Read | Peter Pan revisited

19 June 2020

Satyr lives

In the latest of our series about books with Galloway connections, author Stuart Kelly revisits Peter Pan and finds a layered, complex and occasionally cruel fable about our relationship to time

Peter Pan is like Peter Pan. The book, as the boy, flips and flickers, flits and fillips, it flutters, it flytes, it is fluid, a fluke, a flourish, a philander, a fizz, a flash. He – or it - is there and then it’s not. But how did it come to such prominence in the collective imagination?

Let us go back to the sort-of-beginning, and a review of the book from the Boston Evening Transcript of Friday, 27 October, 1911. Under an advertisement for the Steinway (“The Best Piano Investment!.... You buy a piano as you build a home – once for all)”, almost unnoticed sits a review: “What Happened To Wendy The New End that Mr Barrie Has Given “Peter Pan”.

It is mostly a precis of the book, but as reviewers are wont to do,  the writer gets her dig in early. “Mr Barrie has  joined the ranks of the “novelisers” and you can buy the fairy play of “Peter Pan” made over into a story called “Peter And Wendy”, and published by Charles Scribner’s House. But if you do buy it and read it right through, you wont [sic] recognise the end of it at all”.

The Boston Evening Transcript’s reviewer was not wrong. The book is Peter And Wendy. The earlier play was called Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow up, appearing in 1904 and arriving on Broadway the next year, with all the things we love about the tale: clap your hands if you believe in fairies! “To die would be an awfully big adventure!”

She might also have mentioned that Peter's story was there beforehand as well as an interlude inThe Little White Bird in 1902, and an extrapolation in 1906 entitled Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens, with the famous Rackham illustrations. And the tale is even more twisted than that. It might have been called Anon: A Play, or The Great White Father or even – sharp intake of breath – “Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Hated Mothers”.

What's clear is that, even in 1911, Peter Pan had begun to "sublime", becoming less a part of the terrestrial universe and more an idea. You don't even need to have read any of the iterations or seen any of the films to know what the story of Peter is. He has ascended to be like Captain Ahab or Alice or The Great and Mighty Oz.

Nothing about or around him is certain. Is he a boy of a girl in boy's clothing? How old is he even? In the book, a mere seven days; on the stage, on the cusp of being a teenager. When we first meet Pan, he wears the skeletal shades of winter leaves. Then he wears autumnal russets. On stage he is verdant and green. Even Barrie can’t quite figure out what Pan is. No-one can. He always is and is not. He’s the glimmer in the corner of your eye. He eludes, and lude, as Miss Jean Brodie might say, comes from the Latinludus, a game. He escapes the game of being.

The one who embraces being is Wendy. Our Bostonian reviewer might rightly be struck by how central, and mystifying, a figure Wendy is in Peter and Wendy. By the end, Wendy is girl, mother, grandmother, housemaid and even love-interest. Her circumstances change, but she is always Wendy, in whatever iteration. It is perhaps unsurprising that her name was a neologism: no Wendys before Wendy. (No Wendy houses either, for that matter.)

Wendy is the anti-Pan. She grows old, gracefully, and changes. But the past in this story is not, it seems, a fixed point, but always in flux. Pan's impossible insistence on being always "gay and innocent and heartless" denies the choices and consequences that living entails. He is the crest of a wave that never breaks. Even his very existence feels provisional. As Wendy remarks in the play: "If he could get the hang of the thing, his cry might become 'to live would be an awfully big adventure!' "

Despite the cartoon versions, the thing is that Pan is not nice. He is not the hero. He is not kind. He is not generous. In the final confrontation with Wendy, we realise that Pan is Pan. His self-chosen surname evokes the Greek Pan, which is everything and pandemonium, not a boy but a satyr, not a satire on childhood but a horrific sense of its moral emptiness. Never grow up? Never man up.

But the novel does have a man, and in Hook we have a very peculiar figure. He is described as wearing clothes almost two centuries old, like a moustache-twisting Royalist. He does not seem to have a grand plan, or a scheme behind things. He may be the villain, but he is not the outright villain. So, the question is why is Hook in Neverland, or Never Never Land? Why are he and Pan stranded in utopia?

The answer I think, reading it again, is the fear of time. When Pan does come back at the end of Peter And Wendy, it is horrible. Firstly, he has said he would help with spring-cleaning, and yet has not turned up for years and years. Secondly it becomes clear that Pan has always had a thing about the Darlings, and even Wendy’s mother might have encountered him a long time beforehand. But worst is the climactic scene, where Wendy is sitting with her child. Pan still, awfully, has his milk teeth. He has forgotten Hook and even Tinkerbell, just as Wendy has forgotten how to fly. 

“The little girl in the bed is my baby” says Wendy, to which Pan retorts “No, she’s not”, and takes “a step towards the sleeping child with his dagger upraised”. In a line that still gives me shivers, Pan says of his amnesia about Hook, “I forget them after I kill them”. What was Hook afraid of? Time, not Pan. The tick-tock inside the croc, the remorseless clock, the horror of knowing that there shall be an end, but its when unknown. Pan and Hook both try to defy time, and both become monsters in that quest.

Looking back through time, Peter And Wendy is a stranger, sadder book that one would expect of its pantomime versions. Yet that should not be a surprise. Barrie is often belittled as a “little writer” who wrote The Little Minister and spent his time tending his kailyard. If you read Quality Street or The Admirable Crichton or Dear Brutus you find an author obsessed with the possibility of the world being otherwise. Reality was never sufficient, and unreality was never satisfactory. I do not know of a more haunting line in Scottish drama than when the fictitious child in Dear Brutus pleads for her father not to return to reality: “I don’t want to be might have been”. Pan gets out of that, but does so at a terrible cost.

Re-reading the books, it did strike me there is a reason why any “further adventures” of Pan are not successes. He has chosen to be stuck. He has no future. There cannot be a Pan story that channels Tennyson’s Tithonus, with his ache “release me, and restore me to the ground; Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave”. Pan is undying. That is his tragedy.

It's an ongoing tragedy, since he is now an immortal of sorts. The best later version of Pan is the Pan that never quite made it to the page. Bill Willingham, one of the best comic book writers of recent years did 150 issues, and many spin offs, of his Fables. In them Snow White, the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, Hansel (who loves killing witches and is a Puritan) and the Wicked Witch all became refugees in New York, after “The Adversary” tok over the world of stories. The big reveal of who the Adversary was was intended to be Pan. The immortal, immoral, Pan was the despotic, totalitarian creature behind Story Being Over. But Willingham was not allowed to use the character of Pan, and ingeniously, The Adversary was revealed as Pinocchio's manipulator Gepetto. 

Yet again Pan escapes. He is not allowed to be a monster. He is not allowed to be a hero. Now here is a question: did Pan ever kiss anyone? The boy and the relict are indistinguishable. I do not think that Pan is capable of loving, but I hope the mercurial figure is capable of being loved.   

Stuart Kelly's last book was 'The Minister and the Murderer' (Granta)

Find out about Peter Pan Moat Brae House, which inspired the young Barrie, here.

Filed in: Read