Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Illustrated by John Hench and Al Dempster
Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up saw its wildly popular stage premiere in London in 1904. The book, not published until seven years later, was something of an afterthought. It has that feel – a careless air, a rambling casualness. The play itself, finally brought to print in 1928, is tighter and makes for a more exhilarating read. For this is a story that belongs on the stage, drawn with bold theatrical strokes. It needs an audience to gasp as Peter Pan flies across the stage or to clap wildly as Peter asks for believers to bring Tinker Bell back to life. It needs the inspired music and lyrics of the Broadway musical – with such songs as “I Won’t Grow Up” and “Never Never Land”. Even on film, the Disney version is a pleasure, with its extravagantly mustached pirate captain – better for his character to be deliciously and comically evil than weirdly nuanced as he is in print.
However it is experienced, the story sparkles with imaginative brilliance. There is Peter Pan himself – cocky and conceited, but also a merry vibrant life force to be admired. He navigates by the stars and gives his address as “Second to the right and then straight on till morning.” He is a stickler for fairness, but is strangely amoral in other respects, especially when it comes to murder and mayhem – he is “frightfully happy” as he prepares for his fight to the death with his nemesis. For all his bravado, he is a poignant figure, for his eternal childhood comes at the price of memory and growth and the reassuring comforts of family and home. When Peter returns to the nursery to visit Wendy a year later, he has no recollection of either Captain Hook or Tinker Bell. He is ready to start over at the beginning again. And again. And again.
J.M. Barrie, if not a polished writer, was a wizard when it came to creating memorable characters and set pieces. Who else has come up with a situation as bizarre as that of the dashing Captain Hook brought sniveling to his knees by the tick tocking crocodile (a female, as unlikely as it seems), forever in pursuit after having had a taste of him? And how about Neverland itself, populated (excessively) with pirates, lost boys, redskins (of the Piccaninny tribe – what?), wild beasts, fairies, and mermaids? Is it not inventive that the beautiful Indian princess is named Tiger Lily, an appellation that evokes the exotically wild and the English country garden simultaneously? And then there is the Darling household back in Kensington Square where Nana, the Newfoundland, is nursemaid and the father, as penance, takes up residence in the doghouse.
The book is filled with oddities. But J.M. Barrie, himself, was odd. A tiny (5’3”) Scottish man, married for a time but asexual by most accounts, devoted to his mother, about whom he wrote a biography, devoted also to the Llewelyn Davies boys, all five of whom he supported after their parents died in quick succession of cancer, and for whom he invented the Peter Pan story. One can feel his own strange longing in the pages.