"SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS"
HOW IT CAME TO BE WRITTEN
BY ARTHUR RANSOME
Editor's Note: In the Bookshop for Boys and Girls, Arthur Ransome's name has always meant that perfect collection of Russian folk stories, "Old Peter's Russian Tales." We have known, too, that he has lived years in Russia and been first foreign correspondent and later war correspondent and later war corespondent for the London Daily News and the Manchester Guardian. We knew, too, if we stopped to think, that he was an experienced sailor, for there was "Racundra's First Cruise."
Now comes a book for young people, reminder of the last named volume, but very different from "Old Peter's Russian Tales." The new book is called "Swallows and Amazons" and is the story of two families of young people and a summer on the shores of one of the English Lakes. The young Walkers sail the "Swallow," and the twins, Nancy and Peggy, sail the "Amazon." There is camping on a desert island, and all kinds of adventurous fun for enthusiastic young sailors in "Swallows and Amazons." (Illustrations by Helene Carter. Lippincott, $2.00.) Mr. Ransome explains below how the story happened.
ABOUT once in every five years a friend of mine who has an enormous family and lives in Syria brings his family home and spends the summer with them on the shores of a lake which he and his wife and I have known ever since we were ourselves children. We have played about in boats on it ever since we can remember. Syria is mostly made, I believe, of sand. Anyhow, that is what it sounds like, and though, now, this friend of mine, whom I will call Walker, has found a place where he can sail, up to the time when he last came home he had not found this place, and always looked forward to coming home chiefly because of being able once more to sail in a small boat. And his children are in this matter just like him. The time they spend without a boat is used up in looking forward to the time when they will have a boat again. They are the sort of children who would put to sea in a bran-tub if they had nothing better. Now about two years ago, when Mr. Walker and his wife and all his children had come home, he rushed off, as soon as they had unpacked, to a seaport town not far away and there bought two dinghies, one for himself and one for me, on the understanding that I was not to claim my one, or indeed pay for it, until he and his brood had gone back to their desert sands and camels and all the rest of that Eastern world. So for a whole summer my dinghy (whose name "Swallow" was given her in memory of a long broken up "Swallow" in which we grown-ups had been young in our day) did not belong to me, but was part of a regular fleet sailed by the Walkers. She proved to be the very best of little ships, and by the time the year was over, and boxes were being packed for the East, she was very much beloved by her owners, and I felt what a cruel thing it was that they should have to go off to their mullahs and mosques and leave me sailing in their dinghy on the great lake among the hills. It seemed most unfair.
And then, one day, there occurred the incident of the pair of red slippers. I heard a motor car stop outside the gate of my cottage and looking out under the big yew trees (for the cottage is several hundred years old) I saw a considerable crowd of people, mostly smallish, getting out of the motor car. I was as cross as two sticks, because though I had invited Mr. Walker, the father of the family, I had warned him that for domestic reasons ONE WOULD BE ENOUGH, and that, on this occasion, he alone would be expected. He knew this well, and had it on his conscience, for instead of coming straight in, he lurked behind the gate. And then the gate opened and two of the Walkers, Titty (whose real name I never can remember) and Susan, came rushing in, each holding out an ENORMOUS scarlet leather Syrian slipper. Then came the others, and, shyly for him, Walker himself. And they all shouted "Many Happy Returns." And the funny thing was that I had forgotten it was my birthday. Well, there I was, feeling ashamed. I had been as cross as two sticks and looked it, and there were these nice Walker children bringing me a pair of the handsomest slippers that any one ever saw.
They were leaving for Syria. They knew that henceforth I should be sailing the "Swallow" and yet, instead of hating me, as well they might, they had brought me these slippers, which turned out to be as good as they were handsome and are my most comfortable slippers to this day. It was just then that I thought what fun it would be if I could write them a book about the "Swallow" and the lake and the island that was their playground, as it had been ours and that of our parents before us.
That, I suppose, was really the beginning of the book. I said nothing about it to them, because I did not know whether I should be able to write it, this book in reading which, far away in Syria, they should be able to feel that they were sailing once more in the little "Swallow" on the lake at home, That was how it began. It was to be a book, the real hero of which was to be a little sailing dinghy. But as it began to plan itself it soon changed into something else. In the first place a boat cannot do everything in a book. There must be people too, and, of course, the best possible people would be those very children who had sailed her and given me those slippers. And then I found other children coming in, and even the Walkers themselves, doing, in my story, and saying, all sorts of things that had not been planned for them. And I began to understand that in writing about children one is writing about one's own childhood as well as theirs, and so, in a way, about childhood in general. And then it so happened that a friend was staying with me, and when I was feeling inclined to give up the idea, this friend was so very encouraging that for very shame I could not. And before I knew what was happening, I was enjoying the writing of this book more than I have ever enjoyed writing any other book in all my life. And I think I can put my finger on the thing in it which gave me so much pleasure. It was just this, the way in which the children in it have no firm dividing line between make-believe and reality, but slip in and out of one and the other again and again and backwards and forwards, exactly as I had done when I was a child and, as I rather fancy, we all of us do in grown-up life. Everything was possible for me, just as it was for them, and yet there we all were with our feet hitting the earth quite firmly when we ran about. I and they slipped in and out of grown-up "native" life and in out of the "real" life of the explorers and pirates half a dozen times in a chapter. In a way we were making the best of two worlds. And I, at least, enjoyed myself like fun.
The book went on and on and grew bigger and bigger and instead of getting tired of it, I should have liked to be doing nothing else. I was enjoying my own childhood all over again, all the best bits of it and the bits that might have been ever so much better if only something or other had been different. But then, as the book had at last to be brought to an end (though there was no reason why I should not have gone on forever) I began to be very much afraid. For though the children in the book had taken things so much into their own hands that I could never be quite sure what they were going to do or say next, there they were, labelled with the names of the Walkers. And oddly enough, I could not change their names, though it sounds so simple, just to go through the book with a pen and put new names in and cross out the old ones. As soon as I tried to change a name, there was a sort of revolt among the people in the book and nothing would go right. So there could be no possible pretending that the people in the book were not the people they actually were. There is a clause about libel in agreements between authors and publishers, and when I read it carefully I did not like the look of it. Besides that, the older Walkers were among my best friends, and I began to wonder what would happen if they did not like their portraits, and still worse, if Captain John and Mate Susan, and Able Seaman Titty and the Boy Roger did not like theirs. And besides that there were the Amazons to think of, too. And yet, I thought, even if the people outside the book don't like the people inside the book, the people inside the book have got some sort of right to be alive. That's how I see them anyhow, and it's too late to alter them now. So I sent the book to the printer. And still I had not sent a word to Syria of what was going on in the old cottage under the yews. Out there they did not know at all that they had all gone helter skelter into a book and were having all sorts of adventures on the lake at home. And I dared not write and tell them. And I got more and more worried about what would happen when Mrs. Walker, for example, read about her own children. I thought of tigresses defending their young. And yet, in a way, they were my children too, at least the ones in the book were, and the other ones, outside the book, had always counted me as a bit of their family. At last I persuaded the publisher to let me have a very early copy of the book, so early that it had a misprint in it that is in none of the later copies, so early that I was able to send it out to Syria nearly three weeks before the book was published. And then I went fishing as hard as I could, trying to forget about it. And at last, just two days before the book was actually published, there came a cable from Syria. I can't very well tell you what was in it, but I can tell you that it was from the crew of the "Swallow" and their parents, and after reading it I was so pleased that I wanted to sit down right away and start another book for them. Already I had been wanting to start another for myself.
The Horn Book Vol. 7, February 1931, pp. 38-43. I am grateful to the executors of the Arthur Ransome literary estate for permission to place this article on the Web.