The book was inspired by a summer spent by Ransome teaching the children of his friends, the Altounyans, to sail. Three of the Altounyan children's names are adopted directly for the Walker family. Ransome and Ernest Altounyan bought two small dinghies called Swallow and Mavis. Ransome kept Swallow until he sold it a number of years later, while Mavis remained in the Altounyan family and is now on permanent display in the Ruskin Museum. However, later in life Ransome tried to downplay the Altounyan connections, changing the initial dedication of Swallows and Amazons and writing a new foreword which gave other sources. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 57 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
The artist chosen for the first edition of the book was Steven Spurrier, but Ransome objected to his style and so the first edition did not have any illustrations. Spurrier's drawing for the dust jacket had to be used. The second edition contained drawings by Clifford Webb but after Ransome successfully illustrated Peter Duck himself, he decided to do his own drawings for all the books, including those already published, and Webb's drawings were replaced in later editions.
The book relates the outdoor adventures and play of two families of children. These involve sailing, camping, fishing, exploration and piracy. The Walker children (John, Susan, Titty and Roger) are staying at a farm near a lake in the Lake District of England, during the school holidays. They sail a borrowed dinghy named Swallow and meet the Blackett children (Nancy and Peggy), who sail a dinghy named Amazon. The Walkers camp on an island in the lake while the Blacketts live in their house nearby. When the children meet, they agree to join forces against a common enemy – the Blacketts' uncle James Turner whom they call "Captain Flint" (after the character in Treasure Island). Turner, normally an ally of his nieces, has withdrawn from their company to write his memoirs, and has become decidedly unfriendly. Furthermore, when the Blacketts let off a firework on his houseboat roof, it is the Walkers who get the blame. He refuses even to listen when they try to pass on a warning to him about burglars in the area.
To determine who should be the overall leader in their campaign against Captain Flint, the Blacketts and the Walkers have a contest to see which can capture the others' boat. As part of their strategy the Walkers make a dangerous crossing of the lake by night, and John is later cautioned by his mother for this reckless act. The Walkers nevertheless win the contest – thanks to Titty who seizes the Amazon when the Blacketts come to Wild Cat Island. During the same night Titty hears suspicious voices coming from a different island – Cormorant Island – and in the morning it transpires that Turner's houseboat has been burgled. Turner again blames the Walkers, but is finally convinced that he is mistaken and feels he was wrong to distance himself from his nieces' adventures all summer. The Swallows, Amazons and Turner investigate Cormorant Island, but they cannot find Turner's missing trunk.
The following day there is a mock battle between Turner and the children, after which Turner is tried for his crimes and forced to walk the plank on his own houseboat. They agree at the post-battle feast that on the final day of their holidays Titty and Roger will go back to Cormorant Island while the others go fishing. Titty finds the trunk, which contains the memoirs on which Turner had been working, and is rewarded with Turner's green parrot.
James Turner appears in some ways to be modelled on Ransome himself. The story, set in August 1929, includes a good deal of everyday Lakeland life from the farmers to charcoal burners working in the woods; corned beef, which the children fancifully refer to as pemmican, and ginger beer and lemonade, which they call grog, appear as regular food stuff for the campers; island life also allows for occasional references to the story of Robinson Crusoe.
See also List of characters in Arthur Ransome booksJohn Walker – Eldest of the Walkers and captain of the Swallow
Susan Walker – Second eldest of the Walkers and mate of the Swallow
Titty Walker – Able Seaman of the Swallow. This name was the nickname of the real life Mavis Altounyan, from Joseph Jacobs's children's story, Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse. It has been changed to Kitty in the original BBC adaptation of the book, and Tatty for a 2016 BBC Films adaptation
Roger Walker – Youngest of the sailing Walkers and ship's boy of the Swallow
Bridget Walker – (nicknamed "Vicky" due to a resemblance to pictures of Queen Victoria in old age, and referred to as such in the book) Youngest of the Walkers and ship's baby of the Swallow
Nancy Blackett (Ruth) – Captain of the Amazon
Peggy Blackett (Margaret) – Nancy's younger sister and mate of the Amazon
James Turner – Nancy and Peggy's uncle. Known to the children as "Captain Flint"
According to Ransome, every place in his book can be found in the Lake District, but he took different locations and placed them in different ways: the lake is a fictionalised version of Windermere but the surrounding countryside more closely resembles that around Coniston. Wild Cat Island, the location of the island camp, has elements from Peel Island in Coniston and Blake Holme (or Blakeholme) in Windermere. Holly Howe, the farmhouse where the Swallows stay is based on Bank Ground Farm, which exists to this day. It was featured in the 1974 film.
Reviewing the book for UK daily newspaper The Manchester Guardian (forerunner of The Guardian) Malcolm Muggeridge wrote:
"Children's books are probably the most difficult of all to write; they are certainly the most difficult to review. For children alone can properly judge their worth, and children, very wisely, never review. An adult has to refer back to his own childhood and ask himself: Would I have enjoyed such a book then? The answer, in the case of Swallow and Amazons, [sic] is very definitely, Yes. Moreover, the book is entirely charming quite apart from its qualities as child literature. This is rare; for, generally speaking, nothing makes drearier reading than the conscious juvenility of adults."
Muggeridge continued by saying,
"Mr. Ransome has the same magical power that Lewis Carroll had of being the child in terms of himself. He never talks down; never finds it necessary to be patronising or sentimental. And sentimentality is the most terrible pitfall that besets those who venture into the world of play. […] Captain John and Mate Susan, and Able-seaman Titty, and Ship's Boy Roger are not at all like Christopher Robin. [T]hey are children. And the story of their adventures on a little island in the middle of an English lake is thrilling just because it is not fabulous. […] It is make-believe such as all children have indulged in: even children who have not been so fortunate as to have a lake and a boat and an island but only a backyard amongst the semis of Suburbia."
In 1963, the BBC produced an adaptation, Swallows and Amazons, with John Paul as "Captain Flint" and Susan George as the renamed "Kitty". The series was directed by Peter Saunders.
EMI released a version in 1974, directed by Claude Whatham and produced by Richard Pilbrow. The film starred Virginia McKenna (Mrs. Walker) and Ronald Fraser (Uncle Jim), and Sophie Neville (Titty), Zanna Hamilton (Susan), Simon West (John) and Stephen Grendon (Roger) as the Swallows.
The 2016 film was directed by Philippa Lowthorpe and written by Andrea Gibb. The film stars Andrew Scott, Rafe Spall, Kelly Macdonald, Jessica Hynes, and Harry Enfield.
In August 1999 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation by David Wood with Jean Anderson as Titty seventy years later narrating. Young Titty was played by Phoebe Phillips, John by John Paul Ekins, Susan by Flora Harris, Roger by Joe Sowerbutts, mother by Penny Downie, Nancy by Catherine Poole, Peggy by Jackie Swainson and Uncle Jim by Nicholas Le Prevost.
The Royal National Theatre started developing a musical version of Swallows and Amazons in 2007. Helen Edmundson wrote the book and lyrics while The Divine Comedy's frontman Neil Hannon wrote the music. The musical premiered at the Bristol Old Vic on 1 December 2010 and played at the Vaudeville Theatre, in London's West End, from 15 December 2011, prior to going on tour around the UK from January to May 2012. The production features adults playing the children and has been received favourably by reviewers.1930, UK, Jonathan Cape, Pub date 1 December 1930, hardback (First edition, unillustrated)
1931, UK, Jonathan Cape, Pub date 1931, hardback (First "Clifford Webb" illustrated edition)
1931, US, J.B.Lippincott company, Philadelphia, 1931. Hardback, no full illustrations, front and back plates plus chapter headings by Helene Carter.
1938, UK, Jonathan Cape, Pub date 1938, hardback (First "Ransome" illustrated edition)
1958, US, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (ISBN 0-397-30015-8), Pub date ? June 1958, hardback
1994, US, David R. Godine, Publisher (ISBN 978-1-56792-420-6), paperback
1995, UK, ISIS Audio Books (ISBN 1-85695-974-0), Pub date August 1995, audio book cassette (unabridged)
1999, UK, Jonathan Cape (ISBN 0-224-60631-X), Pub date 1999, hardback
2001, UK, Red Fox Classics (ISBN 0-09-950391-3), Pub date 5 April 2001, paperback
2001, UK, Red Fox (ISBN 0-09-942733-8), Pub date 5 October 2001, paperback
2005, UK, Gabriel Woolf (ISBN 0-9550529-0-4), Pub date July 2005, audio book CD
2010, US, David R. Godine, Publisher (ISBN 978-1567924206), Pub date 16 July 2010, paperback revised edition