The Swallows and Amazons Series
In Brief: Classic set of gentle outdoor adventure stories, often with a sailing theme. Healthy combination of imagination and down-to-earth competence in outdoor pursuits. Nicely-rounded characters inhabiting an inter-war landscape where children are allowed a wide degree of freedom but where politeness and consideration are uppermost. The books' uncomplicated style coupled with their outdoor milieux is like fresh air to a modern reader.
Series: Swallows and Amazons
Age Range: Children+
Period: Mid 20th C
Setting: Lake District, Norfolk Broads, Suffolk Coast and others
- John, Susan, Titty, Roger and Bridget are the Walkers, children of a Royal Navy captain and a mother who grew up in Australia and is accustomed to outdoor adventures.
- Nancy and Peggy are the tomboyish Blackett sisters, natives of the Lake District, brought up by their widowed mother and their much-travelled Uncle Jim.
- Dick and Dot Callum are a science-minded and romantically-inclined brother and sister who befriend the Walkers and Blacketts in the Lakes and also join the Coots on the Norfolk Broads.
- Tom Dudgeon, twins Nell and Bess Farland and the younger Joe, Bill and Pete are the Coot Club, dedicated to protecting nesting birds around the Norfolk Broads.
- Captain Flint is the children's name for the Blacketts' Uncle Jim who, retired from travelling the world, inhabits a houseboat in the bay where his nieces live. He generally stands up for them and helps them in their often madcap schemes.
Three families of children enjoy themselves outdoors in general, and sailing in particular, over several holidays. In Swallows and Amazons, John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker meet Nancy and Peggy Blackett and strike up a friendly rivalry as they go sailing in the Lake District. During the winter, they shelter in Captain Flint's houseboat in the bay and make up stories of Peter Duck, the old sailor who takes them on adventures in the Caribbean. When the summer comes again, Swallow runs onto a rock and the Walkers are forced to camp in Swallowdale while the Amazons are kept housebound by their ferocious Great Aunt. Come the Winter Holiday, the two sets of children are joined by the Callums, Dick and Dot, and they all enjoy winter sports for even longer than usual once Nancy gets the mumps and they are all in quarantine. The spring sees Dick and Dot alone on the Norfolk Broads where they meet Tom Dudgeon, the twins Port and Starboard and the Death and Glories, all members of the bird-watching Coot Club. Back in the Lakes over the summer, all three families join Captain Flint and his friend as they prospect in the local hills, communicating by Pigeon Post. The next holidays, plans go awry (“We didn't mean to go to sea”) for the Walkers and they end up on the coast of Holland. Later in the same year, they travel inland into the Essex marshes to Secret Water where they meet the Mastodon and his allies. Dick and Dot are back in Norfolk again where they team up again with the Coots to form The Big Six. Then all the children are together to make up the story of Missee Lee, the fearsome Chinese pirate their story counterparts encounter in the Far East. When the Amazons' Great Aunt comes to stay again, they and the Callums who are visiting play the roles of The Picts and the Martyrs. Finally, in the summer, the children all go bird-watching in the Scottish lochs with Captain Flint to look for the fabled Great Northern Diver. An unfinished story combines the Norfolk and Lakes stories and sees The Coots in the North.
Like those of their near-contemporary The Chronicles of Narnia, the twelve books in the Swallows & Amazons series have continued to be published since their first editions between 1930 and 1945. Yet this series' penetration among young people is far less. Which is perhaps understandable as we'll see below, but is a shame nonetheless. Both series have a perennial value both for their storytelling and for the virtues they assume. I've no idea what the statistics are overall, but a quick survey of boys at the club I help to run shows that most of them have read at least one of the Narnia stories and some several, while none has done more than dip their toe into the waters of the Swallows and Amazons series. Likewise among adults of my acquaintaince: very few have read any of the Arthur Ransome series.
I'm not especially interested in a comparison between the two very different series, but it is interesting to speculate what there is in the one which is not in the other. An obvious starting point is the lengths of the individual books. In the similar-format editions beside me, The Last Battle runs to 170 pages while Coot Club clocks in at 340. Swallowdale comes in at 500 pages while the longest Narnia book seems to be Prince Caspian with 180 pages. What of it? Any number of books run to more pages than that. Even ignoring Harry Potter which is always in a league of its own, Ark Angel — the only Alex Rider I have to hand — is pretty much the same size as Coot Club (although the print is more widely spaced and the style certainly racier). And a quick glance at the other books on the shelf shows that, if anything, modern day youth bestsellers are at least as long as the Arthur Ransome's old-timers.
So what doesn't appeal? If you will permit me a generalisation, I would say that boys are usually attracted by action-based books, the more so if they're juiced up with technology and a certain amount of voyeurism of one sort or another. Girls are more attracted by character-based books, but are especially drawn to “relationship” stories, specifically romances or at least casual love-interests, the more so if they're sprinkled with glamour. Swallows and Amazons has neither. (While Narnia has a smattering of both, at least in potency). As a series Swallows & Amazons represents a simpler, less phrenetic world. And while it may be true that we'd like the children in our care to be attracted more than they are by the innocence of such a world, it's very hard to make that so.
Are youngsters are more attracted by books which explore a world they already know, or by books which represent something unfamiliar? Some of the most popular books, Harry Potter and Alex Rider being obvious examples, neatly combine the two: the familiar school setting with friendships and rivalries, but with a veneer of magical or high-tech adventure. It seems that the world that the children of Swallows & Amazons move in is a far remove from the experience of most young people. There is occasional mention of school or families, but by and large the children live in a lightly supervised world of outdoor pursuits. A world without any technology — I don't even remember a radio — and where responsibility for the younger ones lies on the shoulders of the older children. Will this world appeal or appal?
I admit that I did not find myself drawn to these books as a child. My father had most of the stories in the original green hardback editions, and I tried a few times but failed to get into them. It was only as an adult, and then only when I saw one particular edition whose cover illustration caught my eye, that I started to read them and to enjoy the world they portray. Obviously, no one book or series is going to please everyone. But I believe that series like Swallows & Amazons would represent a breath of fresh air to many children. And that, in spite of the slight unfamiliarity of their style, they would not be too demanding or challenging. Perhaps there's even a case for reading them out loud to younger children: certainly there's nothing untoward whatsoever in the books, only a few very slightly frightening episodes, such as when the children get carried out to sea (a story I'd keep for older readers).
A footnote: it's faintly amusing that, although the fame of this series lies ostensibly in its portrayal of sailing in the Lake District, only one of the books in the series — the first — is actually mostly about sailing in the Lakes. The others either don't involve much sailing (Pigeon Post, Winter Holiday, Swallowdale) or aren't set in the Lakes (Coot Club, Great Northern, Peter Duck) or both (Missee Lee, Secret Water).
- Freedom allowed to children to go camping and sailing on their own.
- The lightness of touch between parents and adult relations and their children
- The use of imagination to find interest in small things
- Enjoying oneself in the absence of technology
Sunday 15th November 2009