The Silver Sword* was written by Ian Serraillier and published in 1956. It is the wartime story of the three Balicki children, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia, aided by their friend, Jan, as they try to reach Switzerland in the hope of meeting up again with their father and mother. I first came across the story in my third year at junior school when the teacher read it to us in class. It is an epic adventure story with many memorable moments. Two that stand out in my mind are the escape of the father in an aerial luggage lift and Edek clinging like an icicle to the axle of a train. But the story is much more than an adventure. It is a story of family love and human failings, friendship and enmity, fear and hope. It is also a story about history, the history of mainland Europe during the Second World War. Or rather, it is a story of what it was like to experience that history as it unfolded, both from a child’s perspective but also from that of grown-ups. For children growing up in the late fifties and sixties in particular, it provided an accessible way of finding out about the war. But the success of the book continues to this day. And this success is due to Serraillier’s skills as storyteller who used, to great effect, many narrative devices common to both children’s and adult fiction.
The opening page has two such devices. First, in the process of being introduced to the Balicki family, who live in Warsaw, Poland, we are told that the father, Joseph, has been taken by the Nazis to prison. The removal of parents from the scene, (their mother would also be taken away), is a classic move by children’s authors because it frees up the child to be more independent. Sometimes this is achieved by having the child orphaned. Examples of this include David Balfour in R.L. Stevenson’s Kidnapped, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider. On the other hand, the removal of the parent may be temporary, for example the imprisoning of the father in E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children. In the Silver Sword the absence of the parents is also a key aspect of the plot, for the goal of the children is to find their parents.
The second device is to have the children behaving in a more adult way than perhaps would be expected of a typical child of that age. Given the epic journey they would face, the children had to be able to deal with situations in a more mature way. Serraillier provides a neat explanation, telling the readers that the difficulties would actually cause the children to behave more like adults. As he writes: ‘They were to endure hardships and conditions which made them think and plan and act more like adults than children’ (p. 1). A good illustration of this is Ruth, the eldest, during the time when they were living in the cellar. There is a clear, three-stage development. First, she seems overwhelmed by circumstances and feels too young. The second stage, having been encouraged by the cheerful example of her brother, Edek, sees her taking it upon herself to encourage her younger sister to draw pictures. Finally, in a way which seems to flow in the story, but nevertheless is a dramatic leap of progress, we are told: ‘Then she started a school’ (p. 36). It is important to emphasise that, although the children do have to be ‘more like adults’, Serraillier does not overdo this, and often their childishness is to the fore. This is most clearly seen in the case of Jan.
Jan is a boy who has no family and we never learn his surname. He is a pickpocket living by his wits amongst the rubble of Warsaw. His role on the storyline is central. Joseph gives him the silver sword when they meet on the ruins of the Balicki house. This gift is on condition that, if Jan should meet the children, he will tell them about the meeting with Joseph and tell them to go to Switzerland. Jan is portrayed by Serraillier as traumatised by the war, both physically and mentally. At one point, Ruth calls him an ‘animal’ (p. 56). Yet, the reader is always sympathetic towards him, not least because of his commitment to the agreement he had made with Joseph. And also, although his behaviour may have sometimes been like an animal, he has an affinity in a kindly way towards a variety of animals during the story. As well as rebukes from Ruth, who he comes to regard as his mother, Jan also receives punishment from the authorities, at one point being placed in detention for seven days. And so slowly, but surely, we see Jan’s behavior and attitude gradually change. But will his kindly attitude towards animals also ultimately be shown towards people? In the midst of a storm, he has to make a decision between searching for his pet dog or staying to help the two girls. He abandons the dog, jumps into the boat, and, as Serraillier poignantly states, ‘In that moment of decision Jan began to grow up’ (p. 165). But his role in the story is tied very much to the prime narrative device in the book, the silver sword.
In the afterword to the edition from which the quotations in this blog have been taken, Jane Serrailier Grossfield, a daughter of Ian Serraillier, quotes from a letter sent by the author to a school in Australia in which he said that the sword was, ‘a narrative device that links the various episodes of the story’ (p. 191). It also, he said, reminded the children of home and gave them encouragement. There are parallels to be drawn between the silver sword and the role of the ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In both cases, possessing the object becomes almost an obsession and they both provide a source of story continuity and motivation to the characters. A prime difference is that, unlike Tolkien’s ring, the silver sword does not have any magical powers. However, Serraillier pushes the influence of the sword to the limit, stopping just short of supernatural influence. When Edek was suffering from the effects of tuberculosis, ‘one peep at the silver sword was enough to spur him on’ (p. 92). When they are at the Bavarian farm, Jan told the owners that he would like to live there, but, ‘the sword wouldn’t let me stay here, however much I wanted to’ (p. 118). And later on, when they have mislaid the sword and Edek is very ill, Jan maintains that Edek will die, ‘if I don’t have my sword … it’s our guide and lifeline. We can’t do without it’ (p. 145). No, the silver sword is not magical, but its psychological effect on the children is undeniable.
During their journey, we find the children on a train full of refugees travelling from Posen to Berlin. Serraillier uses this as the setting for Edek to tell his story about his escape from Germany whilst clinging to the axle of a train. As a precursor, other refuges have told their own stories and one has even sung, accompanied by his wife on guitar. Serraillier begins this passage with the words: ‘It was the hour of the singer and the story-teller’ (p. 70). It is a folksy, and perhaps unrealistic, description of a refugee’s journey, but it shows a fine turn of phrase and also, for the benefit of the young reader, gives a soft edge to the harsh reality of being a refugee. And it is the young person that is at the heart of the story. It is a story about children and it is a story for children. Jane Serraillier Grossfield writes of cuttings from magazines kept in his plot-book showing photographs of children living in poverty amongst the desolation of postwar Europe. This is the prime motivation behind his story - he brings the suffering of these children to the attention of children of the next generation in a way which captivates and enthralls them.
Serraillier wrote many other books but the Silver Sword is the work for which he is best remembered. To this day, children continue to be thrilled by the adventure of the three Balicki children and the well-meaning Jan. When it is the hour for the storyteller, Ian Serraillier’s Silver Sword is a popular choice.
* I. Serraillier, The Silver Sword, (Red Fox: London, 2003).