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Who Is Peter Pan?

The Annotated Peter Pan

by J.M. Barrie, edited with an introduction and notes by Maria Tatar
Norton, 393 pp., $39.95
Mia Farrow pointing the way to Neverland in a television production of Peter Pan, 1976

A few writers have the kind of power that believers attribute to gods: they create men and women and children who seem to us to be real. But unlike gods, these writers do not control the lives of their most famous creations. As time passes, their tales are told and retold. Writers and dramatists and film-makers kidnap famous characters like Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman; they change the characters’ ages and appearance, the progress and endings of their stories, and even their meanings.

One of the characters most frequently kidnapped by writers, dramatists, and filmmakers is James Barrie’s Peter Pan. As a result he and his adventures have become immensely famous: there have been scores, possibly hundreds of dramatizations and condensations, prequels and sequels and spinoffs. Some are interesting and even admirable, but there have also been many cheap and even vulgar versions.

It is a pleasure therefore to report that Norton has just published The Annotated Peter Pan, a large handsome book edited by the Harvard folklorist Maria Tatar. It contains the complete text of James Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (which was based on the original play), an excellent bibliography and notes, plus essays about Barrie’s life and work, and the stage and film and book adaptations of Peter Pan. It is full of remarkable pictures and photographs, including all of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and those of F.D. Bedford for Peter and Wendy. Though you might not want this book to be a child’s first experience of Peter Pan, it should interest anyone who already knows his story.

From Peanut Butter to Psychology

The central facts about Peter Pan are as follows: he is a charming, charismatic child who wants “always to be a little boy and have fun” and gets his wish. He can fly and teach other children how to fly, and he lives on an island called Neverland that combines the landscapes of contemporary British children’s fantasies and games. There he is the captain of a group of Lost Boys whom he leads on thrilling adventures with pirates, Indians, mermaids, fairies, and wild beasts. But he longs for a mother, and manages to entice a little girl called Wendy to leave her home in London and follow him, with her two brothers, to Neverland.

Over the last hundred years this story has itself taken wing. Peter Pan’s name is now used symbolically for a bus company (speedy, thrilling travel), a brand of peanut butter (childhood treats), and shops, motels, and restaurants all over the world.

A psychological disorder, the Peter Pan Syndrome, has also been named after Barrie’s hero. This unfortunate condition, according to the formerly best-selling book of the same name by Dr. Dan Kiley, published in 1983, afflicts a great many American men.* Unlike the original Peter Pan, the victims of Peter Pan Syndrome don’t want to remain children; instead they are stuck in adolescence. Having passed puberty, they are interested in sex, but they have difficulty with love. In addition to irresponsibility, narcissism, and poor memory, common among very young children, they also suffer from anxiety, loneliness, and sex-role conflict, which lead inevitably to social impotence and despondency. Underneath a surface self-assurance these men usually have very low self-esteem and lots of guilt. According to Dr. Kiley, this is all the fault of their parents: fathers who are cold and distant and mean; mothers who are weak and needy and neurotically emotional.

An occupational hazard of the medical profession, and the natural result of a life largely spent in the company of people whose souls or bodies hurt, is a tendency to overestimate the prevalence of illness. Dr. Kiley tends to find examples of the Peter Pan Syndrome almost everywhere, and his book encourages people who recognize the symptoms in themselves or some family member to see a therapist immediately.

Though The Peter Pan Syndrome was published nearly thirty years ago, it still seems relevant, at least for popular culture. Contemporary films and TV are full of males in their twenties and thirties who are trying hard not to grow up. Essentially, they want always to be adolescents and have fun, which for them involves a lot of drinking and fast driving and drugs and easy if occasionally rather awkward sex. They are modern Lost Boys, lovable louts who avoid work as much as possible. Often they have a charismatic leader, a kind of super Peter Pan who initiates their many comic adventures and exceeds the rest in alcoholic excess and vulgar joking. They are often boorishly good-natured: they enjoy practical jokes and spectator sports.

Though they talk a lot about sex, usually in a crude way, their closest and most comfortable attachments are to their buddies. Occasionally they manage to hook up with attractive women who in real life would probably not want to have anything to do with them, and sometimes they actually get married and even make efforts to become responsible parents. Generally, however, demands for maturity from the external world are successfully resisted, and the protagonists feel only an occasional twinge of despondency, which can be cured, at least temporarily, by an excursion to the local Neverland, where they can find alcohol and drugs and the opportunity to take part in humorous brawls with the local pirates, Indians, and wild animals.

These characters are celebrated in what are now known as “slacker” comedies, of which one of the most famous was The Big Lebowski (1998). It stars Jeff Bridges as the Dude, a cheerful, lazy, unemployed bowling enthusiast who becomes involved with crooks, and with a crippled millionaire who is a kind of Captain Hook figure. In Slacker (1991), written, directed, produced by, and starring Richard Linklater (clearly no slacker in real life), the principal characters are a collection of entertaining, mostly idle misfits, incompetents, and individualists. It is a good thing that Barrie never met these contemporary Peter Pans; he would certainly have reacted with Dr. Kiley’s anxiety and despondency.

Peter Pan Grows Up

As time passed, the most dramatic change in many versions of Peter Pan was the age of its hero. In J.M. Barrie’s prequel, The Little White Bird (1902), part of which was later republished as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), Peter is a very young boy who is half-bird; he has flown away from his nursery to live with the fairies in the park. It is based on tales Barrie told to the three oldest sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, George, Jack, and Pete, when they too were very young. The play Peter Pan, which opened in December 1904, took off from the games Barrie invented for the Davies boys when they were from four to nine years old and staying in the country near where he spent summer holidays. Unhappily married and childless, he tried to become a friend to the boys, and after the death of their father, in 1907, followed by that of their mother, in 1910, he became their guardian and unofficial trustee, paying for their education at Eton and Oxford.

In many ways Peter Pan was a classic English Christmas pantomime, with its standard Good Fairy (Tinker Bell), Demon King (Captain Hook), and Dame (a comic older woman, always played by a man—in this case, the dog Nana). The hero and heroine, known as the Principal Boy and Principal Girl, were both traditionally young actresses, and for many years Peter was not a little boy but a slim, athletic young woman in a kind of elf costume. At first many of the minor characters, including the Lost Boys, were also played by what we would now call showgirls; in later productions real children were often cast in the roles.

In Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911) the hero is apparently a young child; we are told several times that he still has all his baby teeth, and the illustrations to the original edition show him as about six or seven. Like a small child, he is easily distracted and lives almost entirely in the present. He forgets the past rapidly and has little understanding of the future. For him, real life and make-believe are almost the same thing. He also lacks empathy, and is only rarely aware of other people’s feelings. Today, this view of a child’s psychology is fairly common, but in Barrie’s time it was almost shocking when he declared in the famous last words of Peter and Wendy that children are “gay and innocent and heartless.” Peter is gay and innocent, but he is also deeply self-centered and without remorse; at one point he declares that he cannot even remember the names of the pirates he has killed.

As time has passed, Peter Pan’s age has varied awkwardly. On stage he is still most often played by a young actress, but in films he is more likely to be a prepubescent or barely pubescent male. In the 1953 Disney movie he looks about eleven or twelve—Bobby Driscoll, who was the animation model and voice for Peter, was fifteen; Jeremy Sumpter was thirteen when he was cast in Peter Pan, the celebrated live-action Australian film directed by P.J. Hogan (2003).

The aging of Peter Pan goes furthest in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), where the former toddler has become middle-aged. The unlikely backstory asserts that on one of his later visits to London Peter finally agreed to return to the real world and grow up. The result is as disastrous as he had once feared: he has become a self-centered, humorless New York businessman called Peter Banning who neglects his wife and children and has no memory of his romantic past. Equally implausibly, this unattractive character is played by Robin Williams, whose usual screen persona suggests energy and wild humor. When the film was released Williams was forty, but in the early scenes he looks ten years older.

In Hook, Wendy is a minor character; the important relationship is between Peter Pan and the pirate captain, here embodied by Dustin Hoffman as a melodramatic eighteenth-century buccaneer with long, greasy black curls. In this incarnation he is neurotic, temperamental, and in need of attention, but never very sinister. It turns out that the pirate was not actually eaten by the crocodile, as in the original Peter Pan, but survived inside its stomach in the manner of Jonah, though for a considerably longer time. He is now free and determined to have his revenge. So while Peter Banning and his family are in London visiting Wendy, who is now ninety-two years old and has turned into Maggie Smith, Captain Hook kidnaps their children.

Clearly, it is Peter’s job to rescue them; but since he does not believe in Neverland, he has to be kidnapped in his turn by Tinker Bell. When he gets to the magical island he is stunned and disoriented. He is also not welcomed by the Lost Boys, but scorned and rejected as a weak, helpless adult. Meanwhile Peter’s children are being courted and flattered by Captain Hook, who unlike their father has plenty of time to play games with them, and soon invites them to join his crew. Peter’s daughter Molly is seriously tempted, though she still longs for her parents, but Peter’s son Jack rejects him in favor of the pirate captain.

  1. *

    The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up (Dodd, Mead, 1983), p. 2. 

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