Themes of Exploration, Independence and Freedom in the novels of Arthur Ransome

A talk presented at Kendal Mountain Festival 2015

“Bother birds,” said Roger. “Adventures are much better.”

Some moments stay with you. I clearly remember the first time I read Swallows and Amazons. I must have been about nine and I’d been dragged along to a wedding. To stop me expiring from boredom during the speeches, dancing and so on, my mother handed me a paperback. I sat in a corner out of the way and was rapidly enthralled, in a world that was at once familiar and utterly new.

I already knew the Lake District, but now I saw it in new ways. I had never sailed, or camped on an island, or hunted for pirate treasure. The landscape I knew was transformed because the children in the story did all these things, and it was transformed further through their imagination, which made the lake into an ocean, oak-woods into jungle, Coniston Old Man into a Himalayan giant.

Over the next few years I worked my way haphazardly though the other books, liked some more than others. Returning to them as an adult I found new things to admire and enjoy and – uncomfortably close to fifty years later – I can still read them with great pleasure.

Of course it’s always hard to say how any of us would have turned out if things had been otherwise. If I hadn’t read these books at an impressionable age would it really have made a significant difference? It’s unanswerable. I can only say that I’m sure that they were part – only a part, but a significant one – of instilling in me a passion for the outdoors. And it’s clear, as we’ll see very shortly, that I’m in good company. 

So after a short tribute to the influence of the books, I’ll give a very brief sketch of Ransome’s life and a quick outline of the twelve novels. However, my main purpose is to attempt to untangle themes of Exploration, Independence and Freedom. I’ll consider how they resonate with modern attitudes to childhood and ask whether today’s young people get enough of this.

Influence of the books

The fact that a new film of Swallows and Amazons is being made is one indicator of enduring popularity, and may well bring a lot of new readers to the books. As I understand it, filming was completed in the summer and the film is due for release next year. Which seems to make this talk very timely, if only by coincidence – when I first proposed it right after last year’s KMF, the new film was still only a rumour.

The books have also had an acknowledged influence on many notable people. For example, Dame Ellen MacArthur:

I kicked off my sailing library at a very young age with Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. Mum and Nan had both been keen readers of these books and had passed them on to me.

I loved the spirit of adventure the books brought me, and dreamed of sailing on a lake to a secret island that had long been forgotten.

Authors who’ve mentioned AR as an influence include Philip Pullman, Tom Stoppard, Chris Townsend, and Robert Macfarlane.

Literary scholar Peter Hunt said he believes the series:

…changed British literature, affected a whole generation’s view of holidays, helped to create the national image of the English Lake District and added Arthur Ransome’s name to the select list of classic British children’s authors.

Biographical sketch

Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds in 1884. A formative experience was long summer holidays, spent at Nibthwaite by the southern end of Coniston Water. He would return to the ‘lake country’ regularly throughout his life and lived in the District for several lengthy spells, including periods when he wrote many of the novels.

He abandoned college before the end of his first year year and decamped, not yet 18, to London. He worked in publishing and soon started to earn a slender living from writing. He conscientiously studied the writer’s craft, and produced critical studies of several authors; a previously unpublished study of Robert Louis Stevenson has recently come to light (a name which will crop up again).

In 1909 he married Ivy Walker. In hindsight this seems to have been ill-advised. Possibly to escape the unstable Ivy and/or the disturbance of a small baby, Ransome went to Russia in 1913, though his motives were mixed; he was also fascinated by folk tales. He learned Russian rapidly and returned in 1914, producing a guidebook to St Petersburg in six weeks. Old Peter’s Russian Tales, a retelling of Russian stories, is often seen as his first mature book. He found himself in the midst of pre-Revolutionary ferment and almost by accident became a newspaper correspondent – one of the few trusted by the Bolshevik leaders. He also became close to Trotsky’s secretary (today we might say PA), a “tall jolly girl” called Evgenia Shelepina.

in 1919  he and Evgenia moved to Estonia. For the next four years they lived there and in Latvia. Ransome took up sailing again and explored the Gulf of Finland; Racundra’s First Cruise became a yachting classic.

After divorce, and marriage to Evgenia, Ransome returned to England late in 1924. In 1925  they bought Low Ludderburn (only about 10km as the crow flies from where we are right now) and came to live in the Lakes. Regular sailing with friends and their children on Coniston can be directly linked to the setting, plot and cast of Swallows and Amazons.

For most of the rest of his life  they lived at times in The Lakes and in East Anglia. The last completed children’s novel is Great Northern?, published in 1947. He died in 1967, Evgenia in 1975 and they are buried at Rusland.

The Novels and their location in the real world and the world of the imagination

There are 12 complete children’s novels, around a million words in total – impossible to summarise in a few lines. I hope the chart will help a bit. Writing and publication were spread over 18 years, but most of them (9 out of 12) fit into a fictional chronology spanning just three years, from 1930 to 1933. 

Much of what happens in most of the stories is quite simple – sailing, camping, fishing, skinning a rabbit – though of course it will still seem exotic to many readers. In any case, it is frequently lifted to another level as the children’s imagination invests simple acts with other meanings. They are often inspired by earlier adventure stories or tales of exploration: in particular, there are several explicit references to Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. They also give their own names to places. A good example is the renaming of a prominent peak (based on Coniston Old Man) as Kanchenjunga.

However, two (possibly three) of the twelve books are in a different mode, what academics call metafiction. To try and put this in plain English, even the protagonists of the stories – the Swallows, Amazons and their friends – would themselves recognise these as fiction. In fact we are told this explicitly in the case of Peter Duck, though we have to read Swallowdale to find out: “Peter Duck… had been the most important character in the story they had made up during those winter evenings in the cabin of the wherry with Nancy and Peggy and Captain Flint.”

Peter Duck is clearly a fantasy, partly inspired by Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson again), but drawing heavily for its locational detail on E F Knight’s The Cruise of the Alerte. This influence isn’t explicitly acknowledged, although in The Picts and the Martyrs Dick makes much use of Knight’s handbook on Sailing. The themes of treasure-hunting and piracy crop up elsewhere in the stories, but here – within the context of the metafiction – they become ‘real’ and very serious, with gunfire directed at the children more than once. 

The other unambiguous metafiction is Missee Lee, set somewhere in the South China Sea. It’s even more exotic than Peter Duck, and Missee Lee herself, the female pirate who yearns for classical studies at Cambridge, is a highly original character.

A more ambiguous case is Great Northern?, the last of the 12 completed books. Its setting in the Outer Hebrides is less exotic and there is nothing blatantly fantastical about the story (Great Northern Divers were not known to nest in Britain at the time of writing, but they have been recorded since). However, it doesn’t fit tidily into Ransome’s clear chronology for the rest of the stories.

Exploration

The children, especially the Swallows, often see themselves as explorers. This is particularly evident in the first four Lake District books, and also in Secret Water. At this point it’s worth highlighting a major difference between the Lake District books and the East Anglian ones. In the ‘lake country’ novels, Ransome creates a landscape which does not correspond to the real geography of the Lake District. Lots of people have investigated the correspondences – I’ve done so myself at some length – and Ransome did leave a number of clues, so it’s pretty clear that the lake in the stories is a hybrid of Windermere and Coniston Water, while the surrounding country mostly looks like the fells and moors around Coniston – but everything is jumbled up and rearranged, and almost every place and feature is referred to by names which the children have either invented or borrowed from other stories. The lake is simply ‘the lake’ but then we have Wild Cat Island, Rio, the Amazon River, Kanchenjunga, and so on. What might be genuine local names, like Holly Howe and Beckfoot, are limited – especially in Swallows and Amazons – to a few houses and farms, though you won’t find any of them in the ‘right’ place on OS maps. 

In the East Anglian novels, on the other hand, the locations are taken directly from reality and real names are used extensively. Coot Club and The Big Six are set on the Norfolk Broads and give detailed descriptions of many real locations – Horning, Ranworth, Potter Heigham and so on. The partial exception is Secret Water, where – once they arrive at the ‘Secret Water’ itself, real names are quietly erased. However, it’s closely based on Hamford Water, near Walton-on-the-Naze in Suffolk (and, in a nice reversal, this is now sometimes referred to as Secret Water).

There are several possible explanations for this distinction. One, I think, is the contrasting place of the Lake District and East Anglia in Ransome’s own life and psychology. He knew the Lake District from a very early age – he records, for instance, that he was carried “to the top of Coniston Old Man at such an early age that I think no younger human being can ever have been there.”

It’s very clear from the Autobiography that the regular holidays at Nibthwaite were hugely important to the young Arthur and sowed the seeds of a lifelong love-affair with the Lakes. At times the Lake District in the stories is not really the Lake District of the early 1930s but that of the 1890s and 1900s, both in specific detail but also in the sense that it is so vividly seen, as if through the eyes of a child and an impressionable young man. 

In both temporal and spatial terms, then, the landscape of the lake country novels is a landscape of the imagination. In an Author’s Note to later editions of Swallows and Amazons, Ransome wrote. ‘No matter where I was, wandering about the world, I used at night to look for the North Star and, in my mind’s eye, could see the beloved skyline of great hills beneath it.’

East Anglia, on the other hand, is a region which Ransome only came to know as an adult, no doubt guided from the start by railway timetable, road-atlas or sailing chart. He came to know it well, and to love it, but the roots of the relationship are different. It’s also worth mentioning that for those youngsters who appear only in the Norfolk Broads books (Tom Dudgeon, the Farland twins and the ‘Death and Glories’), the area is home and they are deeply embedded there. The Lake District is home only to the Amazons; for the Swallows and the D’s, it’s discovered on holidays.

In any case, exploration is a strong theme from the start in Swallows and Amazons. In fact, the book opens with a quote from Keats’s sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

   He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The ‘Peak of Darien’ thus becomes the first exotic name to be applied to a part of the lake country landscape:

“Where are the others?” asked mother.

“In Darien,’ said Roger.

“Where?”

“On the peak, you know. Titty called it that. We can see the island from there.”

Ironically, Keats was almost certainly mistaken in using Cortez to exemplify Europeans seeing the Pacific’s eastern shores for the first time. Cortez probably never saw the Pacific at all and it’s much more likely that Keats should have used the name Balboa. But it hardly matters. What counts is the striking image of the party coming unexpectedly upon a view of a vast ocean and gazing at each other with a wild surmise.

The story begins some days after the children first see the lake and the island, but they have been waiting for permission from their absent father to set sail. “..with a lake as big as a small sea, a 14ft dinghy with a brown sail waiting in the boathouse, and the little wooded island waiting for explorers, nothing but a sailing voyage of discovery seemed worth thinking about.”

The answer comes in the form of a cryptic telegram – possibly one of the most famous telegrams in all fiction. (Although even the concept of the telegram itself now has to be explained to younger readers.) “Better drowned than duffers if not duffers wont drown.”

 “And now, suddenly, it was real. It was to be their island after all… The news was so good that it made them solemn. They ate their bread and marmalade in silence. The prospect before them was too vast for chatter.”

Exploration in Swallows and Amazons is mostly limited to the lake itself, and even then they never reach either of its extremities. However, it’s a good-sized lake for four young children in a small wooden dinghy. Ransome is pretty sparing with specific details of size and distance but scatters a few clues. Together with the maps in the various books, these suggest that it is around the same length as the real Windermere – 17km or 10 1/2 miles. There is some variation in the shape and proportions of the lake on the different maps, but it always looks wider than Windermere; it looks as if the area of the fictional lake is at least equal to Windermere and Coniston Water combined. “A lake as big as a small sea” indeed.

Serious exploration is somewhat derailed once the Swallows meet the Amazons. Both crews, of course, take these names from their respective boats. The name Swallow does hark back to a real boat in which Ransome learned to sail, but the choice of the name Amazon is less clearly explained, and does raise some interesting questions – to which I will return later. However, near the end, they return to their roles as explorers:

“There’s one thing we must do now,” said John, “And that’s make our chart. The Amazons will be there tomorrow and they’ve got their own names for everywhere. We must make our chart today.”

He then copies the outline of the lake from a guidebook map onto a double page of a big exercise-book and they spend time marking it up, but using their own names for most of the features.
There’s more filling in of the blanks in Swallowdale, and Ransome returns to this theme with a vengeance in Secret Water, where the Swallows are given by their father the task of filling in the map of the complex, tidal, islands, creeks and channels. This is quite serious mapping, involving bearings and measurement.

Blank on the Map is of course a famous and resonant title. I guess most of us would associate it with Eric Shipton, though Wikipedia reminded me that it was also used for a TV documentary by David Attenborough in 1971.

Explicit themes of exploration are much less evident in some of the other books, such as Coot Club and The Big Six. In We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, too, the drama is very real and needs no embellishment by the children’s imaginations. Peter Duck and Missee Lee have exotic settings but other preoccupations take precedence over exploring.

The theme of exploration is arguably at its strongest in Winter Holiday. Bearing in mind that it was published in 1933 (and set in the early weeks of 1932), it may seem odd that there is never a mention of  Scott, Shackleton, or the greatest of them all, Amundsen, who reached the South Pole little more than 20 years earlier, in December 1911.

Instead, Ransome’s model is the great Norwegian, Fridtjof Nansen. This is fairly logical because the story centres on a journey to the ‘North Pole’, and because Captain Flint’s houseboat can play the part of Nansen’s legendary ship, the Fram – also used, incidentally, by Amundsen’s successful South Pole expedition. There’s a more personal connection, too, as Arthur Ransome met Nansen on more than one occasion and described him as ‘a hero since my childhood’.

These meetings occurred in 1921, when Ransome was living in Rīga in Latvia. At the time Nansen was engaged in humanitarian work, concerned with the repatriation of prisoners of war and then with wider refugee issues (very resonant today!), for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Ransome called him ‘the most civilised person of his generation’. It’s little wonder, then, that ten years later Ransome was keen to honour Nansen in one of his novels.

Winter Holiday does not mention Nansen’s humanitarian work, but explicitly references his earlier career as an explorer, mentioning his two classic books, The First Crossing of Greenland (first published 1890) and Farthest North (1897). Remember, Ransome was born in 1884. Again we see a certain harking back to the Victorian age.

The First Crossing of Greenland describes a pioneering venture in every sense, taking the use of skis to a new level, developing other equipment such as lightweight sledges, and displaying an almost unprecedented willingness to learn from the indigenous people of the Arctic. Several aspects of this approach are emulated by the children in Winter Holiday.

Farthest North describes how Nansen deliberately planned for the Fram to be frozen in the Polar ice and to be carried northward by the drifting of the pack. Eventually Nansen, with Hjalmar Johansen, left the Fram to make a lightweight dash for the pole over the ice. This was ultimately unsuccessful, although they did set a record northing of 86d 14m, and was followed by a desperate retreat – it would be over a year before they encountered another human being.

This is the background to the exploits of the eight children in Winter Holiday. As the lake freezes, they colonise the houseboat and turn it into the Fram. They make their own hats and mittens (admittedly not from reindeer hide) and experiment with sailing sledges. In one of the most specific homages to Nansen, before the lake freezes, one of Nancy’s messages urges the others to ‘cross Greenland’. 

‘I know where she means,’ said Peggy. ‘It’s the country on the fells above the tarn. It’s as wild as wild.’

It all culminates in an exciting dash in darkness to the ‘North Pole’. Carefully-laid plans crumble when a signal is misread and instead of an orderly and united daytime journey, it all ends up with three separate parties making their own nighttime journeys.

Mountain mayhem

At Kendal Mountain Festival, I can hardly fail to mention the mountain aspects, though Ransome – despite his early ascent of Coniston Old Man – was not a mountaineer. This is fairly evident when we look at the ascent of Kanchenjunga recounted in Swallowdale.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that Ransome based the fictional Kanchenjunga on Coniston Old Man, which is so prominent from almost anywhere on the waters of Coniston, or the moors which flank its southern end.

We might wonder why Titty chooses the name Kanchenjunga rather than Everest. At the time of writing, and when the stories are set, the great early attempts on Everest, which of course culminated in the loss of Mallory and Irvine in 1924, were fresh in the memory. But then, Kanchenjunga was also extremely well-known – probably, in relative terms, much more so than today. Search Amazon for books with Everest in the title and you get over 3000 hits. Search for Kangchenjunga and you get 78.

Unlike Everest and K2, Kanchenjunga is highly visible from relatively populous areas, notably from Darjeeling. It had seen a strong German attempt in 1928 and an international team including Frank Smythe attempted it in 1930. Despite their lack of success, Smythe’s book The Kangchenjunga Adventure was widely read and did much to establish his reputation. It was one of very few books in my own grandparents home. This may explain the choice of the name, or it might just be that – as John says – ‘Kanchenjunga’s a gorgeous name anyhow.’

 As so often, Nancy takes charge for the ascent of Kanchenjunga, but she seems to have only a vague notion of rope-work in climbing.

This dubious method is tested when Roger falls:

The rope tautened with a jerk and pulled Titty half back over the edge. Susan and even Nancy herself were almost jerked off their feet on the grassy slope above the rock. It was lucky that they had moved back from the edge and had the rope almost stretched between them.

I suspect Nancy’s lack of expertise in climbing technique mirrors that of Ransome himself. There’s also an episode in Winter Holiday, during the crossing of Greenland, where Dick rescues a cragfast sheep by traversing a narrow, icy ledge, secured only by the rope in the hands of Titty, Roger and Dot.

‘Lower away,’ said Titty, in command on the top of the cliff. With their feet well dug into the snow, they let the rope go slowly down, hand over hand.

The word ‘belay’ occurs several times in the books, but in its maritime sense. There’s no indication that Ransome knew anything of its application in climbing.

The Great Outdoors

Hand in hand with the theme of exploration is the simple fact that the children in the stories spend most of their time out of doors. In Winter Holiday, Nancy explicitly links the outdoors with freedom and adventure: ‘dark at teatime and sleeping indoors: nothing ever happens in the winter holidays.’

 Swallows and Amazons is almost entirely an outdoor book. There are a few pages of indoor preparations in Chapter 2, but thereafter, apart from the cabin of the houseboat, there are only the briefest of visits to the indoor world. In Swallowdale, the shipwreck scuppers plans to camp once more on Wild Cat Island, so one of the main priorities for the Swallows is to find an alternative campsite on the mainland. The very last words of the book are, ‘Isn’t it a blessing to get home?’  – the home in question being not a house but Wild Cat Island.

There is also a strong sense of the Amazons’ frustration in being cooped up indoors during the visit of the Great Aunt. Similar frustration is manifest in Pigeon Post, when the children are initially required, by lack of water, to camp at Tyson’s Farm:

(Mrs Tyson) rattled on, friendly and kind, making them at home. And with every word she said their spirits sank deeper and deeper.

To be camped within hearing of the house and its natives, no matter how friendly… To draw water from the farm pump instead of dipping it from lake or neck… To have the tents not in a wood, or on the fell, or even in an ordinary field, but in an orchard, with apple and damson trees in their neat rows (…) Dick and Dorothea, perhaps, felt nothing of this, because, poor things, they hardly knew what camping was.

Camping’ here clearly means what today we would call wild camping. It might be interesting to explore when that distinction first came into common use. And we might speculate what they would make of ‘glamping’…

In several other of the books – Peter Duck, We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea and Great Northern? – almost the only ‘indoor’ setting of any significance is below decks on a sailing vessel, and in both Coot Club and The Big Six much more time is spent on boats than in houses. 

Many of us who are over a certain age tend to think that we played outdoors as kids much more, and more freely, than today’s youngsters do. And there’s plenty of solid research that says we aren’t just imagining it. Famously, the American writer Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods identified ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, and directly linked it to many issues such as childhood obesity. Recently, a Position Statement developed by a group of Canadian experts representing 14 organisations opened with this sentence:

Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development

Here in the UK, the National Trust has published a report, Natural Childhood, written by Stephen Moss. This is full of what most of us here would surely consider to be alarming statistics – for instance, Fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places, compared to almost half a generation ago.

The report links this decline to serious issues in not only physical but mental health among today’s children. A UNICEF report in 2007 placed the UK bottom of 21 industrialised countries (17 EU nations plus USA, Canada, Norway and Switzerland) for childhood well-being. 

The National Trust report also quotes eminent child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron:
The less children play outdoors, the less they learn to cope with the risks and challenges they will go on to face as adults… Nothing can replace what children gain from the freedom and independence of thought they have when trying new things out in the open.

Another concerning statistic:

Everybody active, every day
An evidence-based approach to physical activity
Public Health England, Oct 2014

I suspect that few in this audience would dissent from these conclusions; the question of course, is how we address the issue. And surely the continuing appetite for Ransome’s books suggest that many of today’s children feel the pull of the outdoors even if they are deprived of opportunities to realise it. Certainly the Swallows, Amazons and the rest face their share of ‘risks and challenges’, and display plenty of ‘freedom and independence of thought’.

This seems to be a suitable moment to acknowledge that Ransome’s books are sometimes criticised for being ‘middle-class’, or because the children are ‘privileged’. You can argue the point, of course. The Swallows borrow the boat they sail, but the Amazons, and later the D’s, have their own. Even today, owning your own sailing dinghy isn’t exactly commonplace.

On the other hand, they don’t have computers or mobile phones, getting a penknife or a torch as a birthday present is a big deal, and most of their camping gear now looks primitive in the extreme. The Swallows’ tents are made by their mother, they leak when it rains, and the children sleep on sacks stuffed with straw. They gather their own firewood to boil water and cook: no fancy Jetboil stoves here. It strikes me that what really distances them from most of today’s kids is not their level of social privilege or material wealth, but their level of freedom and their unfettered access to the outdoors.

The books are also full of close, precise and engaging observations of nature, especially birds: from dippers and cormorants in Swallows and Amazons to the Coots and Great Northern Divers which give their names to two of the later books.

This is allied to a strong undercurrent of what we would now call environmentalism. This is most obvious in Coot Club and Great Northern?, both of which have a central theme of bird protection. In Great Northern?, the villain is an egg-collector. Egg-collecting wasn’t illegal at the time – it was only outlawed for most species by the Protection of Birds Act 1954, seven years after the publication of Great Northern? One wonders whether the book contributed in some small way to the debate and shift in public opinion which led to this legislation.

In both Coot Club and Great Northern?, the villains drive motor-boats while the heroes sail. There are various other unflattering references to motor-boats, especially fast ones, though in some of the later books Roger is allowed to become interested in engines. We also regularly that see the children are concerned to tidy up their campsites and fireplaces and dispose of any litter, although sometimes in ways we wouldn’t entirely approve today.

In a recent essay for The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane quotes a list of ‘nature’ words which have apparently been expunged from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make room for new ones and because they are “no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood.”

I wondered how many of these are mentioned in Arthur Ransome’s novels. I haven’t quite got time to check on all of them… Most of the novels are set in summer so mentions of, say, bluebells, aren’t likely. Nor do I recall mistletoe cropping up in Winter Holiday. But here are a few which definitely do occur. For example:

adder, hazel, heather, heron, kingfisher, otter, pasture, willow

I might think it’s sad if fewer of today’s children are reading Ransome, but if words like these aren’t ‘relevant’ it rather suggests that there’s a more serious issue, i.e. that other authors aren’t filling the gap and helping to give children a rich, realistic and detailed acquaintance with the natural world.

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