The book that started it all, for me. I read all twelve books in this series, which starts with this one, when I was a child. If anything turned me on to reading, these did. And now, returning after more than fifty years, what do I find?
John, Susan, Titty and Roger are on holiday in the Lake District. Their parents (Dad is a naval officer serving abroad) allow them to camp on an island in the middle of the lake, sailing a dinghy called Swallow. They encounter Nancy and Peggy who sail in the Amazon and adventures occur.
The characterisations are easily accomplished:
- John is the adventurous boy, a keen and accomplished sailor and a very pukka sahib. He swims all around the island but he gets into a bit of a stew when he is called a 'liar' and when he realises that sailing at night is foolhardy.
- Susan is the home-maker who mothers everyone and cooks all the meals.
- Titty is the dreamer. She reads books and makes up the stories of pirates and adventure which add a romantic colour to everything the children do.
- Roger is the little boy who provides a comic effect.
- Nancy is an adventurous tomboy whose piratical phrases ('Shiver my Timbers') add verve and fun.
- Peggy, the Amazon equivalent of Susan, is over-talkative and frightened of thunder; she is Nancy's stooge.
These and the minor characters reflect the expectations of people at the time (it was written in 1929). John says that he and Roger will one day join the Navy; this is assumed as inevitable. The girls will be home-makers. The children are from privileged families: Nancy and Peggy have a cook at home; when they encounter a policeman (Sammy) they tell him off and boss him around (he is working class). The boats are hierarchically arranged: Captains John and Nancy, Mates Susan and Peggy, Able-Seaman Titty and Ship's Boy Roger: there are a lot of 'Aye Aye Sirs'.
A lot of the imaginary adventures involve the implicit assumptions of racist colonialism. Thus, the children are intrepid explorers; adults are referred to as 'natives' or 'savages' who might be cannibals.
My pre-teen self in the early 1960s noticed none of this.
There is a surprising amount of technical detail in the book. Very early on, well before the adventures proper have started, the children have to learn how to step the mast and hoist the sail of Swallow and this is explained in detail. As a writer I would hesitate to start the narrative so slowly. As a young reader I don't think I even noticed this bit; I certainly didn't understand it (I still don't). I suppose it adds verisimiltude; it makes me feel that Ransome is talking about a particular dinghy whose idiosyncracies were known to himself; it grounds the story in undeniable authenticity and it lends a sort of depth to the narrative that a musician might achieve with a bass line that nobody apart from fellow musicians would notice.
But it is a big book and it starts very slowly. The first chapter involves them getting permission (by a telegram from absent father containing the immortal words 'better drowned than duffers if not duffers won't drown'; words I have remembered for over fifty years) to go on their adventures; the second the details about preparing the ship and the tents and the stores, so they don't actually set sail until 10% of the book is already finished. In terms of the Hero's Journey this gives the 'ordinary world' of the heroes, the status quo ante, which grounds the heroes in reality and makes the reader identify with them. But it is a slow start.
The structure of the book is classic. The Swallows encounter the Amazons almost exactly at the 25% mark, the adventure that acts as the focus of the book begins at the 50% mark; the resolution of the problems with 'Captain Flint' starts promptly at the 75% mark; the culminating discovery is almost precisely at 90%.
One of the main stories (the Captain Flint subplot) is beautifully foreshadowed. The final few pages also seem to foreshadow several of the other books in the twelve book series.
Some memorable moments:
- "Somehow there was always more time to do things when you were alone." (Ch 18)
- "It is never safe to say that nothing more can happen." (Ch 20)
- "Never any of you start writing books. It isn't worth it." (Ch 29)
I suppose it enchants primarily because of its subject. Like all classic children's adventure stories it promptly gets rid of the grown-ups. And what could be more exciting than camping on an island and sailing your own boat.
February 2021; 360 pages
|This review was written by|
the author of Motherdarling
The Swallows and Amazon series contained twelve books:
- Swallows and Amazons: Children camping on an island in a lake have sailing based adventures
- Swallowdale: More sailing adventures are threatened when the Swallow sinks
- Peter Duck: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint sail on a big yacht into the Caribbean in search of pirate treasure; pirates pursue
- Winter Holiday: the lake freezes allowing a sledge-based expedition to the 'north pole'; the 'D's are introduced
- Coot Club: The Dd join the Death and Glory kids in the Norfolk Broads but the excitement is just as great when birds have to be protected from rowdies.
- We Didn't Mean to go to Sea: The Swallows accidentally find themselves at sea in a yacht they scarcely know: for my money this is the most dramatic and exciting book of the series.
- Secret Water: The Swallows are joined by the Amazons in an expedition to map some tidal mud-flats
- The Big Six: The Death and Glory kids have to be cleared of accusations of crime; the Ds help.
- Missee Lee: The Swallows and Amazons and Captain Flint are shipwrecked near China and captured by a lady Chinese pirate with a taste for Latin.
- Pigeon Post: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds search for gold in the hills above the Lake; one of my favourites
- The Picts and the Martyrs: The Ds have to hide in the hills when the Great Aunt comes to stay with the Amazons
- Great Northern: The Swallows and Amazons and Ds and Captain Flint are protecting birds in the far north of Scotland.
Other books by this author:
- Bohemia in London
- Old Peter's Russian Tales
- Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study