Peter Pan by J M Barrie,
illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)
Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.
I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.
I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.
First, though, I had to eradicate all images and manifestations of Peter and his gang from my memory — the Walt Disney animation, the live action movies, the original F D Bedford illustrations for the first edition, even the slightly clumsy Elisa Trimby line drawings from this Puffin edition. Peter appears as a child who has yet to lose his milk teeth, so therefore five or six at the oldest. Wendy, John and Michael, even the Lost Boys, will be no older than this and, apart from the pirates (who are expressly portrayed as adults) we may imagine the Redskins and possibly mermaids as around the same age.
Next, I had to forget all the maps of Neverland I’d ever seen, most of which had descended from that produced by publicity for the Disney film. Because Barrie extemporised his tale for the Llewelyn Davies boys we must imagine a landscape formed by features they were used to and probably played around, made infinitely malleable and permeable by the magic of make-believe.
And this is the key to suspending disbelief and looking behind the avuncularism in Barrie’s story: unless we become as little children we won’t truly enter Neverland where the borders are infinite; unless we can relax into let’s-pretend we will be forever lost in the miasma of literality, trapped in the morass of rationality. So, I revel in Hook’s obsession with ‘form’ inculcated while at Eton, wonder at George Darling’s self-penitence in Nana’s kennel, sympathise when Mrs Darling silently weeps for her missing children, rejoice that Smee has a life after piracy is put behind him.
I’ve not alluded to the actual story in outline because, of course, it’s far too well known to need repeating here. But the often ignored prologue to Peter’s arrival in the nursery is worth paying attention to as many of the later themes will be make a first appearance. Having read the Kensington Gardens ‘prequel’ (which originally appeared embedded in a longer 1904 novel) where Peter is portrayed as in his first year, I have an inkling what this tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up is really concerned with. It’s not really about adults who want to remain childlike; instead Barrie is being sensitive to children’s curiosity about the mysteries of ageing. The playacting at being Mother, the seeming indifference to casual killing, Tinker Bell’s spitefulness, Peter’s cockiness and the children’s instantaneous changes of mood — all represent youngsters’ attempts to learn how to be adults without any true understanding of the complexities of being adult.
7/21 TBR Books in 2021
1/12 Back to the Classics 2021
Tomorrow is World Book and Copyright Day 2021 in the United Kingdom, and World Book Day in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, designed to get children reading for pleasure.
Elsewhere this themed day is celebrated on 23rd April. Designated by UNESCO as a worldwide celebration of books and reading, World Book Day is marked in over one hundred different countries.