Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

A little while ago I decided that I should really give these classics a shot. And that’s not to say that I looked at Peter Pan and said, “Why on earth would I want to read that?” Mostly it just hadn’t occurred to me until a short while ago.

Particularly with the popular Disney cartoon and all the other movie versions of Peter Pan, I thought it would be interesting to see what Barrie thought of this famous character he created. The common idea about Peter Pan is of a curious little boy who doesn’t grow up, and he doesn’t need to, because he’s the very picture of youth and adventure. He’s ignorant, of course, unschooled, but at the same time with a certain innocence that he claims simply for being a child.

This is not the idea that Barrie had when he invented Peter Pan.

There are ways you could read this book that would even cast Peter as the bad guy.

Actually, all of the children are the bad guys, and the parents are the good guys.

Really, though, Peter is a mean little child. And I had heard that- I knew he wasn’t quite the angelic imp we celebrate today, but really, this book is dark. First, he tricks Wendy, John, and Michael (who were entirely too willing to be tricked) into coming away to him to Neverland, enticing them with mermaids, pirates, and fairies. He teaches them to fly. Then, as they fly on and on to Neverland (it’s not quick, as opposed to what the cartoon implies), he plays daring tricks that would very nearly cost them their lives if he didn’t resolve them in time, even forgetting about them entirely on occasion. He’s half adventure and half cockiness, with the occasional dash of cleverness and wickedness, which Barrie uses almost synonymously.

No, Barrie isn’t trying to skirt around Peter’s faults. He actually makes it very hard for us to ignore them, as the children have done. He uses these same words to describe all of the children at different points- they’re all wicked, thoughtless, heartless, carefree. Yet despite himself, Peter develops a fondness for Wendy, whom he’s brought to Neverland to be a mother to himself and the boys. But even with that, it’s not like she matters to him- she’s someone nice to have around, and that’s all. In fact, it’s interesting that he likes her at all, given his scorn for mothers. It really shows what a child he is; he may not need a mother, but he likes it.

The problem with Peter is that, you can look at what a devilish little child he is, but when he’s right there, flying around with his fairy in his outfit of leaves, he’s incredibly fascinating. He’s even charming.

A note on Captain Hook: he is not the goofy, incompetent villain Disney made him out to be. He was vicious and scary and I would not want to run into him in the middle of the night. And Peter killed him. These boys kill everything with a heartbeat. Those fur clothes the lost boys wore? Those were the skins of animals they killed themselves. Disney made them look like pajamas. They killed pirates. MICHAEL killed pirates. Remember Michael, the baby? He was a ruthless killer.

It would be very, very easy- just change a few key adjectives- to make this a horror novel, and in that case Peter would almost certainly be the villain. Far more so than Hook- Hook is just your average evil villain, ruthless pirate, but then he has surprising light moments, like being drawn short when he comes upon a sleeping child in an idyllic area. Peter carries a haunting sort of malignancy. I would be incredibly mournful if he abducted my child.

On the other hand, for children in the real world, Peter is a part of growing up. At the end (yes, spoilers, who doesn’t know the story) Wendy’s daughter, Jane, goes off with Peter Pan to do his spring cleaning. Later, her daughter, Margaret, does the same. Eventually they all stop believing in Peter, and forget how to fly. They learn maturity and become normal adults. Barrie writes this as an incredible tragedy.

On the other other hand, there’s never actually any implication that Wendy ever realized that she was wrong to be so implicitly trusting of Peter. In fact, if she wasn’t an adult, she probably would have gone with him again in the end. When she tried to stop Jane from flying away, it wasn’t because she didn’t want to entrust her to Peter, it was just because she didn’t want to give her up, in a motherly way. So maybe I just feel like it should have played out this way and it didn’t.

I’ll admit, though, that none of this would probably stop me from reading it to a child. It is a good adventure story. It is very colorful. It would keep children engaged, and if they didn’t notice all the darkness (as children often don’t) I can see how they would enjoy it quite a lot.

OH, I completely forgot to mention the illustrations. My copy of the book had wonderful gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations and all of the children were absolutely lovely. So perhaps that’s another allure to Peter- he’s positively one of the most handsome little boys you’ve ever seen, all skinny limbs and sharp bones and curly hair with leaves in it. It makes me wonder why they changed his character design in the Disney one- especially for the lost boys, who were also drawn all to be a similar way, and the narration mentioned that all of the boys were bigger than Peter. It’s curious. But the drawings were wonderful, and I wanted to mention them.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 8:08 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. Haha it’s amazing what kind of things you like as a child and then reread as an adult and think “holy shit, what… was I BLIND when I was a kid or something…?” as a personal example, I’m not sure if you’re old enough to remember Tom and Jerry, but as a kid I adored the cartoon, I would watch it for hours on TV and laugh at the goofy characters… …I watched it recently and I was stunned by just how violent the cartoon was. It was freaking cruel in places. It’s insane.

    I honestly can’t remember Peter Pan the book… I have read it, and I read it in Russian… so I have no idea to be honest… BUT I would love to read Treasure Island again, now, and see how I feel about it. Have you read it?

    And also… I think it was with you that we were having a mini debate about Disney and you were telling me that I was acting “too mature” or “not letting go enough” or something, eh, something like that. And now you know 😉 this is how I feel in some Disney. It’s not that I don’t like them, like you didn’t not like this book, but I don’t feel them any more.

    • I’ve seen Tom and Jerry. Actually, my little sister used to watch it, so I was probably eleven or twelve the last time I saw it. It didn’t seem outrageous to me.

      I’ve never read Treasure Island. I’ve read two R.L. Stevenson books and I’m not really gunning for a third.

      That does sound like something I would say, doesn’t it? Mostly I take irrational offense to anyone suggesting a loss of whimsy. Perhaps Peter Pan is a good book for me- a part of me wants to stay a child forever so I don’t lose the ability to fall in love with silly animated characters. And if that part of me stays the same while the rest of me grows, I can channel it into the next generation!

      • Meh, my love for animated characters hasn’t died, and apparently according to you I HAVE lost whimsy 😉 so never fear. You will grow up loving animated characters just like ya do now 😛

  2. Funny, cause in every adaption we have seen, Peter is always the oldest- which is funny, when you think of it, cause supposedly he got to Neverland when he was a baby, so how did he grow to (what is he? 10?) if no one grows up there? Keep in mind this is all based on what I’ve seen of movies…

    • I guess it’s implied that they grow to boys- because there’s nothing wrong with being children- but never become adults. So it’s almost like being a child equates to being full-grown, except that they know there’s more growing they’re choosing not to do. I don’t know, Emma, it’s magic. Silly.

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