The Magic of Childhood in Swallows and Amazons

I usually have my students read some sort of essay by E. B. White (1899-1985), one of the twentieth century’s best essayists and beloved author of children’s book Charlotte’s Web (1952).  For the last few semesters, we have read his essay titled “Once More to the Lake.”  Some of the students love it and others absolutely hate it.  There’s usually no in between.  The content of the essay is not controversial, but students tend to get bored with his descriptive style and lack of action.

“Once More to the Lake” is about White’s experience taking his son to a lake for a summer vacation.  As he experiences the lake with his son, he is constantly reminded of his own boyhood adventures on the lake and often becomes confused as to whether he is the son or the father.  The essay is nostalgic, didactic, and somewhat chilling, as the final lines explore the fact that death is upon White, and upon all of us.

I bring this essay to your attention because when I started reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, number 77 on the BBC book list, I couldn’t help but remember White’s written account of his experience.  In Ransome’s young adult novel, published in 1930 as the first in a series, the Swallows are a group of siblings from the Walker family, two boys and two girls, who happen to be staying at a lake for their summer vacation.  The children leave their mother and youngest sister behind in the lake house and sail to a small island in the lake.  They pitch tents, set up a “kitchen,” give each other titles and duties, and spend each night and day there playing make believe.  It is a truly magical experience that these children create, and their mother and the other vacationers play along, acting as the “natives” while the children are fearless explorers.

Despite this pretend world, the children sometimes let down their guard and become children again, allowing their mother to kiss them, help them, or offer them advice.  At one point, Titty, nicknamed Able-seaman Titty, is left alone on the island to guard their camp, while the rest of the Swallows embark on a journey to capture the Amazon’s boat.  (The Amazons are two sisters, Nancy and Peggy Blackett.)  The two groups of children create this exciting game in which they must capture the others’ boat.  Well, Titty is left alone and her mother comes to visit.  They engage in a cute exchange in which Titty thinks of herself as Robinson Crusoe and mother plays along as Man Friday.  When Mother leaves, she offers to take Titty with her because she knows her daughter is frightened by being alone in the dark.  As she rows away, Titty calls out to her, and mother offers again.

“But in that moment Titty remembered again that she was not merely Robinson Crusoe, who had a right to be rescued by a passing ship, but was also Able-seaman Titty, who had to hoist the lantern on the big tree behind her, so that the others could find the island in the dark, and then to light the leading lights so that they could bring their prize into the harbor” (193).  Titty opts to stay and ends up winning the game for the children.

As you can see from the passage, this novel refers to sailing and its trappings quite frequently and with authority.  I know absolutely nothing about sailing, but the author does, and if you do, you’d enjoy this book for the pure descriptions surrounding the children’s abilities to handle their own vessel.

The reference to leading lights also resounded with me because of a favorite hymn of mine: “Lead, Kindly Light.”  John Henry Newman (1801-1890) wrote the hymn while on a sea voyage during which fog trapped the vessel.  During the night, the wind picked up, moved the fog, and revealed a star that guided the ship, much like the leading lights of a harbor.

Another adult who ends up participating in the children’s games is the Amazons’ Uncle Jim, whom the children nickname Captain Flint.  He is a child at heart, and after some grumpiness and misunderstandings on his part, he comes around and ends up playing the role of pirate.  He willingly walks the plank, and for his willingness to give up work and play earnestly with these children, the children end up finding his “treasure,” a chest stolen from his houseboat.  This part of the novel is all excitement and giggles.

However, the first hundred pages or so were slow for me.  I had to work to get into the characters and to follow what was happening because my mind kept wandering.  As I’ve admitted before, this was probably due to my own deficiencies in concentration rather than the writing, but once the plot takes off, this novel delivers as a young adult novel should.  I couldn’t put it down.

My only problem with the Uncle Jim storyline has to do with our current situation with child predators.  This novel took place in the 1930s, yet it feels timeless, but if a single, male adult began to play realistically with my children at the expense of his own work, I would begin to wonder if he were a pedophile.  This simple fact makes me long for a time and for days that were simpler and for people who were more honorable and less afflicted by such awful addictions.  Yet, as I say this, I realize that I am only latching on to the myth of transience, the idea that things were better in the past.  Maybe some things were, but there is no time in history that was perfect or free from troubles.

And yet the storyline with Uncle Jim is most instructive on the power of forgiveness and apologizing.  After the misunderstandings between Uncle Jim and the boy Captain John, Uncle Jim nobly says, “I’ve got something to say to you.  Don’t treat me in the way I treated you the other day and refuse to listen to me.  I was altogether in the wrong.  It was beastly of me even if I had been in the right.  I ought to have known you were telling the truth.  And I ought not to have called you a liar, anyway.  I’ve very sorry.  Will you shake hands?” (274).  I am impressed with this apology and with the fact that it is an adult apologizing to a child.  I think it is noble to ask for forgiveness from our children when we do wrong.  I make it a frequent habit to apologize for my mistakes as a mother.  This can only inspire confidence in children and allow them the freedom to apologize as well.  It teaches them to take responsibility for their actions when they blunder and to realize that they don’t have to be perfect and neither do I.

The novel also inspired me to want to take my children to a lake one summer.  I long to experience what White wrote about in his essay, and I long to see my children find magic in make-believe play.  This summer, my oldest daughter and her best friend, who lives next door, stayed in our backyard in a tent.  They giggled most of the night and had such a great time.  These are the precious memories of childhood that they should be building, and I want to give that to my children as much as possible.

This book has inspired me to continue saying, “Yes,” to my children whenever I can, unless saying, “No” will protect them from harm.  The mother in Swallows and Amazons was not afraid to say, “Yes, you may go and stay on an island for a few weeks in tents and sail around the lake like intrepid explorers.”  And because of her courage, her children were richly rewarded.  You’ll be richly rewarded by reading this book.  As for your children reading it, it is better suited for children ages ten and up.

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