Lessons Rereading Books from my Childhood: Peter Pan

My eldest son was upset about going to bed one night, feeling like he was missing out on more time to play.

"The days go so much faster now" he said.

"Yes, that's what happens when you grow up" I responded.

"I never want to grow up!"

I found myself responding with this infamous opening line, "all children, except one, grow up." 

That's how we started reading Peter Pan.

I grew up on Peter Pan, the Disney version, the Mary Martin musical, and of course Hook (tear!). It's one of those stories that has been reprised over and over again with prequels, sequels, and remakes. Is anyone else really excited for the live broadcast version in December? Christopher Walken as Captain Hook?! Hello, must watch TV. 

But back to the book. As much as I was obsessed with Peter in almost any form, what I read as a child was most likely an adapted version, and if it wasn't, I was too young to appreciate what was really going on in the text apart from what I recognized from the movies. Let me also just point out here, that the original version of Peter Pan (or Peter and Wendy), was a play, and the book is a later novelization of that by the same author, J.M. Barrie. Actually, there are several early versions of the story, but specifically we read the 1911 novel based on the play.

Before we get too indepth, here are just a few bullet points that stood out to me upon first reading:  
  1. The journey to Neverland is long, perilous, and scary
  2. Captain Hook is also way scarier than his goofy animated portrayal
  3. Tinkerbell is a curvy, sassy broad with a potty mouth, and even though she tries to kill Wendy, we still love her. It's not her fault really. Apparently, because fairies are so small, they only have room for one thought or emotion at a time. This accounts for her extreme swings from vindictiveness to kindness.
  4. Tigerlily was a warrior. When I watched the Disney movie again with my son, I was so angry with the depiction of Tigerlily. She was not just the "Chief's daughter", she basically called the shots. We won't even get into the overt racism here with regards to the Picatinny tribe (the Natives of Neverland), but Tigerlily was definitely way more badass in the book, though admittedly still a little gaga over Peter-- but everything revolves around Peter, it's his world afterall. 
Now to the deep stuff: 

From the very beginning of the text, there is an ominous feeling, Peter sweeps in like a mysterious wind, a larger than life presence. The narrator basically tells us how "cunning" Peter is, by convincing them to come to Neverland, as if we are not to trust him. The flight to Neverland is harrowing. Michael falls and almost drowns several times. Also, bumping into clouds actually hurts. Peter steals food out of the mouths of birds, and the birds chase them, and this is how they eat-- it's all a big game. Peter is fearless, and his actions, though "games" to him, present real danger for the Darlings:
"'Save him, save him!' cried Wendy, looking with horror at the cruel sea far below. Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that engrossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next time you fell he would let you go." 
We get the sense more than once that Wendy must be having second thoughts, but alas, they have already gone too far to turn back. So Peter is at once their protector and leader, but also alarmingly unreliable. Clearly, Wendy has an "I can fix him!" complex....but I digress...

Much has been said about the darker elements of Peter Pan. I'm a fan of the tv show "Once Upon a Time" who cast him as a pretty sinister villain in one of the seasons. It's not hard to see where these interpretations come from, especially if you know a bit about the author's strange and tragic life. This piece in The Guardian, is a good read for those that are interested in an overview of Barrie's life and a brief look at some of the historical and textual interpretations.

I hesitate though, to be too serious. Peter, I think, would rail against the jaded grown-ups ruining all his games through over analysis. Darkness doesn't have to mean evil, it is simply a natural counterpart to light. 

Childhood is not all fairy dust and mermaids. There are also monsters and ghosts and being afraid of the dark. There is sadness and fear and danger along with all of the joy and wonder, even (often) tragedy. Perhaps that's why Peter Pan is still one of the most recognizable and relatable heros in children's literature. He runs into danger and confronts the darkness, seeks it out even. There is real gore and blood-- no panning away from the camera-- but the graphic scenes are juxtaposed with wild innocence. At the end of the day, everything is a game, even death. 

Peter shows us the great contradiction of childhood-- charming and lovable, but also selfish, shortsighted, and reckless. The story shows us adventure and imagination alongside heartbreak and loneliness, the blow of the later softened by the element of fantasy.

Here is one of the passages that got me, in which we get a glimpse of the humanity of Peter, and not just the myth. Wendy tells the boys a story every night about their own mother so that they do not forget her. Peter hates the story. He groans one night at the telling, and thinking he is hurt Wendy asks if he is okay:
'It isn't that kind of pain,' Peter replied darkly.
'Then what kind is it?' 
'Wendy, you are wrong about mothers.' 
They all gathered round him in affright, so alarming was his agitation; and with a fine candour he told them what he had hitherto concealed. 
'Long ago,' he said, 'I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.'

Indeed, there is a certain tragedy in this whole growing up business. It is a tragedy to grow up, and it is a tragedy not to. It is almost merciful that we do not have a choice in the matter, and so accept it simply as the way things are. Not like Peter, who we can't help but grieve for when we consider all the "what if's", especially as a mother.