Rambling Philosophy About Coming of Age

As another companion piece to The Graveyard Book read-along, this week we’re writing about coming of age stories.

I have to admit, I had some initial tripping-up with this topic.  But I think I’ve got my train of thought sorted out–we’ll see as I type!

When I first heard “coming of age stories” as a topic, my brain perversely went to Peter Pan–who is the complete opposite.  He’s the character who flatly refuses to come of age, ever.  However, I do think that’s one part of the story, as it leads me to the question: why does Peter choose not to grow up?

So I turn the pages to the section of the book when Wendy tries to coax Peter to stay in London with her, and I find that he balks because she would send him to school and then to an office and soon he’d be a man, to paraphrase slightly.  Well, if being a grown-up just means going to an office, by all means, fly back to Neverland, Peter!  That’s what it seems to mean for the other boys; we hear about them as adults, and the saddest is John, the bearded man who doesn’t know any stories to tell his children.  It all rather makes me wonder about J. M. Barrie’s life.

To turn this back around again, I think a key part of growing up is realizing that there’s more to being a grown-up than going to an office!  Peter wants to “always be a little boy and to have fun,” but grown-ups can have fun too.  Different fun.  It’s worth remembering, because when life does seem to revolve around going to an office (or any other humdrum parts of grown-up life, like washing dishes and paying bills), it’s easy to start thinking Peter was right.

But he wasn’t.  And he was also wrong that grown-ups can’t go to Neverland–in a metaphorical sense, of course.

To move along in that direction, let’s look at another classic children’s writer, who seemed to have a healthier view on things.  First, I quote St. Paul, who said something to the effect of, “When I became a man, I set aside the things of childhood.”  C. S. Lewis followed that up with, “And one of the things of childhood I set aside was the fear of being thought childish.”

I remember that there was a point in my life when I came to a revelation that I didn’t have to stop reading children’s books.  And that I can still go to Disneyland and ride the Peter Pan ride.  Of course, now I also have a quite different appreciation for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and I read books from the grown-ups section too.  But I don’t have to let go of all those children’s things if they still appeal to me.  Neverland might look different to us, but we can still get there.

Or to put it another way, growing up means a bigger library to choose from.

This puts me in mind of what actually is an example of a coming-of-age story, my much-beloved and frequently-referenced The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean.  Spoilers here, so you may want to drop down a paragraph.  For new readers, The White Darkness is about Sym, a fourteen-year-old girl who creates an imaginary friend out of Lawrence “Titus” Oates, the Antarctic explorer.  She gains confidence and self-understanding through a really awful experience in Antarctica.  You could say she grows up.  In the course of that, a couple of times I was afraid she was going to have to give up Titus, as part of growing up–but she never does.  And that makes me immensely happy, possibly because of all those things I was discussing above.

On a side-note, since I brought up the book–I also have to say that I was very sad recently to hear about the death of Richard Morant, the inspiration and audiobook-voice of Titus.  I don’t actually believe in ghosts and I certainly don’t want to confuse the actor and the character…but all the same, I like musing over the idea that maybe he’s off being a supportive shoulder to some girl in great need of a friend.

Back to the topic: another coming-of-age story that comes to mind is, oddly enough, The Mischief of the Mistletoe by Lauren Willig, who would probably be taken-aback to hear her story described that way.  It deals with two adults, Arabella and Turnip (don’t ask about the name), who fall in love while trying to untangle a spy ring.  And you ask how this relates.  But it does, more obviously for Arabella, but really both of them.  Arabella starts out as a shy, mousy wallflower, who finds herself as a strong, capable woman.  Turnip shows up in earlier books in the series, always as the buffoon everyone treats as comical and then disregards.  He stays comical, but he also emerges as having much more worth than it previously appeared.

Which brings me to what I think will be my final point–that coming-of-age stories don’t necessarily have all that much to do with age.  Or if they absolutely must, then I seem to be talking about a different sort of story, though a related one.  I think what it’s really about is figuring out who you want to be.  Not who the world says you are, or who you are when you’re afraid to be something else, but who you want to be.  Often that happens at a certain age–but not necessarily–and to some extent it never really stops happening.

To circle back around to the beginning (because he wouldn’t like dropping out of the post), perhaps that’s another reason there could never be a coming-of-age story about Peter Pan.  He is who he wants to be.  He’s the little boy endlessly having fun.

For the rest of us, who follow Sym and Arabella and Turnip to “come of age,” I think it’s worth listening to C. S. Lewis, and to keep in touch with the Peter Pan and the Titus Oates in us all.

11 thoughts on “Rambling Philosophy About Coming of Age

  1. Very nicely done! I also like that we can grow up at any age and change who we want to be. (I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my 40’s.)
    By the way, if you are interested in J.M. Barrie and the writing of Peter Pan, there’s quite a nice movie you could try called Finding Neverland.

  2. L

    I do like your point about how we all, regardless of biological age, are still growing into who we want to be and so growing-up stories should always resonate and should always have a place, and not only on juvenile or teen shelves. It is freeing when we put away our fears of appearing childish.

  3. Finally got my post up for the day and am thrilled to come over here and see you also quoting Lewis. 🙂 Yours is a wonderful post, saying much more clearly what I was trying to convey, in part, by mine. You are so correct in your statement about figuring out who you want to be. And I think more than at any time in life it is in adulthood that we have a chance to truly set aside all the silliness of trying to be what others expect of us and instead can be who we always wanted to be. And that does ebb and change with the flow of time. The me I want to be today is built on all the previous “me’s” but is certainly a different person than the one of a decade ago. One of their common bonds, however, is an attachment to the wonders of life that started as a child and remains to this day. I’m glad to have grown up, but to have done so in the way Lewis describes, and not the negative view of adulthood from the point of view of one Peter Pan.

    1. I wonder if we all think that our writing (especially on topics as personal as this) are less clear than they really are to other people? I don’t know how clear mine was 🙂 and I enjoyed your reflections very much!

      As you say, often adulthood gives us the chance to embrace who we want to be in a more complete way. Part of growing up is gaining greater freedom, and I think it’s often that freedom that gives us the opportunity to even figure out who we want to be–and also to be it!

      1. That is a good point. In my experience subjects like this find me having this ongoing internal dialogue in my head long before I ever start posting and I can never quite catch up to where my mind is going with the topic, or all the ways it branches off, and so I finally reach a point where I feel I should end the post but don’t feel I’ve successfully conveyed much of what I planned to.

  4. Your key point is towards the end, “I think what it’s really about is figuring out who you want to be. Not who the world says you are, or who you are when you’re afraid to be something else, but who you want to be.” That is the essence of growing up. It takes some people their whole lives to reach that stage, while others get there early. Good post!

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