“Savages” and “Natives” in Swallows and Amazons

To the person who asked me how I “handle the racism and derogatory imagery of natives & savages” in the Swallows and Amazons series with my children.

First, as to the word “savages”, I first define it and give its etymology, like I do with many words we encounter that I want to discuss like so:

1. savage (adj.) mid-13c., “fierce, ferocious;” c. 1300, “wild, undomesticated, untamed” (of animals and places), from Old French sauvage, salvage “wild, savage, untamed, strange, pagan,” from Late Latin salvaticus, alteration of silvaticus “wild,” literally “of the woods,” from silva “forest, grove” (see sylvan). Of persons, the meaning “reckless, ungovernable” is attested from c. 1400, earlier in sense “indomitable, valiant” (c. 1300).

2. savage (n.) “wild person,” c. 1400, from savage (adj.).

I might add that it was acceptable in literature at the time the children in the stories lived for explorers to refer to the aboriginal inhabitants of new lands as “savages”, but that of course we don’t use that word now to refer to people. It’s not hard for my children to understand the distinction of “words we read in books that we don’t use anymore” because there are a lot of words that they encounter in older books that fall into that category. We read them, talk about context, appropriate/inappropriate, and then move on to enjoy the story.

But to further clarify, I don’t think the children in the story use “savage” in a racist or derogatory way. While it can be and has been used in a racist way in other contexts, perhaps in the source material that inspires them, the Walker children are clearly using it in a metaphorical way. In their imaginative world they are “explorers” and “native/savage” are code words meaning “adults”. (Which is actually kind of an interesting metaphor that Ransome is developing, now that I think about it: child as explorer, I might have to write further about that….) The Walkers have adopted the vocabulary from their reading, which was certainly a product of the time. But they don’t use it as a racial slur. In their world “native” means an adult they know and trust, family or friends. And “savage” means an adult who is a stranger, possibly untrustworthy, or someone who isn’t in their inner circle. Mother is “the best of all natives” and at one point the narrative lets us know that the children are a little annoyed, but feel quite safe knowing there is a network of “natives” looking out for them wherever they go on the lake. I think my kids understand all of that from context pretty well.

Moreover, while the Swallows and Amazons’ vocabulary is certainly a product of their time and not at all what we would use today, they never act in a way that is racist or derogatory to any one. To me actions speak louder than words so I have no problem with the Walkers as role models for my children.

I think any children of today who have a healthy and balanced diet of reading material– multicultural literature and reading about native peoples from their own points of view and discussing colonialism and its problems– can handle a story set in a time and place that has different views from ours. Whatever our views on colonialism, we mustn’t be chronological snobs and look down on people from other eras because they see the world differently than we do.

That’s the whole point of literature, after all: to help children see things from other points of view, to grapple with these questions about how to treat others in a “safe space” where they aren’t hurting other people as they learn about the rules of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. And to learn about mistakes in history and both to desire to set wrongs right but also to understand people in the past as products of their time, neither wholly good nor wholly bad and often repeating errors not out of ill will but just because they are accepted as socially normative. (And, again, we might wonder what socially normative behaviors we all engage in which our descendants will be horrified by in a hundred years). In literature students will encounter many people who are good role models and many who are not. And good people who do bad things. Or who do things that aren’t necessarily bad but are different from the way we do them. Their task as readers is to learn to make distinctions, to learn to be discerning. And my role as teacher is to guide them through that process. We talk about our reading. And talk. And talk. And talk. They aren’t trying to digest books on their own. I’m their guide and leader and teacher and help them grapple with all sorts of questions, especially those that are most sensitive in our own time and place, like race and colonialism.

But really I think to my children as listeners “natives” and “savages” are mostly funny old fashioned words and part of the landscape of the story like talking animals in Narnia or Redwall. They don’t make much of an impact and I don’t worry because it’s clear that the Walkers and Blacketts are playing out a romanticized fantasy world based on literature and are not actually treating other people badly. Even their “wars” are a high fantasy and all in good fun and end with peace and a feast and no hard feelings. I think that’s a pretty good lesson in good sportsmanship.

In fact, what I really like about the Swallows and Amazons series is how very decent the children are to each other, how kind and gracious, and how honorable.

Listening to the audiobook in the last few weeks it struck me how Uncle Jim bends over backwards to rush to apologize to John as soon as he realizes he maligned him. That’s something we don’t see in literature often enough: adults taking their bad behaviour to children with such earnest seriousness. He recognizes injustice in his own actions and rushes to correct it without a second’s delay.

The children never get nasty to each other, always make up their fights, which are never major, and strive to do the right thing. Above all they enjoy spending time with their siblings, they like making new friends, and are very accepting of other kids who have different ways of doing things.

And I love how free range they are, capable of solving their own problems and being independent in the larger world. On the whole I see my children absorbing those lessons and think they make a much more positive impact on their imaginary world than the “natives and savages” language.

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