- My notion is to go on and on and build up a regular row of these books... (Arthur Ransome to Ernestine Evans, SFM 1931)
- ...a gigantic saga of over a million words (Christina Hardyment, CFT1)
The Swallows and Amazons series of children's books by Arthur Ransome is named after the title of the first book in the series. The 12 books involve adventures by groups of children during school vacations, mostly in England and Scotland, between the two World Wars. The stories revolve around outdoor activities, especially sailing.
The series remains popular for its idyllic, yet often realistic, depiction of childhood and the interplay between youthful imagination and reality. It is part of the basis for a large tourist industry in the Lake District and Norfolk Broads, 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 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 family children, who sail a dinghy named Swallow, and the Blackett family 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 children meet on an island on the lake, and have a series of adventures that weave imaginative tales of pirates and exploration into everyday life in inter-War, rural England.
A number of the characters in the series were based at least loosely on people that Ransome knew from his vacations in the Lake District and Norfolk Broads.
The crew of the Swallow are the Walker siblings John, Susan, Titty, and Roger. John, the oldest, is the captain and usually in charge. Susan is 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 imaginative member of the crew. Roger is the youngest, originally the ship's boy, but promoted to able seaman in later books. In later books, their youngest sister Bridget also joins the crew.
The Amazons, the crew of the Amazon, are the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett. Nancy — who does not use her given name of Ruth because her uncle has said that pirates are supposed to be ruthless — is a strong character who would probably be considered a tomboy. 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 of their adventures.
A third major set of characters are The Ds, 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 are the link to a different location and another set of characters. Following their appearance in Winter Holiday, they appear in two subsequent books set in the Norfolk Broads, where they meet the Coot Club: Tom Dudgeon; the twins, Port and Starboard; and three working class boys, the Death and Glories.
With a couple of exceptions (Roger and Bridget), the ages of the characters are never stated. In the first book the youngest are Vicky or Bridget, She's two (SA16); and Roger, aged seven, and no longer the youngest of the family (SA1). John and Nancy are the eldest, aged between 12 and 14 (the subject of some debate). With Peggy and Susan they make up the four whom Dorothea put down as the elders, though she did not think that Peggy could be very much older than she was herself (WH4). Later Peggy says Bother those brats, referring to the younger ones (WH12). See Ages of the Swallows and Amazons.
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 (SA10), while in the second book (SD27), which is supposed to take place one year later, the year is given as 1931.
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 is the Blackett sisters' uncle James Turner, who is called Captain Flint by the children, after the character in Treasure Island.
The Swallows and Amazons series is of particular interest because of its close association with reality. Extensive elements of both the characters and 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 feature contributes so strongly to the air of absolute authenticity of the series that some readers may be upset to find that occasional minor items did not actually exist in precisely the form that they are described!
The original Swallows and Amazons and four later books in the series; 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 resemble the area around Coniston.
Although considered an integral part of the Swallows and Amazons series and linked by the presence of the Callums, the books Coot Club and The Big Six do not feature either the Walkers (Swallows) or the Blacketts (Amazons). They 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 in the 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 metafictional with respect 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 a limited level of fear and violence which is noticeably absent from other stories in the series. Both books are described as "based on information supplied by the Swallows and Amazons" on their title pages, 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. These chapters were published in Arthur Ransome and Capt. Flint's Trunk ISBN 0-224-02590-2 written by Christina Hardyment in 1984.
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 Lee as 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).
The following diagram shows the implied timeline of the books in the series. S, A, and D represent the main protagonists, the Swallows, Amazons, and Dick/Dorothea, respectively. (Note: this graphic made before the 1929-1930-1931 paradox was resolved by Wayne Hammond.)
Part of the charm of the Swallows and Amazons series are the illustrations which were drawn by Ransome himself. The first edition of Swallows and Amazons was published almost without illustrations. Ransome so disliked the pictures by Steven Spurrier that were commissioned by his publisher, Jonathan Cape, that the only pictures in the first edition were the end paper map of the lake and a map of Wild Cat Island. For the second edition, Clifford Webb was commissioned to produce the illustrations which met with grudging approval by Ransome. Webb also illustrated Swallowdale, but Ransome decided that he would personally illustrate the third book Peter Duck. As this book was supposedly based on information supplied by the children themselves, Ransome drew the pictures as though done by the characters. These illustrations were so popular that Ransome illustrated the remainder of his books himself. In 1938, he drew his own pictures for Swallows and Amazons and Swallowdale to replace Webb's.
Ransome's pictures were done in pen and ink with no colour, although colours have been added by some publishers in later editions. Often, figures in the pictures are shown from the back.
- 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, published in an unfinished form in 1988 with some other short works, in Coots in the North and other stories)
In 1974, EMI produced a version of the Swallows and Amazons. This is available on VHS and DVD in the UK, but is not readily available in the US and elsewhere.
In the mid-1980s, the BBC produced Coot Club and The Big Six for television. Confusingly, they were given the "series" title of "Swallows and Amazons For Ever", despite featuring neither the Swallows nor the Amazons. These are available on VHS and DVD in the UK, and may be ordered on-line in the US and elsewhere.
The text of several books including "Swallows and Amazons" can now be downloaded from the following website in countries like Canada where copyright extends for 50 years after the authors’ death and has now expired:
- Swallows and Amazons (text with illustrations)
- Arthur Ransome Site Home of Arthur Ransome Society
- The East Anglian books
- More on the Norfolk Broads and East Anglia
- Tarboard; Discussion about Arthur Ransome related subjects
- The Childrens' books of Arthur Ransome
- Obituary of Mavis Altounyan, on whom the character of Titty was based.
- Arthur Ransome Wiki
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