J.M Barrie and Peter Pan

by Terri Windling

Charles Dickens once stated that Little Red Riding Hood was his first love, and if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. For me and for other women I know, our hearts were won by Peter Pan — that charming, exasperating rascal of a boy, killer of pirates and intimate of fairies. But in our generation, we first encountered Peter as portrayed by the actress Mary Martin (in a televised version of the stage play Peter Pan), which created a certain gender confusion. Was Peter a boy we had a crush on, or a dashing tomboy that we wanted to be? We alternated between play-acting Wendy, flying through the stars at Peter’s side, and play-acting the role of Peter himself, attacking pirates on the Jolly Roger. We dreamed of flight, and fairy dust, and Indian drums sounding in the woods, and insisted on leaving the bedroom window cracked in case Peter should appeared. And then we all grew up, of course, as every child (but one) must do. Peter Pan became just a childhood game and a sappy Walt Disney film. Yet they say first love is powerful. Peter’s influence may be stronger than we knew — for each of us have spent our lives seeking adventure: in books, in art, and on foreign shores. Our hearts still quicken at the sound of a drum, or the smile of an exasperating boy. Now, on December 27, Peter Pan will turn 100 years old. This article is dedicated to him, and to his creator, the Scottish author Sir James M. Barrie.

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J.M. Barrie was already a well-known novelist and playwright when he sat down to write his first and only play for children, which he completed and offered to the theater producer Charles Frohman in the spring of 1904. It was unlike anything that had ever been presented to children on the London stage before, but Frohman loved it — except for the title, which Barrie obligingly changed from The Great White Father to Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. (Great White Father is what Peter is called by Tiger Lily and her braves.) Though it had roots in the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan was a wholly original concoction blending pirate stories, desert island stories, Indian adventures and fairy tales, all wrapped around a satire of family life in Edwardian London. Frohman took an enormous commercial risk in backing a play of over fifty parts and of actors wired to soar above the stage. No one knew if this preposterous play would work, especially its anxious author. On opening night, Barrie was ill with nerves, holding his breath at the critical moment when Peter asks the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. What if no one clapped at all? But the audience responded with such wild applause that the actress playing Peter burst into tears.

The opening of the play in December 1904 is now reckoned as the date of Peter’s birth, for it marks the emergence of Peter as we know him, sword in hand and Tinker Bell at his side. Yet he really first appeared two years earlier in Barrie’s adult novel The Little White Bird. The novel’s narrator is a crusty bachelor who lives close to London’s Kensington Gardens, where he meets a small boy and establishes an intense relationship with him. He charms the boy with stories about fairies, and about a run-away baby named Peter Pan who lives among the birds and fairies on an island in the Serpentine Lake. All babies were once birds, he tells the boy, and they still possess the power of flight. Parents, he warns, must keep their windows shut so that their babies don’t fly off at night. Peter Pan is a baby who once heard his mother talk about the life he’d lead when he was grown, prompting him to fly to Kensington Gardens in order to avoid this fate. In the Gardens, he’s neither bird nor baby but a creature who is "betwixt and between," glorying in his independence, determined to never grow up. Eventually, however, he tries to go back home, only to find that he’s left it much too late. His mother has another baby now, and the nursery windows are firmly locked.

Arthur Rackham illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Arthur Rackham illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The Little White Bird, like most of Barrie’s work, drew inspiration from the author’s own life. He too lived close to Kensington Gardens, where he walked with his enormous St. Bernard dog, and where he first became friends with three little boys: George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Barrie held the boys spellbound with tales about magical goings-on in the park at night, when fairies emerged from the hollows of the trees, leaving messages for the boys to find. The first "Peter" in these stories was the real baby Peter, flying off from the Llewelyn Davies nursery to join the fairies’ revels at night — but soon a separate character emerged of the fairy-child Peter Pan, who had once been a human baby, but now lived in the wilds of the park. Barrie was an intensely autobiographical writer, mining his own life for story material to a degree that alternately charmed and exasperated the friends and family members who found themselves rendered into novels and plays. Thus to understand Peter Pan, we must take a closer look at his creator and his complicated relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, James Barrie was the frail, unprepossessing seventh child in a family of ten. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and although the family was far from affluent, they were comfortable, and good educations were provided for the Barrie boys. The eldest son, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honors in Classics; and the next son, David, a brilliant boy, was expected to do even better. James, however, was a dreamy child more interested in games and "Penny Dreadfuls" (adventure comics) than excelling in academics. David was the acknowledged star of the family — but when David was thirteen and James was six, David died in a skating accident. Their mother never recovered from this blow, and James spent the rest of his childhood trying to replace the boy she’d lost. He distracted his mother by begging for stories about the Scotland of her childhood (and would later make a good living turning these stories into articles and books). David remained enshrined in memory as the perfect child who never aged or disappointed. "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much," J.M. Barrie wrote many years later.

Charles Vess illustration for Peter and Wendy

Charles Vess illustration for Peter and Wendy

Yet the years from ages thirteen to eighteen seem to have been the happiest of Barrie’s own life, when he left his home and grieving mother to attend Dumfries Academy. Though Dumfries was co-educational, Barrie lived in a masculine world of sports, games, and intense friendships with other boys. He was small and thin, but good at football, cricket, fishing, and other sports, and especially at games of make believe involving pirates, bandits, and other stock characters from the Penny Dreadfuls. These games evolved into a Dramatic Club, establishing Barrie’s life long devotion to the theater. He wrote his very first play for the club, a melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit.

Barrie knew from quite an early age that he wanted to be a professional writer, but his mother had other plans for him. He was to follow the path that David would have taken to a career in the ministry. Barrie dutifully went off to earn his M.A. at Edinburgh University, where he was miserable. He had been popular among the boys in Dumfries, but at university he was at a loss. He was an odd looking young man, barely five feet tall, and appeared much younger than he was. The women ignored him, and the men embarrassed him with coarse talk about the opposite sex. Barrie retreated into solitude, turning shy and reticent, which were traits he’d retain even when he’d become the most successful writer in Great Britain.

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