Raise your hand if you’re obsessed with Peter Pan. I’m talking the Disney movie, THE BOOK (hearts in my eyes), the stage musical, the other stage plays like Peter and the Starcatchers and Wendy and Peter Pan, etcetera, etcetera. I hope it’s not just me. I even read a prequel book about Captain Hook and his days at Eton (Capt. Hook: The Adventures of a Notorious Youth by J.V. Hart) which was super-mega awesome and also notable, in my mind anyway, for being illustrated by Brett Helquist, the same guy who illustrated A Series of Unfortunate Events, which gave it this mysterious, sharp-edged kind of vibe right from the get-go.
BUT YEAH, I love Peter Pan. (Just for a point of order though, I have no intention of going to see the movie Pan that’s coming out soonish. No more white Tiger Lilys, thank you.)
But, I ask you with my fingers tented like a cartoon villain, what do you know about J.M. Barrie’s book, Peter Pan? Have you read the original story? If not, are you prepared to be traumatized by the original story? Because I’m ready to fill you in on it.
Basically, in the original story, our eponymous hero is a total sociopath. This is not an exaggeration, Peter is literally a serial killer, and not just of pirates. Peter is explicitly said to kill members of the Lost Boys if they either got to old or didn’t follow his orders. This “getting too old” business should be intriguing to the canny reader, however. Isn’t Neverland the place where no one grows up? How is this possible? And interestingly, if you take Barrie’s narrator at his literal word, this does not appear to be the case. People do grow up in Neverland, and as he says, “All children, except one, grow up.” This “one” is, of course, Peter. But why does Peter not grow up, if the Lost Boys do?
Well, I’m going to save that piece of information for the ending.
One overarching theme of the book are the moral weaknesses of children. They are forgetful, selfish, and altogether heartless, but they are also innocent. However, innocent does not carry the positive connotations that it usually does. Honestly, it could be more accurately defined as “amoral” in the context of this book. Peter, naturally, is the epitome of these traits. He is very forgetful and very selfish, he likes to be the center of attention, and sometimes he completely forgets about the pressing needs of his companions, or indeed, their existence in general. One telling anecdote about Peter is that on his journey with Wendy, John, and Michael to Neverland for the first time, Peter became so wrapped up in showing off his flying skills that he zoomed away, leaving them alone, lost, and confused for a very long time, before Peter remembered that they existed, and returned to finish guiding them to the island.
Peter kills without remorse. He is innocent in the sense that he doesn’t know any better. And while other characters grow and change throughout the story, even Tinkerbell becomes a less selfish being, sacrificing herself by drinking poison to save Peter’s life, Peter remains the same. Shallow, forgetful, and young.
But why, you ask?
That answer lies with J.M. Barrie’s childhood. When James Barrie was a kid, his brother, David, died in an ice-skating accident. David had been their mother’s favorite child, and she was absolutely distraught and inconsolable after his death. James, yearning for her affection, would sometimes dress in his older brother’s clothes to get his mother to pay attention to him. It is generally thought that the character of Peter is based somewhat on David Barrie.
Simply put, Peter never grows up, because he is already dead. The other Lost Boys, though they may have been misplaced by their nannies or dropped out of their perambulators, have the option of returning to the real world at the end of the story. But Peter never considers it. He remains behind, in Neverland, as his companions grow older and fit themselves back into reality.
He stays the same. Thoughtless, selfish, beautiful, and forgetful. After promising to return for Wendy and to bring her back to Neverland for spring cleaning, he comes to her decades too late, having not kept track of time. Wendy is a mother now, and when she inquires as to where Tinkerbell is, Peter has no idea what she’s talking about, because Tinkerbell had died many years ago, and he had quite forgotten her.
Peter takes away Wendy’s daughter, Jane, and the cycle begins again, as it will continue to do so, as "long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.“ But Peter remains. A sad figure, untouched by time, but not really being able to feel much of anything at all.
I love the story of Peter Pan, mostly because it is simultaneously one of the most beautiful and the harshest things I have ever read. It’s a story that’s not afraid to make it’s villain, the child-hating Captain Hook, more honorable than its carefree hero. Hook, incidentally, while ruthless, is driven by etiquette and "good form,” and his final victory over Peter was being able to goad the boy into kicking the pirate to his death. This means that even in his final moments, Hook could be assured that he, not Peter, was the better man. And of course he was, because Peter was only a boy. A man is the only thing that Peter could never be.
So what I’m saying is, if you want a mythology you can over-analyze and bawl your eyes out over, the answer is Peter Pan. Read J.V. Hart’s book, see a villain humanized, and cry. Read the script to Wendy and Peter Pan, which is teeming with feminism by the way so yay, and meet the other boy who’ll never grow up, and cry. Cry about a callous fairy that’s been forgotten, cry about Wendy waiting for years and years, and cry about Jane, because one day, Peter will show up at her window, and take away her daughter too.
Just do it. Embark on an obsession to a darker and wilder Neverland than the one in the Disney film. You’ll see what I mean.