J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a classic that has inspired many adaptations, including animated and live-action movies, sequels, and spin-offs. It’s a fantastical story that inspires millions of children, but the version you’re familiar with probably softens the grimmer aspects. Written in 1911, Peter Pan plays out the fantasy of children remaining happy and innocent forever. The moral at the end is that everyone grows up and it’s not a bad thing, but Peter Pan continues living in Neverland for generations after Wendy grows up. If you look below the surface, it’s easy to see Peter as a warning of what it means to be a child forever.
The story of a young boy who will never grow up was likely inspired by Barrie’s own childhood. Barrie was six when his older brother David, 14, died in an ice-skating accident. His mother didn’t cope well. To cheer her up, Barrie would dress in his late brother’s clothes and whistle in the same way. His mother took comfort in the fact that David would remain young and precious forever. Evidently, Barrie took that to heart.
Later in life, Barrie and his wife would befriend a family with four young boys. Barrie based Peter Pan on one of these boys, and invented stories with them of mermaids and pirates. Due to his brother’s death, he became very attached to these children and wanted to protect them. He even altered their mother’s will to make himself their guardian when she died. Barrie kept in contact with them well into their adolescence.
Angel of Death
It was clear that Barrie had a fixation on youth, and so did his main character. Peter Pan was obsessed with never growing up, and Neverland let him play pretend forever with new friends to replace the old. But looking closer, we can see that this is equally a fixation with death. Barrie was clearly traumatized by the death of his brother and his mother’s grief, and it manifested in an unhealthy idolisation of youth.
To age meant to die, and not the kind of adventurous death that Peter Pan longed for. To become an adult was to be like his mother, who had abandoned and replaced him. But people have speculated that Peter Pan may have been dead the entire time: as he himself explains, he fell out of his pram as a baby and was never found. The theory goes that he died then and became a spirit of Neverland, leading children to their untimely deaths. Not intentionally, though – it was all a game to him.
The Lost Boys
The Lost Boys were other babies who fell out of their prams, but Peter was the only one who didn’t age. More evidence of him being a spirit are the magical qualities only he seems to possess – aside from never aging, the seasons in Neverland change according to his presence (the winter snow melts when he returns with Wendy and her brothers).
We know that the other Lost Boys aged because the book reveals the cruel “punishment” for growing up, which is against Peter’s rules. It was said there were always new Lost Boys because Peter would “thin them out” when they got too old, implying that he killed them. But it gets worse – the Lost Boys used hollow tree trunks to reach their secret hideouts. It’s implied Peter would “modify” their bodies to fit when they got too big.
As an eternal child, Peter Pan never had to face the consequences of his actions or wake up to reality. He thought that everything was a game, and every pirate and Lost Boy that he killed were just the players who lost. Pan couldn’t tell reality from fantasy, often feeding the Lost Boys imaginary meals and not understanding when they were still hungry. He didn’t care about putting Wendy or her brothers in danger because none of it was real to him.
The pirates were the only adults on Neverland, and happen to be the villains. Captain Hook’s vendetta against Pan and the Lost Boys comes from Pan cutting off his hand and feeding it to a hungry crocodile. Along with Hook’s hand, the crocodile also swallowed his watch. The crocodile developed a taste for Hook’s flesh and plagued him with the sound of ticking.
The crocodile and watch serve as more than an early warning system for Hook. He is pursued by his greatest fear: death. While Pan sees death as “an awfully big adventure”, Hook is acutely aware that he is constantly ageing, and that one day he will grow old and die. He chases after Pan, who represents eternal youth while running from the crocodile which symbolises the passing of time. Peter Pan taunts him at every point with the one thing Hook wants and can never have: to live forever.
The Cost of Never Growing Up
As Barrie himself would come to realise, being young forever is not all good. Peter’s belief that everything is a game made him cruel and careless, able to easily replace friends. The worst thing you could do, for him, was to make bore him. He never got the chance to mature, so he kept a grudge against his mother for abandoning him and let it fester. He projected his longing for a mother onto Wendy, but because he can never mature he couldn’t confront the emotions that Wendy’s friendship brought up. Because his emotions never develop past self-indulgence, he’s unable to make genuine connections with people.
At the end of Barrie’s story, Wendy and her brothers return home. Peter Pan could never understand the grief of their mother, or the comforts of home and a nurturing family. Ultimately, Peter Pan is less of an escapist fantasy than a cautionary tale. Everyone must grow up, but that doesn’t mean that we have to lose our sense of wonder and whimsy.
Later, I want to talk about the Pixie Hollow books. They’re a much more wholesome Neverland series and a hidden gem of children’s literature. I can’t wait to share them with you!
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