Innocent and heartless

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

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.

© C A Lovegrove

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.

40 thoughts on “Innocent and heartless

    1. All retellings, as we’ve discussed before, Alicia, bring minuses and we’ll as plusses, and Disney is no exception; in fact I’d go as far as to say that Disney usually create Frankenstein monsters, maybe wearing fair faces, by stripping out the original core and replacing it with an Americanised, occasionally saccharine, filling. Reanimated (literally, in many cases) they fool people into thinking their ersatz copies are the urtexts by blanketing everything in franchised merchandising. The Peter Pan film, attractive though it is, is a universe away from my reading of the original.

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    1. I trust you have been reading Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice which I believe has gone through many editions; if not, do search it out as a corrective to later retellings.

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      1. And I dislike it when people talk of any of these as being Disney characters (just the other day someone had shared something about Eeyore as one)–what about the authors who actually created them?

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        1. It’s about ownership and, ultimately, power, whether we’re talking about big corporations, governments, neighbourhood gossip or social media memes—we’re rarely in absolute control of the things we create or what we think we’re responsible for.

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    1. I agree, Cathy, the tone is a real stumbling block for new young readers and listeners, and sufficiently different from expectations to utterly dismay and disappoint. Given its birth in the Edwardian era I find it delightfully transgressive, but then I guess one needs a long sense of history to appreciate that aspect — modern kids won’t have gained that yet and even for us adults a lot of it may elude us.

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  1. The Puffin classic version is the one I stocked in the school library and for children brought up on a diet of Disney it remained a difficult read for most. In the same way as the books already mentioned, Alice and Pooh, but also Cinderella in particular, children’s views of the stories is very different to the originals. I enjoyed reading your take on Peter Pan and the reminder of the episode with George Darling which I’d forgotten.

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    1. It’s difficult, and I can’t think of a solution unless newer well crafted films that are truer to the originals supersede the Disneyfied versions because of their quality as well as magic. Neverland, for all its gross simplifications and mild mawkishness, at least attempted to suggest the background of and the emotion inherent in the Peter Pan novel.

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  2. piotrek

    As a kid, I’ve seen multiple adaptations, but only read the book in my twenties, after a friend told me it’s her favourite book ever. It was back when “Finding Neverland” was in cinemas… I really liked it then, but I felt it would be more rewarding to have read it earlier.

    My nieces had an abridged, heavily illustrated edition read to them several times, and seemed to like it, but were reluctant to to give me quotable comment when I asked them today, being a bit shy 😉 I think I’ll revisit this topic with the oldest one, next time I visit, I wish I remembered more about my own thoughts at that age…

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    1. I would imagine that for children to get the most out of this, Piotrek, it would require an adult who not only had read the book but was also in sympathy with its tone and ethos to read it aloud to them—without the teasing, knowing approach that grown-up can bring to a narration I think today’s children would find it either intolerably patronising or incomprehensible. It would definitely be interesting to know what your oldest niece (how old is she?) would think of it.

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      1. piotrek

        Seven. I tried to get her input when I was writing about comics for young readers, but, well, she was four then… I need to be patient, but one day we’ll have a third contributor on Re-E, I’m sure 😉

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  3. I remember seeing Ian McKellen (as Hook / Mr Darling) and Jenny Agutter (Mrs Darling) at the National Theatre in the late 1990s in Barrie’s play. In 2013, I saw the RSC’s more feminist retelling of the story ‘Wendy and Peter Pan’ at Stratford. Both were rather wonderful, and infinitely better than the Disney film (although the mere mention of that and I’m singing ‘Following the leader’ in my head – and will be for hours now!). I never felt the need to read the book though – should I?

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    1. Absolutely, Annabel, if you’re a completist! … but I wonder if it’s one of the great unread children’s classics these days, and whether — like me — many of us are convinced we read it when we were younger when in fact it was a shortened version, a retelling or a spin-off from Disney rather than the original?

      Also, your mention of the feminist version called Wendy and Peter reminds me that Barrie’s novelisation of the play was originally called Peter and Wendy, and that Wendy in fact plays a greater role in the story than I’ve intimated.

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    1. There are so many aspects that feel archetypal, Nicola, as well as timeless, but the one I’m thinking about now is the concept of Neverland as an island where children can be children playing at grown-ups, and the possibility that The Lord of the Flies, which is ostensibly inspired by R M Ballantyne’s classic The Coral Island, is in fact a darker version of Peter Pan.

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  4. My first ever appearance on the stage was in a school production of Peter Pan when I was about seven. Well, I say appearance, but I never actually got on stage… I was the understudy for Nana! 😉

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    1. An acting career denied before it had a chance to be realised, your name never put up in lights, no fairy dust sprinkled over you… 😁

      Aged 8 or so I was given the role of Michael in a primary school play, with a new set of pyjamas to wear after it was all over; I don’t think I had a line to say, though I remember the head teacher’s daughter was Peter and I got to hang around in the Wendy House while others acted their socks off outside!

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  5. jjlothin

    I prefer not to read electronically – and I would rather have avoided Amazon (known to my local bookshop as the Amtichrist) – but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist downloading the Kindle version @ 49p!

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    1. I’m surprised that, as a classic, you couldn’t get it free on Kindle, but perhaps Amazon are capitalising on their market dominance during lockdown. Anyway, good luck and do come back here when you’ve finished it and let me know your reactions!

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  6. I have a hard time describing my feelings about this book – “love” is a too strong word, “like” or “appreciation” not strong enough, and “adoration” is not precise enough – but I do love the ambiguity and ambivalence of this world and its characters. It’s not a book with a moral, or even a “moral book” – but it’s an amazing still picture of a certain age in child development, as well as an absolutely delightful exercise in imagination. But I’ve seen only one adaptation that I liked – the fairly recent one with Jason Isaacs as Mr Darling/Hook. And don’t let me start on Disney! 😉

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    1. ‘Admiration’ might be the apt word, Ola, do you think? That seems to come across in what you say, especially regarding the ambiguity and ambivalence you point out; my post title quoted part of a line towards the end of the book which, I believe, best sums up the ‘amoral’ (as opposed to ‘immoral’, which it’s decidedly not) nature of Barrie’s child-centred narrative.

      It’s been a while since I saw the Jason Isaacs vehicle, my only real impressions being that the kids were far too old and that there were too many nods to modernity in the acting and pace of the action; I’d be quite prepared to revise my opinion though if I saw it again!

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      1. Admiration seems apt if a bit too dry, for there’s a solid lump of nostalgia in my take as well 😉 Ah, I’ll figure out how to call that strange mix of emotions, not unlike what I feel for Carroll’s Alice 😊

        The kids in Isaacs’s version are old indeed, but then – I feel like in our century they keep their “childness” (not childishness) longer than it was the case in Barrie’s time. It is a modern take on Peter Pan, but maybe such retelling strikes a chord with young audience more than a more faithful one would? It’s not a perfect one, for sure, but I’d be curious to read what you’ll think of it if you choose to rewatch it, Chris!

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