Chapter XII: He was glad he had brought the compass

There’s some lovely detail again here, and also some wondrous fallibility. Warning: I may be more critical of this chapter than of its predecessors.

I used to hate writing conversation when I was at school – it all felt tedious and contrived, and seemed to take forever to communicate the important information in a way which was remotely believable, and I didn’t think my hypothetical readers would have that much patience. Had I paid more attention to passages like this, I might have given them more credit.

But then the lengthy conversation about the relative heights of the younger crew members turns out to be more important than it first appears. Yes, it reinforces messages we have already had about Roger’s status in the family, Susan’s sense of responsibility, John’s need to plan for all of them. But it also sets the context for the declaration that Roger won’t need to reach the lantern…

“‘Not until you are allowed to use matches,’ said the mate, ‘and by then you’ll be tall enough.'”

Let this sink in for a minute. Roger will be on the island when he is old enough to use matches, and tall enough to reach. Mate Susan is not particularly given to whimsy: I don’t think she’s just playing along with the illusion that Wild Cat Island is their permanent home, not in the middle of such a practical discussion. I think she firmly believes that they are coming back. There Will Be A Sequel.

(Of course, there’s not, in fact – not one where they camp on the island again. This was a great disappointment to my son, and I think Ransome may have missed an opportunity. It’s always tempting to change the formula to keep things fresh and edgy, but if I enjoyed the first season enough to come back, it’s probably because I want more of the same.)

They head off across the lake in the dark, and on their way they see what appears to be a man dancing around a fire.

“‘They look like savages,’ said Titty. ‘Let’s go and see them.'”

OK. We’ve talked a bit about natives, but I think we need to get serious for a minute here. If you go exploring and you discover places you didn’t know about, and the people there do things differently, that does not make them less civilised. OK? This book is way ahead of its time in some ways, but when it comes to race, it is – well – a bit problematic.

Although in some ways, it kind of works. When I read this to my eight-year-old, we had to pause now and again to note that we don’t tend to call people ‘savages’ any more, and to have a little lesson about history and cultural imperialism. But while I did feel it was necessary to talk about the implications of semantics and the need to choose more appropriate vocabulary, the narrative itself actually tells the story quite well, as long as you can step back a bit. What actually happens is that a group of slightly naive people, with their own somewhat distorted view of what is normal, go on a voyage of discovery where they encounter other people who are living differently from them. They explicitly hold themselves apart from these people, labelling them as ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ – but the adults concerned are clearly shown to be perfectly proper, civilised, intelligent human beings, going about their lives in ways which our heroes know very little about. A pretty accurate parallel, really.

So! The Swallow is in the middle of a lake, in the dark, with two little lights to guide her into the harbour, only those lights aren’t actually visible at the moment and John has just realised that he doesn’t exactly know where he is:

“and he was glad he had brought the compass.”

Um – glad? Seems a bit of an understatement. Thank the currently-obscured stars you brought the compass, Captain John. This should not be the kind of thing you leave to chance!

But they get back safely, everything is OK, and John is elated that he now has a secret strategy to win the war with the Amazons. And they are all shattered. Camping takes it out of you, especially considering that they were waiting for it to get dark in the middle of the summer holidays – it’s probably almost midnight. Get some sleep, Swallows: you’ve got a busy day tomorrow.


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