Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ still a bestseller?

An orange flag has been labelling the Vintage paperback edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as a #1 Best Seller in the Amazon UK sales category ‘Sports for Young Adults’ this month and was also #1 in Children’s Sport Books.  Not bad for a book written 86 years ago.

On Friday 22nd of May, I was asked to give a talk at the International Annual General Meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, when I was able to ask learned members, ‘What has made it such an enduring success?’

Is it that ‘Swallows and Amazons’ set in the Lake District where so many of us long to spend our holidays?

Or that we can buy a set of wooden postcards depicting Ransome’s inspirational illustrations?

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Is is because the stories are driven by the characters of the children themselves, as Jill Goulder has observed, and that adults are relegated to native status, featured as little as is possible? Do children relish the idea of independence and being in control of all they do, as John and Nancy seem to be? Is it that dressing up as pirates is cool?

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Swallows and Amazons is about the importance of listening to children. It’s about integrity. Do we love the fact that Titty, the lowly able-seaman comes out as the unexpected hero? It was after all a brave thing to capture the Amazon at night and perhaps even braver to return to Cormorant Island with Roger to look for the treasure no one believed was there.

Could it be because the story is about sailing, instructional on how to handle a simple dinghy? Claude Whatham, who directed the movie, recognised Ransome’s skill in describing how to make a camp was of huge appeal to children.Do we like to learn without the indignity of being taught?

Arthur Ransome’s style of writing is certainly vivid, drawing you into the world he created having been inspired by reading ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ‘Treasure Island’ and exotic tales himself. Martin Smith, whose comments on this strand have been endlessly interesting, has observed that there is something of ‘The Tempest’ by Shakespeare in the adventures set on Wild Cat Island.

Ransome was able to draw on years of experience as a writer before he launched the Swallows & Amazons series and this shines through. Since really only six children and two adults appear in his first book we get to know them well and are ready to welcome others such as Dick and Dorothea when they come along in Winter Holiday.

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Is it because, ‘nothing happens in the books that couldn’t really have happened’, as Caroline Lawrence wrote recently in The Outlaw, a magazine written for children who readily identify with the characters. You can certainly enjoy looking for Ransome’s locations yourself. Those who do so are almost certain to buy the books for their own offspring.

Adults read the books, saying they bring great solace, evoking nostalgic memories and taking them back to a carefree childhood when summer days were spent devising camps and imaginary sailing adventures. Perhaps the traditional values act as an anchor in our stormy lives.

Are there other reasons? Do add ideas to the comments box below.

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Despatches?

One thing is for certain. While many of the forty-two books Arthur Ransome wrote are now seen as obscure, his series of twelve ‘Swallows and Amazons’ novels line the shelves of almost every bookshop in Britain and are ever popular overseas. The Arthur Ransome Society has a thriving membership, enabling families to live the adventures for themselves . You can find out about joining yourself by clicking here.

Hopefully the film of ‘Swallow & Amazons’, made in 1973 and yet repeated on television so many times, helped to keep the flags flying. It too has been labelled as ‘a timeless classic’ and ‘an enduring success’. StudioCanal have recently released a 40th Anniversary DVD with footage so beautifully restored that if it wasn’t for the extras package you might think it had been shot last summer. I have just found the original, official trailer made for the film in 1974. The commentary is so dated it’s hilarious, but the film itself seems fresh. Why is this?

17 Comments

Filed under 1973, adventure, Arthur Ransome, Bestseller, British Film, Cinema, Cumbria, Family Film, Lake District, Movie, Richard Pilbrow, Sophie Neville, Swallows and Amazons, Vintage Film

17 responses to “Why is ‘Swallows and Amazons’ still a bestseller?

  1. David Rayner

    Hi, Sophie,
    I can’t give an explanation as to why the novel is so timeless, but it is. It just works, as does your famous film of it. I have bought and been enjoying reading your book The Making of Swallows and Amazons. What a consistently interesting and well written book it is. You’ve done a wonderful job on it, for which us fans will be eternally grateful. On the subject of the original trailer, you may recall me telling you that around ten years ago, I bought this 35mm sound trailer from a specialist dealer on eBay and always said I was going to get it transferred to DVD one day, so I could see it properly. Well, of course, now I don’t have to, as it’s featured on the 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of the film. I think it’s the narration on the trailer that makes it sound older than the film. But now that the film has finally been transferred to DVD in 16 x 9 wide screen, there’ll be no more instances of it being shown incorrectly at digital screenings in cinemas that couldn’t handle the old 4 x 3 transfer, stretching out the image to 6 x 3 and distorting it.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments. I keep finding more I could add to a second edition of the book, of course. My mother has only just told me that she wasn’t paid for being a chaperone, which was an exhausting job, with huge responsibility. We were not always easy to control!

  2. Mike

    Sophie
    Interesting piece.
    Rather odd that Amazon categorise Swallows and Amazons as part of ‘Sports for Young Adults’, like most people (as far as I can gather from comments on blogs like this or forums like TarBoard) I read them when first when I was 10 or 11 – certainly not a young adult – and had no interest at all in sport (still don’t!)
    From an exchange on TarBoard it seems that the Random House are quite secretive about the sales figures for S & A, but even those aren’t a realistic guide to how well read they are.
    The wooden postcards are clever, but for me the colours ‘jar’. Strange too that have re-titled each drawing giving a slightly misleading impression of they fit in to the plot of the book.

  3. Mike

    Sophie
    Another thought!
    The problem with the trailer is the voiceover! It’s too serious, or was in that style as a warning that the book had been adapted with some respect as a classic work, and would not disappoint adults with treasured memories of it?
    On that note, it seems from what is being slowly revealed of the new BBC film that such considerations have been abandoned!

    • The 1974 film of S&A has been plagued by reviews assuming that ‘modern day youngsters’ would not identify with the story.These are obviously written by adults who have no love for the books – but they have put pressure on today’s producers to somehow give the story a wider appeal.

  4. mfmsm

    The trailer for Kes (1969) was extraordinary, viewed from 2015. It proposed a wholly needless drama about crime and punishment, retribution and salvation, eccentricity and dourness, belonging and being a rebel. It can scarcely be viewed in context with my reconstruction, as the sex, violence, tedium, sadism, child abuse, psychological abuse and (in general) rehearsal of the values of the ‘angry young men’ – which would not exclude Ken Loach – are exactly what I have excised. What remains is a film as pure as Swallows, but with a grit which Ransome cannot achieve from his Walter de la Mere enclave. What the two have in common is a system call on English sociology, a core sample through English economy and class of the time, and an indebtedness to our changeless landscape (in both cases enshrined in scores of magnificent,lush beauty) whose only other literary/filmic correlatives would be Akenfield, Cider with Rosie, just possibly The Riddle of the Sands; and Thirty-Nine steps. The Go-Between (Grade II, scales) and A Man for All Seasons (Associated Board, Period Performance Option) complete a florilegium which I personally think is the cornerstone of a new academic discipline…Your help in getting this lightship launched is eagerly anticipated…!

  5. Would that I could explain the book’s continuing appeal!
    Hugh Walpole seems to have come closest in his review of “Peter Duck”:
    “It is so well written that you don’t realize that it is written at all. The adventures just seem to occur to oneself”

  6. Andrew Craig-Bennett

    Thank you for a very thoughtful analysis of a masterpiece.

    The combination of practical realism – everything that happens could happen – and the child’s viewpoint makes the story and it’s sister volumes almost unique even now, but these are very literary children.

    My father flew back from Nairobi to Mogadishu bringing this book for my sixth birthday. It was a present that he had looked forward to giving me. He had been 26 when “Swallows and Amazons” was first published – the favourite book of his childhood had been “The Secret Garden”. His present inspired, as he had hoped, a lifelong love of sailing, camping and generally messing about in boats which has lasted the rest of my life, so that I in turn remember reading the books, in Beijing, to my older son who is now a Merchant Navy cadet…

  7. Michael rines

    The book has lasting appeal, particularly for children, because there is nothing in the adventures of the Swallows and Amazons that readers feel they could not do themselves. They felt they could sail a dinghy like the Swallows. I know, because when adults came aboard Ransome’s restored boat Nancy Blackett in recent years, many had tears in their eyes and said: ‘I learned to sail from the books; and Arthur Ransome was the biggest influence on my life.’ The story is not like so many others an unachievable fantasy. This must stem in part from the fact that the characters are based on real children and on Ransome’s observation of those real children.

    The quality of the plotting is superb. Ransome was utterly clear about the stories he wrote, sometime writing chapters in the middle of the book before writing earlier ones. His prose is pare and simple and very easy to read, and bears comparison with the writing of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels — another writer with appeal to both children and adults.

    Michael Rines

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