Peter Pan was written by J.M. Barrie, and was published in 1911. I read the Penguin Classics version, which includes Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. This post doesn’t address that story at all, as I have not read it.
So, Peter Pan. Is there anyone who doesn’t know the basic story of the boy who never grew up? Walt Disney adapted it for his famous animated feature of the same name, and the play is frequently performed by Children’s Theaters throughout the U.S. Cathy Rigby made a career of playing the eternally youthful Peter. I had never read the original, and was excited when it was chose for a group read in one of my goodreads classics groups.
J.M. Barrie’s use of language is exceptional and delightful, and his imagination is incredible. There are a few aspects of the book that are jarring, especially his treatment of Tiger Lily and the Native Americans, which he often refers to, derogatorily, as “pickaninnies.” Were he writing today, I am sure that he would write these sections differently. This part of the story also jars a bit when watching the Disney version.
Barrie does pull his punches, but he also doesn’t shy away from danger and death, as in this passage:
The rock was very small now; soon it would be submerged. Pale rays of light tiptoed across the waters; and by and by there was to be heard a sound at once the most musical and the most melancholy in the world: the mermaids calling to the moon.
Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Peter Pan is, above all, a book about childhood and imagination. Barrie’s children are childlike, but they are not necessarily idealized, being occasionally savage, self-centered and heartless. The three Darling children leave their mother and father without a backward glance. Wendy is christened the “mother” of the Lost Boys, and Peter assumes the role of “father” but they are clearly doing nothing more than playing a game. There is an odd, slightly discomfiting, tension between Peter and Wendy. Peter, as the boy who will never grow up, has rejected growth. Ultimately, he is the only character who makes this decision not to grow, not to progress, and to remain as he is forever.
Wendy was grown up. You need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than the other girls.
All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out at the iron door. That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.
Leaving aside the beloved status of Disney’s Peter Pan, the 2003 Peter Pan starring Jason Isaacs and Jeremy Sumpter is much truer to the book. Much of the language and narration contained in that version is taken directly from the book. I highly recommend this version for fans of Peter Pan – it is worth finding and watching.
The book ends with the following paragraph, which is bittersweet and lovely:
As you look at Wendy, you may see her hair becoming white and her figure little again, for all this happenned long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring-cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland, where she tells him stories about himself, to which he listens eagerly. When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and so it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.
Peter Pan has provided inspiration for many, many retellings. As part of our group read, we decided to read some of them. I am hoping to read (posts to follow):