Looking for Pirates in Literature

Ahoy, mateys and scallywags. Today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day

At Bookswain we’re celebrating swashbuckling adventures on the high seas with pirates in literature.

After all, many of our pirate memes—talking parrots—and expressions—shiver me timbers—come straight from literature.

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.”

You can thank Robert Louis Stevenson for that chantey and other pirate-speak. The 1881 treasure map quest for pirate booty features Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver and is arguably the most popular pirate story. Treasure Island is next for my 9-year-old and I to read together.

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe

Defoe’s 1719 work is regarded by some as the first English novel. Scottish castaway and buccaneer Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years and four months marooned in the South Seas, likely inspired Robinson Crusoe’s fictional shipwreck on a deserted Caribbean island.

Crusoe spends 28 years, and gives a decent plot summary in the full title: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

Defoe’s story was so popular and spawned so many spinoffs it created its own literary genre, Robinsonade, or as I think of it, the desert island story.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Published in 1726, Gulliver’s Travels is much, much more than a funny story with Lilliputian people. It’s a satire. It’s a parody. It’s a classic. And for good reason. Jonathan Swift was a smart guy and smart writer.

If you missed out on it in high school English, read it now. In addition to little people, Gulliver encounters giant Brobdingnags, pirates, a flying island kingdom, a race of horse Houyhnhnms, and Yahoos.

Eighteenth century authors loved long, descriptive titles. The full name of Gulliver’s Travels is Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

If Treasure Island is the most famous pirate story, Captain James Hook is arguably the most famous fictional pirate. Captain Hook appeared first in J.M. Barrie’s 1904 stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The novel version, Peter and Wendy, followed in 1911.

After attending Eton, Hook (not his real name) becomes a pirate in Neverland, and the rival of Peter Pan, who feeds his hand to a crocodile. In the speech “Captain Hook at Eton” Barrie described Hook as “in a word, the handsomest man I have ever seen, though, at the same time, perhaps slightly disgusting.”

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

In William Goldman’s 1976 romantic, adventure novel, the mythical Dread Pirate Roberts is known for taking no prisoners. As the masked captain of the pirate ship Revenge, he strikes fear into the hearts of all. But he has a secret identity.

Goldman inventively presents his novel as an abridged version of the fictional Florin author S. Morgenstern’s tale. Goldman also wrote the screenplay for the excellent 1987 film version. He apparently enjoys a good outlaw story. He also wrote the screenplay for and won an Oscar for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

OK, there is certainly a stereotypical pirate trope above. But a pirate is anyone who attacks and steals from a ship at sea. So branch out to find other literary versions.

You’ll  find pirates and smugglers in Shakespeare, The Count of Monte Cristo (one of the best books I’ve ever read), loads of children’s books (I personally like Melinda Long and David Shannon’s How I Became a Pirate), and steamy paperbacks (sorry, no personal recommendations here; though feel free to share yours).

While you probably don’t want to go around celebrating pillaging and other pirate acts, books with pirates promise literary adventure and daring. And that’s worth celebrating any day.

Bookswain Fact: Arr, there really be no pirate accent, ye scurvy dogs. Pirates—and their speech—can come from anywhere. But it’s still fun to act like one.