but also on character, revolutionized the writing of adventure stories, according to the badly-written foreword in my copy of the book, and it's certainly true that everyone in Treasure Island is a three-dimensional, rounded, believable human being, and that's what makes the story so fascinating to read. Compiling the little character details throughout the book, but especially in this chapter, we know that the six buccaneers are: Long John Silver, the arch-villain; Tom Morgan, the old, grey-haired, mahogany-faced sailor who, with Silver, was part of the infamous pirate Flint's crew in days gone by and who we first met back in Silver's pub in Bristol when he played along (helped by some heavy-handed prompting) with Long John's deceptions; George Merry, thirty-five years old, long and ill-looking with yellow eyes from the fever that many of the pirates contracted camping out in the swamps, who becomes the ringleader as the mutineers finally lose patience with Silver; Dick Johnson, the youngest of the crew, the one who Jim earlier overheard being talked into joining the mutiny by Long John, and who had a good upbringing before he fell in with a bad lot, carries a Bible with him and is deeply worried about the way things are going; John, whose surname we never learn (which is a pity, really, because he's one of at least four Johns on the Hispaniola, the narrative convention of avoiding duplicated Christian names not being something Robert Louis Stevenson had any time for - there are also three Toms with speaking parts), who was shot in the head during the first attack on the stockade but got up immediately and ran away, and by this point in the book is well on the way to a full recovery, though he's deadly pale and doesn't talk much; ... and one other man, about whom we know absolutely nothing.

This sixth pirate is a complete mystery. We're never told his name or any physical details about him, he just hangs around his colleagues like a ghost. In the earlier part of the book, the mutineers included among their number a lot of nameless characters who only got their brief moment in the spotlight when they were killed, but now we have this one anonymous man remaining with the five vividly-described villains (well, John is a bit of a shadowy figure, but his bandaged head gives him character). Pirate X intrigues me. Is he young like Dick, old like Morgan and Silver, or somewhere in between like George and (probably) John? Tall or short, brave or cowardly, healthy or sickly? He presumably joins in with the actions attributed to all five of Long John Silver's scurvy crew as they glare at him, huddle together in mutinous conference, get drunk and waste their limited food rations, spread out through the woods on the search for the treasure, and so on, but he never says or does anything individual that we can definitely identify.

Jim the narrator quite often describes things that 'one of them' has done, without naming names, so it's possible that Mr X has a line of dialogue here and there. The most likely point comes when the treasure hunters stumble on a skeleton, laid out straight with arms stretched above its head, which turns out to be pointed exactly in the compass direction described on the map:

"I thought so," cried the cook; "this here is a p'inter. Right up there is our line for the Pole Star and the jolly dollars. But, by thunder! if it don't make me cold inside to think of Flint. This is one of his jokes, and no mistake. Him and these six was alone here; he killed 'em, every man; and this one he hauled here and laid down by compass, shiver my timbers! They're long bones, and the hair's been yellow. Ay, that would be Allardyce. You mind Allardyce, Tom Morgan?"

"Ay, ay," returned Morgan, "I mind him; he owed me money, he did, and took my knife ashore with him."

"Speaking of knives," said another, "why don't we find his'n lying round? Flint warn't the man to pick a seaman's pocket; and the birds, I guess, would leave it be."

"By the powers, and that's true!" cried Silver.

"There ain't a thing left here," said Merry, still feeling round, among the bones, "not a copper doit nor a baccy box. It don't look nat'ral to me."

"No, by gum, it don't," agreed Silver; "not nat'ral, nor not nice, says you. Great guns! messmates, but if Flint was living, this would be a hot spot for you and me. Six they were, and six are we; and bones is what they are now."

"I saw him dead with these here deadlights," said Morgan. "Billy took me in. There he laid, with penny-pieces on his eyes."

"Dead — ay, sure enough he's dead and gone below," said the fellow with the bandage; "but if ever sperrit walked, it would be Flint's. Dear heart, but he died bad, did Flint!"

"Ay, that he did," observed another; "now he raged, and now he hollered for the rum, and now he sang. 'Fifteen Men' were his only song, mates; and I tell you true, I never rightly liked to hear it since. It was main hot, and the windy was open, and I hear that old song comin' out as clear as clear — and the deathhaul on the man already."

"Come, come," said Silver, "stow this talk. He's dead, and he don't walk, that I know; leastways, he won't walk by day, and you may lay to that. Care killed a cat. Fetch ahead for the doubloons."

'The cook' is Silver, 'the fellow with the bandage' is John, Morgan and Merry are identified by name and Dick wasn't around to witness Flint's death. The 'another' who gives the gripping description of Flint's last moments must be our mystery man. He's presumably also the 'another' who wonders about Allardyce's knife, which shows both that he knows Flint's personality and that he's got quite a sharp mind - this might be the only time in the whole book that anyone thinks of something before Long John Silver gets it. Admittedly he plays second-fiddle to George Merry, who's a pretty unimpressive specimen, but perhaps Mr X is just sensibly keeping his head down. He might just be the brains of the operation.

He certainly has a talent for survival, anyway. Events come to a head a little later, when the disenchanted pirates finally rise up in rebellion against Silver and Jim, whose lives are only saved by a volley of musket fire from the trees - Dr Livesey, Abraham Gray and Ben Gunn have come to the rescue in the nick of time. The luckless John is shot again, this time fatally, and Silver with great satisfaction takes the opportunity to rid himself of the annoying Merry. The remaining three - Morgan, Dick and Mr X - run for it, and don't trouble the heroes again. We get one more little suggestion of Mr X's history when Jim notes that there are three men on the island ('Silver, and old Morgan, and Ben Gunn') who had aided Captain Flint in his many crimes, which would suggest that our mystery man wasn't one of the pirates in Flint's glory days, and only fell in with them more recently. But none of the three surviving mutineers gets any more character development from this point on. They are marooned on the island, rather heartlessly it seems to me, and I think it's safe to say that their chances of survival rest entirely on the shoulders of Pirate X - Morgan is old and not too bright, Dick is generally hopeless and seriously ill with malaria - so it would be nice to know whether or not he's the kind of man who could rise to the challenge.

So, why is this man such an enigma, in a book populated with so many great and memorable characters? I think a clue to the answer lies in his shipmate, George Merry. Merry goes unmentioned in the book until Jim finds himself in the enemy's camp. Unlike Morgan, Dick and bandaged John, who all had their moments earlier on, he has risen from anonymity and come to sudden prominence now that the plot needs a pirate to lead the opposition to Silver. A little history is inserted into the story when Silver berates Merry for having insisted on a more direct course of action than Silver would have preferred, right from the time they first landed on the island: "But who done it? Why, it was Anderson, and Hands, and you, George Merry! And you're the last above board of that same meddling crew; and you have the Davy Jones' insolence to up and stand for cap'n over me — you, that sank the lot of us!"

It's old news to the pirates, but it's new information to the reader that Job Anderson and Israel Hands, the two most senior pirates in the first three-quarters of the narrative, formed a triumvirate with George Merry all along. Anderson was boatswain on the Hispaniola and Hands the coxswain, but what was Merry? Just an ordinary seaman? We never find out, because we're not introduced to him until long after they've fled the ship. Clearly, he was a late addition to the plot - Stevenson, like most great Victorian writers, made things up as he went along without a clear idea how his story was going to develop. Perhaps he didn't anticipate the mutineers mutineering against Silver in the end, or perhaps he did, but envisaged Israel Hands being their ringleader before he came up with the wonderful scene with Hands and Jim tussling on the Hispaniola? Possibly he regretted killing Anderson off so comparatively early on and leaving himself without a figurehead for the rebellion. Luckily, one of the remaining two anonymous pirates was available to be elevated to a higher purpose.

Clearly, Mr X was held in reserve, just in case a new plot twist occurred to the writer that needed a new character previously unthought-of. He's the substitute player on the Buccaneers' team, who never got the chance to show what he was made of. You have to feel sorry for him, but I think there's enough ambiguity for us to choose to believe he was man enough to come into his own, retrieve the remaining treasure and get off the island to a happy ending.

1 comment:

Prince said...

I will read this later. Promise.