pre-teen or teen
I know what you’re thinking. Three posts into this blog and I’ve already lost the plot. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series isn’t fantasy. Heck, contemporary reviewers and critics such as Geoffrey Trease praise it specifically for its realism, as a departure from the lazy, derivative, jingoist adventure stories Ransome greatly helped displace.
But at least two of the books—Peter Duck and Missee Lee—are definitely fantasies; early drafts of Peter Duck actually made that explicit in a frame that was removed from the final version. Christina Hardyment thinks Great Northern? is a fantasy too. And other critics have pointed out that the novels lack some psychological realism (for example, given John and Nancy’s ages at the end of the series, it seems unlikely that sexual tension and other teenage excitements wouldn’t have manifested), and that the children are given a remarkable amount of freedom by their parents and other guardians (though against this point we have to remember that children were often allowed to roam quite freely when on holiday, in the era in which the books are set).
What really justifies including them on this list, though—besides the fact that they are damn fine children’s novels, substantial and interesting and exciting—is that as a whole they represent Ransome’s fantasy. Though they are set in a pre-war past, more than anything else they point to Ransome’s belief in a possible future world of relative peace where conflicts can be solved by a combination of diplomacy, technology, honest work, and mutual respect. Swallows and Amazons was born in Ransome’s experiences in revolution-era Russia and his despair over the chaos there, and then in Europe’s subsequent disintegration toward and into war. While he returned to the settings of his own youth for S&A, it describes nothing so much as his dream of a generation to come which would be capable of living together rationally.
For those of you who missed out on these in your own childhood, the Swallows and Amazons series—a dozen novels, beginning with Swallows and Amazons— follows the adventures of four overlapping groups of children on their school holidays, over the course of four years, in a handful of locations, primarily England’s Lakes District and Norfolk Broads. They sail and camp and explore and watch birds and do all manner of things, and they imagine themselves explorers, or pirates, or scientists, or novelists, or prospectors. The stories they construct are elaborate (the S&A protagonists are nothing if not industrious) and conflicts are generally resolved by negotiation, friendly competition, and good deeds.
True, the children are implausibly well-behaved and mature. John is his naval-officer father in miniature, Susan the surrogate mother of the group. Younger Walker sister Titty is a romantic, filling in much of the color of the narratives they tell about their activities, while Roger, the youngest, adds a touch of mischief. Dick and Dorothea, introduced in Winter Holiday and linking the Lake and Norfolk books, are the scientist and novelist of the cast. (The Norfolk-set books, Coot Club and The Big Six, add half a dozen other protagonists, but to be honest I find them entertaining but less memorable.) Peggy Blackett is stalwart and a foil for her older sister, Nancy.
Ah, Nancy Blackett! Captain of the Amazon, Amazon pirate, terror of the seas (or at least one good-sized lake). Notorious among the locals as a “young limb” and troublemaker, but her motives are never petty, criminal, or mean. It’s Nancy’s intricate and ambitious schemes to turn everything into great adventure which drive so much of the plot of every novel she appears in. Nancy is one of the great formidable female characters of anglophone children’s literature, an unstoppable whirlwind of energy and imagination. Yet she’s also adaptable and accommodating; she doesn’t bully the others or insist on her own satisfaction. In one book (I don’t want to give too much away) she greets her own suffering with considerable glee because it means her friends will be granted more time to continue their games. And then she sends them messages in code to encourage them further.
The books are also illustrated by Ransome himself. Ransome was not an accomplished artist, and his pictures are pleasantly amateurish, workmanlike line drawings of the action. They have their own charm.
It would be wrong to leave the impression that Ransome’s work has no faults. Anyone familiar with postcolonial literary theory can’t help but see how his vision meshes with global capitalism, and some readers will find it hard to enjoy the children’s “explorer” games or their use of terms like “native” (however much they may treat those “natives” with respect). The gender politics are complex; while Nancy shines the brightest, by the end of the series her essentially romantic vision of life is subordinated to Dick’s scientific-technological one, just as John’s beloved sail is yielding to the steam power that fascinates Roger. But then the books also can be used to ground a discussion of the imperialism of the early twentieth century, in a form that doesn’t celebrate that imperialism.
When my siblings and I received the series—a gift from a complete stranger; only years later did we discover that our uncle had loved the books when he was young, and arranged the whole thing—I was suspicious. I was a voracious reader of traditional fantasy and science fiction, and indulged in other genres occasionally. Outdoor activity did not interest me much, and reading about it not at all. But you can’t just leave books unread, can you? Who knows what they’ll get up to? A few pages into Swallows and Amazons I was engaged, and by the end I was hooked. Since then I’ve read the entire series many times, I’ve read Ransome’s letters, I’ve read much of the (sizable) body of S&A criticism, I’ve written essays on them. (Besides this one, I mean.) The target age for the books probably begins around 10, but any child old enough for “chapter books” might give the S&A series a try.