Finding Never Never Land

24 Aug

Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, became known to the world in the play of the same name by Sir James Barrie, which was first acted in 1904 and has since been put on in London virtually every year, excluding wartime, at Christmas. One of Barrie’s friends had five small sons, and the story of Peter Pan’s adventures grew out of the long series of make-believe games that the author and the boys played together. There is a well-known statue in Kensington Gardens in London of Peter Pan playing a pipe, standing on a pedestal around which are carved figures of children and animals. Barrie himself arranged for this to be put up and gave the profits from all performances of the play, and from the book made of it, to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. Barrie’s own life was touched by tragedy as well as genius, while the figure of Peter Pan has been endlessly reinterpreted through drama, film and fiction. There is the popular image of Disney’s laughing, jovial character from the animated film, the ‘grown-up’ Peter from the live action Hook, and the ‘re-imagining’ of the character in the more recent Neverland TV mini-series. What these modern conceptions of the character seem to miss, however, is that the original Peter Pan was a far darker, more ambiguous character than his more recent portrayals would seem to suggest – as perhaps befits his tragic origins.

James Matthew Barrie was born in Scotland in 1860, the son of a hand loom weaver who went on to be educated at the prestigious University of Edinburgh. Although he was a respected journalist who was made a baronet and received several honorary degrees, it was his internationally and abidingly famous children’s play Peter Pan which really shot him to superstardom. Few who watched the play realised, however, that the notion of a boy who would never grow up was, tragically, based on Barrie’s older brother, who died in an ice-skating accident the day before he turned 14, and thus always stayed a young boy in his mother’s mind. Barrie never described Peter’s appearance in detail, even in the novel Peter and Wendy, leaving much of it to the imagination of the reader and the interpretation of anyone adapting the character. Barrie mentions in Peter and Wendy that Peter Pan still had all of his baby teeth. He describes him as a beautiful boy with a beautiful smile, ‘clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees’. In the play, Peter’s outfit is vaguely described as made of autumn leaves and cobwebs. Barrie is, however, far more forthcoming with regard to Peter’s personality, describing him as having a nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude, being fearlessly cocky when it comes to putting himself in danger. Peter’s name, attire, playing of the flute and mercurial character thus strongly suggest the character of the trickster god Pan from Classical mythology.

According to Barrie’s story, all children, when they are little, would like never to have to grow up, but to be children forever in a wonderful, imaginary land of adventure. This was just what Peter Pan was able to do, for he had escaped from ordinary life and lived in the Never Never Land, a country of fairies and other story-book creatures. There Peter had endless adventures with redskins and wild beasts, as well as battles with the pirates commanded by the terrifying Captain Hook. Sometimes Peter would come to the real world and take real children back with him to the Never Never Land, and in the play it was the Darling family – Wendy, John and Michael – who went with him and shared his adventures. With Peter too were a number of Lost Boys who had no mothers and could not get back to the ordinary world. During her visit Wendy Darling looked after them and became a mother to them. Peter was very sure of himself and very brave (or foolhardy) when it came to danger. In one adventure, when he thought that he was going to be drowned, he memorably said “To die will be an awfully big adventure”. Notably, at the end of the play, when the Darling family (including Wendy) go back to their home and their parents, Peter returns to the Never Never Land to live as a boy forever. Perhaps in common with his fictional hero, Barrie seemed to demonstrate a predilection for fantasy over the often harsh reality of his own life. His marriage to the actress Mary Ansell in 1894 was followed by divorce in 1909. In his own lifetime his whimsy was deemed unfashionable and came to obscure his best work, at least in the eyes of the critics.

The legacy of Peter Pan, however, has remained undimmed and the character is as popular and well known now as he was when Barrie was alive. In addition to the two distinct works of prose and drama by Barrie, the character has been featured in a variety of media and merchandise, both adapting and expanding on Barrie’s works. Barrie’s story has also influenced a number of other writers. J R R Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter once speculated that Tolkien’s impressions of a production of Barrie’s Peter Pan in Birmingham in 1910 “may have had a little to do with” his original conception of the Elves of Middle Earth. The character of Peter Pan has been embraced internationally, not just in the English-speaking world. Six other statues cast from the same mould as the original in Kensington Gardens have been erected around the world in locations as diverse as Liverpool, Brussels, New Jersey, Perth, Toronto and Newfoundland, while the character is just as well known in Japan and India as it is in the UK or the USA. Barrie passed away in 1937 but his most famous creation has, much as he intended, never changed, aged or died.

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22 Responses to “Finding Never Never Land”

  1. deshipley August 24, 2012 at 4:15 am #

    How timely! I’ve just finished a draft of my own adaptation of Peter Pan, which (chicken or egg?) coincides with a personal revival of interest in the character. There’s a special sort of romance about him that tugs at me. It’s mostly to do with the personality, I think — this notion of an adventuresome boy who frolics with fairies, plays with pirates, and stays ever young. As often seems the case, one artist’s tragedy begets boundless inspiration.

  2. poetmcgonagall August 24, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Excellent post. All I know about Peter Pan is the panto version, so it’s good to get some background. Some odd resonances – the Lost Boys in the vampire film of the same name, and the child vampire, Claudia, in Interview With A Vampire.

    But J. M. Barrie did have a social conscience, which he expressed in the play, The Admirable Chrichton, later a film with Kenneth More in the role of Chrichton. A capable butler saves the lives of his parasitic employers when they’re shipwrecked on a desert island, becomes their rightful leader, only to become a butler again when they’re rescued. That’s where Kryten in Red Dwarf comes from.

  3. worldsbeforethedoor August 24, 2012 at 10:35 am #

    Peter Pan has been a personal muse for as long as I can remember. I had a very wonderful childhood and there was always a part of me which feared growing up, loosing my imagination and creativity to the dulldrums of life. I really love the movie Hook which shows an adult capturing the best of childhood as he goes into life. Thanks for sharing a little history about this beautiful story!

    • ashsilverlock August 26, 2012 at 3:47 pm #

      Thanks, I think a lot of folks feel the same way 🙂

  4. Robin Jean Marie August 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    This is a wonderful post! Thank you for your illuminating piece about this well-known character and this brilliant author.

  5. Wallace Studios August 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    Thanks for the Peter Pan facts. I’ve only associated with the Disney version, but now feel even more akin to this character!

  6. Ilene Winn-Lederer August 24, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Excellent post! One question, though: Barrie’s idea of children not wishing to grow up makes me wonder if he wasn’t voicing his own adult perspective and regret through his own younger self? My own memories of childhood were often tinged with the wish to grow up and be taken seriously!

  7. Diane Tibert August 24, 2012 at 6:32 pm #

    It seems I have always known Peter, and have always loved him in one form or another. It’s interesting to learn these facts about the author.

  8. robbinsrealm August 25, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    Excellent blog!

  9. Cassidy Cornblatt August 29, 2012 at 3:54 am #

    Hi, I have nominated you for the Liebster Award. Click here for details: http://cassidycornblatt.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/liebster-award/

  10. The World Is My Cuttlefish August 30, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    I can see it is time for a reread of Peter Pan. I haven’t read it as an adult. My only exposure to the work as an adult is seeing snippets of ‘Hook’.

  11. simon7banks August 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    Interesting. There was a lot of that I didn’t know. Relating Peter Pan to death makes me think that a costume of autumn leaves and cobwebs sounds creepy, the sort of things that might hang round a long-dead body.

    As for him remaining forever a boy, it reminds me of the U.K. war dead Remembrance Day set words, “They grow not old as we grow old…” which always makes me think “but they’d rather have had the chance”.

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