Peter Pan – Rough Kid Lit…!

Happened upon the title of classic children’s lit, Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904), and thought I would read it and see how it was. Having grown up (along with thousands of others) on the Disney version, I was surprised by how dark and violent the original story really was. It’s still classified as children’s literature, but wow – it’s a bit rough around the edges.

Some of the new information for me that differed from the Disney version:

  • Captain Hook was “black”
  • The crocodile who bit off Cap’n Hook’s hand (and thus gave him the moniker) was a female and had eaten a clock. So long as Captain Hook could hear the ticking of the clock, he would know where this murderous crocodile was, but the minute it stopped ticking… “Ay…That’s the fear that haunts me…”
  • Peter was the cause of Captain Hook’s hook hand and it was he (Peter) who gave the bitten-off hand to the crocodile. (Not sure why it was bitten off in the first place though… And why did the crocodile swallow a clock?…)
  • Tinker Bell is actually really mean, jealous and spiteful – none of this little gentle flickering light of kindness fluttering around….
  • The “Pan” mentioned in the title refers (I think) to the Pan, the god of Nature etc., he who played the pipes and danced around. This god was a common image in lit for about the fifty years between late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In fact, one of the chapter titles in “The Wind in the Willows” is called something to do with Pan…

 (Left: Image of Pan from Keightley’s Mythology (pub: 1852).) Assuming you know the basic story, I was really intrigued by all the details of the story and how the characters behaved. The group of Lost Boys who follow (and worship) Peter Pan have some serious psychological issues with regard to mothers (and thus Wendy), and the boys rely far too much on Peter’s direction when it is actually a case of “the blind leading the blind”… They are all a case of extremely arrested development, and can only remember snippets of their lives before Neverland, so using this spotty knowledge only gets them into more trouble.

There is a lot of violent murder on the island: at least a murder a day (done by the Lost Boys or the Indian tribe on the island, the pirates or maybe a mermaid or two), but the population doesn’t seem to shrink – ever. They never seem to run out of people to kill.

The fairies are over-indulgent and greedy, limping home after having an orgy (presumably with the definition of “eating/drinking too much” as opposed to otherwise, although who knows with this book?)… Mermaids, who always before had a pretty benign reputation with me, were actually rude and bullies, especially for poor old Wendy. (Wendy regretted that she “had never had a civil word from one of them” the entire time she was on the island.)

And speaking of Wendy, I had no idea that the English phrase of “Wendy House” (referring to a child’s play house) was related to this (although it seems obvious in hindsight). The Lost Boys built a house around Wendy when she arrived and was unconscious, so it was a Wendy House. I even think the play school my siblings and I attended was called the Wendy House, but that might be wrong.

And the misery doesn’t even end when the Darling/human children return home to their parents. Mother agrees to let Wendy go back with Peter for one week a year to do his Spring Cleaning. (Yeah for parenting skills!)  And then, years later, when Peter comes back, un-aged as he is, he sweeps up Wendy’s kids and future kids “as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless”…  And apparently this is ok with everyone.

Hmm.

So – the author J. M. Barrie (Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet). Who was the guy with this twisted imagination? (Or is it me looking with unreasonable 21st century eyes?)  He lived from 1860-1937 and was a playwright and author. He wrote Peter Pan, Or the Boy who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904, calling it a “fairy play” and although he had other work, this was the play that made him famous. (It also popularized the name Wendy as that was unusual before this play was published.)

Barrie’s childhood was not an easy one, being the ninth of ten children, and on the accidental death of his next oldest brother, Barrie tried to help his mother’s grief by wearing the dead brother’s clothing and whistling like he used to. (Psychological problem #1.) Along with this came the idea of a boy who would never get old (a la Peter Pan) as the brother who died was only 14 when the accident occurred. (Psychological problem #2.)  This dead big brother’s influence would continue on for years, even affecting the career choice his parents wanted for Barrie. He wanted to be a writer, but his parents told him that his dead brother would have been a minister and so that’s what he should do as well. They eventually reached a compromise.(Psychological problem #3.)

Additionally, Barrie was exceptionally small in stature for his family reaching only about five feet tall at adulthood. This led to other problems for him. However, as an adult and writer, he moved in elite literary circles: Robert Louis Stephenson, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Hardy, Jerome K. Jerome… He told stories to the young Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Barrie also made friends with Antarctica explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and Scott, when his expedition was falling apart, wrote one of his last letters to Barrie asking him to look after his wife and son if he could not get home…

Linked with friendship is the fact that in 1897, Barrie was in London’s Kensington Gardens when he came across five young boys, all brothers and called the Llewelyn Davies family. “Uncle Jim” (as Barrie became known to the family) was a frequent visitor to the boys’ home and would entertain them with stories during his visits, and it is thought that he based the story of Peter Pan on these young boys. The boys’ father died in 1907 and their mother in 1910, Barrie (in a somewhat bizarre manner) ended up being the boys’ guardian for the rest of their lives (though most of them wouldn’t live too long). It’s all rather strange and Wiki has the details here (as true as Wiki can be).

Before Barrie’s death, he gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital, the children’s hospital, which, if you saw the London Olympic Games opening ceremony the other day, was referenced frequently (sometimes as GOSH). This was the first hospital in the English-speaking world to provide in-patient beds for children and was supported by several royals, including Queen Victoria and Princess Diana (who acted as President for a while) – obviously not at the same time… 🙂

It seems that Barrie was basically a good guy, but any good psychologist would have had a field day with him. (But then who is to say who is normal and who is not? :-))

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