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Robinson Crusoe Lives Again!

Fresh discoveries that shed light on an old classic.

Robinson Crusoe Lives Again!
Kenneth McVety

?The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe? is an astounding book! Written in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, it has endured?with a flourish?for almost three hundred years.
I took down my old copy of Volume One of Robinson Crusoe, and rummaged about (in London and Chicago, in Tokyo and Vancouver and many places between) until I found the other two volumes in near original copies. And in growing eye-opening wonder, I absorbed the entire work. I was amazed at what I found.
I expanded my search further to take in the author?s background and the three hundred year history of the books themselves. There turned out to be thousands of editions, in almost every language of the world!
?What is it about this amazing story,? I wondered,? that so carries the reader along??
Its words? They are rather simple.
Its high flowing style? Not really.
What is its magic? After all, the story belongs to another day and should long ago have been consigned to the trash-heap of forgotten tales.
It turns out that when the famous words flowed like a torrent from Daniel Defoe?s pen in 1719, it was more than a well-sculptured tale for children. Much more!
Added to the genius of the author, I found no fewer than three distinct streams of vital influence that flowed together to make the story what it was. Each added a fresh dimension to the tale.

It was a Story of Flesh and Blood Happenings

First of all, I found the author making the astonishing claim that his story was based on true, real-life experiences. How could this be with so fanciful a tale?
"The Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" is fiction, obvious make-belief. But it turns out to be only half fiction. The other half is the story of the author--Daniel Defoe, the intrepid businessman and adventurous politician. His real-life story is woven into every line, expressed in allegory rather than in time-line detail.
As a result, the events he describes in the book are very real to him, very personal and very close. "There is a life and very well known too (obviously his own), which chimes part for part, line for line with the inimitable story of Robinson Crusoe," he states.

It had its Roots in A Real Island

Then I discovered another largely unknown element woven into the story.
When he told of Robinson Crusoe exploring the hills and valleys of his ?Island of Despair,? Defoe was describing a real island!
At the time he wrote the fanciful tale, Daniel Defoe knew in fine detail of the Island of Tobago. He had even worked on an atlas of the Caribbean area where it was located! He knew of the delightful stretch of green grass on the south coast, near a little stream and "not more than 100 yards wide and twice as long, descending in irregular steps down to the sea." It was bounded at its head by a cliff "as steep as the side of a house."
This location had often been referred to because of its strategic location. It was frequently used by visiting seamen, both merchant and military. On this ?little plain? their landing parties could safely pitch their tents, within eye-shot of their sailing vessels standing at anchor just below.
Daniel Defoe simply took up into his vivid imagination the wealth of information that had come to him, and rolled his calendar back sixty years to a more primitive time. He placed his lonely, shipwrecked mariner on the uninhabited island for "twenty-eight years, two months and nineteen days," locked in on all sides by the sea.
And the lonely island instantly took on concrete form! The ?little plain? was transformed into the delightful patch of grass that stretched ?like a green? in front of Robinson Crusoe?s fortified residence, and from which he could scan the horizon for incoming ships if they should ever appear.
Since he was then able to describe real places from factual, down-to-earth information, Defoe was able to make his delightful story spring to life in living color and with astounding reach-out-and-touch-it vividness.

The Cargo to be Carried

I found a third surprising factor that profoundly colored the Robinson Crusoe story. It was the fact, uncovered from the details of the author?s life and from the story itself, that he had been fired with a compelling message he wanted to share.
When Daniel Defoe's pen began dancing across the pages during those April days of 1719, his thoughts flowed vividly because he had something to say. Up to this time, as one of the most prolific writers England had ever seen, he had talked of the perils facing his country and of the ebb and flow of the turbulent times in which he lived. But that had been his ?job.? Now, after forty years of writing, his heart was full in a new way and it spilled over in a torrent of words. He was constructing a gripping adventure story as his vehicle, and loading onto it a valuable cargo.
By his own description, those thoughts that formed his ?cargo? were the famous story's "brightest ornaments." They were designed for the "infinite good of the reader." They were the moral and spiritual elements he was weaving into his tale.
On the one hand, Defoe was seeking to guide his reader toward the building of a solid character. The well-rounded man, like his just-created hero confined to his watery prison, would be industrious, self-reliant and honest. He would be tolerant toward people of other nations. The black races in particular would be shown kindness and consideration, never made slaves. And people of other religions would be recipients of that tolerance as well.
At the same time, Defoe was pointing to a line separating meaningful living from mere dead-end existence, hope from despair. He was pointing to the possibility of a vital personal relationship with none other than the Maker of Heaven and Earth Himself, a relationship that--once discovered--would change a man?s life forever.
With such a life-changing Secret in his hands, he felt compelled to share it. To share this Secret effectively, he was determined to lead his reader away from the conventional places and thought patterns of the day. He would take his cherished reader to a place where a man could be essentially alone with God Himself, a place where each one could give a from-the-heart response to his Maker.
What better place than a remote, uninhabited island?
That is why "Robinson Crusoe" had to be! It was the one way Daniel Defoe could take his reader by the hand and lead him to see the Secret he had learned over many years. And hopefully in this way, that reader could then experience it for himself.

The Brightest Ornaments

So it was that the three volumes of "The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe" burst on the London scene on 1719 and 1720. Volume One was an immediate success. Its entrancing tale struck a chord in the hearts of the people of England, and soon in the hearts of other nations around the world.
The "brightest ornaments" of the tale drew special interest, heightened by the attempts of some unscrupulous printers to remove them from the text. Such attempts "are as wicked as robbing a man on the highway," retorted the incensed publisher. Presented first in Volume One, these thoughts were further developed in Volumes Two and Three.
Through reading the story, many came to understand Daniel Defoe's new dimension in life and came away determined to find the same thing for themselves. With others, the early flutterings of desire arose and lingered, waiting for their full realization in another day.

"There Will Come a Day..."

Among some people in England, the story of Robinson Crusoe met with criticism and sarcasm.
"But," Defoe wrote prophetically, "there will come a time when the minds of men will be more open, when the guidelines of virtue and Christian living will be more gratefully received than they are now, and one generation will be strengthened by the same teachings which another generation has despised."
That day, in part, came through a silver-voiced preacher who came to Bristol in 1738, just twenty years after the release of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. His name was George Whitefield, and he talked, just as Defoe had done in the three volumes of his famous tale, of a personal relationship with God through repentance and faith.
The seeds that had been sown through the Robinson Crusoe story began to spring to life. England was swept up in a new searching after spiritual reality, led by illustrious men like Whitefield and the like-minded John and Charles Wesley. And the way had been prepared for them, to a significant degree, by the wide reading of ?The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe? and John Bunyan?s ?The Pilgrim's Progress,? (1684).
Today, we find ourselves a further three hundred years down the road. A new interest has been developing in Defoe?s well-worn tale, and new enquiries are being made into its significance. A ?new? Crusoe is emerging from its pages, closer by far to the one Daniel Defoe had in mind when he first penned the story.
Indeed, Robinson Crusoe lives again!

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