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Swallows And Amazons

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Wed, 09/27/2017 - 07:56
Swallows And Amazons

Swallows And Amazons1 was written by Arthur Ransome and first published in 1930. It was the first of what proved to be a series of twelve books. It tells the story of the four Walker children and their baby sister who are staying with their mother during the summer holidays on a farm near a lake in the Lake District in England. Their father is an officer in the navy who is away at sea. The four children have use of a small boat which they sail to an island and where they stay in a tent for most of the holiday. Adventures ensue when they meet the two Blackett sisters who also have a boat. At first they are adversaries, the Walker children calling themselves the Swallows and the Blacketts, the Amazons. Eventually they become united in the face of apparent threats, not least from the Blacketts’ uncle who lives on a houseboat and who the Amazons decide is a pirate called Captain Flint.

There are two worlds in the story. First, there is the real world, inhabited by the adults. Secondly, there is the imagined world of the children where adults are natives, the children are sailors and explorers, and the lake is an ocean with the Arctic at one end and the Antarctic at the other. A standout feature of the book is the way the children speak and behave, without any embarrassment or feeling self-conscious, as though the imagined world is real. A key factor in the maintenance of this imagined world is the willingness of the Walker’s mother to go along with this make-believe world. But all the time the imagined world is under pressure from the real world and, eventually, the pressure will be too great.

In the opening passage of the book, Roger, the youngest of the four is running across a field to his mother waiting at the gate. But he is not running straight. Instead he is zigzagging from one side of the field to the other. The reason for this was because, ‘he could not run straight against the wind because he was a sailing vessel, a tea-clipper, the Cutty Sark’, so he ‘made his way up the field in broad tacks’ (p. 15). While this was going on, ‘his patient mother was awaiting him’. It is probable that most mothers in a similar situation would lose patience and shout to their child to come ‘straight here’. But her patient silence sets the tone for what follows in the rest of the book. It is as though Ransome is sending a message to the reader to be likewise patient and to go along with the imagined world.  

The imagined world has its distinctive terminology, that of sailing. So John, the eldest boy, is the master or captain, Susan is the mate, Titty is an able-seaman, and Roger is the ship’s boy. When they have their first meal on the island, Ransome writes that the ‘captain, mate and the crew’ (p. 57) squatted down to eat. Ransome is not afraid to use technical language. Consider the following description as they prepare the boat to sail: ‘John hooked the strop on the traveller and hauled away on the halyard. Up went the brown sail until the traveller was nearly at the top of the mast. Then John made the halyard fast on the cleats, which were simply pegs, underneath the thwart which served to hold the mast up’ (p. 29). There are several technical terms in this description. Occasionally Ransome adds some explanation. Here he tells us that the cleats are pegs and when John then asks his mother a question about the blocks, Ransome adds an alternative term in brackets: ‘‘Is that what those blocks (pulleys) are for …?’’ But mostly there is no explanation and it is unlikely that a reader, whatever their age, would understand every term unless they have experience of sailing. But what the reader does perceive is that the author knows what he is talking about and this gives the story authenticity. Also, the absence of explanation by Ransome of the terms implies that, actually, he thinks the reader knows what he means. The reader may not know all the terms, but he or she has the sense of being brought into confidence by the author. To define every sailing term would not only have overburdened the text it would have led to the author talking down to his readers.

In the imagined world real things are exaggerated and their possibility maximized. When they sail by the houseboat one day, which they have already decided belongs to a pirate, Roger cries out: ‘‘He’s got a cannon’ … ‘Look, look!’’ (p. 72). Ransome is clear about the reality of this cannon. It is a ‘little brass cannon. Once upon a time, perhaps, it had been used for starting yacht races’. So the reader is left in no doubt that this is not a cannon a pirate could use to attack a ship. But then Ransome writes: ‘Now there it was, on a wooden gun carriage, ready for action’ (pp. 72-3). In these words the cannon is transformed from a small starting gun to a fighting cannon where the ‘action’ is not starting a race but attacking a ship. If the boat really was a pirate ship there would be more than one cannon. Captain John looked for another cannon, ‘on the port side. That would have settled the question. There was none. But still, a cannon is a cannon and ships with no secrets do not usually carry even one’ (p. 73).  The houseboat is now a ship and the cannon is a cannon - for firing cannonballs.

The imagined world was under constant pressure from the reality of the real world. It threatened to undermine the make-believe world which the children had constructed. At first, the threat was nothing more than a glancing blow. When Captain John and the ship’s boy, Roger, go back to the farm to get their fishing rods, Mother as usual plays along with their imagined world - they are not returning to their holiday cottage but are visiting a foreign land. But the nurse who was helping to look after the baby, ‘somehow did not seem to feel that she was talking to seamen from another land. ‘You haven’t caught your deaths of cold yet,’ she said. ‘It’s quite a holiday to be without you’’ (p. 74). She was not playing along, but had punctured the imagined with the reality - they were on holiday not on an epic expedition. But as the story develops Ransome allows crises to exert their own pressure on the imagined world.  

During their voyage up the Amazon River in an attempt to capture the boat of the Amazons they row into a pool. Then the boat gets stuck.

‘‘Something’s pulling at my oar,’ said Susan, ‘I can’t lift it.’

The boat stopped moving.

John peered over the side.

‘Water lilies,’ he said. ‘It’s getting most awfully dark.’

‘They hang on to my oars like octopuses,’ said Susan.

‘Perhaps they are octopuses,’ said Roger. ‘Titty read to me about how they put their arms out long, and grab people even out of a boat’’ (p. 231).

Ransome could have chosen at this point to give full reign to the idea of octopuses. Susan had used the simile, ‘like octopuses’. Roger said, ‘they are octopuses’ providing the opportunity for Ransome to switch to metaphor, for example: the octopuses pulled and pulled on the oars, threatening to drag them all underwater. But this is not what Ransome does. It is dark, they are stuck in a place they have never been before. This was not the time for pretending they were in an imagined world. The pressure of reality was too great. John’s reply is unequivocal: ‘‘Rubbish, Roger,’ he said, ‘they aren’t octopuses. They’re only flowers’’. Ransome knew better than to push the idea of the imagined world too far. It would have simply been too farfetched to expect John to engage in make-believe at this juncture.

As the holiday nears its end and following a visit from the grown-ups to the island, the pressure of reality becomes too great. They felt glum, and Nancy identified the reason why: ‘‘It’s the natives,’ … ‘Too many of them. They turn everything into a picnic.’’ (p. 367). They had been pretending they had been shipwrecked and were marooned on the island. They tried to rekindle this imagined world, but the reality was they were going home that afternoon: ‘But it was no good. Everybody knew, and nobody could get back in the old mood’. Whilst not every child who reads this book will have had an epic adventure in a summer holiday like the Swallows and Amazons, they will nevertheless be able to identify with the end-of-holiday feeling which the characters experience. There is nothing like the prospect of a new term at school to puncture the worlds imagined in the holidays.

1. A. Ransome, ‘Swallows And Amazons’, (UK: Red Fox, 2016).