The Robinson Tradition by A. A. Milne

Having read lately an appreciation of that almost forgotten author Marryat, and having seen in the shilling box of a second-hand bookseller a few days afterward a copy of Masterman Ready, I went in and bought the same. I had read it as a child, and remembered vaguely that it combined desert-island adventure with a high moral tone; jam and powder in the usual proportions. Reading it again, I found that the powder was even more thickly spread than I had expected; hardly a page but carried with it a valuable lesson for the young; yet this particular jam (guava and cocoanut) has such an irresistible attraction for me that I swallowed it all without a struggle, and was left with a renewed craving for more and yet more desert-island stories. Having, unfortunately, no others at hand, the only satisfaction I can give myself is to write about them.

I would say first that, even if an author is writing for children (as was Marryat), and even if morality can best be implanted in the young mind with a watering of fiction, yet a desert-island story is the last story which should be used for this purpose. For a desert-island is a child’s escape from real life and its many lessons. Ask yourself why you longed for a desert-island when you were young, and you will find the answer to be that you did what you liked there, ate what you liked, and carried through your own adventures. It is the “Family” which spoils The Swiss Family Robinson, just as it is the Seagrave family which nearly wrecks Masterman Ready. What is the good of imagining yourself (as every boy does) “Alone in the Pacific” if you are not going to be alone? Well, perhaps we do not wish to be quite alone; but certainly to have more than two on an island is to overcrowd it, and our companion must be of a like age and disposition.

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For this reason parents spoil any island for a healthy-minded boy. He may love his father and mother as fondly as even they could wish, but he does not want to take them bathing in the lagoon with him–still less to have them on the shore, telling him that there are too many sharks this morning and that it is quite time he came out. Nor for that matter do parents want to be bothered with children on a South Sea holiday. In Masterman Ready there is a horrid little boy called Tommy, aged six, who is always letting the musket off accidentally, or getting bitten by a turtle, or taking more than his share of the cocoanut milk. As a grown-up I wondered why his father did not give him to the first savage who came by, and so allow himself a chance of enjoying his island in peace; but at Tommy’s age I should have resented just as strongly a father who, even on a desert-island, could not bear to see his boy making a fool of himself with turtle and gunpowder.

I am not saying that a boy would really be happy for long, whether on a desert-island or elsewhere, without his father and mother. Indeed it is doubtful if he could survive, happily or unhappily. Possibly William Seagrave could have managed it. William was only twelve, but he talked like this: “I agree with you, Ready. Indeed I have been thinking the same thing for many days past…. I wish the savages would come on again, for the sooner they come the sooner the affair will be decided.” A boy who can talk like this at twelve is capable of finding the bread-fruit tree for himself. But William is an exception. I claim no such independence for the ordinary boy; I only say that the ordinary boy, however dependent on his parents, does like to pretend that he is capable of doing without them, wherefore he gives them no leading part in the imaginary adventures which he pursues so ardently. If they are there at all, it is only that he may come back to them in the last chapter and tell them all about it… and be suitably admired.

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Masterman Ready seems to me, then, to be the work of a father, not of an understanding writer for boys. Marryat wrote it for his own children, towards whom he had responsibilities; not for other people’s children, for whom he would only be concerned to provide entertainment. But even if the book was meant for no wider circle than the home, one would still feel that the moral teaching was overdone. It should be possible to be edifying without losing one’s sense of humour. When Juno, the black servant, was struck by lightning and not quite killed, she “appeared to be very sensible of the wonderful preservation which she had had. She had always been attentive whenever the Bible was read, but now she did not appear to think that the morning and evening services were sufficient to express her gratitude.” Even a child would feel that Juno really need not have been struck by lightning at all; even a child might wonder how many services, on this scale of gratitude, were adequate for the rest of the party whom the lightning had completely missed. And it was perhaps a little self-centred of Ready to thank God for her recovery on the grounds that she could “ill be spared” by a family rather short-handed in the rainy season.

However, the story is the thing. As long as a desert-island book contains certain ingredients, I do not mind if other superfluous matter creeps in. Our demands–we of the elect who adore desert-islands–are simple. The castaways must build themselves a hut with the aid of a bag of nails saved from the wreck; they must catch turtles by turning them over on their backs; they must find the bread-fruit tree and have adventures with sharks. Twice they must be visited by savages. On the first occasion they are taken by surprise, but–the savages being equally surprised–no great harm is done. Then the Hero says, “They will return when the wind is favourable,” and he arranges his defences, not forgetting to lay in a large stock of water. The savages return in force, and then–this is most important–at the most thirsty moment of the siege it is discovered that the water is all gone! Generally a stray arrow has pierced the water-butt, but in Masterman Ready the insufferable Tommy has played the fool with it. (He would.) This is the Hero’s great opportunity. He ventures to the spring to get more water, and returns with it–wounded. Barely have the castaways wetted their lips with the precious fluid when the attack breaks out with redoubled fury. It seems now that all is lost… when, lo! a shell bursts into the middle of the attacking hordes. (Never into the middle of the defenders. That would be silly.) “Look,” the Hero cries, “a vessel off-shore with its main braces set and a jib-sail flying”–or whatever it may be. And they return to London.

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This is the story which we want, and we cannot have too many of them. Should you ever see any of us with our noses over the shilling box and an eager light in our eyes, you may be sure that we are on the track of another one.

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