Thursday, October 27, 2011

Swallows and Amazons and Narnia

I love children's books.  Have I mentioned that before?  The best ones can be read over and over, by people of any age.

 As a child I liked the Narnia books.  I didn't recognize the Christian allegory, and when I figured it out I thought it showed a gross lack of imagination on Lewis' part. Couldn't he come up with his own ideas?  Nonetheless, I still read them occasionally, even though in the process I have to shut off parts of my brain and pretend that a white Oxbridge man's view of the world is the only one that matters.  But I digress.  I wanted to write about Swallows and Amazons.

In 1930 Arthur Ransome published Swallows and Amazons, the first book in the series.  In a later foreword, he wrote:
I have often been asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons.  The answer is that it had its beginning long, long ago, when, as children, my brother, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the south end of Coniston [a large lake in the north of England] . . .
To a modern reader, one of the surprising things about the book is that the children spend most of their time without any adult supervision.  They go sailing up and down the lake - in a sailboat! By themselves! No adults on board!  They camp out on an island in the lake for several weeks - the grownups come by to check on them every so often, but really they're on their own.  They generally wander around.  And they have lots of fun.

The lake isn't just a lake - it has the North Pole at one end, the South Pole at the other, and in between are such points of interest as the Amazon River, Rio de Janeiro and "a peak in Darien."  (Not that they visit all of those places in just one book - the North Pole expedition comes in a later book.  If there's a South Pole expedition, it's in a book I haven't read yet.)  The children are daring explorers and the grownups with whom they interact are always "natives" - which has some interesting colonial implications, actually.  Natives are kind of stupid, but they also have strange sources of knowledge and their own type of power.  Also they supply most of the food.

I didn't discover Swallows and Amazons until I was grown up.  As a child I wasn't interested in "messing about in boats" (despite reading another book on the subject) but maybe if I'd had Swallows and Amazons I would have been.

Another cool thing about the books, which I can appreciate now that I'm older, is that the female characters are just as active and adventurous as the boys.  The Swallows are a set of two brothers and two sisters ("Swallow" is the name of their boat.) The Amazons are another set of sisters, who live by the lake year-round and are usually pirates.  The explanation for their name is that they live on the Amazon River, but I think the idea of Amazons as female warriors must be in there too.

Recently I began to think about the parallels between Swallows and Amazons and Narnia.  For right now I'll focus on the first books in both series: Swallows and Amazons and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Both books deal with a set of four siblings - two boys, two girls - who discover an enchanted world.  In fact, in both cases the second-oldest sibling is a girl named Susan.  (Lewis began writing the Narnia books in 1949.  He would certainly have been aware of Swallows and Amazons, although he was already an adult when the first book was published and at this time I can't find any record of what he thought of Ransome's books.)

Lewis' attitude towards women is especially noteworthy - for example, the differences between Lewis' Susan and Ransome's Susan.  Susan Walker (the Swallow) is perhaps the least adventurous of the bunch.  She can sail a boat as well as anyone, but mostly she's in charge of cooking and as much housekeeping as can be done on a desert island.  Being the second-oldest, she is the first mate of the good ship Swallow.  The oldest child, John, is the captain - one assumes that if the oldest child had been a girl, she would have been captain, whereas in Narnia the girls kind of get shuffled out of the chain of command.  Susan is the sensible one - when she says something, she's usually right.  When Susan Pevensie (Lewis' Susan) says something, it's usually dismissed as nagging or cowardice or arrogance.  Nor does she, or her sister, get to do anything especially heroic, but in Swallows and Amazons . . . oops, spoilers!

I mentioned that Susan Walker does the cooking.  Food is another subject that's handled differently - and rather fascinatingly - in the two books.  I believe that food is very important to children.  Certainly lavish descriptions of food were always one of my favorite parts in the books I read as a child.  Ransome discusses how much food the children have to bring while they're camping, how they get more supplies, and often describes the cooking in a fair amount of detail.  (He also has Susan's mother remind her to make the others help with washing dishes.) 

By comparison, Lewis doesn't pay as much attention to food . . . and the two most significant scenes about food in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in fact involve imaginary food.  There's the Turkish Delight which the witch gives to Edmund, and the dinner brought later on by Father Christmas.  (Please note that magical food is evil when it comes from a woman, but good when it comes from the old man with the long white beard whose job is to decide "who's naughty or nice" and give presents to the good people.  Can Lewis actually tell the difference between Santa Claus and God?  Okay, I'll stop now.)

I hope I've made it clear how cool the Swallows and Amazons books are.  I haven't read all of them - there are quite a few.  Swallows and Amazons was not even the first of the series that I read.  Anyway, in my opinion you will be doing yourself a favor to get hold of them, no matter how old you are.


  1. Ben bella issued a collection of essays on Narnia recently, including a marvelous essay by Diane Duane on food in Narnia. Might provide a more complex look at the issue.

    Sadly, Ransome has always been much harder to find in the US than Leis. I only ever read 2 of the S&A books.

  2. Thanks, I'll look for it. I haven't read many of S&A either . . . can't remember exactly how many, 3 or 4. The North Pole one is good.

  3. Oh, I love the Arthur Ransome books. I got hold of all of them somehow when I was a kid and all but memorized them, starting with _Swallowdale_ (still my favorite) and working backwards and forwards. Have you read _We Didn't Mean to Go To Sea_? That one gives you another aspect of Susan Walker. I still like rereading them occasionally--uncomplicated without being simplistic or one-dimensional.
    (By the way, I wandered over from Ta-Nehisi Coates' place, where I occasionally comment as Huimang. If you have a spare moment, I'd be interested hearing your reaction to a livejournal post I wrote recently on transgender characters in recent Japanese novels. sorry to be pushy--anyway, I look forward to reading more of what you think about Ransome!)

  4. Thanks for dropping by!

    I have read one where they go to sea, don't remember much about it except my amazement that they went from sailing little boats on a lake to real boats out in the ocean. Can't remember if Swallowdale is one of the ones I've read or not. My favorite one is probably the North Pole one (Winter Holliday?) I read it in summer and Ransome's evocation of the blizzard winds still made me shiver. Would really love to be able to read them all.

    As for your lj post, send it along! I'd enjoy learning more about trans representation in Japan.

  5. Thanks! Don't know if you'll find it interesting, but you can find my lj post linked through my username, or just at
    _Winter Holiday_ makes me incredibly nostalgic for snow and ice, things we don't have much of where I live now...
    Take care.