Why is it that so many books that are loved in childhood are forgotten when we are grown? Many marvelous stories which are classified as “children’s books” are magical at any age. Of course there are children’s books that are the literary equivalent of coloured sugar popcorn – to be devoured by children, but heartburn inducing in adults. No – I’m talking about books that can be read and re-read at any age, and always gives you something more. One such an author is Athur Ransome, well known for his “Swallows and Amazons” stories.
He is another author who illustrates his own books. And while his drawings are often clumsy I cannot imagine his books illustrated by anyone else.
The best description of the Swallows and Amazon series is one of the blurbs on the back: “It is, perhaps, Mr Ransome’s happiest gift to dress all his invention in good workmanlike clothes. He makes a tale of adventure a handbook to adventure.”
He creates a “handbook to adventure” not only by giving practical advice on how to light a fire or construct a tent: he describes how to think about life – how to extract every scrap of adventure from the most ordinary of circumstances.
This spirit of practical adventure lives on in TARS – The Arthur Ransome Society which have their own website.
Swallows and Amazons is about a group of children and the adventures they have while on holiday. They are all boat mad and go camping and sailing in the Lake District. They have their sailing dingies and their tents and what is more, a freedom from adult supervision that is probably rare among middle class children today. In the first book, their father gives them permission to go camping like this:
“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS. IF NOT DUFFERS, WONT DROWN”.
As a child, I read this and did not think much about it. Reading the books again now I pick up some subtle details of their mother’s reaction to this – her practical and down to earth approach to letting her children look after themselves, while there is always a sense of well checked concern for their safety.
The pictures I have here are all of the first book, “Swallows and Amazons”. In this book, we meet the children and learn a lot about their world. There are two families each with their own sailing dingy – the Swallow and the Amazon. The Swallows are explorers, and the Amazons are pirates. The Swallows are as follows: John, the eldest, with his strong sense of duty who can nevertheless be tempted into rather foolish actions. His sister the practical Susan, responsible for the well being of all the others, the reliable one who will always check that everyone goes to bed with a full stomach and dry socks.
Younger sister Titty who is in many ways the main character of these books is the romantic. She is half lost in stories and often struggles to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Youngest is Roger the daredevil boy, always ready for fun with little regard for the consequences.
The children invest everything with a sheen of adventure and the most everyday event becomes an act from a storybook. In the picture below, Titty teaches Roger to swim just off the shore of the island they are camping on. They pretend to be diving for pearls, which are actually just white pebbles.
They meet sisters Nancy and Peggy Blacket – Amazon Pirates. These are tomboys who will not be told how to behave. Nancy in particular is a force to be reckoned with. She is a leader, proud and forceful with a strong streak of reckless fun. Peggy is very much in Nancy’s shadow. But while she is not as wild as Nancy, she is just as willing to dive headfirst into the next challenge.
All the children share a strong moral code: loyalties are fierce and promises kept. Their experience of the world is half real, half fantasy and is strongly flavoured with that of Robert Louis Stevenson: Treaure Island is the measure of all things. Everything is re-named to fit into the world of pirate adventures or explorers. So lemonade becomes pirate grog, bullybeef becomes “pemmican” and their Uncle Jim is re-named Captain Flint.
Here is a map of “Wildcat Island” as they name the island they camp on. Maps are very important and the children are always writing log books, taking measurements and naming places:
Here the “Swallows” are sneaking up a river to capture the Amazon, Nancy and Peggy’s boat. This is the climax of their friendly war.
These books are not your normal adventure books. Things dont always go smoothly. The chidren do some stupid things – like sailing by night, or getting lost while hiking. They regret their mistakes and try to find the best way to reconcile what they want to do with what they feel they should do.
There are many sketches by Arthur Ransome of boats, fish, birds and places. These books are filled with a great sense of love and joy, with fantasy grounded in reality. If you havent read them, a great treat is in store for you. And if you have, read them again!