All children, except one, grow up.
This, however, is a review of a book and not a story of my life, so we’ll be moving on now.
The idea of Peter Pan is something that just about anyone can recite from memory. There’s a boy who will remain a boy forever who lives upon an exciting island far in the sky just past the second star to the right where there are fairies, pirates, indians, mermaids, and an adventure around every corner. Not only can the boy fly with the help of pixie dust, but he carts three children from London out of their nursery and onto a journey they’ll never forget.
Except, of course, they do. For forgetting is very much a part of growing up, and if we could remember every wonderful thing that ever happened to us as children we would wallow in the unambiguous joy of it well into our twilight years. Unambiguous joy is not, however, the intent of Peter and Wendy. In much the way that Grimm’s Fairy Tales have been smoothed around the edges, sanded to a palatable mush of inoffensive fables across the decades, so too do classic children’s stories have a tendency to slowly lose their edge the longer they exist, as adaptations come and go and the brightest spots of the text are chosen while the little dark corners are trimmed for time or lack of interest. Peter Pan has been adapted and reimagined countless times, each one making small tweaks and leaving this or that out until the story becomes stripped down in memory to those elements that persist in each telling. A boy, a fairy, three children, a villain with a wicked hook. Disney Animation’s Peter Pan strips the tale of much of its melancholy, while Mary Matlin’s musical takes away much of the subtlety. P.J. Hogan’s film returns the spark of Elektracal chemistry among distracting early-century CGI spectacle, and Hook — well, Hook is flawless. Deal with it.
No, you’re right, it does have Julia Roberts.
It’s easy, taking in adaptation after adaptation of Peter and Wendy (itself the novelized adaptation of Barrie’s original play) to simply assume you know everything there is to know about the story. When I began reading, in fact, I thought I was settling in for a warm and nostalgic re-read of a childhood story I hadn’t actually read since I was in grade or middle school. But then it dawned on me fairly quickly that I had never read Peter and Wendy at all, despite even the sections that were new to me being familiar to me. Having been on something of a Peter Pan binge (including all four of the aforementioned adaptations and bits and pieces of some others) over the past two weeks, it soon became clear to me just how the influences of the book itself had been scattered to the winds. Sometimes that can mean simply putting those pieces back together as you read, as rote and mechanically satisfying as a jigsaw puzzle but not adding anything particularly new to the arrangement. With Peter and Wendy however, it just solidified everything I love about the story.
There’s a very particular sort of storybook language that fairy and children’s tales can get away with, the sort of language that makes it easy to read along not in the voices of the characters but in the voice of someone telling the story to you, perhaps doing the characters in their own variations. There’s a warmth to the language that invites you to fall into the story and let it be told, a narrator as much as an author guiding you through to the end. The narrator of Peter and Wendy suggests adventures that happen beyond the written page, asks of you to believe in fairies, grows frustrated and enthralled with the characters they speak of, and is always ready to offer their comments on the happenings at hand. While more recent stories with this device such as A Series of Unfortunate Events can sometimes very nearly overstep their bounds with the conceit (I say as a lover of those books), Peter and Wendy remains enthrallingly charming from beginning to end with the gentility with which Barrie guides you through.
And it is all here, of course. The flying boy, the trio of London children, the pirates, the lost boys, the casual turn-of-the-century racism and misogny, everything you need to make a successful children’s story. I snark, but there are times where presenting the book in a modern context when the depictions of the “redskins” (can we really call them Native Americans if they’re really more Native Neverlandians?) becomes deeply uncomfortable, and while much of Wendy and Peter’s depictions of parenthood come across as amusing anecdotes of playing house writ large, it’s a very old fashioned notion of parental roles, where Wendy cooks and cleans and watches after her boys, and is ever so content to do so. To say nothing of Tinker Bell, who spends very nearly the entire story being pretty and petty and not much else, save for the act of heroism that redeems her jealousy. Mostly. But then, Peter and Wendy also becomes uncomfortable in other ways. In very good ways, in the ways that have been sanded off over the years.
In the ways which Peter Pan starves his companions when he sustains himself on make-believe food that they can’t quite pretend is real enough, or the way he callously kills pirate after pirate, or forgets those he cares about and those he doesn’t alike in a matter of seconds. In the ways that the indigenous Neverland tribes violently scalp their pirate and little boy enemies, and the way Hook wallows in the melancholy of being the sole nobly educated being in the whole of the world he knows. There are depths of melancholy and darkness to Peter and Wendy that never drag down the joys of the adventures themselves, the shadows that give the entire structure a character that it would be lacking were they to be snapped off at the window. Things can be scary without ever being too scary, and they can be sad without being too sad, and in Peter and Wendy, occasionally they are both.
The highest compliment I can probably pay to Peter and Wendy is that in reading it, I wanted to read it aloud. I wanted someone to read it to, in fact. It’s the book I now most want a dogeared copy of to keep beside a child’s bed (after The Wonderful Wizard of Oz gets worn out, in any case). I want to scribble in the margins to explain away the parts of it that come with its age, but to lose those parts outright would also change the timbre of the tale to a degree (witness how most adaptations shy away from incorporating the natives too heavily — or just go whole hog and make Tiger Lily blonde, why not?). I want to make like Dan Handler and add thesaurus entries following the phrases that might be obscure for younger readers. In the story of the boy who doesn’t grow up, there’s an almost perfect story for anyone to grow up with.
Jeez, What Makes the Red Man Red is still really embarrassing though.