Who Is Peter Pan?

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NBC/Photofest
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…


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