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Literature / Swallows and Amazons

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—the telegram from the Walker children's father that starts the series

Swallows and Amazons is a classic series of children's books by Arthur Ransome, about two—and then later three—families of children (the Walkers or "Swallows", the Blacketts or "Amazons", and eventually the Callums or "Ds") who vacation in the Lake District of England. Most of the books center on the camping and sailing expeditions of the children near a particular fictional lake in the area.

It's notable for featuring a relatively low level of peril, and for the rich fantasy life of its protagonists, who have a great deal of fun exploring the region around the lake as though it were uncharted territory.

Books in the series:

  • Swallows and Amazons (1930)
  • Swallowdale (1931)
  • Peter Duck (1932)
  • Winter Holiday (1933)
  • Coot Club (1934)
  • Pigeon Post (1936)
  • We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea (1937)
  • Secret Water (1939)
  • The Big Six (1940)
  • Missee Lee (1941)
  • The Picts and the Martyrs (1943)
  • Great Northern? (1947)
  • Coots in the North (unfinished)

There have been several adaptations, including a 1963 TV series, a 1974 film and a 2016 film.

Tropes featured include:

  • Winter Holiday makes many references to Fridtjof Nansen's polar expedition in the Fram, which though not exactly forgotten nowadays is no longer a household name as it was then, when it was still in living memory.
  • The Big Six is titled in reference to "The Big Five", the famous top detectives at Scotland Yard at the time.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Not really, but there are some noticeable shifts in the language since the books were written in The '30s. For example, lamps are lighted rather than lit, and a lot of foreign names and words are transliterated differently (like 'taicoon' for 'tycoon').
    • In addition the children themselves use a lot of Antiquated Linguistics consciously. As they half-explore, half-invent the world around them they describe it in a rich mixture of made-up, outdated, and exotic words (e.g. always calling corned beef 'pemmican').
  • Artistic License – Ships: Obviously not the case for the books themselves, which have Shown Their Work, but in the first story a young Roger starts insisting that the destroyer their military father serves on is 'a houseboat' because 'you live on it'!
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: In Secret Water, John, Nancy and Roger try using 'splatchers' to walk on mud. Nancy is the only one who doesn't fall in.
  • Black Sheep: Jim Turner is "the black sheep of the family", according to Nancy. Her use of the term seems to extend mostly to general rebelliousness, as he's actually quite close to his sister and her children.
  • Blood Brothers: The Eels (and Swallows and Amazons) in Secret Water.
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Nancy is out of action throughout Winter Holiday, and Peggy attempts to replace her sister as the tough Amazon leader by, among other things, stealing her personal collection of pirate-based catchphrases ("Shiver my timbers!") It all comes to a head when she accidentally uses one of Nancy's expressions in front of Nancy—although, as it turns out, Nancy doesn't mind; she's proud of her.
  • Buried Treasure:
    • In Swallows and Amazons Titty hears burglars hiding Captain Flint's old sea chest on Cormorant Island. The treasure turns out to be the typescript of the Captain's memoirs, which is valuable to him but worthless to the thieves.
    • In Peter Duck the treasure turns out to be a small chest containing a collection of pearls. Valuable enough for a couple of seamen to want to steal and hide, but not an improbable amount of wealth.
  • Canine Confusion: William the pug likes chocolate, which can kill dogs in real life.
  • Clear My Name: Much of the plot of Swallows and Amazons revolves around the Swallows convincing Captain Flint that they didn't do any of the things he thinks they did.
    • In The Big Six, the Coots must prove three of their members haven't been setting boats adrift.
  • Comic-Book Time: Averted; the current year is often mentioned and it does roll forward throughout the books. There are some errors, however, such as Swallowdale being said to take place the summer after Swallows and Amazons, when Swallowdale is set in 1931 and Swallows and Amazons in 1929.
  • Cool Uncle: Captain Flint a.k.a. Jim Turner, the Amazons' uncle. He lives in a houseboat, is an aspiring author, and is the adult character most closely involved in most of the plots.
  • Darker and Edgier: The 2016 film adds a whole subplot about real Russian spies and a bit of genuine peril to raise the action stakes. Still, no one is killed or hurt more than bruises in the end.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul": Nancy's parents are under the mistaken impression that her name is Ruth. It couldn't possibly be; she's a pirate, and pirates are supposed to be ruthless.
  • The Dreaded: The Great Aunt for the Amazons.
  • Epic Fail: John giving an owl call as a signal, in broad daylight, where the Great Aunt can hear.
  • Evil Uncle: Captain Flint is the main "villain" of the first book and sometimes acts the part of the evil pirate for the sake of the game. In reality he's a Cool Uncle.
  • Fear of Thunder: Peggy, much to the scorn of her sister.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode: Coot Club is set in the Norfolk Broads with a completely different set of protagonists, sharing only Dick and Dorothea (themselves recent additions to the cast) with the other books. This setting is revisited for The Big Six, and then the unfinished Coots in the North would have been a crossover.
  • Flying Dutchman: Mentioned in Peter Duck, with the eponymous character said to be a perfect candidate for the crew of the ship as he hates having to go into ports.
  • The Gay '90s: Some of the Cumbrian farmers the children get supplies from mention the decade, but up there it was not a pleasant time due to several particularly harsh winters.
  • Generation Xerox: There are strong hints that Nancy and Peggy are acting just as their parents and their uncle did at their age.
  • Giant Enemy Crabs: As a child, Peter Duck was marooned alone on an island with giant crabs. Returning decades later with the Swallows and Amazons, he's surprised to find that the crabs have shrunk. Or maybe his small size, isolation, and fear made them seem a lot bigger.
  • Grande Dame: The Great Aunt, to the Amazons' horror.
  • Hands-Off Parenting: See the page quote.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Yes, the second-youngest Swallow really is called Titty. Her real name is unknown. This was the nickname of Mavis Altounyan, upon whom Titty Walker is based; whether the fictional Titty is also named Mavis is never stated. No, this is never relevant to the story, though Ransome did once acknowledge its oddness: You must be John and you're Susan. And that's Roger. Which is the one with the funny name? (Secret Water) The origin of the name is one of the title characters from a children's book, Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse, which was a favourite of Mavis Altounyan when she was small.
    • Averted in some reprints which change the name to "Tilly." Also in the 1962 BBC TV adaptation, which changed it to "Kitty".
    • The 1974 film implied that her full name was Titania — she is seen writing in an exercise book labelled "Titania Walker" — and therefore that "Titty" was a contraction of "Titania".
    • In the 2016 film she's "Tatty".
  • Imaginary Friend: Peter Duck to Titty.
  • Injured Limb Episode: Roger sprains his leg in one book, but only for a day.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Captain Flint, especially in Swallows and Amazons itself before he warms up to the children.
  • Life Embellished: The entire series is like this to some extent, with the Walker children based on a family that vacationed next door to Ransome. The books Peter Duck and Missee Lee, are a further In-Universe example; they're intended as metafictional writeups of the children's fantasies. (Some people also take Great Northern? to be metafictional, but a letter from Ransome to Miles North, who originally suggested the plot of the book, makes it clear that this was not his intent.)
    • Interviews with the by-then-elderly Walker family in the 1990s explained that Wild Cat Island was an exaggeration of reality — there was such an island on the lake that they sailed to, but it was considerably smaller and they never considered camping there, and there was never any question of them camping out for weeks on end without an adult. (The real island is mainly composed of jagged rock outcrops beneath a dense covering of trees; there is no place where it would be possible to pitch a tent. The harbour, however, is exactly as described and drawn in the books.)
  • Mood Whiplash: At the end of Swallowdale, they find a time capsule left by the Amazons' future parents and a young Uncle Jim from thirty years earlier, 1901. The whiplash comes in from the Amazons' reaction to their father's signature (it's implied he was killed in World War I).
    • Alternatively, he could have easily died in The Spanish Flu epidemic, which killed more people worldwide than the totals for both sides in World War One.
  • Ms. Imagination: Titty. The others are sometimes concerned that she might even be failing to recognise the difference between their fantasies and reality (though usually this is a case of Cassandra Truth).
  • Muggles: Adults who don't get the roleplaying are dubbed "natives".
  • Name and Name / The Noun and the Noun: "Swallows and Amazons" itself is something of a hybrid between these two title types, referring to the two groups (in the Navy, the crew of ship 'X' are referred to as 'the Xes', hence '[the] Swallows and [the] Amazons').
    • The Picts and the Martyrs plays The Noun and the Noun straight.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: In Great Northern?, the only reason Captain Flint is convinced to stick around long enough to let Dick photograph the Great Northern Divers is that Mr. Jemmerling is so insistent on paying him for their eggs.
    • Jemmerling also makes it very clear that he intends to take credit for Dick's discovery himself. It is this rather than the money that really riles Captain Flint; the huge sums of money (for the time) he offers merely confirm his unscrupulous attitude.
  • Nobody Here but Us Birds: Frequently used throughout the series, including one hilarious moment when they forget that using owl-calls at noon may not be the best of ideas. Using owl calls as signals already seems to have been a Dead Horse Trope in adventure stories by this point, as the contemporaneously-written The Hobbit also mocks the practice.
    • On the other hand, Peggy is capable of a remarkably good imitation of a duck quacking, which they use several times to successfully cover up someone making a giveaway splash during a Stealth-Based Mission.
    Again a duck quacked loudly. It quacked two or three times, until a voice said sternly, "Stow it, you goat. Don't overdo things."
  • No Hugging, No Kissing: At all. Perfectly logical early on, but by Secret Water Nancy and Peggy are old enough for some of the other children with similar fantasy lives to call them 'missionaries', i.e. too old to be involved in the games. Nancy does not appreciate this.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • There are a couple of one-sentence references to the tale of Peter Duck having been created by the children and Captain Flint in the winter following the events of Swallows and Amazons while living on board an old wherry. Nothing more about the events of that winter is ever mentioned.
    • In The Picts and the Martyrs, Timothy mentions a time he and Captain Flint got into trouble with the police while in Peru. This is never mentioned again.
  • No New Fashions in the Future: Averted. When they leave a time capsule in Swallowdale, Titty muses that it might not be found until many years have passed, 'when people wear quite different sorts of clothes'.
  • Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Dick is one in training, being the authority on everything from astronomy to geology to ornithology.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Swallows and Amazons do this to the places they explore; for instance, they call the mountain they climb in Swallowdale "Kanchenjunga". Its real name is never mentioned in-series, but it's obviously based on Old Man of Coniston.
    • A human example is Squashy Hat, the rival prospector, in Pigeon Post. He's always called "Squashy Hat", right up until The Reveal that he's actually Captain Flint's friend, Timothy.
  • Pirate Girl: Missee Lee.
    • And of course, this is what Peggy and (especially) Nancy aspire to be.
  • Pirate Parrot: Captain Flint's green parrot Polly (actually male), which he gives to Titty at the end of the first book in gratitude for the recovery of his typescript. It is a moment of minor triumph when the bird first says "Pieces of eight!"
  • Poor Communication Kills: Several mild examples.
    • In Winter Holidays, a mix-up over signals results in Dick and Dorothea setting off for the North Pole before the others have started getting ready.
    • In Pigeon Post, Captain Flint's telegram says someone called Timothy will be coming to stay with the Swallows and Amazons. They think Timothy is some sort of animal, possibly an armadillo, and set to work making a "home" for him. Weeks go by and there's no sign of an armadillo. Then Captain Flint returns, and they learn that Timothy is a person. In fact, he's their "rival prospector", Squashy Hat!
  • Proper Lady: What the Great Aunt wants Nancy and Peggy to be.
  • Red Herring: Used extensively in Great Northern?, to throw the egg-collector Mr. Jemmerling off the trail of the eggs.
  • Retcon: The Swallows' baby sister went from being named Victoria ("Vicky") and coincidentally resembling the queen in old age, to being named "Bridget", with "Vicky" used as a nickname in reference to her appearance. She outgrew the resemblance to Queen Victoria, and consequently outgrew the nickname. (In real life, Ransome had modeled Vicky on a girl named Bridget. When she disliked the fact that her name had been changed, he pulled a clever retcon so that her character could be known as "Bridget" from then on.)
  • Ruthless Modern Pirates: Explored in Peter Duck—some of the child protagonists like to pretend to be classic eighteenth century style pirates, and get a rude awakening when their ship is attacked by real contemporary pirates.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Subverted with the Margolettas in Coot Club. They keep finding Tom, Mrs. Barrable and the Ds, but it's usually because of coincidence, not any great skill on their part.
  • Shrinking Violet: Timothy, formerly known as Squashy Hat. His Shrinking Violet tendencies kick off most of the plot of Pigeon Post, because he's too shy to introduce himself to Mrs. Blackett, and so the children think he's an enemy.
  • Team Mom: Susan.
  • Theme Naming: The pigeons in Pigeon Post. The first one was just named Homer because he was a homing pigeon, but when they got two more, they decided to run with the 'Greek poets' theme and named them Sophocles and Sappho.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: There's a bit of tomboy going on with most of the girls, but Nancy, the quintessential tomboy who makes a point of doing everything John does, strikes a pretty clear comparison to Susan's cooking, cleaning, and nursing. Subverted in that Susan and Nancy aren't close; pretty successful at having radically different styles of femininity without being judgemental.
    • Nancy and her sister Peggy might qualify too; although Peggy dresses, like Nancy, in shorts rather than dresses, and is as active as you'd expect half of a duo nicknamed "The Amazons" to be, she's more interested in cooking and nursing and is notably afraid of thunderstorms (the galoot).
  • 21-Gun Salute: In Missee Lee, with gongs instead of guns. Taicoons Chang and Wu are saluted with ten strokes of the gong; Missee Lee herself, being the overall chief, is saluted with 22 strokes.
  • Unwillingly Girly Tomboy: In Swallowdale, Nancy and Peggy are forced into dressing class-and-gender-appropriately by their fearsome Great Aunt. Their fellow explorers are amazed by how well they look the part — but more horrified than impressed.
  • Wham Episode: We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea. After several books of imagining and being in little real danger, the Swallows end up stuck on a yacht and washed out to sea when her master sustains a head injury while ashore, and end up having to guide her through a storm to Holland by themselves. Particularly jarring compared to Peter Duck, which was similarly perilous but specifically said to be just a story they made up.
    • Also the point in Pigeon Post where they are exploring an old mine working and the roof collapses behind them, blocking their exit. Truth in Television — the Lake District fells are stiff with old mine workings and most of them are bloody lethal to go into if you don't know what you're doing; collapsing roofs — and more unexpectedly, collapsing floors — are a very real danger.
    • The earlier, gentler adventures (Swallows And Amazons, Swallowdale etc.) have been described as 'what we did on our holidays', and the later stories of high adventure (Missee Lee, Peter Duck) as 'what we imagined we did on our holidays'. In 'Their Own Story', an early version of Peter Duck, Ransome made the distinction for said book. Also, both bear the inscription "based on information provided by the Swallows and Amazons", absent from other books.
  • Where the Hell Is Springfield?: the lake they spend time around is actually an amalgam of two separate lakes in the district. The Hebridean locations in Great Northern? are said to be intentionally obscured to protect the titular birds.
    • Averted, however, with the Coots books and Secret Water, both of which are set in real places.