Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

As a child growing up in England, this was a title that I frequently heard about, but I can’t remember if I ever read it or not. If I didn’t, then I should have as it’s one that I would have probably enjoyed: siblings going to camp on a “deserted” island unaccompanied by parental units all having some harmless adventures without any major repercussions. Yes please.

Whether I had read it or not, this time around the read seemed brand new to me. Published in 1930, it’s clearly written in a more innocent time when children go off and have harmless adventures without supervision and if you take it in that spirit, you’ll enjoy this.

It’s a kid’s novel along the same lines as the Adventures of Mallory Towers/Blyton (and their ilk), but this is a slightly more grown up version of life. Set in the Lake District, the narrative revolves around the Swallow family having their holiday on the shores of the lake in Conistan (a real place).

uk-mapFour siblings (very gender-stereotyped but them were the times) find an “uninhabited island” in the middle of the lake and claim it for themselves in a world of Make-Believe. The adults left on shore are “natives” and play a peripheral role for the most part, the oldest boy bosses everyone around, the oldest girl cooks and cleans (!!) and it’s all rather jolly hockey sticks and ginger beer.

The adventure ensues when another family’s kids also end up “discovering and claiming” the island – they of the Amazon clan in the title – and so it turns into a very tame gang war complete with a potential pirate in the mix. It’s a fairly straight-forward goodies/baddies set up, although the two rival groups of kids do end up collaborating against a common enemy (who isn’t that bad in the end), and it runs along the lines of a Scooby Doo episode but with more kids.

One thing that I was impressed with was how familiar Ransome assumed his readers would be with the sailing terms. It’s packed with these suckers, and since I have less-than-zero sailing experience myself, it was a bit mystifying at the start. However, sailing or no sailing, you can still keep up with the story itself and it all sorts itself out in the end. Just know that there are a LOT of nautical terms to keep up with.

I made a list of the ones that I remember, just to give you the scope of things:

  • “careen” the boat
  • Ballast
  • Aft/fore
  • Stern
  • Painter (something that was attached to the boat and was fastened to a tree)
  • Gunwale
  • Thwarts (a thing on the boat, not a verb)
  • Starboard
  • Foredeck
  • Let out a “reef in sail”
  • Broadside
  • Windward side
  • Sailing “close-hauled”
  • Halyards
  • On the “port tack”
  • Yaw
  • “Following wind”
  • Boat’s “forefoot”
  • Lee of an island

I have a passing knowledge of some of these terms (thanks to Star Trek mostly :-)), but it’s interesting to me that Ransome could assume that most of his readers would already have this sailing knowledge. Perhaps kids did back then? I’ll have to check with my mum.

So, a fun read and a journey back to simpler times (at least it seems to me).

15 thoughts on “Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome (1930)

    • I could see the frequent sailing phrases being an issue for the twins. It’s slightly overwhelming, until I realized that the story goes on whether you know what they’re talking about or not. Just hard to get past them at times. 🙂

  1. I love this book so much and the series was the first thing I read after my English degree was over! I think We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea teaches you the sailing terms, I definitely learned them from A.R.

  2. I loved this series as a child and dreamt of coming to England and sailing (and riding) every week. Which of course did NOT happen when I did finally come to the UK as a poor student. My children were less enthused – they found the nautical terms a bit wearisome, did not want to learn semaphor (which I did of course, after reading these books) and they are not really that keen on camping and exploring, so…

  3. I hadn’t spotted this was published in the club year – like you, I only came to it as an adult. I watched the TV film a million times growing up, and was not prepared for how much sailing terminology I’d have to cope with in the book itself. In the end I just ignored and enjoyed the rest…

  4. I am a Ransome fan but I knew so little about sailing terminology that when I read first read it at 9 or so, I kept saying, “A A, sir,” to my mother, who was at first very puzzled (it was her book so she soon figured out I thought I was saying, “Aye, aye, sir.” I think I must have somehow skipped over most of the sailing language. It wasn’t until I started reading it to the next generation that I realized how much there was and we did not get past chapter 1.

    But my favorite part of S&A is “Better drowned than duffers.”

    • Funny about you repeating “A, A, sir” to your mum when you were little. It’s strange what we pick up as kids and then repeat, isn’t it? 🙂 Thanks for dropping by the blog!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s