The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
Trickster Tales, Fables, and Fairy Tales
The story of Peter Pan was conceived by J.M. Barrie, a Scottish novelist and playwright, and was first used as a character in his adult novel The Little White Bird, penned in 1902. However, there are several differences that would make Peter hard to spot. Rather than Neverland, Peter flies from his nursery to the Kensington Gardens in London, spending his time with birds and fairies. In fact, he was described as being “Betwixt-and-Between” a boy and a bird. Also, rather than the means of transportation being a ship, Peter gets around on something far more amusing; a goat. However, the revalidation of Peter is welcomed. With a few changes (such as ditching the goat), Peter transformed into “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” that the world loves today.
Though the character of Pan in the play adaptation differs from the novel somewhat, he still makes nighttime visits to the Darlings’ house, listening to Mrs. Darling tell stories through the nursery window. The most obvious difference would be that upon the return of the Darling children to their nursery, Peter flies ahead to try and bar their window, to make Wendy think their mother has forgotten about them.
Most commonly, Peter Pan is a children’s story, prominently holding a beloved tradition in the UK. However, it has been known as an unconventional outlet for young adults and grown adults to picture what their younger lives could have been like, wishing they had been as imaginative. Or that perhaps they were and are able to connect to the story in that way.
The book suggests that “being stuck” as a child forever, like Peter, makes you incomplete and unhappy. Peter continues to forget, partly because he has the small memory of child. However, he is aware of what he is missing when he says, at the very end of the book, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.” That, of course, contrasts the much more famous quote from the middle of the book, where he is stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean with the tide rising, where he says: “To die would be awfully big adventure.” This novel explores the joyful, sunny side of childhood, but it also shows how much Peter is losing by staying forever young. and that the lost boys, who decide to go home with Wendy and grow up, are much happier. Of course, as an adult, everybody will long for those fun and careless days at some point. But when you have not grown older, you will never experience life in full.
It was in Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan (or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up) where Peter lived with his Lost Boys, met the Darlings, and had a fairy friend named Tinkerbell. There was one prominent character missing in this first draft, however; Captain Hook. Barrie’s notes show that he saw no need for a villain like Hook—he felt Peter was a “demon boy” who could create his own havoc. However, Barrie needed a scene that could be performed at the front of the stage, giving the stagehands time to change set pieces. He then wrote in a pirate ship, thus creating Captain Hook. The role soon expanded into a full-fledged nemesis for Peter. The Little White Bird went on to be produced as a play with major success, and was then adapted for a separate play as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906. The novel was then adapted in 1911 under several titles—Peter Pan, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, or Peter and Wendy.
There are many different views on what Barrie’s inspiration for the character had been, some saying the author’s brother, David, that died at a young age, was his source. This was because Barrie’s mother didn’t mentally recover from the loss, claiming to find small comfort that David would be a boy forever. Another popular opinion, however, is that Peter had been invented to entertain George and Jack Davies. The Llewelyn Davies family had a massive impact on Barrie’s life, literary and personal. He became acquainted with the family in 1897, and the 2004 film Finding Neverland, along with the 2014 Broadway show of the same title, lays out a similar adaptation of how the family’s influence on him took effect. Though Barrie’s famous creation shared a name with the middle Llewelyn Davies boy, the writer was actually closest with George and Michael. There were five sons altogether; George, John (Jack), Peter, Michael, and Nicholas. And he gave all of the boys credit; in 1928, his preface to the play read: “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together….That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”
The tragedy of the true lost boys occurred when the Davies boys lost not only their father in 1907, but their mother as well, just three years later in 1910. After Sylvia Davies’ death, Barrie sent a copy of her will to her mother, because he was named one of four possible guardians for the sons. There was a typo that read “Jimmy”—James was J.M. Barrie’s first name—was to take the boys, but upon further research of the will, it was discovered that it had actually said “Jenny”, who was the boys’ nanny’s sister. Whether it was a simple mistake, or Barrie had purposefully altered the will, no one can be for sure, and he did eventually gain guardianship of the boys.
A question that has been pondered over the years was whether Barrie’s influence was fatal or nurturing. George Llewelyn Davies fought in World War I, and was killed in action in 1915. Only six years later, Michael, who had been a student at Oxford university, drowned with a friend (with whom he was thought to be having homosexual relations) in 1921. Though Peter Llewelyn Davies—who grew up being teased for sharing a name with Peter Pan—outlived Barrie, he committed suicide by jumping in front of a Tube train in 1960, just a few weeks before the 100th anniversary of Barrie’s birth.
It was only fitting that the novelist behind Peter Pan get along with children, and three-year-old Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister, was particularly enthralled with him. After the two met, she declared, “He is my greatest friend and I am his greatest friend.” Barrie also had many adult friends, including Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and the explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In 1912, at the end of his fatal Antarctic expedition, Scott wrote a letter to Barrie, saying, “I never met a man in my life whom I admired and loved more than you, but I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me.”
In 1929, Barrie kindly assigned the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which was then confirmed in 1937 after his death. This meant that for years following, every copywriter use of Peter Pan’s character would bring royalties to the hospital.
Walt Disney Productions immortalized the story of Peter Pan by adapting it to animated film in 1953, changing forever the way children perceived the story. With modern technology becoming increasingly more accessible, children became transfixed with the fresh rendition of a classic in film and in books that were easier to read and acquire.
At the time of the first appearance of Pan in Barrie’s play, The Little White Bird, it was not uncommon for women to portray male characters onstage. Nina Boucicault portrayed the flying boy and would be succeeded in the Broadway version by numerous other female actresses. There have been many male portrayals of Peter, from film to television since that time, however. It began with the voice and model of Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s animated film, Robin Williams in the 1991 film Hook, and then was continued with Jeremy Sumpter in 2003’s live action adaptation Peter Pan.
I grew up watching and reading classic stories, whether they were the Disney adaptation or not. Among my favorites were (and still are) Cinderella, Tarzan, and of course, Peter Pan. I have read the novel many times, but admit I enjoy the animated film best. My parents understood the value that a growing imagination had in a child’s life, however, I never felt as though I were disassociated from the reality of the world because of my love of Disney films.
I believe this story, of the boy who would never grow up and the man who penned such an extraordinary concept, connects people through time flawlessly. We all claim to be realistic and responsible, knowing that such a story would not be true. But, after reading the story of Peter Pan, you realize it is much more than a children’s fairytale. It is a good example that though growing up is a natural and necessary aspect of life, there is a beauty in remembering that joy and unconditional friendship are important to childhood as well as adult life.