Peter Pan by JM Barrie, 192 pp, Reading Level 4
Because the bones of the story of the boy who would not grow up are so familiar to all, rather than lay out the plot of the Peter Pan - the fairies, pirates, Indians, mermaids and crocodiles- I am going to try to illuminate some of the beautiful writing and profound ideas that Barrie presents in the hopes that you, parents reading this, will rush out and buy the book and, grasping it tightly, rush home and begin to read it out loud to your children or even just to yourselves. I think that Peter Pan is absolutely, without a doubt, a book every child should possess, both for it's truisms and its fantasy.
But first, we need to discuss which edition of the book you buy - or maybe already own? As I began to read the copy on my bookshelf (my childhood copy, illustrated by the incredible Trina Schart Hyman has, sadly, disappeared) I came across an Americanized word that I was sure was not in the original text. I immediately closed the book and have not looked at it since. While I think that this is a book that begs to be illustrated magnificently, (maybe Inga Moore, who has recently added her intricately detailed illustration to Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden, will take on Peter Pan next? Please!!) I settled for a bargain copy, replete with the original, if muddy, illustrations by FD Bedford, from the establishment where I am employed and for a mere $7.95 hardcover. Inside I found footnotes, which, in addition to providing definitions for words like
"wigwam" and one of my favorites, "coracle," provides important explanations for phrases such as the one that had been adulterated in my edition. Specifically, a passage about Nana that originally read, "On John's footer days she never once forgot his sweater," was changed to, "On John's soccer days..." in my version. Absolutely unnecessary. Also in my new copy, of interest to adults and older readers mainly, I found an introduction and a timeline of Barrie's life as well as information about the literary world during his lifetime. At the end of the book there is a brief piece on the various creations inspired by the character of Peter Pan, from books to movies to statues and naming crazes, as well as reproductions of reviews from the play when it first ran in London.
The first cover art shown is from the original edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, published in 1906 and originally part of another book by Barrie, for adults, titled, The Little White Bird. In this book, which takes place pre-Darling children, Peter is a seven-day-old infant who flies out his window (like all infants, he is part bird, according to Barrie's mythology) and lives in the park where he sometimes plays with Maimie, a little girl who tries to instruct him, unsuccessfully, in the ways of the real world. Arthur Rackham provided the ethereally magical illustrations for this edition, which launched his career. Next up, Chris Riddell, provides the cover art for the newest edition of Peter Pan, which is part of the excellently packaged reissue of children's classics from Penguin Puffin Popular Classics. The series includes 19 titles, new cover art by contemporary children's book artists, introductory essays by contemporary children's book authors and great extras in the back as well as a sneak peek at another similar titles in the classics series. Interestingly enough, the intro essay for Peter Pan is written by Tony DiTerlizzi, who did the brilliant cover art for the American release of Peter Pan in Scarlet (click here for my review) which is the authorized sequel by award winning British author Geraldine McCaughrean. The extras in the Puffin Classics series also include character descriptions. The entry for the fictional Piccaninny Tribe that inhabits Neverland provides the important note regarding Barrie's use of the term "red-skins" in reference to the tribe, pointing out that the outdated term is now considered to be offensive. Below is the cover art for a Spanish language edition illustrated by Fernando Vicente, which I think captures Peter the way I imagined him when reading the book. Finally, I was happily surprised to find an illustrated edition by Charles Vess, who is sort of a contemporary Arthur Rackham and collaborator of Neil Gaiman's books Stardust and their new picture book, Blueberry Girl.
JM Barrie's character Peter Pan is such a universal part of our contemporary consciousness I think we fail to realize that, as Amy Billone points out in her introductory essay to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, "Peter Pan has achieved mythological status...and is now as well known as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty." Unlike the centuries old Cinderella and Sleeping beauty, Peter has only been around for a little over one hundred years. In this brief time he has inspired numerous movies, prequel and sequel novels, both for adults and children, as well as given his name to a pop-psychology syndrome. Whether you have read the book or not, Peter Pan's lasting popularity and status as a (relatively) newly minted fairy tale character is a testament to Barrie's writing skills and astute ability to straddle the separate worlds of childhood and adulthood simultaneously. As Max Beerbohm wrote in the Saturday Review, January 7, 1905 after seeing the play Peter Pan or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, "Mr Barrie is not that rare creature, a man of genius. He is something even more rare-a child who, by some divine grace, can express through an artistic medium the childishness that is in him." (quoted in Birkin, JM Barrie and the Lost Boys, pp 117-118).
Miraculously, it seems, for who among us can really, genuinely remember the range of emotions from our childhoods, Barrie is able to capture both the freedom of what it means to be a child along with the knowledge that this freedom comes almost exclusively from the safety and care that loving parents provide. In a passage early in the book Barrie writes,
"Mrs Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children's minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can't) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtinesses and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind, and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on." (p 10)
I am in awe of this piece of writing, both for the brilliance of the metaphor and the matter-of-fact way in which a commonplace occurrence like cleaning up at the end of the day moves beyond the practical and becomes a loving act on the part of a caring mother. While the off-stage action in Barrie's book is frequently sorrowful - lost children, grieving parents - the onstage action is always comforting and rarely frightening, even when Peter is fighting Hook, thus preserving the playful and innocent world of the child, both in the Nursery and in Neverland.
However, all is not innocence and play and darkness, like Captain Hook, hovers on the edge of night. Some nights, Peter has dreams that are more "painful than the dreams of other boys. For hours he could not be separated from these dreams, though he wailed piteously in them. They had to do, I think, with the riddle of his existence." (p115) Even though Peter remains eternally a child with all of his baby teeth, blessed with the forgetting of the time that passes, he is not entirely blissful. It seems as though childhood and innocence, despite Peter's ability to forget slights of the world of adults, nonetheless cannot exist without the world beyond hovering somewhere near him, even if only in sleep. Perhaps this is the riddle of his existence, this inability to remain completely in stasis. Even if Peter won't grow up, he knows that the world of gorwn-ups, maybe even a world that will someday include him, is always somewhere out there on the horizon. As Barrie writes in the first paragraph of Peter Pan,
"All children, except one grow, up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way that Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in the garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end." (p 1)
I suppose that is really why Barrie's creation of the character of Peter Pan has struck a chord in millions. He represents an archetypal idea universally present in individual psyches - the desire to never grow up. But alongside that desire is also the knowledge, almost from the beginning of life, that you will grow up. The beauty of the story of Peter Pan is the bittersweet nature of this predicament, how we as parents try to protect our children, to tidy up their minds at night, to preserve the world of childhood for them to live in but how, ultimately, even caring and protective parents can't keep out the reality of existence. As an adult, most likely we the parents, will commit an act of unfairness upon our children and our children will never be the same. With age and growth comes knowing, and, if we are lucky, knowledge.
Finally, one of the most surprising and enjoyable aspects of Peter Pan that are not part of the cinematic productions we are all familiar with is the portrayal of Mr and Mrs Darling. Specifically, the events that kept Nana out of the Nursery and tied to her kennel on the night that Peter Pan visits. The grief of Mr and Mrs Darling and Nana and their frequent rehashing of their errors on the night the children left take up a few pages at the end of the book and are quite entertaining. It seems that Mr Darling unintentionally becomes a celebrity when, as an act of self-flagellation and remorse, he decides to live in Nana's kennel day and night, even being carted to work in the kennel. The neighbors take not of his plight and can be seen swarming around him as he returns home from work.
The photo at the start of this piece, taken in 1906, two years after the successful debut of the play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, is of Michael Llewelyn Davies, age six, posing as Peter Pan. Born in 1900 and supposedly the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan, Michael was the first son in the Llewelyn Davies family of five boys, inspiration for the Lost Boys, that Barrie knew from birth. Barrie, who had been helping to support the family financially for years, became guardian to the boys after their parents' deaths in 1907 and 1910. His relationship with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her sons is portrayed, with a few tweaks, in the 2004 movie, Finding Neverland. In 1921 just before his 21st birthday Michael and a friend drowned. Barrie never recovered from this loss, which came on the heels of the death of the eldest of the Llewelyn Davies boys, George, in World War I.