The Many Forms of Peter Pan
by Sally Bushell
As with other great literary works – Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein – Peter Pan taps into a primal human myth so that, once written, it is as if both the work and the character always existed. What is at the heart of that myth? Who, or what, is Peter Pan?
The first thing to realise is that Peter Pan as a literary work and as a figure changes considerably over time. The story developed across four forms, written for different audiences:
* 1902: Chapters 13–18 of The Little White Bird (episodic narratives for adults)
* 1904: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (performed at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London on 27 December; 145 performances)
* 1906: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (six chapters from The Little White Bird)
* 1911: Peter and Wendy (full narrative version in novel form)
* 1928: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (published play script)
Peter is represented in multiple ways, with his identity morphing and changing across these works to a considerable degree. Even the author himself seems to be unable to remember which version came first. In a preface to the 1928 play script, J M Barrie wrote:
I have no recollection of writing the play of Peter Pan, now being published for the first time so long after he made his bow upon the stage. …I cannot remember doing it. I remember writing the story of Peter and Wendy many years after the production of the play, but I might have cribbed that from some typed copy. (‘To The Five’, Dedication, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up)
Here Barrie refers to the five Llewelyn Davies boys whom he first met in Kensington Gardens and who inspired the writing of the story. In a sense then, right from the start there is not one Peter Pan, but many.
The first Peter Pan
The Little White Bird is set in Kensington Gardens. Peter is described as a kind of bird-child, since all children ‘having been birds before they were human are naturally a little wild during the first few weeks’ (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, p. 13). Peter manages to fly away from home, have the thrushes build him a nest-boat and have little adventures with the fairies and animals in the park. Later, these chapters on Peter were published separately in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which included a map corresponding to real sites in the park. Since 1912 a bronze statue of Peter Pan by Sir George Frampton (commissioned by Barrie) has stood in the park at the point where Peter supposedly landed his birds’-nest boat with its ‘sail [that] was a baby’s nightgown’ (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, p. 27).
As this quotation suggests, and as Arthur Rackham’s beautiful illustrations to the first edition (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906) make clear, in the two early versions of his story, Peter is essentially a baby. There is something deeply disturbing about this, particularly when this small abandoned child attempts to return home only to find that he has been replaced:
The window was closed, and there were iron bars on it, and peering inside he saw his mother sleeping peacefully with her arm around another little boy.
Peter called, “Mother! mother!” but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, p. 4)
This awful moment of abandonment lies right at the heart of who Peter is. It reappears later in Peter Pan and Wendy, but less disturbingly, and in a way that is immediately undercut by the narrator:
“Long ago,” he said, “I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.”
I am not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true; and it scared them. (p. 167)
The dark side of ‘the boy who wouldn’t grow up’ is that he cannot, because he is unable to return home. He lives in a state of perpetual make-believe in order to escape from the terrible reality. Underlying the pleasant escapism of unending childhood, then, is a far more disturbing narrative of abandonment, rejection and loss.
In J M Barrie’s case there is also a real-life narrative lying beneath the fictional one. When he was six years old his 13-year-old brother, David, died in a skating accident. His mother was heartbroken. Describing a visit to her room in his biography of his mother, Barrie makes clear how this event re-determined his own identity, turning him into a kind of substitute for his dead brother:
The room was dark and when I heard the door shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and stood still. I suppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying, for after a time I heard a listless voice that had never been listless before say “Is that you?” I think the tone hurt me for I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously “Is that you?” again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, “No it’s no him, it’s just me.” Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I knew she was holding out her arms. After that I sat a great deal in her bed trying to make her forget him…
This poignant account is devastating for both mother and son. The traumatic nature of the event for the boy is felt in his description of the stress on his body initially (‘breathing hard’, ‘crying’) and in the damage to his sense of self (‘it’s just me’). For the mother, we can feel her terrible need to have her son back, to hear his voice again. When, in the play version of Peter Pan, Mrs Darling states, ‘And when they call I stretch out my arms to them, but they never come, they never come!’ this seems to almost re-enact the scene described above. The second son becomes a form of consolation for the loss of the first. The famous first line of Peter Pan and Wendy – ‘All children except one grow up’ – must have had a powerful resonance for Barrie and his family.
Peter as a figure of bravado
In the next textual form of Peter Pan – the play version of 1904 – Barrie enlarges the little adventures of the Park by shifting the setting to ‘Neverland’. Neverland is an indeterminate composite space generated from children’s imaginations. Adventures occur in key locations around the island:
ACT 1: The Nursery
ACT II: The Never Land
ACT III: The Mermaid’s Lagoon
ACT IV: The Home Under the Ground
ACT V, Scene 1: The Pirate Ship
ACT V, Scene 2: The Nursery and the Tree Tops.
The play was the first ever to be written specifically for children, and was an overnight sensation. The major change from the earlier versions is of course age. His age is still indeterminate – we are told that he still has all his baby teeth (which should make him about six years old), but he is represented as closest in age to Wendy, who is the oldest of the three children. When Wendy asks him how old he is, he replies, ‘I don’t know, but quite young’ (p. 17). In the influential illustrations of him for Peter and Wendy by Mabel Lucie Attwell (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1921) Peter is now fully clothed and older (somewhere between eight and 12 years old), as he is in the famous Disney film version of 1953.
The necessary theatricality of the play version – its larger-than-life nature – feeds into the character of Peter. Increasingly here, and in the final version of Peter and Wendy, he is a figure of bravado; a bit of a show-off, who loves a dramatic scene (‘he is showing off now, he crows like a cock’, p. 16; ‘there never was a cockier boy’, Peter and Wendy, p. 91). At the same time, the commentary upon him allowed by the stage directions introduces a darker side to his character. For example:
PETER. You mustn’t touch me.
PETER. I don’t know.
(He is never touched by any one in the play.) (pp. 15–16)
Here the stage direction suggests a sense of damage – to either himself or others – which Peter himself does not recognise or understand and which the play leaves hanging.
The strangeness of Peter
By the time we get to Peter and Wendy, many elements previously included in the stage directions have been integrated into the narrative. The strangeness of Peter is emphasised far more strongly, however, in the description of the children’s flight to Neverland (not given in the play version). Peter’s difference from the ordinary child is registered in his cruel enjoyment of danger to others:
‘There he goes again!’ he would cry gleefully, as Michael dropped like a stone.
‘Save him, save him!’ cried Wendy, looking with horror on the cruel sea far below.
Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment… (Peter and Wendy, p. 103)
Peter’s lapses of memory and sense of time are also disturbing. When he flies on ahead and then returns to the children, he appears to have forgotten who they are:
Indeed, sometimes when he returned he did not remember them, at least not well. Wendy was sure of it. She saw recognition come into his eyes as he was about to pass them the time of day and go on… (Peter and Wendy, p. 104)
Peter looks like a child but he does not behave like one because he is held in a suspended state and a suspended world – that comes into existence around him: ‘Feeling that Peter was on his way back, the Neverland had again woken into life’ (Peter and Wendy, p. 112).
Who or what is Peter Pan? Peter stands for a deep psychological desire in all of us to return to childhood and escape into an earlier, freer state of being. He represents the blessing and the curse of never growing up and the necessity of doing so whether we like it or not. In the end, the sense of Peter as not only eternal, but endlessly re-encountered over time, is felt within the narratives themselves. He returns over and over again to future generations as he has done to past: ‘If you ask your mother whether she knew about Peter Pan when she was a little girl, she will say, “Why, of course I did, child” … Then if you ask your grandmother… she also says, “Why, of course I did, child”’ (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, p. 12). In this way, the stories themselves reinforce the sense of Peter as a timeless mythical figure – and partially recompenses for the dark underlying reasons for his eternal childhood.
 J M Barrie, The Little White Bird (Hodder & Stoughton, 1902); Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (Hodder & Stoughton, 1906); Peter and Wendy (Hodder & Stoughton, 1911); Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (Hodder & Stoughton, 1928).
 J M Barrie, Margaret Ogilvy (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), p. 12.
 J M Barrie, Peter Pan: A Fantasy in Five Acts (London: Samuel French, 1956), Act V, Scene II, p. 79.
About the Author
Sally Bushell is Professor of Romantic and Victorian Literature at Lancaster University where she works on place, space and materiality of texts across the long 19th century. She has published widely on Wordsworth and other 19th century authors and texts. Her current research involves the reading of place and space in literature in a range of ways, through maps and through the digital medium. She is editor of the Cambridge Companion to Lyrical Ballads (2019) and author of a major study: Reading and Mapping: Spatialising the Text (2020).
Piece originally published at the British Library’s Discovering Literature: 20th Century under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.
All illustrations are by Arthur Rackham and are in the public domain.