Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

I went and bought a copy of Peter Pan the other week, because despite it being just about my favourite book ever, I actually did not own a proper copy.  And by proper, I mean the actual text by Barrie, and not some re-imagined or rehashed or condensed version, because despite the pretty pictures, these versions just can’t come close to the real thing.

Why do I love this book? What is it about Peter and Hook and Tink and the Neverlands that makes me feel so awed and anguished all at once? Sure, I think Barrie has a way with words that completely captivates – a rollicking pace, sly wit, moments of reflection or sadness immediately offset with humour and action so the story, like Peter, immediately darts off in a new and exciting direction. Barrie’s narrative voice is excellent – knowing, interested in words, always considerate of the reader, engaging.
And sure, there is the appeal of running away and never growing up, and playing at adventure and derring-do without any thought for what you have to do with the rest of your life, and then settling for something sub-par anyway (as Barrie, quite poignantly, points out is the case with Mr Darling). There is the glorious nature of the vivacity and cockiness of youth, the blossoming of imagination, of believing things like flying and mermaids and skirmishes with pirates and living in a house in the roots of a tree is not only possible, but also such grand fun. All this is attractive, and captured so piquantly in Peter, this spirited little boy with his leaf and vine clothes and obnoxious crowing and baby teeth, so full of recklessness and excitement and devastating naivety. Barrie writes of Peter Pan that ‘no women has ever yet been able to resist’ and I think this is true of most children, and even adults as well.
But still, this is not why I adore Peter Pan. I love this book because in addition to the all-consuming adventure of it, it is also tragic and cruel and bittersweet. At its heart there are the nuances of loneliness and disappointment, driving Peter ever on in his quest for eternal youth, and many of the other characters as well.
Life is disappointing. We know this. For every shining moment when you just want to burst because everything has gone right, there are about ten disappointments that precede it. To make things attainable, to allow for reality, you often have to put aside other things, including, as Mr and Mrs Darling know, dreams and hopes and wishes. Often other dreams take their place, and often we make the most of and come to love what we do have instead. But it is that moment when you first make that revelation, when you realise that second-best is as good as it’s going to get, that is so sad and tragic and unfair. This subtle, horrible trickling of reality into our dreams and how it affects how we understand the world is really what I think Peter Pan is about: the first contact with the childish mind and the way it continues to resonate well into adulthood.
Peter Pan asks that niggling, aching question of ‘what if’. What if we never grew up? Growing up is exciting, but once you get there you really only want to go back. Wendy does. The Lost Boys, once they become lawyers and office-workers, they do to. Hook is a particularly fascinating case study – Barrie hints that he endured a miserable childhood and realities came rushing in much sooner than most. Hook has grown up, but he is still trapped in the hurts and woes of his childhood, and by pitting himself against Peter he is pitting himself against all the unfairness of his lost youth. At heart Hook is still a boy, dealing out retribution to all those who made him so miserable. Take that – he is a pirate, roaming the seas, living out adventures and mastering epic deeds. But, unlike Peter, he can distinguish between reality and make-believe, and he knows it is all pretence. Peter can brush off consequence and disappointment, Hook cannot. His body is aging but his mind is getting left behind, and he will fail where Peter will always emerge triumphant. All Hook can do, in the end, is show that he battled valiantly, and went to his death (by crocodile!) with good form. And I think, perhaps, that this is where he wins us over, and why he has become such an illustrious villain. He, too, is a victim of disappointment.
Barrie writes joyously of his characters, but he can also be quite perceptively cruel. He variously condemns Mr Darling for being pretentious and pandering, Mrs Darling for being a slave to her children and having ‘no proper spirit’, Wendy for being frivolous, Michael and John for being silly and cold-hearted. His observations of the Lost Boys make fun of them as much as they celebrate all the boys’ quirks. Not even Peter escapes Barrie’s occasional snarky asides. As a technical device this is quite successful, because it invites confidence in Barrie as the authorial voice, establishing intimacy and making us feel like we have one up on the characters, or know something about them that they do not. But it also gives us realistic, well-rounded characters, that not only make for great social commentary but also embellishes them with little niches or faults that cut into us and inevitably leave their mark.
And then, perhaps what I love most about Peter Pan, and what I think was done just so perfectly with the 2003 movie, is the relationship between him and Wendy. They are, I think, made for each other. What is so tragic is that they never get the chance to develop this beyond those intoxicating first stages. Wendy is the only one that would perhaps make ‘growing up’ worthwhile, but, like the best romances, the cost is too high. And really, I think that’s how it should be. They will always be kids playing at pretending to be adults, their relationship will always have the loveliness of possibility, always be caught in that  exquisite netherworld of dreams and make-believe. I think this is beautiful - but I am a sucker for a tragic ending. These are the ones that stay with me long after the last page.
Peter needs to be on his own. He cycles through his subjects, his companions (the gorgeous Tink), he defeats his arch-nemesis’ and promptly forgets about them. Reality does not leave its mark. He doesn’t, really, know who he is, only in relation to who he must fight and what adventure he must have, and when that’s over he begins again, and all he remembers is that he was brilliant and everyone adored him, but with no one lasting or meaningful to celebrate with him, he must go and ecstatically prove it all over again. Peter Pan is the epitome of escapism. He soars off the page and we can never quite catch him, but our lives are a little bit better for knowing he was there.


  1. Brava! You’ve really brought out the intricacies and deeper layers of Barrie’s masterpiece. What wonderful attention to detail and such clever insights. I really enjoyed reading your take and ideas. You’ve not just explained why to like Peter Pan, you’ve shown why it’s a classic.

    If you will allow me to toot my own horn as Pan would, I am a scholar of Sir J.M. Barrie. My college Honors Project had been to craft a ‘sequel’ to Peter and Wendy based upon Barrie’s notes for more that he left behind for more Pan adventure. Unlike ‘other’ Pan books that have come out, my novel is faithful to Barrie. A page for it is here. You can learn more about it here.

    I hope you want to read my book and journey back to the Neverland with Peter Pan.

    I also must mention fellow author Andrea Jones, who has written a magnificent “What if?” adventure. Her book charts a new course for the tale and characters entirely, while always remaining anchored in the complexity of the themes you so beautifully outlined. She’s managed to create an ‘alternate universe’ of Pan, so to speak, and has done so masterfully. Here book is here.

    Will you allow me to mention and link your great exploration of the tale on my own blog?

    Thanks for your time, and for this post.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Thanks so much for your lovely thoughts. Peter Pan is so dear to me, and I still feel that I can never authentically put into words just how much it affects me as a reader! Just such gorgeous, gorgeous writing and themes.

    No problem at all if you would like to link to this post.

    I am certainly intrigued by both your and Andrea's books! I am so wary of any novelisations spinning off from Barrie's Peter Pan for exactly the reason you said - I feel that for all the best intentions, the work is not true to what is at the heart of Peter Pan. The only thing I think got it almost exactly right was Hogan's 2003 movie. What were your thoughts on it? I had a peek at your blog and it seems you have a great respect and affection for the work, though, so am definately interested to read your interpretation.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  3. Thanks!
    I do indeed have great respect for Barrie's work. Always great to hear there's someone else who does as well. My thoughts on the Hogan film? I have those here: Click!

    Pages and pages of my thoughts and such on Peter Pan if you care to read them: Click! [You'll need to use "Older Posts" at the bottom of the (scrolled) page.]

    Thanks, again, as well, for YOUR thoughts.

  4. Thanks, I have had a look at your blog and love reading all your thoughts on Peter, and a lot of other classics as well.

    Agree with most of what you thought about the Hogan film, especially the wonderful performances. I have heard Sumpter described as 'wooden' but I think he was a fantastic Peter Pan. The only thing - I liked the wee kiss between Peter and Wendy at the end. I think it gave him a taste of what he could have had should he choose to grow up, and thus it makes his decision to stay in the Neverlands all the more poignant and sad. Similarly with Hook flying - just for a moment, he is equal with Peter. Like in the book, his one moment of triumph is when he gets Peter to show bad form at the end, and this is expanded on in the film when he gets to fly. It just perhaps allows him to go a little more nobly to his death.