An orange flag has been labelling the Vintage paperback edition of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ as a #1 Best Seller in the Amazon UK sales. Not bad for a book written in 1929.
I was giving a talk at the International Annual General Meeting of The Arthur Ransome Society, when I asked 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?
Is it 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 so that we enter a child’s world?
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?
Swallows and Amazons is about the importance of listening to children. It’s about integrity. Readers 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 braver still 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, and how to handle a simple dinghy? Claude Whatham, who directed the 1974 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 virtually 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.
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.
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.
The new feature film of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ starring Ralph Spall, Andrew Scott and Kelly Macdonald and released in 2016 has hopefully brought the story to the nation’s consciousness. It won awards in the USA where it was released in cinemas by Samuel Goldwyn.
The film adaptation of ‘Swallow & Amazons’ made in 1973 and 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 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.