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Flying and forgetting: the magic of Peter Pan

We’ll be returning to Roald Dahl soon, and the autobiographies tacked on to our Dahl list, but for the last while we’ve been immersed in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, a book that’s sat on N’s shelf for some time. We tried it last year, but the writing was difficult, and N didn’t seem engaged, so I tucked it away again, knowing in my gut it was a good one, and that the time should be right for it.

Then a couple of weeks ago, we watched Walt Disney’s 1953 animated version, and N enjoyed it so much it got three viewings in a couple of days. She was taken with the fairies and the mermaids, and also with Wendy (who is a bit sweet for my tastes, but I can see the draw for an 8-year-old girl).

Margaret Henley, immortalized by "fwendy"

Barrie’s choice of the name Wendy was apparently inspired by a little girl named Margaret, whose father was the poet and critic William Ernest Henley. She used to call Barrie “fwendy” for “friendy,” the story goes, because she couldn’t pronounce her r’s.

She died in 1894, just five years old, of cerebral meningitis, but she must have made an impression on Barrie, since another ten years passed before his play, Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, first debuted in London in 1904.

It’s interesting to trace Barrie’s invention of Peter Pan, and his involvement with the Llewellyn Davies boys (George, Jack, and baby Peter) to whom he first told these stories. He used to see the children with their nanny in Kensington Gardens, and later befriended their mother, Sylvia. By the time Sylvia died, in 1910, Barrie was “Uncle Jim,” and would go on to become the children’s guardian.

The fictional Peter Pan first appears in Barrie’s 1902 adult novel, The Little White Bird, the story of a childless man who befriends a young working-class boy and embarks on a series of adventures with him. The chapters in the middle of this book show us the secret world of Kensington Gardens, which comes alive after “Lock-Out Time,” with magical creatures that conceal themselves during the day. One of these is Peter, who can fly without wings, and “escaped from being a human when he was seven days’ old.”

This was the part of the novel that resonated most with readers, and in 1906, it was repackaged as a picture book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with whimsical illustrations by Arthur Rackham, who depicted Peter as a chubby naked baby being lifted into the air by fairies.

“It is frightfully difficult to know much about the fairies, and almost the only thing known for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children. Long ago children were forbidden the Gardens, and at that time there was not a fairy in the place; then the children were admitted, and the fairies came trooping in that very evening. They can’t resist following the children, but you seldom see them, partly because they live in the daytime behind the railings, where you are not allowed to go, and also partly because they are so cunning. They are not a bit cunning after Lock-out, but until Lock-out, my word!”

But Barrie was not finished with Peter. By the time of the stage play and the 1911 novel, Peter has grown into an older boy — mischievous, cocky, and wild — who lives on Neverland with a gang of Lost Boys who don’t remember having mothers but who crave a mother’s stories. Peter flies regularly to London and listens at the Darling family’s window, and takes the bedtime stories he hears back to his boys. Eventually he takes Wendy and her brothers there too, and learning to fly is only the beginning of their many adventures.

N and I are both loving this story. Peter and Tinker Bell are especially wonderful creations, a beautiful mix of light and dark. Because neither are fully part of the human world, they can’t ever connect to  their human friends in a lasting way. They are like bubbles or snowflakes, impossible to keep; but they have a special bond with each other.

Tinker Bell — who mends pots and kettles and is brighter than a thousand nightlights — has a ferocious temper. Madly jealous of Wendy, she tricks the Lost Boys into shooting her with arrows — the intention is certainly to kill her. But Tink also drinks Hook’s deadly poison to save Peter’s life. Barrie describes her character this way: “Tink was not all bad; or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small, they unfortunately have room for only one feeling at a time.”

Tinker Bell’s love for Peter is constant, right from the beginning of the story, though he forgets her in a drawer in Wendy’s room. But Peter forgets everything — his mother; the lost boys who’ve left Neverland; the pirates he’s killed; the fairies who’ve died. When he first teaches Wendy and her brothers to fly, he keeps zooming off ahead “to have adventures in which they had no share. He would come down laughing over something fearfully funny he had been saying to a star, but he had already forgotten what it was.” Wendy worries that if he forgets the stars so quickly, he’ll forget his new friends as well, and indeed, “when he returned he did not remember them, at least not well. … ‘I say Wendy, always if you see me forgetting you, just keep on saying “I’m Wendy,” and then I’ll sure remember.'”

But will he? Forgetting is an essential part of Peter’s character, in that it keeps him from ever growing old.


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