All children, except one, grow up.
I’m going to assume that most people are familiar with the premise of Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. In brief: Peter Pan flies with Wendy and her brothers to Neverland, where he lives with the Lost Boys and Tinkerbell the fairy, and has adventures fighting pirates and Indians. And, of course, he never grows older.
Peter Pan (originally titled Peter and Wendy) is the ultimate celebration of childhood. Neverland is the best parts of childhood, and the best parts of a child’s imagination, all rolled in together with none of the bad parts. Even the bad things–say, villainous pirates–are only exciting adventures.
The peculiar thing about Peter Pan is that I don’t actually think much of the main characters. Tink is a nasty brat, Peter is horribly arrogant (though oddly appealing in that, I must admit), John and Michael are fairly non-entities, and as for Wendy…well, I have no use at all for a girl who goes to Neverland and spends all her time cooking and cleaning and darning socks. Hook, actually, is a more interesting character–dastardly but elegant, and rather melancholy (not sad–melancholy). But it’s actually all right that the characters leave something to be desired as people, because the concept is so fantastic and the book is so charming.
More on the concept in a minute, but first on the charm. That actually brings me to my favorite character: Mr. Barrie. He doesn’t overtly appear in Peter Pan, not even in an fictionalized role like the kindly old gentleman in The Little White Bird, and yet he is very present as the narrator. Every so often throughout the book “I” and “you” come into the narration–“I” who’s telling the story, and “you” the reader. There’s a clear feeling that “I” is Mr. Barrie, and that you is you personally, you reading.
(On a side note, I always felt a bit smug in some of my writing classes in college, when the discussion turned to how wonderful experimental writing is, such as addressing the reader directly–experimental, maybe, but Mr. Barrie was doing it a century ago!)
My favorite part of the book is near the end of chapter seven–everyone is on the island by now, and Mr. Barrie is debating which of their many adventures to tell (because there isn’t possibly time for all of them). Perhaps this battle with the Indians, or perhaps that prank of Tink’s…
Which of these adventures shall we choose? The best way will be to toss for it.
I have tossed, and the lagoon has won. This almost makes one wish that the gulch or the cake or Tink’s leaf had won. Of course I could do it again, and make it best out of three; however, perhaps fairest is to stick to the lagoon.
I love it. I know he’s not sitting in a study tossing a coin. And yet, Mr. Barrie telling you the story is almost another level of the story.
Then of course the story of Peter Pan is exciting, dramatic and endlessly appealing…because who hasn’t occasionally wished they could escape to Neverland? Even if most of us, most of the time, are reasonably happy about being grown-ups, Neverland is a place of youth and joy and innocence, free from cares or worries. Sometimes a little fairy dust and a trip past a star looks very good.
Besides recommending the book itself, I also have to recommend a particular edition of Peter Pan. I decided some while ago that I wanted to buy a really beautiful copy. After looking at different versions in different bookstores, I fell completely in love with Scott Gustafson’s illustrations. Every picture is an incredible work of art. Lovely.
But so is the book.