Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Swallows and Amazons Series by Arthur Ransome


Here I am, back from five very busy weeks in New Zealand! I'm sorry for leaving you all without book reviews for so long, but things seem about ready to return to normal.
Today I'd like to review a famous children's book series—the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. These tell the stories of a group of children in the English Lakes District and other regions as they go sailing and camping in the school holidays. An eclectic mixture containing irreverent humour and wild flights of imagination together with more facts about camping, gold-mining, and (of course) sailing than you can poke a stick at, it's hard to imagine a childhood without them.
There are twelve books in the series, mainly revolving around the six original characters: the four (later five) Walker children, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger; and the two piratical Blackett sisters, Nancy and Peggy. There's Nancy and Peggy's uncle, known mainly as Captain Flint; there's little Walker sister Bridget; there are the birdwatching twins Dick and Dot Callum who constitute the brains of the party.
Swallows and Amazons opens with the Walker children petitioning their father, in the navy, to let them camp on an island in a lake, with their beloved sailing-dinghy the Swallow. The telegram they receive in answer is the kind of thing that would get a modern British parent hauled in for criminal negligence, bad parenting, and failure to sort garbage: If the children aren't duffers, they won't drown. And if they are duffers, they're better off drowned. The peace of the Walkers' island is soon shattered by the arrival of the infamous pirate sisters—the Amazons Nancy and Peggy, who have a ship of their own and fancy that they have a prior claim to the island. And so war is joined...
Swallowdale takes place the following summer. When the Swallow is damaged, her intrepid crew is forced to make camp in a hidden valley at the lakeside. Meanwhile the “natives” are restless: Nancy and Peggy's tyrannical Great-Aunt insists on them being home for meals.
Peter Duck is the old sailor who accompanies the Swallows, the Amazons, and the infamous Captain Flint on an imaginary treasure-hunting expedition to the Caribbean.
Winter Holiday and a frozen lake means no sailing...unless a sail could be rigged on a sled? With the help of newcomers Dick and Dot, the Swallows resolve to try it. This was my second-favourite book in the series.
Coot Club tells of Dick and Dot's sailing experiences in the Norfolk Broads. Meanwhile a local boy's efforts to protect birdlife from noisy motorboaters results in a minor feud...
In Pigeon Post, the Swallows, Amazons, and D's take to the high plain. Their beloved Captain Flint has been prospecting for gold in South America and failed to find anything, so they start their own mining operation, hampered by a sinister rival, Squashy Hat, a phantasmal armadillo, and the threat of wildfire.
We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is hands down my favourite of the books. On the eve of their father's return from duty in the Orient, the four Walkers strike up a friendship with young Jim Brading, captain of the cutter Goblin and are given permission to sail the Stour estuary with him—as long as they don't go out to sea. Then one day Jim doesn't return with fuel from his shoreside errand, a bank of fog drifts in, and the Walker children suddenly realise that they are adrift...In real danger from fog and storm, the Walkers face their biggest test yet.
Secret Water tells how the Swallows' camping trip with their beloved father is threatened when he is called away on duty again. Instead, he maroons them on an island with a dinghy and tells them to map the area before he returns. The Amazons soon turn up to complete the party. Exploration and war, naturally, follow.
The Big Six returns to the Norfolk Broads, where the D's and their Norfolk friends are faced with a mystery: Someone is vandalising boats, and the D's friends are being blamed for it. Can they catch and expose the real vandal before the young Death-and-Glories are banned from sailing?
Missee Lee is the pirate queen who captures the Swallows, Amazons, and Captain Flint on their imaginary trip to the East Indies. The other pirate lords think the Swallows and Amazons should lose their heads, but Missee Lee (who would much rather be studying in Cambridge) thinks they should become her captive Latin students instead. Caught between death and a fate even worse, the Swallows and Amazons plot their escape.
In Picts and Martyrs, the Ds' holidays with the Blacketts is threatened by the advent of the Great-Aunt.
In Great Northern, the Walkers, Blacketts, and the D's go on a cruise of the Hebrides with Captain Flint. Dick is fascinated by the possibility of spotting a rare bird on one of the islands and eventually finds himself battling to protect it from an unscrupulous collector.
There are many, many things to like about this series. The major theme of the series is that of children and young teenagers taking on the responsibilities of adults. In every book, the characters show maturity and initiative when it matters. Meanwhile the books are chock full of information on sailing, birds, mining, mapmaking, navigation, and goodness knows what else.
There are also things to be aware of—some evolutionary content, and I was always quite disturbed by the depiction (even in play) of human sacrifice in Secret Water. Perhaps the most egregious fault is the counterpoint to the independence and capability of the young characters: authority figures (with the notable exception of the Walker parents) are often disrespected.
Although flawed, the Swallows and Amazons series is well worth reading and enjoying—especially We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea.

1 comment:

Tim Nelson said...

I think the authority figures, as I recall, are "respected" as people, not as authority figures. Note that for Uncle Jim, said respect includes making him walk the plank (after he effectively agrees that they can make him do so). If you'd care to post an example of said disrespect, I'd be interested in exploring that further. In particular, I think that there is a strong undercurrent of secretiveness with regard to informing authority figures, but nothing so broad as general disrespect. Also, let me add the Callum parents to the Walker parents as respected figures (although they don't really seem to appear directly, we learn about them and their childrens' interaction with them).

I have the whole set except Pigeon Post (which I've read, of course). I would have trouble narrowing my favourite book down to one, but I always preferred the ones set around the Lake, and of course (with Suzannah), "We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea". Of those
books, I'd probably lean towards those that are about summer, and those which contain the Callums, which narrows it down, I think, to Pigeon Post and The Picts and the Martyrs; however, it may be best to read the others first, so that you know the characters somewhat when you come to these books.

As a teaser for those who haven't read it, I would also refer to the armadillo as "impending" and "larger than expected" :).

You left out that, in additional to being subordinately educational* about sailing, exploring, mining, and the like, that it is also somewhat informative concerning literature and educational practises. The first book quotes a stanza from a poem at the head of each chapter, and there are various references to other things they were learning
at school. Oh, and English folk songs (sea shanties).

* by "subordinately educational", I mean that you learn stuff, but the story remains primary. It's sort of like reading the "Little House on the Prairie" in that regard.

The human sacrifice element never bothered me much, for the reason that it seemed to me like repurposing the Greek Gods for Christian purposes, except that Arthur Ransome was much less sensible about his choices in doing it. But my point is, the Greek Gods could only be repurposed because the people involved _did not believe they existed_. Likewise, the human sacrifice could only be treated so because _British people would never really do that_, and not only that, it was so far from possible that it became a subject for this sort of thing.

The difference, of course, is that the Greek Gods often represented a twisted version of something good, and could thus be redeemed. Human Sacrifice -- well, I can only think of one of which I'm glad happened, and that was 2000 years ago, and was a self-sacrifice in a noble cause, which is a bit different than that depicted in S&A (although, as Suzannah pointed out, they were playing co-operatively, even though some of them were tied up). So, like I said, I can see where Arthur Ransome was coming from, but he obviously overdid things a bit :).

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