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  • Joanna Taylor

Reading and mapping Swallows and Amazons

Joanna Taylor

On July 24 this year, the new film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s children’s classic Swallows and Amazons (first published in 1930, and set in summer 1929) had its world premiere at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, one of the more frequently-visited towns in the Lake District National Park. The film, like the book on which it’s based, tells the story of the four Walker children – John, Susan, Titty (renamed Tatty in the film) and Roger – and their adventures on and around a Cumbrian lake. The film’s director, Philippa Lowthorpe, was drawn to the project because Ransome’s book is about ‘getting out into the world of your own imagination’. She is also ‘aware of how childhood now revolves around screens, sitting on your bottoms and being indoors. There’s very little time for adventure’. That is the tension at the heart of this film: it is an indoor activity about the wonders of the outside world, as seen through children’s eyes. There’s an irony, then, in using a screen to represent the Walker children’s Lakeland exploits; it encourages children to stay inside to access the outside.

Susan, Roger, Tatty and John bring the Swallow to shore on Wild Cat Island CREDIT: STUDIO CANAL
Susan, Roger, Tatty and John bring the Swallow to shore on Wild Cat Island CREDIT: STUDIO CANAL

The same irony is not true of the book. Books can be taken outside – in fact, for the Walker children, books seem to belong outside. Titty, for instance, has read Robinson Crusoe enough to have memorised passages from it, and she uses it as a guide when she’s left alone on the island. John, the eldest, takes with him The Seaman’s Handybook and Part Three of The Baltic Pilot, whilst Susan chooses Simple Cooking for Small Households. Their reading material doesn’t simply reflect their roles in this family structure (adventurer, Captain, ship’s mate and substitute mother respectively); it also indicates how books can act as intermediaries between the real world and the imaginary landscape constructed as part of the children’s adventures. Robert Macfarlane writes that ‘to young children […] nature is full of doors – is nothing but doors, really – and they swing open at every step’ (Landmarks, p.315). In Swallows and Amazons, nature does provide the doors through which the children pass to move from the real to the imaginary landscape: the pike-filled lake becomes a shark-infested sea, for example, and a river leading into it becomes the Amazon, complete with a group of octopuses (actually lillies). But it’s from the books that they know how to navigate these imaginary places, from shipwreck on a desert island to sailing the high seas at night.

The most important book in Swallows and Amazons is an unnamed guide-book of the Lake District. The novel’s geography is a composite version of the Lake District: the lake is based on a mixture of Coniston, with the Old Man of Coniston looming above it, and Windermere; the Peak of Darien draws on Derwentwater; Rio, the main town, is reminiscent of the Lake District’s modern tourist hub, Bowness-on-Windermere; the farm Holly Howe finds its real-life counterpart at Bank Ground Farm; Cormorant Island is really Silver Howe on Windermere; and Wild Cat Island reflects both Blake Holme on Windermere and Peel Island on Coniston. These real-world locations, as the map below shows, are spread around the Lake District; Ransome knew his Swallows and Amazons geography so well that when he visited the real Lakes it sometimes seemed ‘that some giant or earthquake [had] been doing a little scene-shifting overnight’. That makes the children’s geography a complex one: it is an imaginative interpretation of a re-imagining of the Lake District landscape.

Mapping these sites onto a fact-based platform like a Geographical Information System (GIS), as I’ve done here, indicates two things: first, that the composite geography Ransome utilises in Swallows and Amazons creates a version of Lakeland that reflects a child’s experience of it more than a factual account; second, that databases like GIS struggle to represent fictional literary geographies. A GIS requires real-world data: longitudes and latitudes. It, like virtual globe environments such as Google Earth, cannot represent imaginative geographies. In the study of this kind of unreal landscape, then, a GIS’s use is limited – but it is not entirely irrelevant. Visualising the real-world locations that inspired Ransome’s fictional geography in this way indicates how circumscribed Ransome’s Lake District actually was; only the Peak of Darien disrupts that pattern. And actually, that fits, because in the novels Darien is a viewing station from which to gaze down on the primary settings for the children’s adventures; it remains aloof from much of the narrative, and informs the story mostly by blocking the children’s view from Wild Cat Island to Holly Howe and the Amazon. Mapping these locations in a GIS emphasises the geographical relationship between the fictional locations in a way that is hidden behind the novel’s literary geography.

Swallows and Amazons geography (green text) beside the real-world locations which inspired them (black text). Map created using ArcGIS.
Swallows and Amazons geography (green text) beside the real-world locations which inspired them (black text). Map created using ArcGIS.

A GIS rendering of this fictional place-making is interesting methodologically, too, because it recalls the children’s mapmaking in the novel. The map that accompanied the novel after the illustrated edition in 1931 is not a reproduction of the map that the children use; rather, it is a depiction of the ‘chart’ that they see. When they are packing to set off, John decides that all proper sea-voyagers and explorers meed a chart – but where to find a map that depicts the region into which they are to venture?

‘John said, “What about a chart?” Titty said that as the ocean had never been explored, there could not be any charts. “But all the most exciting charts and maps have places on them that are marked ‘Unexplored’.” “Well, they won’t be much good for those places,” said Titty. “We ought to have a chart of some kind,” said John. “It’ll probably be all wrong, and it won’t have the right names. We’ll make our own names, of course.” They found a good map that showed the lake in a local guide-book. Titty said it wasn’t really a chart. John said it would do.’ (Swallows and Amazons, p.33)

Map of the Swallows and Amazons geography (Pigeon Post, 1936)
Map of the Swallows and Amazons geography (Pigeon Post, 1936)

Titty’s objection here highlights the explorer’s problem with maps, both analogue and digital: they only depict places that don’t need exploring. For where they’re going – a fictional reflection of the mappable lake – there can’t be any charts, because no-one can have been before to a place that exists only in the children’s minds. It turns out, though, that the Blackett children also travel in this imaginative landscape – and even the adults are complicit in it. In fact, the Blacketts’ uncle and mother both explored a similar imaginary variation of the region as children. The guide-book’s map offers a site on which to chart all of these fictional variations of the area. The chart the children use in the book is over-written with their fictional geographies, creating a complex representation that reveals both the adult – or ‘native – world and the one the children overlay onto it.

The children’s adaptations of the guide-book map become a key means through which they express the ways they make place. Their ‘chart’ represents precisely those ‘doors’ that Macfarlane identifies, because it places the factual locations beneath the children’s annotations. It makes explicit the connection between the landscape and the children’s power to imaginatively transform it. And that process – of physical into cartographic, even analogue to digital, place-making – might still be one that unites the inside with the outside. The kind of vicarious access to landscape that maps have always represented need not, I don’t think, be imaginatively stifling in a digital age. What a GIS rendering of the Swallows and Amazons geography ultimately suggests, I think, is how much potential a landscape has to be transformed in an endless multitude of ways by its visitors, and how a map’s apparent failures can also be its most suggestive, most lucrative, element.

Joanna Taylor is the Research Associate on the Leverhulme-funded project ‘Geospatial Innovation in the Digital Humanities: A Deep Map of the English Lake District’, which runs at Lancaster University from 2015 to 2018. She completed her PhD, titled ‘Writing spaces: the Coleridge family’s agoraphobic poetics’, at Keele University in 2015. She is the British Association of Victorian Studies Newsletter Editor, and can be found on Twitter: @JoTayl0r0

This post was reblogged from The Nexus: IRCHSS-2016


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