Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Brave Ballantyne

I have read and re-read R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857) every year for the last thirty-eight. There is no experience quite like it.

It had a profound impact on me in 1970, giving me an undying lust for adventure, and its impact has not diminished in the thirty-nine years since; on the contrary, every time I voyage once again into the deceptive, yellowed pages of its rich, vivid world, I am moved to tears of rapturous joy -- the joy of life's potential.

I use the word "deceptive" to describe the author's words because the book's true magic, weaved like time itself into the fibrous threads of its soft, scented pulp, is not immediately apparent.

Such is the remarkable penmanship of the great Scottish wordsmith.

The Coral Island is a celebration of life, and a reminder that we must seek to drive life, not let it drive us.

"With beating hearts we went forward."

Although Ballantyne's reputation has been dusted over by time and the unavailability of much of his published work, his legend is monumental.

Robert Louis Stevenson's affection for the South Seas and inspiration for Treasure Island is directly attributable to his reading of The Coral Island at fifteen years of age. In the foreword to Treasure Island, Stevenson acknowledged his debt to Ballantyne and anointed him with the title "Ballantyne The Brave".

He paid his respects to Ballantyne with the following poem in Treasure Island's foreword:

To the Hesitating Purchaser
If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
And buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today:
So be it, and fall on! If not,
If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Or Cooper of the wood and wave:
So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
Where these and their creations lie!
"One came in on the crest of the wave."

Eric Quayle, author of The Collector’s Book of Boy’s Stories, said this of Ballantyne's characters:

"(They) rescued helpless natives from a cruel death at the hands of cannibals, or dashed through smoke and flames to the side of the swooning heroine, or plunged without a moment's hesitation into the shark infested waters for the sake of an injured friend. And, at the end of their courageous display of selfless devotion to duty, they modestly refused to accept any thanks from the victims of the drama other than perhaps a firm shake of a gratefully outstretched hand of the one who had been snatched from the jaws of a fearful death.

"His snout rose above the water."

When the author passed away in 1894, the grieving schoolboys of Victorian England rushed to canonize their most admired writer of fiction. Writes Eric Quayle:

The immense popularity of the scores of books he had written for the young men of his day had created a legend regarding their author that made them eager to subscribe to what they hoped would be a lasting monument to perpetuate his name. Led by the boys of Harrow School, a movement started almost immediately when the news of his death reached England. They voted to raise a fund to erect a marble edifice so that later generations would remember the name of the man who had brought them so many hours of excitement and pleasure. Within a few months, over six hundred pounds ($1,440) had been collected in schools throughout the country, mostly in hard won pennies and sixpence from the pockets of teenage boys. Such a spontaneous gesture by the impecunious schoolboys of Victoria's Britain is without precedent and nothing of similar nature has ever occurred from that day onwards.

"A heavy hand grasped my shoulder."

William Golding's Lord of the Flies ('54), JM Barrie's Peter Pan (1904), and Danny Boyle's The Beach (2000) owe great debts of gratitude to Ballantyne, as do the countless writers and filmmakers who turned desert island fiction into its own sub-genre.

The edition I first read and continue to read was gifted to me indirectly by my great grandfather in 1909, and passed down the line until it found purchase on my mother's bookshelf.

I remember seeing its distinct spine one rainy Saturday afternoon and reaching up to grasp it.

By Sunday night, I had read it, and it had lit in me a lifelong compulsion to explore and experience remote atolls, coastal caves, uninhabited islands, and inaccessible escarpments.

What can be seen of Ballantyne's influence on me is captured in the sampling of photographs of adventures I have undertaken (see below); what is unseen (but heartfelt) is the curiosity and passion for everything exotic I now possess which the author bestowed upon me.

The book's preface, penned by the fifteen year old narrator Ralph Rover, who is shipwrecked on a deserted island with two other boys, sets the tone of the adventure to come, almost daring you to take the trip:

At first, the lives of the three boys are totally idyllic, and this passage conveys the mindset of youth in a strange, enchanted land:

For many months after this we continued to live on our island in uninterrupted harmony and happiness. Sometimes we went out afishing in the lagoon, and sometimes we went ahunting in the woods, or ascended to the mountain-top, by way of variety, although Peterkin always asserted that we went for the purpose of hailing any ship that might chance to heave in sight. But I am certain that none of us wished to be be delivered from our captivity, for we were extremely happy, and Peterkin used to say that as we were very young we should not feel the loss of a year or two.

This passage is an example of the book's incredibly seductive qualities, and the author's innate ability to draw the reader into an alternate world.

When the island is visited by pirates, an idyllic paradise becomes an arena of danger (and excitement, of course!).

"The sharp prow of the war-canoe struck us."

In his The Gorilla Hunters (1861), Ballantyne had wise words to share about the education of young boys, and addressed his ongoing themes of honor and friendship between men:

Boys [should be] inured from childhood to trifling risks and slight dangers of every possible description, such as tumbling into ponds and off of trees, etc., in order to strengthen their nervous system... They ought to practice leaping off heights into deep water. They ought never to hesitate to cross a stream over a narrow unsafe plank for fear of a ducking. They ought never to decline to climb up a tree, to pull fruit merely because there is a possibility of their falling off and breaking their necks. I firmly believe that boys were intended to encounter all kinds of risks, in order to prepare them to meet and grapple with risks and dangers incident to man’s career with cool, cautious self-possession...

"The pig and I went plunging over."

Regarded by some as a Christian Adventure Writer, Ballantyne's obvious Puritanism never gets in the way of a good yarn.

To me, what Burroughs is to Fantasy, Ballantyne is to Boys' Own Adventure.

He writes with a vigor, energy, and sense of wonder that is unequaled in adventure writing.

The book's vivid illustrations, scanned from the 1909 edition, are credited to Henry Austin.

If you haven't read The Coral Island, folks (boys AND girls), I envy you your first taste of its salty sea goodness.

The book's final passage, an adieu to a great adventure filled with innumerable joys and deadly dangers...

That night, as we sat on the taffrail gazing out upon the wide sea and up into the starry firmament, a thrill of joy, strangely mixed with sadness, passed through our hearts; for we were at length "homeward bound", and were gradually leaving far behind us the beautiful, bright coral islands of the Pacific Ocean.

... resonates in the farewell (to the island) sequence in Kinji Fukusaku's brilliant Battle Royale (2000).

I urge you to watch the scene again, then re-read the passage.

A later edition of the book appears in my film
Sensitive New Age Killer (2000)

Robert Michael Ballantyne, born in Edinburgh in 1829 into a publishing and newspaper family, wrote close to 80 novels.

He was an Apostle of Pulp (Christian Pulp, if you like) in every sense of the written word.


  1. A passionate, poetic, heartfelt homage, brave Phantom.

    Willard Price was my 'Ballantyne'; his more contemporary adventures fired the desire in me to 'go and see'.

    No literature- from 'Treasure Island' to 'Great Expectations' to 'Catch 22' read in my formative years- could prepare me for the treachery and betrayal I found.

    'Ivan Denisovich', which I first read at ten years, gave me a hint. The 'russians' always seemed to tell it like it is.

    I went out into the world, fired by the spirit of adventure, and found hatred, betrayal, bloodshed, murder and loathing. Beaten to a pulp by the bloody black hearts of those I thought friends, I retreated.

    I found out in later life the spirit of adventure is indeed essential. But what sustains the adventure is faith.

    Despite the odds.

    Remember the 'Famous Five'? They were a group. Richard Burton was never alone in his expeditions into the African interior. Burke and Wills. Mason and Dixon. The Coen Brothers. How many of us try to go it alone, fail, and despair? The desire for the collective in society today is no accident. Many fail because we are not used to working with others.

    Urban alienation is a powerful narrative tool, but a shithouse way of life.

    Thoreau only went away for a year. Goethe said in the same breath 'the devil take the human race' and 'back in love with human race'-I don't know if Ballantyne advocates the solo endeavour or the collective, but regardless of the literature, the truth is that if we seek transcendence, evolution, we simly cannot do it alone.

    The first half of ones life is to get a sense of who you truly are, and what it is you truly wish to contribute, if anything.

    The second half is to set out, like Kambei in 'Shichinin-o samurai', to gather together a group of like minds, all to a similar degree damaged by the same 'loss of religion', humbled and mangled by the harsh reality of existence, to make the next big push.

    I am still fired by what I read here on the blog, by good films, good literature, my anger at the way things are and the way they could be, and by the cameraderie of my few true and good friends- and my irrepresible desire to find others like me, scarred by the wounds of treachery, and yet still looking ahead to find a community that still gives a shit.

    To rally forces of like minds and hearts, brave and true, to make that one great last push.

    Like Marlowe in 'Heart of Darkness', and like Dante, I became lost in the desperate desolate wilderness of human deception, and in that wilderness, came to find who I truly am; as though the process was an act of remembering, rather than discovering.

    Look to St Exupery; 'How could there be any question of acquiring or possessing, when the one thing needful for a man is to become -- to be at last, and to die in the fullness of his being'. Indeed, I look at my collection of books and dvd's around me, and am conscious that all I am, and all I have- and have been- and those I call 'friend' power me toward a final act of ultimate self expression of being.

    'BECOMING', as Antoine said, with the help of what once upon a time used to be called a 'community', and then taking wing; rising above, transcending, taking full flight to the heavens and beyond in the complete expression of self, to 'fly away home'.

    We all want to return 'home'; and the only sure way to achieve this is to transcend the 'tyranny of evil men', and on the wings of hope, dream, aspiration, with the aid of true cameraden, 'rise above' in the fullness of being.

    It is, ultimately, the only true adventure.

    'Nil Desperandum...'

  2. What a weird coincidence. I had just re-read Treasure Island this weekend. I read the list of books in the preface and made a mental note to look them up.

    One thing your post explains is why the theme of duty is so strong in Treasure Island. The pirates' major weakness was a lack of discipline and Hawkins pretty much rates everyone based on how well they stick to their duty.

    It also explains why Hawkins thought it was a perfectly fine idea to sneak out by himself and single handedly recapture the ship. I was just amazed by the audacity but compared to 'Coral Island', it just makes sense.