Peter Pan: Do you really know him?

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJ.M. Barrie Peter Pan book reviewPeter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Most people think they’ve read — or at least know — the story of Peter Pan. The figure of the boy who refuses to grow up has become so infused in Western culture that he’s taken on a life beyond his literary beginnings, starring in countless theatrical productions, movies, television series, prequels and sequels, his image used in merchandise (everything from records to peanut butter), and on several famous statues around the world (the most famous being the one in Kensington Gardens) and even providing the namesake behind a psychological condition (we’ve all heard of people with a “Peter Pan syndrome,” referring to those who refuse to accept the responsibilities of adult life). And then there’s that other Neverland which lends unfortunate connotations to Barrie’s work.

The origins of Peter Pan are quite muddled, first appearing in an adult’s book titled The White Bird, after which the relevant chapters were transferred into a children’s book titled Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (which involves Peter’s escape from his home into the company of fairies who live in Kensington Gardens). From there, Barrie used the titular character in his children’s play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and later adapted the story into a novel called Peter and Wendy — though now it’s usually simply titled Peter Pan.

It’s complicated, but the fact of the matter is that if you haven’t read this original text of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, then you really don’t know the story at all. The Disney movie, the stage productions (especially those that aren’t based on Barrie’s own script), or one of the myriad of abridged picture books, simply don’t count. And don’t even get me started on Steven Spielberg’s Hook. These adaptations don’t even begin to scratch the surface of one of the deepest, most intriguing, and darkest children’s books ever to be written. Would you believe me if I told you that Peter Pan contains scenes of the pirates brutally massacring the “redskins”? That Tinkerbell doesn’t live to the very end of the story? Or that Barrie includes a scene that casually mentions fairies returning home from an orgy? And Neverland may well be the land of the imagination, but that doesn’t stop Barrie from portraying the Lost Boys from being a rather bloodthirsty group of feral children, who at one stage consider chaining up Wendy in order to prevent her from abandoning them.

And these are just periphery details, not touching on the heavy themes of death and rebirth, the relationship between parents and their children, the loss of innocence and price of adulthood, the pain of loving someone and the terrible passage of time that permeate the entire book. It’s pretty dense stuff for a children’s book, but so much more rewarding than all the sanitized versions out there that strip the original manuscript of its potency. At its core Peter Pan is a modern fairytale, providing hidden commentary on impending adulthood, though simultaneously existing as a celebration of childhood in all its joy, egotism, wonderment and heartlessness. It’s not hard to recognize Neverland itself as the landscape of a child’s mind, full of adventures and bereft of any parents — a wonderful place to visit…but would you really want to stay there forever? And that’s not meant to be a rhetorical question: Barrie seriously asks the reader at times whether eternal childhood is a boon or a curse. Given the circumstances of his own life, I don’t think he himself ever made up his mind.

This review is already quite lengthy, and I haven’t even given a synopsis yet — though it may seem a bit redundant. Everyone knows that the eternal-child Peter Pan comes to the Darling household one night and spirits away Wendy (and her two brothers) in order for her to act as a mother for himself and the Lost Boys. Without a thought to their parents left behind, the siblings leap at the offer and soon find themselves showered in fairy-dust and flying through the London air toward Neverland, a place they’ve visited only in their dreams. Although Neverland is full of beauty, there is danger as well, especially in the dark figure of the notorious Captain Hook, who despises children — especially Peter Pan.

Of course, you probably already know the famous events that follow: the thimble/kiss, the runaway shadow, the ticking crocodile, the house that is built around Wendy as she lies unconscious, the rescue of Tiger Lily at Mermaid’s Lagoon, the jealous rages of tiny Tinkerbell and her sacrifice to save Peter’s life, and of course the battle-royale on Hook’s pirate ship. But if you haven’t read the book, I bet you’ve never heard of the Never-bird, or Wendy’s pet wolf, or Mrs Darling’s hidden kiss. There are so many treasures in this story, and it’s all told in Barrie’s fascinating narrative voice, which can go from poetic to whimsical to satirical to philosophical within the space of a few paragraphs.

It’s so very tempting to go on about the deep symbolism and meaning inherent in almost every passage in the story (Freud would have a field-day with Peter Pan, even without the original play’s tradition of casting the same actor in the parts of both Mr Darling and Captain Hook) but it is so much more rewarding to discover it all for yourself. Peter Pan is one of those rare books that grows richer, more heartbreaking and meaningful with each read.

~Rebecca Fisher


J.M. Barrie Peter Pan book reviewOne of the finest children’s novels I’ve ever read.
I listened to the audio version of this read by Jim Dale. It’s totally charming.

~Kat Hooper


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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