Jan/Feb 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Discussion of Peter Pan

Review by Colleen Mondor

I suddenly, and quite strangely, have found myself conflicted about Peter Pan. I thought I knew the story, believed I was familiar with it. My Mother has used the term "Peter Pan Syndrome" to describe nearly every young member of our family at one time or another. It means you never want to grow up, just like the boy in Uncle Walt's cartoon. You want to play in Never Land forever and avoid responsibility while careening through the air amid pirates and redskins (no political correctness here) and a strange yet hopeful band of "Lost Boys." It was all so much fun, and I could never figure out why Wendy and her brothers decided to return home. Obviously, it was because of their parents, but still their sudden longing for the nursery never really rang true for me. But of course, they had to go home because that was what happy endings were all about. And Peter was still out there not growing up anyway, so the fun was still to be had. Never Land wasn't ever going away so they could leave it behind—leave it for Peter while they went home.

But now I am conflicted. For the first time ever (I can hardly believe it myself), I recently read the complete and unabridged Peter Pan. I did it as research for this article, telling myself that I could not properly salute Mr. Barrie's one hundred year-old classic without refreshing myself on the specifics. I wasn't expecting any surprises, just maybe a few more details. I really thought I must have read it at least once when I was little; after all, hasn't everyone read Peter Pan? A few pages into the story, perhaps when the Darlings are discussing whether or not they can afford to keep newborn Wendy, or maybe later when Tinker Bell first refers to Peter as "you silly ass," I realized that I had no clue what the real Peter Pan was all about. I also had my first lesson in Victorian Children's Literature 101: what they thought was okay for the little ones then and what society thinks is okay now are altogether two very different things.

I don't want to blame Walt Disney, which would be a knee jerk reaction more than anything else. Obviously I would know absolutely nothing about Pan if it wasn't for Disney's version. His movies and short little picture books are apparently how I learned all the classics: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood, we all know the list. Thank God I was old enough to know just how far off the mark the House of Mouse was by the time The Little Mermaid was released with its deliriously happy ending. (For the record I am still a huge fan of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it was a commercial failure and is considered the darkest of their cartoon offerings. I'm not sure what this reveals about me, but I'll save the self-analysis for later.)

I know the original fairy tales were largely horror stories in their initial incarnations but Peter Pan as a story is very young compared to most of them so I never expected the popular version to be so far off the mark. Most of the stage shows have played for laughs and bravado in recent memory, without the grim overtones. It's easy to see how I got so far off from the original text. Here's the truth though: until you read the unabridged version of the story, you are completely missing out on what author J.M. Barrie was saying about parents and children and eternal childhood. You have no clue who Peter Pan is until you have read about him "hunting Captain Hook, while swearing a terrible oath, 'Hook or me this time.'" Pan crawls on his belly like a snake with "one finger on his lips and his dagger at the ready. He was frightfully happy." Wrap your head around that Lord of the Flies image the next time you take the Fantasyland ride, and see what it does for you.

But it's just for fun, right? It's a story for heaven's sake, a story about a boy in the woods playing soldier or cowboys and Indians, playing all those wild games that we all know so well and enjoyed plenty when we were little. But then comes the climactic scene on the pirate ship where the Darling children and Lost Boys must be rescued, and quite suddenly, the game is over. "There was little sound to be heard but the clang of weapons, an occasional screech or splash, and Slightly [one of the Lost Boys] monotonously counting -five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven." In the end there are fifteen dead pirates, with only two surviving to swim to shore. Captain James Hook is, of course, pushed overboard after a long fight with Peter and meets his fate in the jaws of his crocodile nemesis. Wendy does not take part in the fight, but afterwards "praised them all equally and shuddered delightfully when Michael [her youngest brother and usually portrayed in footie pajamas] showed her the place where he had killed one..." As soon as she realizes the lateness of the hour she immediately insists that all the boys go to bed, except Peter, who struts up and down on the deck. "He had one of his dreams that night, and cried in his sleep for a long time, and Wendy held him tight."

Well. What the hell do you make of all this? The pirates died??? I thought they swam away, I thought they just abandoned ship in a Laurel and Hardy / Keystone Cops kind of way. The last time I saw Hook, he was swimming, and the crocodile was grinning right behind him. But he was swimming. That's an important detail. None of this is what Barrie wanted to say, though. None of it is his. J.M. Barrie was comfortable with the bloodthirsty nature of children, with the absoluteness with which they mete out punishment and accept final judgment. We teach them in the playground to stand up to bullies. Why should it be any different on a pirate ship?

I have been reading other writers as they celebrate the anniversary of Barrie's first production of the Peter Pan stage play, trying to gain some insight into why we still love this character so much. These critics write first about Barrie himself, about how he was always a childish sort of man, how he was haunted by the early death of an older brother and his mother's great sorrow over that loss. They write about his troubled marriage, allude to apparent difficulties he had in making love to his wife, which eventually drove Mary Barrie into the arms of another man. It was in the midst of this personal drama, years after he became a published writer in correspondence with such literary luminaries as Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stephenson, that he met two little boys in Kensington Park and his long association with the Llewellyn Davies family began.

In his excellent and definitive biography, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, author Andrew Birkin dismisses the rumors of pedophilia or other improper behavior on Barrie's part, relying on the letters from the four older boys and the direct comments from the youngest, "Nico," who actively participated in Birkin's research. (Nicholas Llewellyn Davies died in 1980.) We have to ask the question because it seems so bizarre, so unhealthy. Why was Barrie drawn to those boys, why did he talk to them? There had to be something wrong, just as there had to be something wrong with Lewis Carroll and his obsession with photographing children. And how could they write these stories anyway? Why would they write them? Philip Pullman was called "the most dangerous man in England" after the publication of The Golden Compass, because it brushed too closely against long held religious beliefs. And don't even get me started on what J.K. Rowling has been branded. Adults may write for children, but only certain books, only certain subjects. And their behavior must be impeccable. J.M. Barrie was by all accounts a strange man, and once he fell for the Llewellyn Davies family and then created an immortal little boy because of that relationship, he opened a wide door for history to peer into his personal life forever. He achieved immortality, and he dragged all those boys along with him.

Of the five boys born to Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, George, the eldest, was killed like much of his generation in Flanders Field in 1915. Peter was primarily based on him, and he was the one to first attract Barrie's attention. Michael, who was deeply afraid of the water, drowned in 1921 with a classmate at Oxford. Although he was the fourth son, it is roundly acknowledged that he was Barrie's favorite and in many ways provided critical inspiration to future incarnations of the story. In 1960 Peter, the second son, threw himself in front of a subway train in London. Even Anthony Lane in The New Yorker could not resist writing recently that if Peter "had lived another month, he would have reached the centenary of Barrie's birth and thus, one imagines a fresh flurry of interest in 'Peter Pan'—that 'terrible masterpiece' in the words of Peter Llewellyn Davies." He had to have killed himself from Pan torment, even over fifty years after the play's first performance, right? Add another tragic chapter to his family's story, to the Pan mythology. But this discounts the experiences Peter suffered at the Battle of the Somme in 1917, or the devastating affect his brother's death had upon him. In one letter home to Barrie during the war, he wrote, "...I can't write about it [war]—I don't believe anyone could, and I'm not particularly anxious that anyone should. There isn't a single attractive feature from beginning to end. Modern artillery fire is beyond all powers of description..." Demons flew after Peter Llewellyn Davies for decades. They finally caught him in 1960, and I doubt that it was a little boy and a fairy that terrified him the most or filled him with unrecoverable sorrow.

Barrie was much closer with the boys after becoming their guardian in 1910. In 1907 their father Arthur died of cancer of the jaw, and three years later their mother Sylvia followed, apparently from lung cancer. Barrie was very close to Sylvia but had a deep friendship with Arthur as well, especially after he became ill. It is perhaps all of these publicized tragedies that kept Barrie in the limelight year after year as Peter Pan reappeared on the London stage as part of a Christmas tradition (rather bloody tradition I think). All of Britain knew about the boys, about their part in Barrie's play, and about the deaths that dogged them. When Michael drowned, the typical headline mirrored that of London's Evening Standard: "The Tragedy of Peter Pan, Sir J. M. Barrie's Loss of an Adopted Son." No one would let them grow up and leave the story behind, and regardless of the many other popular things that Barrie wrote, they wouldn't let him leave Peter behind either.

I can see the appeal of the tragedies, of the drama of orphaned boys left to the care of a man who wrote about the ultimate lost boy. What I do not understand is why this book (or play) is so popular. In its original state, with all the blood, with parents who cannot decide if they should keep their children, with children who gleefully abandon their parents and easily forget them once out of sight and then later abandon their friend Peter just as easily (even the Lost Boys go back to the Darlings and cast Peter aside), it is not a happily ever after sort of story. All that clapping for Tinker Bell might save her at one point, but by the story's end she has long since died and Peter does not even remember her. "There are such a lot of them," he said, "I expect she is no more." This is ruthless stuff, the type of writing that appropriately ends with the phrase, "and thus it will go on, as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." Because that is what Peter was, and what all of them aspired to be.

So why is it a classic? I honestly do not know if I like Peter Pan. I don't know if it is the type of story that I will return to year after year like Alice in Wonderland with all its topsy turvey insanity and wonderful charge to challenge authority. I accept that the caterpillar was stoned on the mushroom in that story, and it does not bother me, but what should I make of Peter's constant compulsion to put himself and everyone else in danger, his strange need to play house with Wendy and have the other children refer to them as "Mother and Father"? Why would Tiger Lily, who is written as a grown woman, feel drawn to Peter, prompting this exchange with Wendy:

"You are so queer," he said, frankly puzzled, "and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother."

"No, indeed it is not," Wendy replied with frightful emphasis.

Now we know why she was prejudiced against the redskins.

From everything he wrote, Barrie considered Peter just to be a typical boy, a boy based loosely on the adventures of George, Peter, Jack, Michael and Nico Llewellyn Davies. I don't think he was planning to change the way the western world looks at children when he first introduced the character in The Little White Bird in 1902, or when Peter emerged with all his commanding presence in the play two years later. He certainly never imagined psychiatrists co-opting his creation decades later to explain the seemingly pointless endeavors of creative young men to their confused and obsessive parents. It was just a story. Barrie seems to be like so many writers, who take their inspiration from real life and use the people they know and love to populate countless books and plays. Perhaps it was because Peter was so different, because his story did not rely on the traditional fairy godmother or cruel stepparent. (Why is there always a dead parent in every Disney movie? Even in Toy Story you never see Andy's father. What is up with that?)

Peter Pan was different, different on every possible level. It was written perhaps more for children than adults, to appeal to all those aspects of their nature that we work so very hard to deny. They probably would kill the pirates without a second glance while we adults would be trying to explain how they all had to get along. Maybe Barrie was really a visionary, not a writer for children at all. He saw the world in all its tragic glory and wrote about what he wished would happen. The bad guys would die bloody deaths, the hero would ride off to live the life of his choice, the girl would be good and go home again, as she was expected. Everyone would live happily ever after in a world where children disappeared through nursery windows on a whim and death is just one more great adventure.

Why do we love Peter Pan? There are a thousand things we do to each other that I will never understand. Maybe this is just a story, and we are only supposed to enjoy it. But I don't feel like laughing anymore when I think of Peter, and I don't think it is about the "freedom of spirit" that was lauded last month in Smithsonian. Maybe Anthony Lane was on the mark when he wrote that Peter, along with other characters of British children's literature, were running away, "...because there is always something, a drab existence or a dreadful past, that begs to be fled." Maybe Barrie was just running away from all of his losses when he found the Llewellyn Davies boys. And maybe he just decided to keep running and take all of them with him.


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