Friday, December 5, 2014

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Peter Pan.

Between last night’s Peter Pan Live on NBC, the release of the trailer for the upcoming movie Pan and TV shows like League of Pan and Wendy and Peter supposedly in the pipeline, it seems we’re flying headfirst into a storm front of Peter Pan related popular culture.  It’s no surprise, actually.  The story has captured people’s imagination since it first appeared in 1904.  Also, it’s only been in recent years that people have been able to reimagine Peter Pan with impunity as it has passed into the public domain.  For a long period of time, the rights to Peter Pan were owned by The Great Ormond Street Hospital, Britain’s premier hospital for sick children, granted to the institution as a gift by J.M. Barrie and a great support for their endeavors.  Yet, despite having rights that were a bit restricted (for a good cause), Peter Pan has continued to be put into play by various people.  It has been adapted and reimagined into movies, comic books, broadway musicals, ballets and cartoon shows (including my favorite Fox’s Peter Pan and the Pirates) as well as a beloved Disney animated film and has leant its name to everything from peanut butter to a bus line.  So, I think now is a good time to talk about Peter Pan here on Fairy Tale Fandom.  However, what can be said about a story that’s already been so well-used?

First, let’s take a look at some of the background of the author and the story.  James Matthew Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was born to a poor family in a remote Scottish village.  He was the ninth of ten children.  The great hope for his family was his older brother David, who was a good student and planned to go to Edinburgh University.  However, that all changed when David died in a skating accident.  James was then dead set on taking David’s place.  Barrie succeeded, writing a number of successful stories and plays.  However, in a strange way, his life mirrored his most famous characters.  J.M. Barrie never seemed to grow up.  Though he got older, he always seemed to be an unusually youthful looking man with a fondness for childhood games.  Also, his few failed romances with women were often reputedly more based on a sort of childlike fondness rather than physical attraction or any kind of deep, adult connection.  The relationship that would define Barrie’s life and career was actually with a whole family.  The story goes that he was walking his Saint Bernard in Kensington Gardens one day when he happened to make the acquaintance of the Davies family, notably little George and Jack Davies.  Over time, Barrie would become like a sort of adopted uncle to the boys and their influence would be one of the inspirations for Peter Pan.  There’s also been some speculation about Barrie’s relationship with the Davies family.  I won’t go into it much, but here’s a link to a post on Tales of Faerie that will send you in the right direction.

The story itself first emerged as an idea in Barrie’s book The Little White Bird.  A chapter of this book is often reprinted under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  The story as we know it now, though, was born for the stage.  The original “Peter Pan” was written as a traditional British pantomime.  Unlike its American connotations, the English usage of the term “pantomime” means a play for children.  Pantomimes are generally a tradition around the Christmas holidays.  They generally have certain stock characters.  There are the Principal Boy and Principal Girl, both of whom are played by young actresses.  There’s a Good Fairy and sometimes a Bad Fairy.  There’s the Demon King, or the main villain of the piece.  Then there is the Dame, which is usually played by a male comic in drag.  Here, Peter and Wendy are the Principal Boy and Principal Girl.  Tinkerbell is Good Fairy and Bad Fairy rolled into one.  Captain Hook is the Demon King.  The role of the Dame here evolves into the role of the Dog, or Nana who is usually played by an actor going about on all fours.  The play was so popular that Barrie adapted it into a novel entitled Peter and Wendy which is still published today, though usually under the title Peter Pan.

So, we all know the story.  Peter Pan shows up to whisk the Darling children away to Neverland, where they encounter Indians, Lost Boys, mermaids and it all eventually builds to a showdown with Captain Hook and his crew.  The story itself is cobbled together with traditional bits and pieces of adventure fiction and pantomime.  The desert island and the underground hideaway are classic settings.  Pirates and Indians are classic adventure fiction elements, though probably not often featured together.  Peter himself, on the surface, seems to be a preadolescent version of the forest god Pan.  However, it’s how Barrie works these and other elements that make the story work.  There’s added nuance that elevates the story.  I’ve actually had the chance to read the play for the first time and was surprised by a few things.  Strangely enough, it’s the Darling family that struck me this time.  The popular Disney version depicts the trip to Neverland as being like a dream for the children that leaves Mr. and Mrs. Darling none the wiser.  However, the original play shows them as being quite aware of their children’s disappearance.  In fact, it’s Mrs. Darling who captures Peter’s lost shadow.  Then there’s Mr. Darling.  Best remembered as a stern, stiff man who tolerates no tomfoolery and has a devil of a time getting his necktie tied.  He seems to be the consummate adult.  While this seems true on the surface, the play shows a little bit of something else coming out under the surface.  Though he lectures Michael to “be a man” and take his medicine, when presented with his own medicine he avoids taking it and actually slips it into Nana’s water dish under the pretense of a joke.  He also shows a bit of a playful side, teasing Mrs. Darling at one point and callsw her a “cowardly custard”.  It’s like there’s a little bit of the boy slipping out from the man, though he’s trying his hardest to hide it.  The rest of the nuance and subtext has been discussed by scholars a million times over, but I suppose I should mention it anyway.  There’s Wendy, Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell’s unspoken infatuations with Peter, that he is unreceptive to.  There’s the crocodile and his ticking clock representing the march of time as it hunts down Captain Hook unto his death.  There’s the conflict between youth and age represented by the conflict between Hook and Pan.  There’s even the fact that no one touches Peter through the entire play, as if to represent the fact that youth is fleeting and cannot be held onto.

The most notable thing, though, is the character of Pan himself.  It’s easy to write him off as this delightful little boy who gets to play and have fun forever.  However, in many ways, Peter is an antihero.  While he may be playful, adventurous and loyal to his friends, he’s also cocky, thoughtless and unable to really take anything seriously.  It’s these negative traits that make him most memorable.  We’d also be remiss not to mention Peter’s forgetfulness.  It’s as if he’s constantly trying to live in the present moment, ignoring the consequences of the past.  There’s a darkness to Peter Pan.  Many modern writers see it, but I don’t know if they quite recognize what they’re seeing.  For example, Once Upon a Time wrote Peter Pan as a conniving adult villain who willingly trapped himself in a child’s body.  While some people enjoyed the take, it didn’t feel quite right.  It’s easy to see the desire to stay young as Peter’s darkness or his way of leading children away as his darkness, but I see it lying in his childlike nature.  It’s Peter’s inability to accept and understand the adult world and the consequences in it that makes Peter dark.  He goes to war with pirates, killing a number of them and facing great danger, but treats it all like a game.  To him, none of it is really real.  It’s just playtime.  He even comments at one point “I forget about people after I kill them” (note: I’m paraphrasing).  However, I think one thing that many people don’t see in Peter Pan is the tragedy inherent in the character.  For a character that is so famously cocky and forgetful, he is very much ruled by fear and the memory of his past.  Peter states more than once that “To die would be a very big adventure”.  This shows that he’s not afraid of anything, up to and including death.  However, there is one thing he’s afraid of.  It’s the one thing that pretty much every child is somewhat excited about: growing up.  On top of this, Peter carries around bitterness from the one time he actually tried to return to his true family.  He flew back to his own window expecting it to be left open but found it locked and a new little boy sleeping in his bed.  Feeling rejected and betrayed, he harbors a dislike and distrust of real mothers.  So, Peter lives his life in a perpetual, forgetful childhood, making friends and ultimately having to say goodbye to them as they decide to grow up and move on.  He never really realizes what he misses by not growing up.  If he had, maybe his credo would be “To live would be a very big adventure”.  Interestingly, the movie Hook actually acknowledges this side of Peter Pan but also flips the script to change Peter from a boy afraid of growing up to an adult who’s afraid to remember what it’s like to be a child.

Okay, I went a little deep and dark with this one.  However, next time you see that Peter Pan peanut butter on the shelf or a Peter Pan bus go by or even watch the Disney movie, maybe you’ll remember that there’s a little bit more going on underneath that cheerful, adventurous façade.


  1. There's a one-panel cartoon somewhere. Can't remember by which artist, which says that Peter Pan has grown up, and you see a huge office full of cubicles with clerks working in all of them and over the top of one you see a sad feather in a hat. Says it all, really.
    We are publishing a story in Andromeda Spaceways in which Peter Pan is scary and Hook started off as a Lost Boy. And yes, the author noticed the connection with the god Pan. (Though another of our authors portrayed Pan the god as a loveable old Greek Dad whose fellow villagers know not to give him alcohol...

  2. Great summary of Barrie's life, and some of the most pertinent character issues. And thanks for the link!

    When you mentioned Peter's darkness lying in his inability to realize the consequences of his actions, killing but seeing it all as a game, it reminded me of the Grimms' "The Children Who Played Butcher With Each Other," a connection I've never made before! Most people wouldn't see this angle because they do tend to think of Neverland as just a dream or game the kids play (and plus nobody dies in the Disney version), but as you say the parents take it seriously in the original version so we can assume Neverland is real.

  3. I can definitely see alot of darkness in Peter Pan's character. His complete lack of empathy towards everyone but Wendy as well as the implication that he actively kills Lost Boys once they grow too old and his inabilty to differentiate between dream and reality which has direct consequences to the Lost Boys (like when they have to "pretend" they had dinner and he won't understand that they are hungry) make him seem very unsettling to me.

    1. I'm not sure anyone gets hungry in Neverland. It's never mentioned in the play, but I suppose the implication is there.

      The interesting thing about the dark side of Peter Pan's character is that it goes hand-in-hand with his being a child forever. I think what Barrie realized, much like what Collodi seemed to realize when he was writing Pinocchio, is that children can be kind of awful sometimes. At the very ending of Peter and Wendy, when Barrie describes Peter's continuing relationship with Wendy's family he says that it will continue for as long as children are "gay and innocent and heartless". That last word strikes a chord, but it's kind of true. In the real world, children are always growing and learning and they often have parents to rein them in. They go through their bad phases but then pass through them on the way to hopefully being well-rounded adults. Peter doesn't have any of that. He'll never have that grown-up sense of empathy or responsibility or grasp the consequences of his actions. He'll always be somewhat "heartless".