Also known by the title of Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan is Scottish writer J. M. Barrie’s most famous work, a 1911 novel compiling and expanding upon his 1904 stage play of the same story. Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM, was inspired by the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies to write a story of a baby boy having magical adventures in Kensington Gardens, first appearing in 1902’s The Little White Bird. That character would go on to become Barrie’s enduring legacy. After adapting Peter Pan from the stage to a novel, he gifted the rights to the novel in April 1929 to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, a London children’s hospital, willing that the value of the copyright never be disclosed. The current status of that copyright is… complex, due to the original play entering into the public domain and various copyright laws being different in different countries.
Popular culture, being cynical in its hunt for “truth,” has sometimes labeled Barrie as a pedophile, a charge that the youngest of the Llewellyn Davies boys denied outright, portraying “Uncle Jim” as a complete innocent. That innocence is reflected in the text and character tone of the Peter Pan story. As a lifelong fan of Disney animation, I’m rather pleased with that assessment, having taken far too long to actually read this book for myself. That innocence is actually the key ingredient to appreciating what it has to offer. Without it, the nature of its depictions comes across by modern readers as equally cynical and sometimes cringe-worthy in regards to depictions of women and minorities, and through the unfortunate — yet likewise innocent — terminology in use at that time. Through the lens of a childlike British playwright at the turn of the 20th century, and especially through the eyes of a child that might read this work at that time, it actually comes across in the spirit of original intent. Your mileage may vary, of course, depending upon how charitable you feel when you read it. Some will fall in love with it, some may toss it across the room and dent the wall. For myself, I tried to offer the benefit of the doubt at all turns, and I came away from it with the story itself being cute and obnoxious in equal terms just due to the nature of kids being kids. Rather, it was the experience of having read the story and the things that started clicking after the fact that really opened up my appreciation.
The story is one that most will find familiar. Wendy Darling and her brothers are spirited away to the Neverland by Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. The Neverland is very much the vague, limited realm of children’s imaginations, specifically in this case seemingly drawn from the imagination of Wendy and her brothers. The pirates, the Piccaninny native tribe, the fairies, the mermaids, and the various features and landscape of Neverland is imagery specific to the Darlings, though perhaps not quite as safe or friendly as they may have hoped. Peter Pan himself, completely innocent, lacks even basic compassion, making him something of a dangerous punk. His eternal foe, Captain James Hook, seeks revenge for his lost hand and to either kill or enlist the various Lost Boys that follow Peter’s lead.
Wendy is the anomaly, and that seems to be what makes her the natural choice for our perspective character through which to view the Neverland. She is drawn in by her maternal instincts, so everything is childlike through her eyes, partly because she’s still a child herself, and partly because she’s trying to protect that aspect in her brothers. She has feelings for Peter that range from the innocent would-be sweetheart to her need to be something of a mother figure to her brothers, to the Lost Boys, and to Peter himself. As dramatic foils for Wendy, Tinker Bell is portrayed as quite the aggressive little spitfire, and likewise Tiger Lily and the mermaids draw Peter into their respective orbits so as to make him forget about Wendy in turns. None of their affections are returned; Peter simply doesn’t give a damn about anything or anyone but himself. He only seems to help his charges because good leadership is “good form,” a trait that Captain Hook takes most seriously in himself. Interestingly, Hook also seems to think that Wendy’s maternal role is the very thing that undoes all his plans. Even the other pirates seem to think they need a mother. I was left wondering if Hook was perhaps an analogy for “polite society” as a whole, for the world beyond innocence that Barrie might embody in a pirate of otherwise elevated class and standards. Likewise, I was left wondering if Barrie had some kind of elevated respect or need for a mother figure in his own world. Admittedly, I need to read more on him for better understanding, but even with my novice level research, this whole experience opens up considerably in ways I didn’t imagine. Suffice it say, Peter Pan is anything but a simple children’s book once you start peeling back the layers.
As I say, it’s the aftermath of the story that made me appreciate it more. On it’s own, I get it, and as a children’s fairy tale, it’s satisfying on its own as part of that genre of fairy stories that permeate the lore of the British isles. I come into this from a nostalgia of the 1953 Disney animated feature that I’ve not seen in a dog’s age and a more direct remembrance of the 1991 Steven Spielberg film Hook. The imagery, characters, and situations line up rather well in the novel to what I’ve seen in these and other adaptations, so I’m rather pleased about that. It makes the experience of the source material somehow better, like the story is now greater than the sum of its parts.
More than this, I came across a reference from Humphrey Carpenter, a prominent biographer of J. R. R. Tolkien. Carpenter stated that a 1910 stage performance of Peter Pan (a year before the novel) was more than a direct inspiration for the early versions of the Elves of Middle-Earth. At first glance, that might seem odd, but given the versions found in The Hobbit and especially the Letters from Father Christmas, it’s easy to connect the dots. Considering that before Tolkien came along, the paradigm of such “faerie stories” seem to come down to us inspired from the likes of Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, it’s interesting for me to consider Barrie’s Peter Pan as something of a literary pivot. I’m not sure I’d have made that connection on my own otherwise. I’m very happy that I did.
On a more personal note, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a quote from nearly the end of the book that really jumped out at me:
“When a new baby laughs for the first time a new fairy is born, and as there are always new babies there are always new fairies. They live in nests on the tops of trees; and the mauve ones are boys and the white ones are girls, and the blue ones are just little sillies who are not sure what they are.”
If you were transgender, how else would you interpret that? Interesting, no? Makes me wonder if Barrie had any insight or experience into such matters, even obliquely. I try not to lean on this perspective, but it’s the lens through which I see the world. Now that I’m out, it’s like this kind of stuff just finds me on its own!
The version of the story I picked up was the offering from Audible narrated by actress Lily Collins (daughter of musician and former Genesis front man Phil Collins). She did an admirable job bringing this story to life, and it sounded to me that she enjoyed herself. Her performance lends perfectly to the perspective of Wendy’s POV, keeping the alternating ideas of childhood innocence and maternal nurturing front and center. It’s a combination that worked for me.