These stories are all about unsupervised children,” my oldest daughter observed years ago, when we were reading Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books aloud, one after another, books in which—to offer a rough collective plot summary—some children mess about in boats. “How,” my daughter asked in marveling tones, “did these children get to be so unsupervised?” Autonomy is, after all, the child’s secret dream. To go out alone and live, even if all you do is swim, fish, cook regular meals, and go to bed when it gets dark, is a vision beyond the reach of the average child today.
The very simplicity of this dream—absent the flamboyant magic, vampires, zombies, or killing so common in contemporary children’s fiction, absent the issue-driven personal or family drama with which those books tend to be laden—is the deep magic of the Swallows and Amazons books. The need of children to be world makers is the truth these stories tell.
Some people find the books boring: chapter after chapter of people puttering around with ropes and tents, making tea, and eating corned beef out of tins. To the twenty-first-century reader, Susan, the eldest sister, can seem unsympathetic if not frankly maddening, as her consistent function throughout this lengthy series is to cook, clean up, and see that her younger siblings, Titty and Roger, keep their feet dry. (You couldn’t write a book nowadays with a character called Titty, no matter how much you protested that it’s short for Letitia, as I imagine it must be.)
Ransome doesn’t protest that it’s short for anything, for his is a clean and unironic universe, a mundane universe, a universe where people have no subtexts, no dark and brooding conflicts in their psyches. When the siblings bicker among themselves, it’s simply bickering, not a dredging up of some mutual submerged horror of the past.
At the same time, however, this universe, safe and ordinary, extends to its children a fund of imaginative potential. For these characters whose mother is willing to turn her back on them just a little, a lake becomes an ocean, its far shores another country, its collection of villagers, farmers, and charcoal burners natives to be approached cannily by intrepid explorers whose self-imposed summer’s work is to map these unknown lands. After all, they have to do something with their time, never mind that according to the literal-minded adult world what they do is essentially nothing.
It’s hard to imagine publishing, now, a book about ordinary, everyday children doing what normal, everyday children do, because what children do in our world is not nothing. Children don’t do nothing any more, even on their holidays. They take lessons. They play sports. They go to camps. Their time is planned for them, largely, and what used to be thought of as free time is taken up, morning to night, with what adults believe are worthwhile pursuits, in safe and supervised settings.
Nobody turns children loose in sailboats, to camp on islands in lakes. For one thing, drug addicts have probably found all the lake isles already and littered them with used needles, as they’ve done to the parks, and they may still be there, along with the child molesters. Contemporary parental phobias are not entirely imaginary, after all, though on the other hand there’s never been a time when the world wasn’t fraught with perils.
Still, and perhaps more ominously, there’s the specter of Child Protective Services hovering at our shoulders. If a mother can be arrested for leaving her child in a car, never out of her sight, for three minutes on a freezing day while her other children put money in a Salvation Army bucket—well, if someone were to write a story, now, about children allowed to sail and camp alone for an entire summer, and stay out all night on the water, those children would have to possess supernatural powers or inhabit another planet, and the story would be labeled “fantasy.” Meanwhile, a real mother who said yes to a proposition like that might well labeled “child abuser.”
The adventures of the Swallows and their friends might have been a stretch even when they were written in the early 1930s. For my own children, in this video-gaming age, what those fictional children get away with is simply unimaginable, except as the stories themselves seed the imagination, and the lives of the characters work their way into the life of the real child, enlarging that child’s world.
One day some years ago, my then-kindergartner wanted to write the word Goblin, the name of the sailboat in the fourth book of the series, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. Instead of merely copying the word, he drew a picture of a sailing ship, complete with boom, portholes, and other authentic details. Finally, he wrote Goblin in tiny meticulous letters along her side, where her name would properly go. This was the first time I had ever seen him draw anything besides Star Wars–themed stick figures with light sabers, and I actually stopped reading—I think I stopped breathing—to watch him do it.
Another day, when we had just moved and our back porch was a jumble of boxes, my youngest son and daughter, then about six and five, dug out two pairs of roller skates. We didn’t have any pavement for skating—which was a mercy, given their proficiency level—but I let them skate in the kitchen, where the only danger was that they might fall into the corner of the table and rip their faces open. (Perhaps I should have given that more thought, but it’s too late now.) All that day, they clattered around on the linoleum, falling down noisily and struggling up again unharmed, laughing like lunatics.
I was working on various projects, paying no attention to them, when I realized that they were skating abreast across the kitchen floor, each with his or her right arm stuck straight out to the side. “Stand by to go about,” the six-year-old would announce. Then together they’d shout, “Ready about!” and switch arms.
As they ready-abouted, switching arms, I could almost see the stretch of water unfolding around them, washing away the cabinetry and appliances and dreary vine-patterned wallpaper as absolutely, for the moment, as Noah’s flood might have done. I thought of the opening to Swallows and Amazons, the first book of the series.
In it, Roger, seven years old, is pretending to be a sailboat, beating up a field against the wind to the gate where his mother stands with a telegram from their father, giving the children permission to sail and camp on their own, as long as they don’t act like “duffers” and drown themselves. Later, Roger reflects on the change in himself, from a boy pretending to be a boat to a boy sailing an actual boat.
To my mind that’s a potent revelation: that a child’s pretending both develops from and stokes the desire for real action and experience. I wonder, actually, whether a child can know what it is that he desires without imaginative time and space, predicated on a certain amount of benign parental neglect, in which to enact, through his play, some private vision. Though he might not ultimately want to be the precise thing he has pretended to be—a sailor or, as in the case of my own son, a Star Wars commando—he needs to play these things as a way of laying down, in his mind, sections of a road that will take him to what he does want.
However silly, frivolous, or even threatening a child’s game might seem to a grown-up, who might want to see boys do something other than lie in ambush for each other with Nerf guns, that grown-up should not interfere, saying, “Go do something constructive.” When I am tempted to say this, I do well to remember that telegram in Roger’s mother’s hand: If not duffers, won’t drown.
The Swallows and Amazons books follow the basic trajectory established by Roger in the first book: that move from the purely imaginative, with its made-up stakes, to the real, with life and death in the balance. In We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, for example, Goblin is swept into the North Sea with the four children aboard. It falls to John, the oldest of the children, to captain the ship through a harrowing night of blinding fog and bring his siblings safely home.
Like the other books, this one details one small moment after another, as the children pass a lightship, avoid deadly shoals, overcome fear and seasickness, and eat tinned tongue with bread and butter. It is a narrative of one small moment after another of not being duffers, of how much is within the reach of children who have been trusted to have some common sense.
This vision of childhood, in which the role of parents is to trust children and the role of children is to keep that trust, to be honest and good and, above all, not duffers, is to me a purer, sweeter, and infinitely more potent vision than any other a child is likely to encounter in literature. As Chesterton observes in Orthodoxy, “The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal.” The world of Swallows and Amazons is a normal child’s ideal world, quiet and sheltered and kind, but full of startling and unexpected things, some of them real and some imagined.
A hero among imaginary dragons is still a hero; a boy who keeps his brother and sisters safe, sailing unexpectedly at night across a real sea, is a hero whose courage and resourcefulness ought to move us. Even if these stories now have the quality of fantasy, it is a fantasy that leaves the child longing not for a world that can’t be but for what he will do and be, ultimately, in the world that is.
Sally Thomas is the author of a poetry collection, Brief Light. Her poems and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, and other periodicals.