This chapter is about making friends, and specifically, how to make friends when what you really want to do with your new friends is pretend to be enemies. It manages to illustrate this on several levels within not many pages, and it’s really quite clever. It’s also funny, which I think I missed when I was a child.
In the midst of all the love, I think it only fair to note that the children don’t always talk nicely to each other. Aside from “skip along, Roger”, which I think he quite likes at the moment (later books might hint at Roger’s adolescent rebellion), there’s a bit of “Peggy, you donkey”, and quite a lot of “shut up”. Telling one’s sibling to “shut up” is strongly discouraged in my household.
Strict and anachronistic parenting aside, though…
I really want to write a line-by-line commentary of this chapter, but I will try to restrain myself.
Two groups of siblings meet on a smallish island, and each thinks that they own it. Ambivalence and mistrust are played out beautifully through the preparations for the parley. There’s a lot of posturing, and the line between real life and pretend is even less clear than usual. They flow in and out of character, pausing their negotiations to make sure that the game is as fully formed as it can be.
Underneath the social shuffling and the exchanges of information, what facilitates the friendship between these two families is that they share a common language: they all understand the importance of flags, knives, and naming territory, the esoteric role of ‘natives’ and the fundamental importance of tea.
[Pedantic aside: Really, folks, you keep using the word ‘native’ but I do not think it means what you think it does. If you were born on the banks of the Amazon river, and you still live there, technically you are the natives. Just sayin’.]
Nobody really knows exactly what they’re negotiating for: to drive the others off the island, to make friends and hang out together, or to wage war for the rest of the summer… Nobody except Peggy. Peggy has no poker face, and she shows her hand far too soon, and sometimes that’s exactly what is needed. I think the world would be a better place if there were more Peggies in it, willing to go out with their hearts on their sleeves, holding nothing back, and ask everybody to please be nice.
“‘And we wanted to be allies at once, if only we hadn’t promised to be home for lunch.'”
So allegiance is established, or at least
“‘a treaty of offence and defence. There are lots in the history books.'”
Everything is to be done properly, and history books are a very good guide as to what is Proper.
And along the way, boundaries are established which will govern their later warfare. In the world of therapy, much is said about the role of therapeutic boundaries in allowing freer exploration, the endless possibilities of fantasy once safety is established in reality. By the end of Chapter X, the Swallows and Amazons have established that they will not really steal each other’s equipment, damage each other’s boats, or trample each other’s most precious stories – and this allows them to throw themselves whole-heartedly into the battles to come.
This is arguably the most important chapter of the whole book (but please don’t stop reading here!) – but there are lots of juicy nibbles hidden among the profundity.
“‘It is called Wild Cat Island. Uncle Jim called it that, because it belongs to us. That shows you whose island it is.'”
It also shows a lovely, affectionate relationship between Uncle Jim and his fierce, serious nieces. I imagine him giving them the nickname when they were about 4 and 2 respectively, covered in mud and jam.
“‘Wild Cat Island’s a good name, too,’ said John politely.”
It is important to remember one’s manners when one is negotiating a peace treaty with a band of pirates.
And I bet Titty knows the real latitude and longitude, she’s just too polite to correct Nancy.