Wednesday, February 03, 2010

An awfully big adventure

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you're probably well aware of my love for the story of Peter Pan. It's the first book I bought with my own money, at a student book fair in grade school, and I still own the decaying Puffin paperback that I first read as a child. (None of the other printings of the book feel quite right to me; the pagination and the line breaks seem off, somehow, because they don't conform to the text I've read so many times that I could quote long swaths of it from memory.) Consequently I've become something of a purist; I prefer J.M. Barrie's original version of Peter over all others.

The one true cover.
Film adaptations of the story are almost always problematic. Although I liked Finding Neverland, the parts of the film that portrayed the first stage production of Peter Pan lacked much of the magic that permeated the rest of the film. Of the Disney animated version we need not speak further. But the 2003 live-action film with Jeremy Sumpter had a few inspired moments, and I enjoyed Hook a lot more than I expected I would, particularly since I happen to believe that the whole premise -- what if Peter Pan grew up? -- is directly at odds with Barrie's own vision of who and what Peter is in the original story.

There are clues to decode the riddle of Peter's existence scattered throughout the texts, both the book and the play, for those who seek them out. There is a compelling reason why, for instance, Peter exists in a domain called Neverland, and his followers are called Lost Boys. There is a reason, other than fairy dust, why he can fly; there is a reason, other than that it was accidentally snapped off, that he casts no shadow; there is a reason why he never needs to eat, unless it is for play. There is a reason why Peter and the Lost Boys live in a home under the ground. There is a reason why Mrs. Darling remembers that it was said of Peter "that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened." There is a reason why the fairies accept Peter as one of their own. There is a good reason why children can see Peter quite easily, but older children and adults have an increasingly difficult time making him out (we are told that "you can't see Peter if you are too old"). This same reason is a key to understanding Peter's selectively faulty memory -- the way he cannot remember anything of import, not even Captain Hook or Wendy or Tinker Bell, and yet he remembers quite clearly the painful story of how he ran away the day he was born to avoid becoming a man, staying away for moons and moons, and finally deciding he would return home only to find the window barred and another little boy sleeping in his bed. There is a reason why he never grows, and it is not because he doesn't want to (when Peter first returned home, it was with the intention of staying and perhaps growing up a bit, before discovering with a shock that he could not get back in).

Perhaps the most telling clue appears in a later printing of the play, when Peter, in the night-nursery, admits to Wendy that he doesn't have a mother (parenthetical notes are Barrie's own stage directions):
(She leaps out of bed to put her arms round him, but he draws back; he does not know why, but he knows he must draw back.)
PETER: You mustn't touch me.
PETER: No one must ever touch me.
PETER: I don't know.
(He is never touched by any one in the play.)
Peter often chooses to see himself as responsible for things over which he actually has no control. Just as he cockily attributes the re-attachment of his shadow to his own cleverness and not Wendy's industry in sewing it back on, so likewise does he transform his inability to grow up into his own refusal to do so. Further, the thought of being touched is uncomfortable territory for him, so he has come to own the idea that he must not be touched to hide from himself the lurking realization that he is intangible. I could cite numerous other examples in the text which support this idea -- that aside from being a personification of the spirit of childhood, Peter is also a spirit, the ghost of a dead child who either cannot or will not realize he is dead.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the development of antibiotics and advances in obstetric medicine, it was far more common for infants and children to die in childbirth or succumb to childhood illnesses; it was one of several reasons why people tended to have larger families then, because it was a simple fact that some of them would die. My great-grandmother used to tell me stories of how she'd return to grade school after vacation to discover that one or another of her little friends had died of scarlet fever or flu or pneumonia. It was at least as common an occurrence as food allergies are now. In that era there were many thousands of Lost Boys and Lost Girls who went out of their parents' lives forever, and many parents who must have been heartsick over the state of their departed children's souls.

Barrie's own life had been touched by the grief accompanying such loss; when he was six years old, his own brother David was killed in a skating accident just before the boy turned fourteen. David was his mother's favorite, and she never recovered from his death; her one consolation was that he would forever remain a child in her memory. It would not be unfair to say that the idea of David haunted J.M. Barrie for the rest of his life, and the concept of a child who will never grow up appears in many of his stories before it takes its most complete shape in Peter Pan.

There is a scene at the end of Act 3 where Peter, wounded and left on a low rock with the tide coming in, believes he is about to die. He stands "with a drum beating in his breast as if he were a real boy at last," and as always, seeking to transform the inevitable into a product of his own will, he says to himself, "To die will be an awfully big adventure." But it is an adventure he has, unwittingly, already experienced and cannot go through again; he subsequently appears unharmed and without further explanation in Act 4. The one "awfully big adventure" which will elude Peter forever is being part of a family and growing up; indeed, this is mostly what he likes to play at when he is with Wendy, pretending to be the father of a large and happy family. But although Peter is one of the best play-pretenders ever, in the end it is all hollow as he stares through the closed nursery window at the joyous reunion of the Darling family:
He had had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.
It is this scene, more than any other, which makes Peter's story tragic; he will exist forever only because he can never be truly real.


Jaleta Clegg said...

Beautiful essay. One of these years I'll have to actually read the book.

Soozcat said...

Thanks. The story really does resonate more with adults than it does with children.

PG said...

Many of the classics do...for similar reasons to the ones you've picked up on. A book you would find interesting is 'Inventing Wonderland' by Jackie Wullschlager, if you have not already got it. It covers Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, A.A Milne, J.M Barrie and Kenneth Graham, all of whom were haunted by their childhood histories. I feel a deep kinship with them, having had an isolated childhood, and going through early bereavement - it really does effect one's creativity and is why I always say that I create for myself, not for children. Even though most people don't really understand that.

Soozcat said...

Gretel, I'm trying to remember where I was recently when I read this, but I came across a supposition that the most intense creativity springs from early tragedy. Certainly it's possible to have a happy childhood and become a great artist, but it certainly isn't typical.

The other thing all those writers have in common is a respect for the intelligence of children. One gets the sense that they all remembered childhood well and thus never talked down to their audience or made their characters precious in any way.

I don't have that book, but it sounds really intriguing. Will look for it.

Helena said...