There is something about the sea that suggests adventure. Books for boys are often called ‘Boy’s own adventure’ and quite a lot of them seem to embrace the idea that the sea is full of adventure. Treasure Island, Moonfleet, Robinson Crusoe, Coral Island… It seems that the sea conjures up stories of intrigue, adventure, suspense and, all too often, pieces of silver and gold.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome takes all these traditions, mixes them all together, and shows exactly why the sea (or really, a lake, but to the Walker children it feels like the sea) is so full of adventure for children. Why, when sailing on the sea and camping on your own island, you can be sailors, explorers, pirates, pearl-divers, treasure-seekers, Robinson Crusoe, you can be at war, you can talk to the natives… there are, in fact, endless games that can come of sailing your very own little sail boat on your very own sea.
What I especially love about Swallows and Amazons is the way Arthur Ransome commits to the pretend world that the Walker children create. John is the captain, Susan the mate, Titty the able-seaman and Roger the ship’s boy. Throughout the book, John is referred to as Captain John not only by the children, but in the text. Susan is generally called the mate by the author, although she occasionally gets grumpy and is then called a native. When Titty is looking after their island alone, Arthur Ransome calls her Robinson Crusoe religiously, and when her mother comes to visit, it is not her mother, but Man Friday. And when James Turner leaves them a note, and signs it James Turner, the children are put out that he signed it his native name, rather than his ‘real’ name – Captain Flint (he must, after all, be a retired pirate, as he lives on a houseboat and has a parrot).
This story could just be about playing pretend, but it’s got as much adventure in it as many of the ‘real’ Boy’s Own Adventure stories like Treasure Island or 20 000 Leagues under the sea – real and imagained adventure. But one way that it is better than a Boy’s Own Adventure book is that the adventure is not just for boys. The Walker children make friends (and enemies – they declare war on each other) with the Blackett girls, who are two fearsome pirates. It is not Captain John who outsmarts these pirates, but Titty, capturing their sailboat Amazon in the dead of the night by her brave self. Boy’s Own Adventure books may be full of adventure for boys, but Swallows and Amazons is full of adventure for everyone.