Peter Pan: Part 2 of 2

illustration by Alice Woodward, 1907

PART TWO:     4. TRIVIA        5. THEMES



Margaret Henley

The Name WENDY –  It is a widespread story but sadly mythical: that J. M. Barrie invented the name ‘Wendy’. He named the character in Peter Pan in tribute to a young friend Margaret Henley, the daughter of Barrie’s friend, W.E.Henley. The 6-yr-old’s special nickname for Barrie was ‘my Friendy’, only she pronounced it ‘my Fwendy’ or ‘Wendy’. Sadly the little girl died at the age of six.¹

The truth is that the name Wendy existed earlier as a short-form of Gwendolyn, Guenevere, and other ancient Welsh names. (Merlin’s sister was named Gwendydd.) The name Wendy can be found, though rarely, in various census data from the 1800s. Barrie did, however, do much to popularize the name, especially in Britain, where it became extremely popular and common following the great fame of Peter Pan.

Wendy House – In the story Peter and the Lost Boys build a house around the injured Wendy, for her to recuperate in. The term ‘Wendy house’ became commonly used in the UK for a children’s small playhouse.

Copyright – Usually copyright protection for a property expires after a certain number of years. Peter Pan is “unique in being the only book other than the Bible to have been given a special parliamentary dispensation so that its copyright will never expire.”  Barrie was on the Board of Trustees for the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and had presented perpetual rights of the books and plays of Peter Pan to the hospital. As the time for expiration approached, Lord Callaghan introduced a bill in Parliament in 1987 to ensure that the hospital would continue to receive royalties. In 1988 a special bill was passed to reinstate copyright of Peter Pan in perpetuity.²

Charles Frohman’s death – The original producer and promoter of the play Peter Pan, the well-known American theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, died on the Lusitania, torpedoed by German U-boats in 1915. As the ship was going down Frohman offered his life jacket to others who were without, eye witnesses later reported. He refused a seat in the lifeboat saying:

“Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure life gives us.”

This is possibly a paraphrase of the famous line from Peter Pan, play and novel, which Peter utters when stranded to die on Marooner’s Rock:

“To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

Much was made of Frohman’s last words by the British press, especially as they were desperate to convince America to enter the war. The sinking of the Lusitania indeed shocked America and moved them to join the war effort.

J. M. Barrie did not want to link his creation to the glorification of war or of dying young. Indeed, he was devastated by the loss of his ward George Llewellyn Davies in the trenches (the eldest of the boys who inspired his writing of Peter Pan in the first place). Even before George was killed, in his last letter to him Barrie wrote,

I have lost all sense I ever had of war being glorious, it is just unspeakably monstrous to me now.³

In 1915 the line of dialogue – “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” – was dropped from the play, “omitted as insensitive on account of the war.” ⁴

Casting – From its debut the stage play featured a woman in the role of Peter Pan. This was not an unusual choice, having precedent in the British pantomime tradition, which greatly influenced Barrie. In the pantos the ‘Principal Boy’ was always played by a woman. Such casting in this case allows Peter to remain youthful, with a higher pitched voice and a slim physique. The advantages of casting an adult as opposed to a young boy are considerable, as a grownup can better handle the acting nuances as well as the physicality of the flying. It also serves to reduce or eliminate altogether any hint of sexuality in Peter, as desirable as he may be to Wendy, Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily. That said, the presence of a woman in this role has become something of a touchstone in queer culture, both exhilarating and inspirational for lesbians in the audience right up to the present day.

Gerald DuMaurier as Hook

The 1938 New York touring company had a man play Peter – Leslie C. Gorall. And in 1952 Pan’s voice was provided by Bobby Driscoll. After that, however, Peter was not played by a male actor again until the Royal Shakespeare Company cast Miles Anderson in the role in 1982.⁶

The practices of British pantomime also include double-casting: traditionally Mr. Darling and Captain Hook have been played by the same actor. This custom is still in practice – in the 1953 Disney film Hans Conreid provided voices for both characters, and in the 2003 live-action film Jason Isaacs plays both roles. Again, the age-old customs of the pantomime serve Peter Pan very well. The linking of Mr. Darling and Hook provide a delightful pairing between the real world and the imaginary one, between an ineffectual villain and a dangerously effective one.

The Lost Boys – Children were enlisted to fill out other roles, mainly Michael and the Lost Boys. This resulted in a strange ritual, described by a former Peter Pan, the actress Pauline Chase:

Every December a terrifying ceremony takes place before Peter Pan is produced, and this is the measuring of the children who play in it. They are measured to see whether they have grown too tall, and they can all squeeze down into about two inches less than they really are, but this does not deceive the management. … “It won’t do, my lad. … We are sorry for you, but – farewell!” Measuring day is one of the many tragedies of Peter Pan.⁷

Famous Cast Members – In 1913 the crew of Lost Boys included 14-year-old Noel Coward in the role of Slightly. Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester played Hook and Pan in 1936, and Maggie Smith took the title role in 1973.

Even more interesting are the actors who were considered, but never played the roles… Barrie himself was thinking of Charlie Chaplin for Peter Pan when talk of a silent movie version began.⁸   And in 1962 there were plans afoot for an Audrey Hepburn/Peter Sellers movie, but these never came to anything.⁹

Captain Hook – Some sources claim that Captain Hook “was never originally intended for inclusion in the play. Hook came to be included merely because Barrie needed an additional act for a scene change to be made.” ¹⁰  The technical effects were so demanding that in the original run Hook had to stand in front of the curtain doing impressions to cover scenery changes taking up to 15 or 20 minutes. ¹¹

“No one must ever touch me.” – The ‘untouchable’ aspect of Peter Pan’s character was not in the original version of the play. The line was not added to the script until 1928, at the request of the actress playing Pan, Jean Forbes-Robertson.¹²

Faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust – The detail about needing fairy dust to be able to fly was added at the request of the London Ambulance Service, writes Andrew Birkin, as so many children had gone home and tried jumping off the end of their beds, resulting in a trip to the hospital.¹³


¹ Andrew Birkin, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2003) p. 19

² Karen McGavock, “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 212

³ Op. cit., Birkin, p. 243

⁴ Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995) p. 110

⁵ Ibid., Wullschläger, p. 110

⁶ Bruce K. Hanson, The Peter Pan Chronicles; The Nearly 100 Year History of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993) p. 239

⁷ Op. cit., Birkin, p. 215

⁸ Op. cit., Hanson, p. 237

⁹ Ibid., Hanson, p. 251

¹⁰ Op. cit., McGavock, p. 207

¹¹ Op. cit., Birkin, p. 114

¹² Ibid., Birkin, p. 117

¹³ Ibid., Birkin, p. 162


Or: Brain Candy for the Booky Set

I sadly never read the book as a child, although the

Peter Pan lunchbox at far right, c1969

Disney movie was my absolute favourite for a while. In the photograph of me on my

first day of kindergarten I am clutching a Peter Pan lunchbox, a full sixteen years after the movie was originally released! (Testament to the long arm of Disney marketing.)

I finally read the book in my late-30s and was disappointed with the submissive Wendy, who willingly, eagerly volunteers to become a mother to the Lost Boys, to the point of happily spending weeks below ground washing and cleaning and mending. I am ashamed to say I was guilty of a ‘surface reading’ of the book. After taking a closer look more recently, and delving into some of the voluminous criticism of the book, I realize that a lot of subtle stuff is going on in the Peter Pan story. If you clear away the sanitizing tendencies of Disney and other adaptations, the original work is full of ambiguity and darkness. The flying scenes may have been what captured my imagination as a child, but the themes of growing up, experience and innocence are really what give this work its resonance, and its legs.

Here’s a sampling of essay titles, a few of the ones in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time: A Children’s Classic at 100 ¹:

“Child-Hating: Peter Pan in the Context of Victorian Hatred”
“Babes in Boy-Land: J.M. Barrie and the Edwardian Girl”
“More Darkly Down the Left Arm: The Duplicity of Fairyland in the Plays of J.M. Barrie”
“Problematizing Piccaninnies, or How J.M. Barrie Uses Graphemes to Counter Racism in Peter Pan”
“Getting Peter’s Goat: Hybridity, Androgyny, and Terror in Peter Pan”
“The Kiss: Female Sexuality and Power in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan”

and from Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination²:

“Tinker Bell, The Fairy of Electricity”
“ ‘To Die Will Be an Awfully Big Adventure’, Peter Pan in World War I”
“ Disney’s Peter Pan: Gender, Fantasy, and Industrial Production”
“ ‘Gay, Innocent, and Heartless’ : Peter Pan and the Queering of Popular Culture”

I just want to give you a taste of the academic work out there on Peter Pan. I don’t presume to contribute to it, or be any kind of expert. I admit that as soon as Derrida or Lacan are mentioned my eyes glaze over and I can read no further. Here’s an example of what stops me in my tracks:

“Reading moments of narrative indeterminacy alongside the story’s thematic interest in hybridity, I contend that Peter, as an ambiguously gendered child-figure, was a site for imagining political agency and gender transgression at the beginning of the last century.”³

Yikes. I don’t have the right academic background to be able to swim in such waters. I am a mere foot soldier in the culture wars, but below are a few tasty tidbits I gleaned from my readings.


¹ Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr, eds. J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006)

² Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009)

³ Carrie Wasinger, “Getting Peter’s Goat: Hybridity, Androgyny, and Terror in Peter Pan”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 220

Peter Pan as a Subversive Work

“In Peter Pan every wish comes true, from early fantasies of flying to the resurrection of the dead… The whole play is an elaborate dream fulfillment of intense but contradictory wishes – to be grown up at once and never to be grown up; to have exciting adventures and be perfectly safe; to escape from your mother and have her always at hand.” ¹

The pitting of the childhood world against the adult world is an eternal theme in fiction for children, from Hansel and Gretel to the present day. It is a natural expression of the child’s journey, finding his/her way in the world of grownups. And it is a necessary convention that in these tales the children are depicted to be somewhat superior to adults. As Alison Lurie writes, the author takes the side of the child against his or her parents, who are portrayed as “at best silly and needlessly anxious, at worse selfish and stupid”.²  And this is why she claims much of children’s literature is, at its heart, naturally subversive.

Peter Pan, however, goes even further. It includes elements from the past: the long, long tradition of faerie lore in Britain, as well as echoes of the ancient pagan god Pan. It takes these and runs with them, cutting a very modern swath through the cobwebs of the past.

“… it would not be going too far to say that [Peter Pan] constitutes something of an attack on, or at least an affront to, the very concept of children’s literature with which it is most often linked. … Peter Pan occupies a central yet tense position within the canon of children’s fiction.” – Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan: or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction ³

illustrator Flora White, 1914

As the title of Rose’s book suggests, a hundred years on, there is still a fair amount of academic turmoil going on around little Peter. Many of Rose’s issues rise from perceived problems of Barrie’s life and character. (More on that in the next section.) Even if one discounts the gossip about Barrie’s life, her main point is resonant for any discussion of children’s literature… How can there be anything called ‘Children’s Literature’ when its works are written by adults, marketed by adults to other adults, and bought by adults? As well-meaning as they may be, aren’t so-called children’s authors simply portraying an adult’s perspective about childhood… producing works that are coloured by their own ‘issues’ about childhood, and voicing their own nostalgia for the past?

On this, a quote from Barrie himself, in a program note he wrote for the 1908 Parisian production of Peter Pan:

“[O]f Peter you must make what you will – perhaps he was a boy who died young and this is how the author perceives his subsequent adventures. Or perhaps he was a boy who was never born at all; a boy whom some people longed for but who never came – it may be that these people hear Peter more clearly at the window than children do.” ⁴

It does seem to be true that the grown-up audience of Peter’s stage debut were enraptured with him. It is indeed possible that the story – play and novel – is actually loved more by adults than children.

The nature of the narrative voice in the novel draws fire from certain quarters. Jacqueline Rose takes issue with it because the narrator’s voice seems sometimes to be directed at children, other times at adults. It seems sometimes to be that of a child, other times an adult. This trickiness is customary of Barrie’s work, indicative of his love of ambiguity and hatred of fixity, but Rose finds it all rather sinister. After pointing out “subtle tense and pronoun shifts” through which the narrator sometimes puts himself in the camp of the children, she goes further:

“J. M. Barrie’s 1911 version of Peter Pan [the novel] undermines the certainty which should properly distinguish the narrating adult from the child. … The ethics of literature act as a defence mechanism against a possible confusion of tongues. … certain psychic barriers should go undisturbed, the most important of which is the barrier between adult and child. When children’s fiction touches on that barrier, it becomes not experiment (the formal play of a modern adult novel which runs the gamut of its characters’ points of view), but molestation. Thus the writer for children must keep his or her narrative hands clean and stay in his or her proper place.”⁵

Yikes. Molestation is a big charge stemming from what Daffy Duck might simply term “pronoun trouble”. More about Rose’s position and opponents in the next section…

The issue of ‘the impossibility of children’s literature’ is a bigger topic than I want to tackle right here, right now. But it’s out there. There are many who believe that children’s literature is written by adults for adults, with the secondary goal of molding youngsters to fit into the adult world more smoothly and obediently.


¹ Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-ups (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990.) p. 131

² Ibid., Lurie, p. 9

³ as quoted in Karen McGavock, “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 211

⁴ Ibid., McGavock, p. 204

⁵ Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan: or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1984.) pp. 68-70

Barrie Biography

The issues that some people have with Barrie’s personal life spring from his relationship with the Llewellyn-Davies family. The facts are that he was married but childless (later divorced), but since he had a strong fondness and affinity for children, he befriended the young Llewellyn-Davies boys while walking his dog in the park. Barrie was a slight figure, someone who didn’t want to grow up himself, which has of course invited endless comparisons with his most famous creation. At any rate, he spent a lot of time with the boys, telling stories and acting out with them imaginary scenarios both in the public park Kensington Gardens and at his country

Barrie plays Hook to Michael’s Peter Pan, 1906

home, where he invited their whole family to visit during the summer. The fantasy of Peter Pan and Captain Hook sprang out of this period of creative play, and he always credited certain elements of the story to contributions by the boys. Barrie became such a strong presence in the Llewellyn-Davies family that he was eventually named the boys’ official guardian when their parents both died rather young.

Those are the facts. Later biographical work reveals that Barrie had a strong need to manipulate and influence people. The phrase that comes up again and again in biographies is that he “insinuated himself into the family”, which connotes a certain malevolent, or at very least selfish, intent. According to Humphrey Carpenter Barrie “loved to play the manipulator, to be God to other people; to shape their lives, arrange their friendships, make them as dependent on him as he possibly could – yet he shrank back from any real commitment to them himself.” ¹

The details of how he was actually named guardian to the boys are also a little troublesome, as it seems that he may have pulled a little trickery to achieve it. He remained their guardian as they grew up and went off to university and adulthood, drifting away from their ‘Uncle Jim’. George, the eldest, died in 1915 IN the trenches of WWI and in 1921 Michael drowned at the age of 20 in a swimming accident that may have been suicide. Perhaps only wanting to experience the joys of parenthood, by joining the family Barrie also went through the unenviable situation of outliving ‘his’ children, certainly paying his dues in grief and sorrow.

But back to the general suspicion that surrounds a man who befriends young boys. This suspicion is largely a modern-day imposition on the past. In the introduction to her book Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination Allison B. Kavey writes that Jacqueline Rose’s book The Case of Peter Pan:

“…is both the most frequently cited scholarly work on the narrative and the most egregious example of the argument that Barrie’s desire – for children, to be a child – permeates the text and inevitably confounds its title character. She first published the study during a time when critics routinely overlaid fiction with a dizzying array of psychoanalytic categorizations, plunking authors (even long-dead ones) on the couch and publicly dissecting their psyches. Such explorations often focused on salacious revelations of an author’s previously unrevealed depravities, charges impossible either to prove definitively or to retort posthumously.” ²

Barrie is commonly thrown into the same category as Lewis Carroll and his problemmatical hobby of photographing young girls in the

Photograph of J.M. Barrie

nude, although the only ‘evidence’ against Barrie seems to be the intensity of his feelings for the boys. Today only women seem to be allowed to have intense feelings of love and attachment for other people’s children. The Llewelyn Davies boys themselves consistently asserted to biographers that they were unmolested, and Kavey’s position is that “the least we can do is believe them.” ³

The other reason Kavey gives for rejecting charges of pedophilia, is that “what people write cannot be taken as a direct reflection of their hidden desires. The tale is not the author and the author is not the tale…” ⁴

Rather than sexual predation, what Barrie does seem to be guilty of is simple manipulation. On this Carpenter goes further, speculating that “all his sexual energies seem to have been diverted from their usual course into this passionate desire to manipulate other people.” ⁵  This desire in turn was fueled by his art, as he was a writer constantly on the look-out for copy. The distance of the writer, standing back from his characters, is echoed in his life. His many notebooks reveal that he constantly mined his relationships for fodder for his plays and books, and stood back from the people in his life, the better to observe them.


¹ Humphrey Carpenter, Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 174

² Allison B. Kavey, “Introduction”, Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 4.

³ Ibid., Kavey, p. 5

⁴ Ibid., Kavey, p. 4

⁵ Op. cit., Carpenter, p. 174

The Place of Imagination

A major theme in much of Barrie’s work revolves around the place of imagination. Where does it fit into our ‘real lives’? What happens when it intrudes into daily life? In his ‘adult’ plays he explores this in an adult way. In Peter Pan the intrusion is simple and dramatic.

“… the dreamworld asserts its reality by slowly invading the Darling household. … When the dreamworld becomes real, consequently, the dangers of the imagination also become real…” ¹

In other works by other people the fantasy world is seen as a dream, an illusion. In Carroll’s Alice books or the movie version of The Wizard of Oz the fantasy is bookended by ‘reality’: at the end the heroine ends the fantasy by waking up. Not so in Peter Pan (if you ignore the 1953 Disney movie). In all ‘fantasy world’ stories, dream or no, the return to real life is seen as a rejection or repression of the fantasy. Wendy and her brothers have, in a real sense, rejected Neverland and eternal youth in favour of family and growing up. Barrie details both the joy of eternal youth but also the sorrow that Peter feels when peering through the window at the happy family reunion. Barrie seems to be coming down on the side in favour of growing up and being respectable, and yet… Peter’s life is not without its charms, certainly!


¹ John Pennington, “Peter Pan, Pullman, and Potter: Anxieties of Growing Up”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 248

The Nature of Childhood

To be born is to be wrecked on an island.

J.M. Barrie, in an introduction to Coral Island

As already mentioned, the pitting of children against adults is common in children’s literature, but in few works is the actual nature of childhood (and adulthood) so keenly studied and depicted. As the epitome of childhood, Peter Pan is an incredibly complex character, full of joy, charm, vitality, and fearlessness, but also loneliness, selfishness, shortsightedness, neediness and sorrow. He is at once both adventurous youth and undeveloped infant.

At the time of Barrie’s writing, children were generally regarded as superior beings, at least in some regards. After centuries of being largely taken for granted, the Romantics (among others) began to give children more credit. For some it was the baby’s proximity to heaven (having just come from there) which made her closer to God than adults, as in Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Mortality”:

And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Hand in hand with this concept came the cutesy depictions of childhood that appeared at the end of the 19th century, in Little Lord Fauntleroy style. Peter Pan, play and novel, contains many quaint outbursts of Victorian sentiment, such as the statement that a fairy is born when a baby laughs for the first time. However in Peter Pan a corner is also turned, as conceits like this are bundled together with a far darker view. Humphrey Carpenter writes that it is hard to pin Barrie down when “one part of him is being horribly sentimental; the other part is standing back and mocking it.” ¹

illustrator Marjorie Torrey, 1957

Kavey, again:

“Like the best children’s stories, it reveals the nastiest aspects of childhood, rather than simply genuflecting at the altars of innocence and youth. Unlike others, though, the Pan narrative reflects adult reactions to children’s selfishness … Like its curious namesake [the pagan god Pan], this story is really liminal, straddling age groups and meaning different things to all of us at different moments in our lives.” ²

Peter, as the champion of childhood, is necessarily selfish and pretty hard to love at times. Wendy is obviously smitten, and Peter uses this to manipulate her into leaving home. His main motive? He needs a bard – he wants to hear her tell marvellous stories about… himself! He operates from a basis of self-interest and love of self-aggrandizement. A not-so-benevolent dictator, he manipulates and bullies his Lost Boys, while still inspiring their love and obedience. Walt Disney softened Peter’s unappealing qualities, reducing his callousness (and violence), and aging him up from heartless infant to heartless-but-loveable teen.

Along with the ego however, comes great charm. Peter is hero to all, and brimming with contagious joy. His sworn enemy Captain Hook obsessively tracks him, for no apparent reason other than an envy of his carefree life. Peter is just too, too… cocky!  Dark, morbid, driven by hatred, and self-conscious to the point of neurosis on the topic of ‘good form’, Hook is driven mad by Peter’s effortless happiness and total lack of concern with good form… which is of course the epitome of good form!

“Both Hook and Peter demonstrate versions of the solitary man. Each shuns society, and each could therefore be said to be stunted and only half alive, but in different ways. Peter is emotionally stunted in terms of fellow feeling, and though he gives the impression of being deliriously alive, we mustn’t forget that he is not – he is a child who has chosen not to live. … Both are quite willing to accept death at the hands of the other, simply because they are not tethered to life by the bands of love for other people.” ³

Peter is more fully attachment-free than a baby, since his rejection by his own mother. He owes nothing to anyone, and his short attention span allows him to forget the people in his life almost immediately. Wendy worries, rightfully so, that as soon as Peter returns to Neverland without her he will totally forget she exists. This freedom provides Peter with no small amount of happiness. As Karen Coats puts it, “Peter Pan doesn’t have joy, he is joy… [he] doesn’t know that a schism could even exist between absolute joy and his ability to experience it – for Pete’s sake, the kid can fly!” ⁴

But paradoxically, Peter also experiences sorrow, albeit infrequently. It comes out at night, when he has nightmares and Wendy finds him weeping. This is a subtle undercurrent in the work, just enough to drive home the fact that, happy as he is, Peter feels a deep sense of loss and at least a subconscious yearning for his family.

Freedom from responsibility can make children gloriously joyful but also cruel. In departing for Neverland in the first place the Darling children rather callously abandon their parents to grieve and worry. This fact is suitably stressed by Barrie. The parents are shown in their grief; Mr. Darling in particular is quite changed for the better by it. Many children’s fantasy works conveniently dodge this thorny issue with the old no-time-passes-while-they’re-away/it-was-all-a-dream scenario.

Happily for their parents, the Darling children do in the end remember their home and opt to return. When all is said and done, one should and must grow up; no matter how alluring endless childhood may seem. The Darling children’s return is necessary, though bittersweet.

“Torn between the opposing demands of innocence and experience, the author who resorts to the wishful magical thinking of the child nonetheless feels compelled, in varying degrees, to hold on to the grown-up’s circumscribed notions about reality. In the better works of fantasy of the [Victorian] period, this dramatic tension between the outlooks of adult and childhood selves becomes rich and elastic: conflict and harmony, friction and reconciliation, realism and wonder, are allowed to interpenetrate and co-exist.” ⁵

illustrator Gwynedd M. Hudson, 1931

In the introduction to their essay collection Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr claim that Peter Pan “… remains vital today because it speaks nostalgically about our wishes to keep children young, while reminding us mercilessly about how cruel childhood can really be.”⁶

Witness the final sentence of the book, notice how the very last word packs a punch and turns the whole meaning around:

When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.⁷

“As many readers come to realize, and as Barrie himself tells us, Peter Pan is a tragic tale. Even as children, we know it is not just that ‘[a]ll children, except one, grow up’ … but that all children, except one, want to grow up; and as adults we feel … his loneliness, his bravado, his loveless life. Peter Pan does not love us and does not remember us, and that is exactly why we love and remember him, because we know what he is missing.” ⁸


¹ Humphrey Carpenter, Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985) p. 186

² Allison B. Kavey, “Introduction”, Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 3

³ Karen Coats, “Child-Hating: Peter Pan in the Context of Victorian Hatred”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 21

⁴ Ibid., Coats, p. 19

⁵ U.S. Knoepflmacher, “The Balancing of Child and Adult: An Approach to Victorian Fantasies for Children”, as quoted in John Pennington, “Peter Pan, Pullman, and Potter: Anxieties of Growing Up”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 245

⁶ Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr, eds. “Introduction”,  in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. vii

⁷ J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (London: Puffin Classics, 2008) p. 207

⁸ Op. cit., White and Tarr, p. xxi

Sexuality and Tinker Bell

For someone who never grows up, Peter seems, despite himself, to have aged over the years…

baby Peter Pan

5 year old Peter

10 year old Peter

The aging up is no doubt necessary for the sake of the narrative, though I think a newborn baby duelling with pirates would have been pretty damn funny. For Peter to be a truly  heroic figure however, the baby fat and dimples had to be abandoned for a more active and daring boy figure. And yet there has been some controversy over where exactly to place him… should Peter be young enough to be entirely free of sexual awareness? Freud aside, how young would that be? Or should Peter be more of an adolescent? In Barrie’s play, Peter is adamant that nobody touches him. Is this an expression of total sexlessness, or an active repression of his sexual nature, rejected along with all aspects of growing up?

In any event, sexuality is firmly entrenched in the story, as Wendy (and all the other female characters) are shown to be in love with Peter, and jealous of his attention to others. Wendy asks Peter what she is to him and he replies that he loves her like a mother, which of course displeases her. She spends the entire time trying to wheedle him into being ‘father’ to her ‘mother’, but he, like a child, is only playacting.

Peter’s apparent sexlessness has drawn criticism of Barrie from two of the major writers of fantasy today: J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. Rowling is critical of Barrie’s refusal to move Peter and Wendy from their innocent world to a more real one where characters have sexual desires, calling Peter Pan a “sinister” book for its avoidance of “hormonal impulse”. And Pullman has called the work “dreadful rubbish” and refused a request from the Great Ormond St. Children’s Hospital to write an official sequel.¹

Such charges are the more fascinating because sexuality is a consistent undercurrent in Peter Pan. It is certainly present in Wendy’s frustrated dealings with Peter, and in the interactions of all those jealous females. It is all a part of the issue of childhood vs. adulthood. Can one really refuse to mature, refuse to develop sexually, refuse to grow up? Sexuality in Peter Pan is contradictory and troublesome and creates the ambitious texture of the novel that thwarts reader expectation, writes John Pennington.²  (Whereas Rowling creates a conservative heterosexual world in the Harry Potter books. Who here is the more ‘modern’ writer?)

The push-and-pull of the issue of sexuality is apparent in the consistent aging up of Peter over the years. By 1953 Walt Disney reimagined Peter as an American teenager, though he is still oblivious to the sexual attraction Wendy, Tinker Bell, the mermaids, and Tiger Lily all feel for him. The typical clueless American teenage boy, some might say.

P.J. Hogan’s 2003 film displays Peter and Wendy as definite adolescents, their blossoming sexuality apparent, if not fully acted upon.

image from Peter Pan, 2003

This version is much more overtly sexual – Peter is a dreamboat, and dances a romantic waltz with Wendy one moonlit night. Even Hook is given his share of sexual swagger: when we first see him he is shirtless and muscular. And he is the one who taunts Peter, saying that the stories Wendy tells are love stories, all ending in a kiss. His one telling blow on Peter’s fragile psyche is to point out the obvious: if Peter won’t grow up Wendy will leave him, and she will marry another, whom she will call (this dripping with sexual threat) “husband!”

Peter here is almost defeated, revealed and unmanned, as it were. He is only reborn when Wendy gives him her secret kiss – he floats up into the air glowing pink, and is able again to battle Hook. I’m not sure that Barrie would have linked Peter’s power so explicitly to his sexuality – I feel that for Barrie Peter’s strength may have had its source in his distance from maturity and sexual awareness. It’s an interesting reinterpretation, surely.

In both the 2003 Peter Pan and the 1991 movie Hook the directors make a substantial change to the famous line from the play,

“To die would be an awfully big adventure!”

In these films Peter says,

“To live would be an awfully big adventure!”

“To live” means here to grow up, to dare to join the human race in the real world. This variation does derive from Barrie’s writing. He writes in his stage directions at the end of the play that if Peter could just understand what Wendy means by her regret at not being able to hug him, “his cry might become ‘To live would be an awfully big adventure!’” However, “he can never quite get the hang of it, and so no one is as gay as he. With rapturous face he produces his pipes” and “plays on and on till we wake up”.³

Tinker Bell in 1924

Tinker Bell in 1953

Beyond the question of sexuality, Walt Disney made the biggest contribution to making the story more sexy, with his redesign of the character of Tinker Bell. On the stage she was merely depicted as a light; in the silent film she was given a body, but a dreamy, otherworldly one, typical of storybook depictions of fairies at the time. Disney made a much more dramatic change, switching from long-haired gossamer to a “vituperative pixie in a tight-fitting swimsuit”. “Two of the principal animators at the studio wrote that ‘Joe Rinaldi wanted Tinker Bell to look more like the popular bathing beauties of the time’… and so the fairy is given a very earthly, beauty-contest body. ⁴

Along with the rather mature female curves, the fairy’s cheeky personality was developed in animation. Her traditional hot temper is displayed by having her face actually glow red when she’s provoked. As charming as the stage’s flickering light would have been, one can’t deny that by giving her such a strong character (and stunning appearance), Disney effectively turned her into a full-fledged character in the story, equal to all others.

(The rumour that Tinker Bell was modelled after Marilyn Monroe seems to be baseless. A live model was employed, an actress named Margaret Kerry.)

As accustomed as we are to her appearance now – Tinker Bell has been the symbol of Disney product for decades – it is easy to forget what a departure her design would have been in 1953. It was apparently part and parcel of Disney’s move to modernize and Americanize the British classic.

“Disney can take a great deal of the credit here, both for introducing new viewers to the Peter Pan story and for making it sufficiently saccharine and moderately sexualized to keep young Americans happily watching.” ⁵

Tinker Bell, 1991 and 2003


¹ John Pennington, “Peter Pan, Pullman, and Potter: Anxieties of Growing Up”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 239

² Ibid., Pennington, p. 250

³ J.M. Barrie, as quoted in Kayla McKinney Wiggins, “More Darkly Down the Left Arm: The Duplicity of Fairyland in the Plays of J.M. Barrie” in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 96

⁴ Murray Pomerance, “Tinker Bell, The Fairy of Electricity” in Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 33

⁵ Allison B. Kavey, “Introduction”, Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 6


The dark hint of death runs right through the history of Peter Pan. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens Peter takes on the task of burying the little children who stay overnight in the park and perish of the cold. (In an even grimmer moment, Barrie’s black humour comes to the fore as he hopes that “Peter is not too ready with his spade”!¹) The novel Peter Pan claims that “when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened.”²  Described as a “betwixt and between” in the former work, because he is not-quite human, not-quite bird, living in between the real world and the fairy world,  Peter is also easily seen as inhabiting a limbo between the land of the living and the land of the dead. Who exemplifies the child who never grows up better than a child who has died young? Barrie’s older brother David died in a skating accident on the eve of his fourteenth birthday, and cast a long shadow over both Barrie and his mother ever afterward. Many have noted the recurring appearance of the dead child who never ages in Barrie’s thought and work.

The central dilemma of the play and later novel is whether or not to choose to grow older, which can also be seen as a choice of life or death. Is Peter the lord of dead children in Neverland/limbo? Wendy and her brothers (and the other Lost Boys) choose life and change over the stasis of death, but Peter cannot be moved to do the same.

“Growth traces a predictable narrative arc, following a character from childhood to adulthood to inevitable death. Growth is by nature tragic, for all must die, and contemplating the death of a child is even more tragic, bordering on the morbid. But that is the crux of stories of growth: children grow from innocence to experience, yet that growth presupposes an unsettling reality, death… Death hovers over Peter Pan in spite of Peter’s eternal youth.” ³

illustrator Alice Woodward, 1907

And what is that thing that pursues the rest of us grownups, embodied in Captain Hook, but Time? Time ticks away in the belly of the crocodile⁴, a constant warning and nagging reminder to Hook that he must die. Certainly one of the many things that makes him hate Peter so, must be the unstated knowledge that Peter never ages and will not die, whereas Hook is an adult and growing older with every minute. This is made most explicit in the Hogan film (Peter Pan, 2003). Hook gets to fly during the final battle in this film, but is taunted by Wendy and the boys that he is

“Old! Alone! And done for!”

Until he too, the weariness of the world in his eyes, takes up the call himself, folds his hands across his chest and drops submissively into the crocodile’s maw. (I’m not sure that even Hook deserves such a pathetic end; it must have been some kind of payoff for being allowed to fly.)

The paradox of Peter’s situation is that, while he has moments (occasional nightmares) in which he misses having a home and family, and all the perks of mortality, he is for the most part, perfectly happy as he is. This is greatly aided by his lack of memory – he forgets things almost immediately, which saves him from a true realization of the monotony and pointlessness of immortality. Adventures are exciting and always-new, completely forgotten as he moves on to new escapades. The same goes for people; no matter how close you may get to Peter, you will be forgotten almost as soon as you are out of his sight. Peter Pan is perfectly independent; not only does he allow no attachments in his heart, he doesn’t even form attachments in his mind. The present perfectly erases the past, with every step forward. And so Peter is compelled to repeat his actions. According to Rudd this is analogous to other obsessive behaviour:

“Freud saw this repetition as an attempt to ward off the unacceptable, as with traumatized soldiers reliving their shell shock – in short, to ward off death.” ⁵

Paralleling Peter’s life, Neverland itself is portrayed in one chapter as an endless circle – Lost Boys pursuing Indians, Indians pursuing pirates, pirates pursuing Lost Boys, around and around the island.

In his essay Rudd makes one last striking comment, invoking the painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, and its distorted death’s head at the bottom of the scene.

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger

“Peter Pan thus lends shape to and materializes our desires while simultaneously being the cocky, anamorphic spot that sticks out, who viewed from the right angle, takes on the contours of a skull.” ⁶


¹ J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906) p. 65

² J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (London: Puffin Classics, 2008) p. 9

³ John Pennington, “Peter Pan, Pullman, and Potter: Anxieties of Growing Up”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 250

⁴ The crocodile, significantly, is female. David Rudd notes that women, with their reproductive capacity, are particularly associated with mortality in Barrie’s work. David Rudd, “The Blot of Peter Pan”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 273

⁵ Ibid., Rudd, p. 272

⁶ Ibid., Rudd, p. 277


illustrator Alice Woodward, 1907

One particularly controversial topic in the production of children’s entertainment is Violence. The depiction of violence, gratuitous violence, age appropriate violence, and whether or not it encourages aggression in children are all hot button topics today. Peter Pan is at heart a fairly violent story, though over the years this has been deftly dodged by the story’s various interpreters. On the stage the violence inherent in the tale is neither gory nor overly upsetting, as it is confined mostly to a flashy sword fight or two. The most bloodthirsty scene, in which the pirates basically slaughter an entire Indian tribe, is often downplayed under cover of darkness, or even by having the pirates take the tribe as prisoners, marching them off the stage rather than piling up the bodies.

In the novel, however, violence finds a comfortable home within the wild imaginations of children and the reality of Neverland. It is asserted that all participants in Neverland’s skirmishes, Indian or pirate or Lost Boy, will eagerly murder each other at the drop of a hat. Hook frequently lashes out with his hook, leaving members of his crew dead or permanently maimed. But one expects this of villains. More surprising is that Peter himself takes great delight in dispatching his foes, on fairly skimpy grounds, though he may immediately forget having done so. And it is implied that he even goes so far as to ‘eliminate’ any errant Lost Boys, so complete is his moral authority in the band. Peter’s whim is law in Neverland. After Tootles shoots down the ‘Wendy-bird’ he admits to his crime and kneels before Peter:

“ ‘Oh, dastard hand,’ Peter said, and he raised the arrow to use it as a dagger.
Tootles did not flinch. He bared his breast. ‘Strike, Peter,’ he said firmly, ‘strike true.’ ” ¹

Peter is only prevented from doing so by the more merciful Wendy, who revives just enough to stay his hand.

Naturally, as Peter makes his way through the twentieth century and beyond, this aspect of his personality becomes less palateable, dare I say less politically correct, and the murderous games of the island are watered-down into mere play-acting. The fact that Peter once cut off Hook’s hand remains essential to the story, and so is retained in all versions, but most other bloodthirsty events have been excised. The sanitizing drive of modern children’s storytelling dictates that our hero must be 100% likeable, hence the inexorable simplification of Peter’s character over the years. He has been declawed. It’s certainly unappealing for him to derive satisfaction from violent actions… unappealing to grownups anyway. Children would experience a thrill of recognition, as he personifies their own lawless fantasies.

Instead, he is watered down. The last vestige of violence in the story that is absolutely necessary – the killing of Hook – is constantly

illustrator Marjorie Torrey, 1957

dodged in the various versions I’ve seen. Not even the darker, edgier P. J. Hogan can stomach having Peter kill Hook in hand-to-hand combat.  In children’s literature it has long been impossible for the hero of a children’s book to kill somebody, no matter how justified the action may be. The resulting contortions run the gamut from disappointing to ridiculous… how often have you seen a villain stumble and fall to his death? That’s just the most common dodge.

In the original novel Peter takes a direct hand, or rather foot – he kicks Hook in the seat of the pants, pushing him overboard into the crocodile’s mouth. (This action affords Hook a brief, last moment of triumph. Obsessed all his life with ‘good form’, and with the fact that Peter is the effortless epitome of it, Hook actually waggles his behind at Peter, successfully tempting his foe into an act of undeniable bad form.) In the stage version and musical we witness the unsatisfying sight of Hook simply giving up and throwing himself overboard, although Peter does toss a bomb after him for good measure. The distancing continues: in the Disney film Hook loses his balance while trying a cowardly swipe at Peter’s back, and falls overboard. To render this even more ‘toothless’ (and leave the door open for sequels), Hook actually escapes the crocodile here, swimming madly off into the sunset. And in the Hogan film, as already recounted, Hook is effectly taunted to death. How is bullying to the point of suicide better than actually having Peter, after a prolonged battle, run his dagger through his nemesis?

Captain Hook’s end in the 1991 Spielberg film Hook is even more ridiculous:

“… everyone is quite cheered when a large stuffed alligator clock falls on Hook. This unconvincing – and poorly directed – scene points to the weakness of Spielberg’s attempt to have it both ways: Peter Pan cannot really kill Hook in front of his children if the ending is to be comedic; if Peter Banning’s conflict with his children is to be resolved through a restoration of love untainted by the guilt of blood on his hands. Yet he cannot leave Hook on the loose to pursue him and his children. So, while he fights him presumably to the death, ultimately the conflict is clumsily resolved crocodilus ex machina.” ²

The role of violence in the story of Peter Pan brings us to this question: does violence exist deep in the psyche of children, as Barrie believed, which would make it a natural inhabitant of Neverland, or does society, via grisly stories and movies, inject violence into the pure and innocent minds of children, as many proponents of nurture over nature believe? Which leads us to the bigger issue, one with its genesis in centuries past…  Are human beings naturally good or evil? 250 years ago the battle was waged between Rousseau’s noble, peaceful savage and Hobbes’ famous scenario of man’s life (if left unchecked) being “nasty brutish and short”. Modern scientific findings are siding firmly with nature and Hobbes, and the nurture side falls ever more behind³ … however this topic lies beyond the scope of this essay, so I’ll set it reluctantly to the side, for now.


¹ J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (London: Puffin Classics, 2008) p. 75

² Linda Robertson, ” ‘To Die Will Be An Awfully Big Adventure’, Peter Pan in World War I”, in Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 71

³ see Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002)

Feminism – Mrs. Darling – Wendy – Other Females

One aspect of Peter Pan that really hung me up when I read the novel as an adult was the role of girls in the story. Even keeping in mind that the book was written in 1911, Wendy certainly made me roll my eyes. John and Michael fly to Neverland and leap into adventure and danger. Wendy eagerly volunteers to stay in the hideout and darn socks. I’m afraid however that my irritation was a rather knee-jerk response. It is easy to wish that past authors had dared to throw up more ‘modern’ heroines – if only Barrie had put a sword into Wendy’s hand! However Wendy exists in the Edwardian world. Barrie does have something to say about the role of women in those times, and does so by having Wendy operate within the seeming confines of her expected role of mother.

illustrator Alice Woodward, 1907

M. Joy Morse writes at length on the role of women in the Victorian family¹ and the increasing power which they quietly wielded, a power which was their ‘reward’ for staying resolutely in their place in the home. The Victorian mother was increasingly depicted as the moral authority within the home, as the father was ‘tainted’ by his ongoing exposure to the outside, workaday world. The bourgeois wife was “unspotted from the world” and the corrupting influences of the public sphere. She found herself perceived as man’s moral superior and given the role of spiritual leader of the family. Accordingly she was increasingly subject to a barrage of books and articles to advise her on how to conduct herself and her home. In his book The History of Childhood, Colin Heywood calls it an offensive from an increasingly confident medical profession during the 1880s and 1890s:

“The mother was presented with rules on regular feeding times, bathing procedures, sleep patterns and early toilet training. Her role was increasingly to be a professional mother, as the cult of domesticity discouraged her from working outside the home…. In this climate it was all too easy to feel inadequate as a mother. This may have rubbed off on to children: more remained alive, but there was talk in this fin-de-siècle period of an increase in the number of ‘neurotic children’. ” ²

Remember, he is talking about the end of the 19th century, not the end of the 20th! But doesn’t this sound like a description of current parenting literature? The end goal of the Victorian writers was to advise women to remain subservient to men (surprise surprise). The necessity of the subservience of woman to man was still a powerful belief in Barrie’s day, however when wife became mother she acquired a new patina of saintliness. It was as if by giving birth a woman herself could be reborn. A man who yielded to his wife on household manners may have seemed weak, but a man who yielded to the mother of his children on matters regarding their upbringing… well that was a little more acceptable, as men withdrew from active participation and responsibility for the raising of their offspring.

Mr. Darling typifies this, being so removed from authority in his own home that he acts as a child himself. Morse calls this the “devolution of the patriarch into the ‘patriarchal child’ ”, saying that it problematized the marital relationship not only for the husband but for his wife as well.³ The ‘Mr. Darlings’ of the world were looked on with scorn, and suddenly ‘overbearing mothers’ were being blamed for the flaws in their sons. Again, a pretty familiar theme! Today’s fathers are portrayed by the media as varying shades of Homer Simpson, and women are castigated for being ‘helicopter moms’.


But back to Edwardian England… As a clue to Barrie’s own views about women, one has to look no further than Mrs. Darling. Mysterious to her husband and children alike, she has married a man of obviously inferior capacity. She treats him with fond condescension, continually reassuring him that he is admired and respected. Mrs. Darling seems to have an immediate connection to Peter and Neverland because of her imagination and fathomless depths. She seems to be nearly as sensitive to the world of magic as her children, indeed, Morse goes so far as to suggest that the entire story of the journey to Neverland may occur within the dream-world of Mrs. Darling’s unconscious.⁴ Indeed, the novel hints at this:

She dreamt that the Neverland had come too near and that a strange boy had broken through from it.

This opens a whole new can of worms, especially in light of the common pairing of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling! Is the whole Neverland adventure simply an acting-out of Mrs. Darling’s subconscious battles against her husband and her life in ‘his’ house?

“Dissatisfaction with her maternal role, along with any recognition of the full extent of her domestic power, however, was a concept too debilitating for a Victorian mother to recognize consciously.” ⁶

illustrator Marjorie Torrey, 1957

If one follows Morse’s suggestion, in Mrs. Darling’s fantasy her husband has been elevated in class and ability to the extremely commanding Captain Hook, and Neverland is populated by “dangerous and improper women” (Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily). When Wendy arrives and takes on the role of mother to the Lost Boys, a microcosm of the Darling family is created, but if Mrs. Darling is indeed the author of the adventure, then it is she who prevents Wendy from gaining sexual control of Peter, and turning him into ‘father’.

Mrs. Darling’s power is exemplified by the mysterious kiss which Barrie writes is there in full view on the corner of her mouth, but that she has not given to anyone, neither husband nor children.

“[Mrs. Darling] still keeps a part of herself separate from those who need her. Both she and Peter are pros at navigating between worlds without losing their sense of who they are or where they were going in the first place.” ⁷

However at the end of the book (and the end of her fantasy) Mrs. Darling presents Peter with the mysterious kiss, in effect turning her back on Neverland and giving herself entirely over to her grownup role of wife and mother. Peter’s return to every generation of girls gives them all the possibility of escape.⁸  John and Michael may have enjoyed their time in Neverland, but it is to the girls that Peter returns.

The idea that the whole story of Peter Pan happens inside Mrs. Darling’s dreaming mind creates so many new reverberations that I’m starting to feel dizzy. Consider also that Barrie originally suggested that the same actress who played Mrs. Darling should also play Captain Hook.

“… instead of doubling Dorothea Baird as Mrs. Darling and Hook, which Barrie had originally established in an early version of the play that he entitled, “The Boy Who Hates Mothers”, Gerald du Maurier asked to play the pirate. Du Maurier was already cast as Mr. Darling, and his doubling as the father and pirate has had an important impact on contemporary readings of the play.” ⁹

Layers upon layers: Mrs. Darling as Peter Pan’s arch-nemesis. And both Hook and Peter played by females, adding an even deeper layer of gender indeterminacy to the whole affair. Fascinating stuff.


Even if one rejects Morse’s appealing suggestion that the story plays out in Mrs. Darling’s mind, the text still has much to say about the

artist unknown

role of women in society. Wendy chooses to be mother, certainly, but it is all part of the play-acting of the story – children trying on grownup clothes and habits for size. The story itself begins with John and Wendy pretending to be their parents, and Wendy simply carries this play to Neverland. It is also clear that by fulfilling Peter’s wish for a storyteller, she hopes to insinuate herself into his life and affections, so she is not free of her own manipulative stratagems. A desire for power is at the heart of Wendy’s interest in Peter, and by the end of the story she succeeds to some extent in attaching Peter to herself, as he promises to retrieve her annually for a trip to Neverland to help with ‘spring cleaning’. (And yet Peter still retains the upper hand, as he consistently forgets to come for her.)

Barrie’s comments in the dedication to the play about the inclusion of Wendy in this rather boyish adventure are instructive. After pointing out the elements of the Peter Pan story that appear in the summer adventures he shared with the Llewelyn-Davies boys (as depicted in his 1901 photographic account “The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island”), he admits:

“Wendy has not yet appeared, but she has been trying to come ever since that loyal nurse cast the humorous shadow of woman upon the scene and made us feel that it might be fun to let in a disturbing element. Perhaps she would have bored her way in at last whether we wanted her or not. It may be that even Peter did not really bring her to the Never Land of his free will, but merely pretended to do so because she would not stay away.” ¹⁰

This reluctant inclusion of a feminine element highlights the fact that Peter Pan successfully brought together the two literary trends of the day into one book – boys’ adventure stories and girls’ homelife books.

“[It] brings together these two strands in a collision which is part war, part intercourse, between the opposite poles of a literary taboo. Barrie’s book therefore shows up a polarity inside the children’s literature to which it was addressed. The home-adventure-home sequence which is such a familiar pattern of children’s writing … stands out here as something more in the nature of a sexual divide.” ¹¹

Barrie could have written a straight-ahead boys’ adventure, but he obviously wanted to say something larger about boys and girls, and mothers and fathers. In accord with Rose’s “sexual divide”, in the nursery Wendy exercises unusual authority over Peter, since that is her (and all girls’) territory. Peter goes on the defensive immediately, as Wendy says, of his short name, “Is that all?”. She rather bosses him around, telling him he is “dreadfully ignorant”, and takes charge of reattaching his shadow, saying rather self-importantly, “I’ll sew it on for you, my little man.”

In short, her behavior is authoritarian and motherly. The balance of power only begins to swing when Peter starts to exert his cunning. Peter, “the artful one”, wheedles with a very clever line, that “one girl is worth more than twenty boys.” His goal is to take Wendy to Neverland to tell stories to them all, and, despite his apparent lack of knowledge about romance, he certainly knows how to ‘play’ a female. After he tells her about the adventures he has in Neverland with his band of Lost Boys – babies who fell from their prams and got lost – they have the following exchange:

illustrator Mabel Lucie Attwell, 1921

WENDY: What fun it must be.
PETER: (craftily) Yes, but we are rather lonely. You see, Wendy, we have no female companionship.
WENDY: Are none of the other children girls?
PETER: Oh no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams. ¹²

Shameless flatterer! And by the time he turns to leave, Wendy has jettisoned all of her former authority and entreats:

WENDY: Don’t go, Peter. I know lots of stories. The stories I could tell to the boys!

And then Peter puts the last nail in the coffin…

PETER: “Wendy, how we should all respect you.”

Game, set, and match. Wendy goes from a position of domination in her home to one of servitude in his. Wendy does her fair best to recreate family life in the Lost Boy hideaway, thus reinstituting herself as boss, and this necessitates a lot of washing up and ordering the boys about. One might wish that she took up a cutlass and joined in the Lost Boys’ fun, but if she did she would just be one of the crowd. Wendy instead uses what weapons she has in her arsenal to exert her own leadership. Can anyone deny that domination can also be achieved this way? Despite her act of subservience to Peter/‘father’, she still can still order him to take his medicine. Surely she is enacting what she has seen in her own home, where Mrs. Darling is most certainly the one in charge.

However Wendy is no longer in the world she knows. Neverland is Peter’s dominion. He sets the rules and, determined not to fall into the trap of growing up, he rebuffs her romantic intentions. Wendy’s sole remaining card is her ability to up and leave, and choose the fate of herself and her brothers. It is testament to her powers of persuasion that Peter’s entire band of Lost Boys choose to go with her and leave paradise. But Wendy fails at her bigger goal of winning over Peter, who remains in control of his own destiny – he will never give up eternal childhood. Peter is somewhat acquainted with the terrain of this battleground, as both Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily seem to have their romantic designs on him. As little as he seems to understand exactly what they are after, he has nevertheless always managed to skip blithely out of their clutches.

“Pan himself, in [Disney’s] cartoon, defines sexual identity in the field that surrounds him, and reduces both Wendy and Tinker Bell (and Tiger Lily) to subordinate positions, exactly by virtue of their willingness to do battle to win him as a prize.” ¹³

In this light the struggle between Peter and Wendy remains as current today as when it was written. Wendy may be entirely an Edwardian creature, but her desires and motivations should not be regarded with condescension. My modern disappointment with Peter Pan’s Wendy is more that she seems so grownup and unable to have fun like the boys do. But of course Wendy is the eldest of the Darling children, depicted as being on the brink of adulthood. Her proximity to adulthood casts her necessarily to be the antithesis to Peter – she is the argument in favour of growing up.

And yet, with every new incarnation of Peter Pan, it is the character of Wendy that everyone is intent on altering, turning her into a more ‘modern’ girl. Never mind that the story remains firmly planted in a historical time and place, Wendy’s independence and gumption are pumped up as if on steroids. In the Hogan film (2003) she is entirely uninterested in marrying, declaring that she will travel and have adventures and then become an author and write them all down. How far this is from the blushing, domestic Wendy of the past! One wonders if this new Wendy wouldn’t choose Neverland instead of returning to the real world, where her aunt (a Hogan invention) awaits to prep her for a dreary marriage?

In this 2003 version Wendy, like her mother, also has the mysterious kiss, and she plants it on Peter, to encourage and reinvigorate him so that he is able to defeat Hook in the final climax. Alison B. Kavey writes that Wendy:

“… exchanges her profound power as the teller of stories to deliver the fated kiss that saves Peter but dooms her to a life of heteronormative servitude in full Edwardian style. … She tries not to be selfish, she takes care of other people, she has emotional range. But she trades so much for so little, and that ultimately makes me both sad and angry.” ¹⁴

It seems that whatever the female viewer/reader takes away from the character of Wendy will necessarily be tinged with the reader’s own experiences and desires. My own opinion? Giving Wendy a louder and more raucous voice is just a cosmetic change. The real debate of Peter Pan – to grow up or not – plays out just fine with the more ‘traditional’, domestic Wendy. Now, nobody asked me, but here’s something nobody has tried yet: how about turning Michael into a Michelle? Have the youngest Darling be the other kind of girl, a rambunctious hell-raiser, who falls in so naturally with the Lost Boys that no one can deny her admittance to the club. Admittedly, giving Michael/Michelle this added weight would probably unbalance all else. Some of the leanness and mobility of the Neverland adventures is due to the fact that Michael and John are pretty two-dimensional, and can be counted on to act just as one would expect them to. If Michael were female Wendy would probably be far more concerned with keeping her wee sister safe and in line. So perhaps Barrie’s way is best. The play and book are about what they are about, and beefing up the females only serves to muddle what the author was saying.

(Another attempt to make a girl character more palateable to modern tastes was made in Return to Neverland, where Wendy’s daughter Jane becomes the first-ever Lost Girl. She is certainly as proactive and independent as the boys, and the dichotomy that plays out in this story is that she is just too serious and needs to be a child. So she learns how to have fun and be less grown-up, which is definitely different than the original story’s direction.)


There are not many females in Neverland, and the ones that are there are all madly in love with Peter, falling completely under his power. Even the mermaids spend their time flirting with him. The role of girls and women in Neverland is reduced to the typical female role in boys’ adventures: that of assistants, servants, mothers, cheerleaders and ardent admirers. And, if Neverland is the ultimate boy adventure novel location, this makes total sense. Further, if Neverland is also totally the creation of Peter’s fertile imagination, which it often seems to be, then the subservience of all females there makes even more sense!

There is, however, one gal with no small amount of chutzpah, actively disobeying Peter to the point of convincing the Lost Boys to

illustrator Gwynedd M. Hudson, 1931

shoot down her rival Wendy. Today Tinker Bell is the one ‘modern female’ that we’d like to see in this tale, and so it rankles that Disney saw fit to reduce her to a silly sexpot. In a moment rather startling in a modern context, when we first see Disney’s Tinker Bell she lands on a mirror and gazes down admiringly at her reflection, but takes in dismay at how large her posterior looks! She puts her hands down to measure the width of her hips, then holds them up and looks aghast. Nowadays the concerns about body image would quickly have deleted this bit of business from a children’s film. (I can almost picture Walt chuckling in a smug 50s male way about how silly women can be.)

Tinker Bell has, in recent years, proven that she has legs – and I’m not talking about her curvy gams. She is the centrepiece in the new Disney world o’ merchandise called Disney Fairies. Tinker Bell, amorphous to Barrie, has been pinned down like a butterfly, and replicated into a new fairy world that Disney can in turn invent, construct, populate, and then mine. She has made a much more successful transition into the 21st century than Peter or anyone else from the original work. She is that ultimate culture war survivor: a spinoff.


¹ M. Joy Morse, “The Kiss: Female Sexuality and Power in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan“, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006)

² Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001) p. 73

³ Op. cit., Morse, p. 288

⁴ Ibid., Morse, p. 294

⁵ J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (London: Puffin Classics, 2008) p. 12

⁶ Op. cit., Morse, p. 295

⁷ Allison B. Kavey, “Introduction”, Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 9

⁸ Op. cit., Morse, p. 299

⁹ Patrick B. Tuite, ” ‘Shadow of [A] Girl’ – An Examination of Peter Pan in Performance”, in Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 110

¹⁰ J. M. Barrie, “Peter Pan” (the play) (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1928) p. 29

¹¹ Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan: or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1984) p. 84)

¹² Op. cit. Barrie, p. 68

¹³ Murray Pomerance, “Tinker Bell, The Fairy of Electricity” in Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009), p. 35

¹⁴Op. cit., Kavey, p. 8

Drawing on Tradition – Pan, Fairies, and Mermaids

J.M. Barrie wove into his modern tale many strands of myth and tradition. The first and most obvious can be found in the name of his hero. The implied connections between Peter and the classical goat-god Pan are subtle but were certainly obvious to readers of the day. Pan was enjoying a renaissance at the time, personifying a pantheistic paganism that appealed to many who were rejecting traditional Christianity. In fact he had become ‘a natural and pervasive Edwardian god’ ¹, and had already played a role in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Pan was a god of fertility, a guardian of flocks, and later became the god of all nature – thus he was a natural symbolic figurehead for the Edwardians looking for a solace in wilderness that they couldn’t find in church. He was not all peace and serenity, however. Pan was also associated with terror and death.

“Although benign in The Wind in the Willows, Pan more often signaled fright. … the Pan of antiquity is said to have inspired travelers with deadly terror when they met him in their rambles, especially when they met him at night. Medieval peoples used Pan’s half-human, half-goat image to represent Satan, and from his name we’ve derived the English term ‘panic’, a sudden and irrational fear.” ²

illustrator Arthur Rackham, 1929

By naming his hero Pan Barrie was also giving Peter a faint tinge of godlessness and evil. Peter is associated strongly with nature, dressed in leaves and cobwebs, but his natural world is a godless, amoral one. Peter gained significant historical resonance from his last name, and accordingly his adventures were successfully anchored in centuries of tradition and folklore.

There is another aspect of Pan that is extremely relevant to Peter’s character – Pan could also be a “devilish raider of childhood, a plunderer or abductor of children.” ³  And child-stealing goes hand in hand with the traditions regarding fairies, for in the past they were definitely neither cute nor benevolent. The ancient faery stories are full of tales of children stolen by fairies and replaced by sickly fairy changelings, and of young mothers captured and taken into fairyland to serve as midwives and nurses to fairy children, dying, to all appearances, in the mortal world.⁴  These myths addressed the real tragedies of infant mortality and mothers who died in childbirth.

The poem “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats borrows from Celtic tales of stolen children, and provides the story of Peter Pan in a nutshell:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
W.B. Yeats, “The Stolen Child” (1889)

illustrator Arthur Rackham, 1929

This poem also captures the essence of the old faeries: frightening yet enticing, evil yet appealing. They personified escape from the ugly mortal world, and yet entrapment and enchanted servitude in the beautiful fairy realm. Fairies had been capricious, selfish and amoral for centuries. In Barrie’s time, however, they were in the process of an ‘image makeover’:

“At the same time that Victorian and Edwardian England was revisioning the role of childhood, they were also reshaping their traditional lore to include a whimsical, yet tentatively hopeful, portrait of the denizens of the fairy realms. While there is ample evidence that the country people tended to believe in fairies and to pay them a grudging, cautious respect well into the twentieth century, intellectuals and writers tended to use this sort of popular lore for their own ends.” ⁵

Katherine Briggs writes:

“…the accompaniments of fairy beliefs are so picturesque as to make the temptation to use them as a pretty trimming almost irresistible. This is particularly so with the small fairies. The passion for the miniature which is so strong in England rendered them less and less formidable. When they were given butterfly and dragonfly wings they were reduced to almost the status of insects, and in the sheltered days of the early twentieth century every care was taken to render them unalarming.” ⁶

Barrie himself walks a fine line on the issue. He invents much that is sentimental regarding his fairies, (ie. that a fairy is born when a human baby laughs for the first time), and yet the fairies in his books (particularly Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens) are also vicious little sprites, true to tradition. The children who stay overnight in Kensington Gardens are in immediate peril of being killed by the little people. And Tinker Bell is particularly cold-blooded in her machinations to have Wendy shot by the Lost Boys. Barrie accounts for this extreme malice by stating that fairies are so small they can have only one emotion at a time.

It deserves a mention here that Barrie’s mermaids are also accurate to the old traditions.

“In traditional lore, all water spirits are dangerous to humans, longing to drag them down to death, though mermaids tend to be ambiguous creatures, at times aiding and even loving mortals.” ⁷

Wendy is entranced by the Neverland mermaids, but must be warned by Peter that they will try to drown her. (In Disney’s version, the mermaids are preening teens, petulantly jealous of Wendy’s friendship with Peter rather than being threatening primitive forces of nature.)


¹Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995) p. 111

² Carrie Wasinger, “Getting Peter’s Goat: Hybridity, Androgyny, and Terror in Peter Pan”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 228

³ Karen McGavock, “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 206

⁴ Kayla McKinney Wiggins, “More Darkly Down the Left Arm: The Duplicity of Fairyland in the Plays of J. M. Barrie”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 92

⁵ Ibid., Wiggins, p. 82

⁶ Katherine Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature (London: Bellew, 1989, c1967) pp. 197-198

⁷ Ibid., Briggs, p. 42

Historical Context: Victorian girls and Edwardian boys, The Dandy Aesthetic, and WWI

It is instructive to place Peter Pan firmly in its historical context. A great deal of ground had been covered in the years between Alice in Wonderland’s publication in 1865 and Peter Pan’s appearance on the scene in 1904. England had transitioned from the anxious, fussy Victorian age to the new, rakishly adventurous Edwardian era. A simple look at the characters of Alice and Peter make the attitudinal shift more than clear…

“The Victorians liked little girls, the Edwardians worshipped little boys. Alice is virtuous, charitable and obsessed with good manners; Peter Pan is selfish, flippant and rude. The Victorian child is a symbol of innocence, the Edwardian child of hedonism. In fiction, the former is good, the latter has a good time.” ¹

But perhaps a few more words about the Victorian era which preceded are necessary. It is a common perception that the Victorians were repressed and old-fashioned, which is true, but with further psychological complications. They were also extremely self-conscious about being in transition from old ways of thinking into modern ways. They were having trouble navigating the rise of industrial, bourgeois capitalism, and held a profound nostalgia for a lost sense of security and community.²

The artists of the day could at the same time begin to reject God and tradition, and yet cling to a sentimental longing for the old ways, ways so old they predate Christianity and industrialization. There are intensely ‘modern’ strains of thought shooting through the Victorian mind, resulting in both incredibly complex works of art (Alice in Wonderland) and also in anxious denial and social and moral repression at all levels. (Personified in the dual figure of Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll – the latter the creator of an astonishing attack on religion and society, the former a stuffy, religious math professor who was sincerely appalled at any tinge of bad language or lack of respect toward God. Ah, but more about Alice another day…)

So the Victorians were a tormented bunch, sentimental, yet forward looking. They felt instinctively that the modern life of industry and city life was the cause of much unhappiness, unhappiness that could be corrected with reforms and modern thinking… and yet they were so hard-wired to tradition and class consciousness and general snobbery that they could not bring themselves to act in any dramatic or meaningful way to correct ills. They couldn’t break out of their constrained social habits or expand their limiting social definitions.

Edward, Prince of Wales

Into this rather stuffy and unhappy milieu came the dashing, joyful figure of Edward, the Prince of Wales,

“The new image, in part a reaction to mid-Victorian social and moral repression and a death-obsessed court, was encouraged by the role of Edward, the Prince of Wales, as the irresponsible, pleasure-seeking playboy of Europe, and by the Edwardian decade the image had crystallised. Virile, outward-bound, ever-young men are the cult figures of the 1890s and 1900s, and a sense that life beyond youth was not worth living contributed to the fervour for youthful martyrdom that came in 1914.” ³

Barrie was a noteable ‘straddler’ of Victorian and Edwardian eras: combining an heroic, Edwardian adventure story with a comfortable dream of a peaceful, Victorian domestic life. It is from the happy home life that Peter runs away.

“[R]ather than participate in society under the terms of Victorian manhood, he opts out of life altogether … what is so wrong with the image of manhood during this time period that Peter Pan simply cannot face it? … Mr. Darling, the quintessential Victorian male, is presented as petty, miserly, and obsessive before the children leave for Neverland. He is overly concerned with what people think of him, and he frets continually about who is admiring him and who is not.” ⁴

Mr. Darling, and also Mr. Banks from the Disney Mary Poppins, both illustrate the “stifling version of masculinity performed by the professional classes in the name of civilized domesticity.” ⁵  Their lives are so devoid of any kind of fun, so regimented, and so unimaginative that Peter’s refusal to become like them seems suddenly like an easy choice. It must be said that today the argument against growing up is rather harder to make, since nowadays grownups are fully able and willing to spend the majority of their leisure time in fun and games. There are far more stories currently about the necessity of hanging onto childhood than about the joys to be gained by letting childhood go.

Oscar Wilde

However back at the last turn of the century there was a great sense of rebellion against growing up into an ineffectual Victorian male. The example of the fun-loving Prince of Wales was much more appealing to the (then) modern mind. Besides taking Peter Pan’s magical route of simply not growing older, there seemed to be two ways to escape Mr. Darling’s fate. One was to become Oscar Wilde.

“The dandy, with his cult of male beauty and hint of psychological perversity, became a fashionable English type…” ⁶

The other was to become Robert Scott, the explorer who perished during an Antarctic expedition in 1912,

“… the Edwardian ideal of the Gentleman, who faces both life and death ‘with great fortitude’, without complaint, and with a willingness to sacrifice everything, including one’s own life, in the name of a greater cause.” ⁷

On one side aestheticism: all is done in the name of art, beauty, and style. On the other side ascetism: duty, team spirit, male friendship, the outdoor life, and above all, patriotism.

In many ways the Peter Pan juggernaut that Barrie created travelled into areas that Barrie could not have foreseen nor intended. At the time a famous line from his play gripped hold of the public imagination in an extremely unfortunate manner.

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

This line is uttered by Peter Pan when he is injured and left upon Marooner’s Rock to be drowned by the tide. Barrie said it was a line invented by one of the Llewellyn-Davies boys during their adventure play. Uttered in the midst of play-acting great heroism, in the early days of World War I the line took on a different, propagandistic shade when it was paraphrased by Charles Frohman on the deck of the Lusitania. (see details above under TRIVIA)

The utilization of a phrase from his creation, in the service of rallying a fighting sentiment, must have seemed like a nightmare to Barrie, who was a broken man after the death of the eldest Llewellyn-Davies son, George, in the trenches in France. In essence Frohman’s final words (and the mileage given them by the British press), linked Peter Pan to one of the “pervasive expressions of zealotry associated with World War I: that facing death in warfare was the great adventure.” ⁸  J. M. Barrie did not, of course, originate this idea, but the romance of dying young in warfare became strongly connected to “The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.”

“The ‘Great Adventure’ … becomes the willingness to die for ‘a great cause’. The gentle fantasy of the little boy who refused to grow up now becomes praise for young men who will not live past twenty. A fairy tale about being able to fly by thinking happy thoughts and laughing under a sprinkling of fairy dust becomes the military reality of learning to fly a plane fueled by gasoline into the skies, and, if fate calls for it, going down in flames. And, above all, it underscores the willingness to undertake The Great Adventure as the very foundation upon which Civilization must rest.” ⁹

The rush of young volunteers into the British armed forces has caused much study to be made of the literature of the prewar period. Robertson makes the claim that the “imaginations of boys and men on both sides of the Atlantic had been fired by the romantic adventure literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including stories by Sir Walter Scott, George Alfred Henty, Rider Haggard, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and William Morris – and notably, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan…” ¹⁰

For along with the free spirit of Edwardian England also came a streak of fierce imperialism. Note that Neverland is inhabited by “the very figures of colonialist hate and fantasy: indigenous ‘redskins’, murderous pirates, and equally treacherous mermaids.” ¹¹  The young, very-English boy heroes of adventure stories were all stalwartly subject to and representative of the crown. Peter stands apart from this, for he is firmly detached from God, King or country, but traces of colonialism remain in the novel’s other characters…

At this moment Wendy was grand. ‘These are my last words, dear boys,’ she said firmly. ‘I feel that I have a message to you from your real mothers, and it is this: “We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.” ¹²

So speaks Wendy to the boys who the pirates are about to march off the plank.

“Love, marriage, children were stultifying; what men yearned for in their imaginations was the ultimate challenge of facing death.
Women were given the role of ensuring their male offspring understood that following this drive was the ultimate test of both patriotism and manhood.” ¹³

It’s amusing to think what Peter’s reaction to Wendy’s speech might have been, had he been with them on the deck. A thumb to the nose and a raspberry, I imagine.

It’s a confusing time to pick through. For many social critics at the time, war seemed the perfect antidote to the growing decadence of British society. “…war seemed the desirable cure for the materialism, indolence, and indifference of the moneyed classes. It offered the contrary moral condition – self-sacrifice in the name of a higher ideal.” ¹⁴  So in the very same moment, the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking lifestyle – seemingly exemplified in the person of Peter Pan – is seen to be directly opposite to its ‘antidote’, the courageous, self-sacrificing, patriotic youth who joins up in search of the Great Adventure… a concept which can also claim to have origins in Peter Pan. A whole repertoire of meanings can be found behind the idea of eternal youth. And so Peter Pan, and Barrie, find themselves on both sides of the great divide in British society at the time.

And in the modern era, further meanings are being grafted onto the hapless Peter…

“Peter Pan is a floating signifier, a construction of social meaning. Popular American culture has given him a dark and indeed very selfish side, in which the desire for adventure and pleasure trumps all other motivations. Dr. Dan Kiley invented the popular term the Peter Pan Syndrome to describe men who are narcissistic, emotionally immature, irresponsible, aggressive, and dependent. Other critics interested in psychology have concluded that Peter Pan reflects the emotional numbness of his creator. But the cultural legacy of Peter Pan argues for a very different understanding of what he represents.” ¹⁵

In the end, as Jackie Wüllschlager writes, Peter Pan is a fin de siecle text that reflects ‘tragedy and disillusion’ in its ‘creation of [Barrie’s] dream of eternal youth and its cruel unmasking’. ¹⁶


¹ Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995) p. 109

²Walter E. Houghton in The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 COATS/WHITE&TARR 10

³  Op. cit., Wullschläger, p. 109

⁴ Karen Coats, “Child-Hating: Peter Pan in the Context of Victorian Hatred”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 12

⁵ Linda Robertson, ” ‘To Die Will Be An Awfully Big Adventure’, Peter Pan in World War I”, in Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, Allison B. Kavey and Lester D. Friedman, eds. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009) p. 64

⁶ Op. cit., Wullschläger, p. 114

⁷ Op. cit., Robertson, p. 65

⁸ Ibid., Robertson, p. 53

⁹ Ibid., Robertson, p. 67

¹⁰ Ibid., Robertson, p. 64

¹¹Op. cit., Coats, p. 13

¹² J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (London: Puffin Classics, 2008) p. 163

¹³ Op. cit., Robertson, p. 64

¹⁴ Ibid., Robertson, p. 61

¹⁵ Ibid., Robertson, p. 50

¹⁶ Op. cit., Wullschläger, p. 111

That’s it! You made it! Here’s my list of books…


Barrie, J.M. Farewell Miss Julie Logan: A Barrie Omnibus. Canongate Classics, Glasgow, 2000. (includes The Little White Bird )

Barrie, J.M. “Peter Pan” (play) (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1928)

Barrie, J.M Peter Pan (novel) (London: Puffin Classics, 2008)

Barrie, J.M Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906)

Birkin, Andrew. J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003.
Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: The Golden Age of Children’s Literature. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1985.

Hanson, Bruce K. The Peter Pan Chronicles; The Nearly 100 Year History of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’. Birch Lane Press, New York, 1993.

Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood. Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001.

Kavey, Allison B. and Friedman, Lester D. eds. Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2009.

Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-ups. Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 990.

Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films; 4th Edition. Disney Editions, New York, 2000.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan: or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Macmillan Press, London, 1984.

Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: the Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (Revised and Updated), Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1968, 1985.

White, Donna R., and Tarr, C. Anita eds. J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100 , The Scarecrow Press Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 2006

Wullschläger, Jackie. Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne. Methuen, London, 1995.

WEBSITE RESOURCES – maintained by Andrew Birkin, author of J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, this site includes many many archival photos, of Barrie, the Llewellyn-Davies family, and productions of Peter Pan. Also includes full photos and text of The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island (1901), Barrie’s account of the adventures of a summer, and which holds the genesis of the story of Peter Pan.

© Kim Thompson 2011


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: World Wide Wendys | Wendy Meyen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
%d bloggers like this: