Courtesy of Wikipedia
Swallows and Amazons is the first in a series of twelve children’s books by English author Arthur Ransome, named after the title of the first book in the series and set between the two World Wars. The twelve books involve adventures by groups of children, almost all during the school holidays and mostly in England, but including four sailing trips that go outside England. The stories revolve around outdoor activities, especially sailing.
Literary scholar Peter Hunt said he believes the series “… changed British literature, affected a whole generation’s view of holidays, helped to create the national image of the English Lake District and added Arthur Ransome’s name to the select list of classic British children’s authors”.
The series remains popular today. It contributes to the tourist industry in the Lake District and Norfolk Broads areas of England, where many of the books are set. There are also several societies dedicated to the study and promotion of Ransome’s work which are largely inspired by the series. The first one to be founded was the Arthur Ransome Club in Japan. There is also the British-based group, The Arthur Ransome Society, which has an international membership.
The series begins with Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930. It tells the story of the Walker children, who sail a dinghy named Swallow, and the Blackett children, who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers are staying at a farm near a lake during the school holidays; the Blacketts live in a house on the opposite shore. The Walkers consider themselves explorers, while the Blacketts declare themselves to be pirates. The children meet on an island in the lake, and have a series of adventures that weave imaginative tales of pirates and exploration into everyday life in inter-war rural England. In subsequent adventures in the series, the children change roles and become explorers or miners. In the novel Winter Holiday, the children meet Dick and Dorothea Callum, siblings visiting the area. Dick and Dorothea are often referred to as “The Ds” and appear in subsequent novels. Dick considers himself a scientist, while Dorothea sees herself as a writer.
Two of the books feature the Callums without the Swallows or Amazons: Coot Club and The Big Six. They are set in an accurate representation of the Norfolk Broads, particularly the small village of Horning and its surrounding rivers and broads. Two other books are set in Suffolk and Essex around the River Orwell, though one involves a trip across the North Sea to Holland. Two books, Peter Duck and Missee Lee, and possibly also Great Northern?, are metafictional, being fictional stories of the protagonists’ voyages to exotic lands, as imagined by the fictional protagonists.
The crew of the Swallow are siblings John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker. John, the oldest, is the captain and usually in charge. Susan is first mate, in charge of stores, cooking, and the general well-being of the crew. She sometimes acts as a surrogate mother. Titty, the “able seaman”, is the most imaginative member of the crew. She often imagines her own adventures and becomes a hero in the novels, such as when she wins the war in Swallows and Amazons or finds an underground spring in Pigeon Post. Roger is the youngest, originally the ship’s boy, but promoted to able seaman in later books. Their youngest sister Bridget (originally nicknamed “Vicky” due to a resemblance to pictures of Queen Victoria in old age; the nickname is dropped in later books as she loses the resemblance when she grows older) also joins the crew in Secret Water. Roger is seven in the first novel and Bridget has her second birthday. Bridget grows up quickly into a six-year-old when she becomes a full character.
The crew of the Amazon are the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett. Nancy — who does not use her baptismal name of Ruth because her uncle has said that piratesare supposed to be ruthless — is a strong character who would probably be considered a tomboy. Nancy’s speech includes many sailor and pirate terms. She often leads both the crews of the Amazon and the Swallow. Peggy, real name Margaret, puts up a show of being as tough as Nancy, but often needs the encouragement of her sister to get through the more dangerous parts of their adventures. She is frightened of thunderstorms.
A third major set of characters are brother and sister Dick and Dorothea Callum, introduced in the fourth book of the series, Winter Holiday. Dick and Dorothea are the intellectuals of the group, Dick in matters of science, Dorothea in the arts. The Callums later acquire a dinghy of their own, the Scarab. The Callums were originally seen as useless to the group, until it was realized that they had great skating ability.
The Callums are the link to a different location and another set of characters. Following their appearance in Winter Holiday, they appear in two following books set in the Norfolk Broads, where they meet the Coot Club: Tom Dudgeon; the twins, Port and Starboard; and three sons of boatbuilders, the Death and Glories.
With a couple of exceptions, the exact ages of the characters are never established. In the first book they run from Roger, at 7 years old, to about 12 or 14 (John and Nancy). All characters age as the series goes on; the final book occurs three to four years after the first (see timeline below). There is an inconsistency in the only two dates mentioned in the series. In the first book the year is stated to be 1929; while in the second book, Swallowdale, which is supposed to take place one year later, the year is given as 1931. A second inconsistency is that while Bridget is only a year old in the first novel, she has aged five years by the time of Secret Water.
While the emphasis of all the books is on the activities of the young protagonists, many — generally benevolent — adult characters also appear. The most directly involved are the Blackett sisters’ uncle Jim Turner, who is called Captain Flint by the children, after the character in Treasure Island, and Mrs Barrable in Coot Club. A painfully shy geologist, named Timothy, is also accepted by the children and included in their adventures.
The Swallows and Amazons series has strong links with the real world. Extensive elements of both the characters and the settings can be traced back to incidents in Ransome’s life and are the raw material for much discussion and theorising about precise relationships. This contributes strongly to the series’ air of authenticity.
The first book, Swallows and Amazons, and four sequels — Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and The Picts and the Martyrs — are set in and around an unnamed lake in the English Lake District. Most of the unfinished Coots in the North would also have been set on the lake had Ransome completed it before his death. The lake and the surrounding fells are based on an amalgam of Windermere and Coniston Water, places where Ransome spent much of his childhood and later life. Many places in the books can be identified with real locations in the area, though Ransome has modified the real location in producing his fictional setting. Generally, the geography of the lake resembles Windermere (though Wild Cat Island has a number of important elements from Peel Island on Coniston Water) while the fells and hills surrounding it more closely resemble the area around Coniston.
Coot Club and The Big Six are set in an accurate representation of the Norfolk Broads, particularly the small village of Horning and its surrounding rivers and broads. Coots in the North also begins in the Broads before moving to the lake in the north.
We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea and Secret Water are set in coastal Suffolk and Essex, with the former involving a voyage to Flushing, Netherlands and the latter the exploration of the islands of Hamford Water near Walton-on-the-Naze.
The books Peter Duck and Missee Lee involve voyages of the schooner Wild Cat to the Caribbean and the South China Sea. These stories appear to be metafictionalin relation to the rest of the series, and were originally planned by Ransome (see below) as stories written by the children. The final published works, however, are presented simply as continuing adventures in the series, though different in a number of ways. Most obvious is the inclusion of fear and violence which is noticeably absent from other stories in the series. Both books are described on their title pages as “based on information supplied by the Swallows and Amazons”, a description which is absent from the rest of the books in the series.
Two abandoned chapters of Peter Duck (called Their Own Story) were found in Ransome’s papers held in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. They describe the story of Peter Duck being made up by the Walkers and Blacketts on a wherry in the Norfolk Broads during the winter following the events described in Swallows and Amazons. This composition was later referenced in Swallowdale, but not in Peter Duck itself.
The final complete book, Great Northern? is set in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. This book is sometimes included with Peter Duck and Missee Leeas metafictional because the story would involve the children being away from school during the nesting season, which is during term time. Another reason is the use of firearms (which is reasonable in the context of the plot but seems to be at odds with the more peaceful adventures of most of the rest of the series).
- Swallows and Amazons (published 1930)
- Swallowdale (1931)
- Peter Duck (1932)
- Winter Holiday (1933)
- Coot Club (1934)
- Pigeon Post (1936)
- We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea (1937)
- Secret Water (1939)
- The Big Six (1940)
- Missee Lee (1941)
- The Picts And The Martyrs: or Not Welcome At All (1943)
- Great Northern? (1947)
- Coots in the North (unfinished at the time of Ransome’s 1967 death, edited by Hugh Brogan and sections published in an unfinished form in 1988 with some other short works)