Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Swallows and the Amazons

A map of their Adventures
When I was seven years old, my sister deemed I was finally Old Enough for Some Things. One of them was the Seven-Year-Old Wonder Book, which she started reading to me the night of my seventh birthday, the other was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome.
Growing up homeschooled in a place that doesn’t really approve of homeschooling, can often be lonely. Some years we didn’t have any friends at all; they, or their parents would make short work of the relationship. So often times, we had to make do with ourselves…and various characters in books. There were weeks on end when my sister was Sir Percy Blakeney and I was Sir Andrew and we were rescuing people from prison during the French Revolution. Genres even crossed sometimes, with the successful rescue of Sidney Carton from under the noses of the French. We rewrote War and Peace with a happy ending, amended The Chronicles of Narnia so it could be played out with two children instead of four, and went off to wander the slopes of Wales with Taran and Eilonwy in The Prydain Chronicles.
Coniston Water in what is now Cumbria,
one of the cheif influences behind the books
Photograph by Paul Mcgreevy on Flickr
So we really weren’t as lonely as might be expected. We had each other, and we had books and along with The Chronicles of Narnia, Away Goes Sally by Elizabeth Coatsworth, and The Good Master and Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, there was the Swallows and Amazon series.
It’s perhaps my favourite series of all time. Though it’s hard to say, because there are others that finish very close to it. I can say, however, that it is the most engrossing and deceptively simple series I have ever read. Not only are the plots ingenious and unexpected, but each book is completely different from the last. 
Horning, Norfolk, setting for two of the books
Photograph by Rob Fairweather on Flickr
Starting in 1929, the series follows a group of children as they grow up in England in the years just before the war. There is no frivolous description, no romance to muck things up, they are strictly stories of childhood…and what stories they are. Many people are attracted to the books because of the things the children get to do; they camp on islands, are allowed to use matches, go gold prospecting, sail across the North Sea by themselves in a gale…among other things. The books are also packed with masses of practical knowledge about wind and tides and fishing, and include other professions that are almost dead, like charcoal burning and wooden boat building.
More breathtaking scenery form the Lakes District
Photograph by Andy Rothwell on Flickr
But the thing that shines the brightest is how real they are. Somehow they make ordinary things seem exciting; getting lost in the fog becomes an epic adventure, and other things that might easily become boring, like camping in a garden, aren’t. It’s hard to believe that these children and this lake and those sailboats could have come from the imagination of anyone…and to be fair, they didn’t. Arthur Ransome, the author (he was a good friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, by the way), based it on his own childhood, and on the adventures of children he knew.
A first edition of Pigeon Post, the first book
ever to win the Carnegie Medal
Consequently, the characters in the stories are some of the most vivid I have ever read about. They are so alive, that, despite their author, they begin to grow up as the years pass. Almost imperceptibly they change through the series, their roles shift, they become wise from their mistakes; some of them make plans for the future…and quite suddenly, Arthur Ransome realized that his beloved children had grown up on him and he stopped writing.
For some unknown reason, because they are written for children, about children, the Swallows and Amazons series is dismissed by most people as silly little children’s’ stories. In reality, there is nothing silly about them. They are more serious and thought-provoking than many ‘adult’ stories and painstakingly paint a picture of a world that once was and never will be again: a world of river wherries and tall ships going down Channel, a world of exploration without restriction, a world where children are capable and can be trusted without lifejackets.
Shotley in Essex, one of the starting off points for
We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, our favorite book in the series
Photograph by David Parker on Flickr

I would recommend Arthur Ransome’s books to anyone, but somehow I doubt an adult could ever understand what it was like to be first introduced to them at seven years old, and to be able to grow up with them and watch them change just the way you yourself were changing in the meantime. Perhaps, as an adult, if you grasp the novel idea that children’s thoughts are just as important, and their feelings just as sophisticated, as those of grownups, you may be able to appreciate these books. Life isn’t all about who falls in love with whom, or gangsters in dark cities, or going off to a war. There are the times in between, as well.
The Nancy Blackett, Ransome's own boat, and the inspiration
for Goblin

Just to wet your appetite, here’s an excerpt from Secret Water one of the last books in the series, which I think sums up what the books are like:
“I say,” said Titty. “We ought to count days, like Robinson Crusoe.”
John bent down and cut a notch in the flagstaff. “That’s for today,” he said. “Every day we’ll cut another notch until the Goblin comes back…”
“And then when we lie exhausted on the sand…” said Titty.
“Jolly wet mud,” said Roger.
“We’ll see a sail far away. And it’ll come nearer and nearer. And the captain will say, ‘Clap your eye to a spyglass, Mister Mate.’ And the mate (that’s Mother) will say, ‘There’s something moving on the shore. They’re still alive.’ And we will wave and try to shout, but our parched throats won’t let us. And they’ll sail in, and we’ll hear the anchor chain go rattling out. And then we’ll all sail away together and see the island disappear into the sunset.”
“It may be morning,” said Roger.