Sunday, March 11, 2007

Idyllic Summers: Swallows and Amazons

My introduction to the Swallows and Amazons series was a comment to my post about The Penderwicks, a summertime tale with a pronounced yesteryear tone in which kids run free through wonderful August days and nights. A reader suggested that I take a look at the Swallows and Amazons books written between 1929 and 1947 by Arthur Ransome. Ransome has been most widely known in the United States as the author of the version of the Russian folk tale used in the 1969 Caldecott book The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, but his twelve Swallows and Amazons books apparently have quite a following here as well.

In the first book, Swallows and Amazons, the well-to-do Walker children, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger, find themselves summering on a beautiful lake in England's Lake Country, with free access to the sailboat Swallow and an irresistible uninhabited island offshore. When they appeal for permission to sail out and camp there for several nights, their Navy father's permission comes by terse telegram: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON'T DROWN. With carte blanche consent granted, John, as the oldest, is designated captain, Susan becomes first mate, Titty, able seaman, and Roger, although only seven and unable to swim a stroke, becomes ship's boy. Ship's articles are drawn up, the provisions are stowed, and the Swallow sets sail.

The crew has no more than settled in on Wild Cat Island, when they find themselves invaded by the crew of the sailboat Amazon, two pirate-mad sisters who fly the Jolly Roger and, armed with bows and parrot-fletched arrows, are determined to retake possession of their favorite island. When the Walkers resist valiantly, Captain Nancy Blackett and her first mate Peggy see the possibilities for even better play scenarios with the crew of the Swallow.

A parlay is called for, and the two crews agree upon a "Treaty of Offence and Defence," in which they agree to cooperate in revenge upon a belligerent houseboat owner they name "Captain Flint," (actually the Blackett's Uncle Jim, who has abandoned the girls and their customary summer naval games to write a memoir), and to compete in trying to seize each other's ship as spoils of war.
After delicious plots and difficult nocturnal sailing escapades, the Swallows, through the courage and initiative of Able-Seaman Titty, do capture the Amazon in a daring night maneuver. With peace declared, the allies take on the mystery of the break in of Captain Flint's houseboat and the theft of his manuscript. The story ends with the heartfelt promise of all childhood summer days and nights:

"Good-bye, good-bye" called Nancy and Peggy. "You will promise to come again next year?"

"We'll come," said mother.

And come back they do, in twelve more (plus one unfinished posthumous volume) installments of the venturesome sailors' exploits. The appeal of the books lies partly in the independence of the children, competent in sailing and camping skills and unfettered by much parental intervention, but even more so in the reach of their imaginations to create and act out whole adventures of their own making. The Blackett girls are singularly liberated females for their time, sneaking out to raid the Swallows camp by night and freely roaming the lake and hills nearby. The "Treasure Island"-inspired pirate games, played out in great detail, are irresistable in the way that all child-created worlds, from The Secret Garden to Terabithia, are. If only all of childhood could be this way!

If you want to introduce your children to a time when children created their own entertainment out of their own abilities and imaginations, plug in one of the DVD's of the Swallows and Amazons series on your way to your next summer vacation. (Don't forget to pack some of the books, too.) They might just revive your own jaded hopes for those warm days and nights of high summer.



  • Lovely! So glad you enjoyed it! The DVDs you linked to are quite nice as well. My kids are always leery of movie adaptations of books but these were quite faithful and well-done.

    Thank you for reading and posting!

    By Anonymous Margaret, at 10:18 PM  

  • Dear Margaret,

    Thanks for your report on the DVD's. A real kid's opinion is better than a reviewer's take.

    I really appreciate your comments and commend you on your children's good taste (since they seem to like the same things I do!).

    Hope I get some of the other books in the series this week.

    By Blogger GTC, at 8:41 AM  

  • Yes, I agree the videos are rather fun and very British. I will have to read the Penderwicks now

    By Blogger jadegreen, at 10:39 PM  

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