Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]
Swallows and Amazons was the first title in Arthur Ransome’s classic series of 12 novels written between 1929 and 1934. It introduces the Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger (the Swallows), the camp they create on Wild Cat island and their adventures with the two intrepid Blackett sisters (the Amazons). Ransome, who was a journalist with the Manchester Guardian, was inspired to write the book after a summer spent giving sailing lessons to the children of some friends. His novel relates the outdoor adventures and play of the two sets of children who are spending the summer holidays in the Lake District. Initially ‘enemies’ the Swallows and the Amazons enjoy a few skirmishes until they agree to band together against a common foe – the Blacketts’ uncle James whom they call “Captain Flint” who angers them by thinking them responsible for the theft of his precious trunk. But of course, since this is a book intended for child readers, all must come right in the end. Mistakes are set right, apologies given, the children become firm friends with Captain Flint and all resolve to meet again the following summer.
I never read Swallows and Amazons as a child – in fact I never heard the title mentioned even among any of my friends. But it was a set text on my children’s literature course so in I plunged. I admit that, despite the fact it was voted in a 2003 BBC poll as one of the nation’s favourite reads, I didn’t warm to this book initially. It contained far too much about the mechanics of sailing in which I have little interest. But once I’d got over that barrier I began to appreciate this tale of a bunch of children who get to go off on adventures without too much interference from adults.
It’s a novel in the long tradition of ‘island stories’ but instead of travelling to far off places and encountering pirates as the kids do in Treasure Island for example, the children here base their adventures on a small island in one of the Lake District’s lakes (some local experts claim it’s Lake Windermere, others that it’s Coniston Water.) Influenced by their reading of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island the Walker children and the Blackett girls let their imaginations roam free. Adults are transformed into ‘natives’, the map of the lake is re-drawn with their own names assigned to its inlets and bays, the fish they catch become ‘sharks’ and the pebbles for which they dive are ‘pearls’. They eat some odd sounding meals – it took me a while to work out that the ingredient they call pemmican is something like SPAM – but they are not so far away from civilisation that they miss out on cakes and other treats from their mother and the nearby farm.
The more I read of their invented world, the more I recalled some of the adventures I had with my large group of cousins during our own school holidays, leaving the house just after breakfast and sometimes not returning until it was time for tea. In between we roamed the hillsides building dens to ward off imaginary invaders sustained with some wild berries we managed to forage. For the children of Swallows and Amazons their adventures provide a form of education. They learn practical skills like how to handle the dinghy or how to cook on a camp fire but they also learn a lesson in life – the importance of not taking things at face value and of valuing other people’s property. It has a clear didactic element but it’s handled fairly lightly (certainly in comparison to Little Women!).
On the whole, though I wouldn’t want to read any more in the series, this was a fun read and I found I could easily skip the details about sailing. I loved the way it sparked memories of my own childhood – I wonder whether kids today still make up their own imaginary worlds or has this become a victim of the easy availability of virtual reality and gaming?
The Book: Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was published in 1930. So popular has it proved over the year that multiple TV and film adaptations have been issued, including one by Harbour Pictures and BBC Films in 2016. (it attracted criticism because out of some odd idea of sensitivity, one character’s name was changed from Titty to Tilly).
The Author: Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds but spent large parts of his childhood in the Lake District, using that detailed knowledge to inform his novels. Ransome had already written 20 novels but it wasn’t until third of the Swallows and Amazons series was published did he achieve commercial and critical success. After the success of his first Swallows and Amazons novel he gave up his journalist career and devoted himselfto to writing adventure stories for children. The Arthur Ransome Trust set up to honour his work, continues to operate today, providing children with some of the same experiences as the children in his novels.
Why I read this book: Quite simply I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been a set text for my children’s literature course.
28 thoughts on “Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome [review]”
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Ransome was one of my childhood favourites. I’ve been planning a re read. I can understand that they might not appeal so much to adult readers though. I recently listened to a BBC radio programme on Ransome and his life was very unusual!
I could see his appeal when i read it for a second time
I read this as an adult too and, like you, didn’t feel drawn in enough to read on, but didn’t mind it either. As a girl, I loved when Enid Blyton’s characters would just pop off on a boat and take tea on some island somewhere, but I never fell in love with Arthur Ransome’s stories, despite several attempts.
I was obsessed with Blyton as a child. Used all my pocket money buying them
I love to read books about children running loose. That’s how I grew up. Recently I read Gerald Durrell’s – My Family and Other Animals, and just loved that kid’s freedom. Sadly kids don’t get as much freedom today. I”ll probably pick this one up too.
Interesting! I never read these as a child either and I’ve actually tried to start S&A a couple of times and struggled. Maybe I should have another try.
The beginning doesnt hook you immediately – it takes a while until the two groups of children meet for it to get a bit more interesting
I adored this book as a child and it and the whole series were the first books I read after I completed my English degree! I loved all the sailing details, and have continued to do so in books that other people have found a bit tedious since. I can actually sail in real life, too – but I choose not to!
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
Check out this review of the book, Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome vrom the Booker Talk blog
Thanks for this Don. Most kind of you
I adored this book as a child! I remember pretending to be Amazons with my friends while we kayaked in the lake near my house. It brings back so many wonderful memories! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
if you had a lake for your adventures then I can see how this book would resonate even more
While I enjoyed this book as as a child, I didn’t fall in love with it probably on account of the focus on the technical details of sailing etc! It’s interesting to hear about your response to the book as an adult especially in today’s day and age.
Part of me thinks I might have found this more difficult to relate to if I read it in my childhood because the experience of sailing was so far removed from my own world. And yet a lot of what you read is a child is not anything within your own realm of experience because you havent lived long enough to have many experiences. So maybe i would have just enjoyed the adventure part….
I read the book as a child and loved it – the adventure aspect. I set out to collect most of the series and my favourite was Missee Lee, set in Asia. Very Exotic and romantic when you’re ten or eleven living in a central African, landlocked country!
It must have been a strange experience to read about sailing when there is no water around you……
It didn’t bother me as a kid. We had a dam on the tea estate, where we would occasionally go fishing. And plenty of rivers and streams. But sailboats? No. As a kid, you just read on, filling in the missing detail from your imagination.
But I notice twice you say there are three Walker children when in fact there were four (John, Susan, Roger and Titty).
That was clumsy of me – have fixed this now Teresa. thanks for spotting for me
Oh! Oh! I just LOVED Swallows and Amazons as a child! I must have read it, and the other books in the series, over and over again. I loved the idea that children could be independent agents and have their own adventures free of adult supervision. And I hugely enjoyed all the technical details about sailing, camping, etc. I loved being entertained and educated at the same time. I felt I was learning useful skills and information that no one else would bother to teach me. This helped to give me a little confidence in myself. These books had a huge influence on me at the time, and it’s lovely to come across your review and be reminded of the pleasure and fascination they gave me as a child.
You’ve mentioned one of the key themes of my study in children’s literature – the way they deal with the adult/child relationship.So many of the novels written for children show them able to have a life apart from their parents/guardians etc – like the Famous Five or Northern Lights – but usually there is an adult in the background to step in when things go wrong.
I loved books like Swiss Family Robinson as a child. I picked up a copy of this at a charity shop for 40p in September, thinking it would be interesting to try out an English children’s classic. When I do get to it I hope it will remind me of childhood adventures and summer camp…but I might give myself permission to skip the boring bits about sailing!
Swiss Family Robinson -now that one takes me back many years. It’s not one you hear about much now but I loved that one. The good news is that you can skip the sailing stuff easily in Ransome
Interesting to hear your point of view, since you didn’t read it as a child and are not coloured by nostalgia, therefore, as I am. I did read all of the series as a child and loved it, but skipped through the more technical sailing bits, as I’d never stepped on a boat. I did learn the Semaphore alphabet though and tying knots and things like that, and did compare it with my own roaming around the village with my cousins during the summer holidays (although we didn’t do proper camping, but we tried something approximating it). However, when I reread it with my children, they were not impressed. Clearly, the technical bits were too boring for present-day attention spans and the outdoor adventures seemed too remote.
Isnt it interesting what resonates and doesnt resonate with children today? It would be tempting to say they want more gritty realism now based on the success of Jaqueline Wilson’s books yet then you get the Harry Potter phenomenum…. Hmm