Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Summer of Children’s Classics – Peter Pan – J.M.Barrie

Throughout the month we have been looking at children’s classics, delving into their often strange and curious path to publication, the cultural impact that they have created, and trying to work out exactly what it is that makes them classic. Today we journey to place between consciousness and sleep, as we put Neverland and it’s most famous inhabitant, Peter Pan, under the microscope.

J.M.Barrie’s novel telling the adventures of one very cocky and mischievous leaf clad boy, Peter Pan, is another undisputed classic. Like many classic’s, Peter Pan had meandering course to publication and it may surprise you to learn that Peter‘s debut was actually in a novel Barrie penned for adults, ‘The Little White Bird’ published in 1902. It is more widely known that the story which is adored by millions of people today was originally a play; Barrie used his creation of the boy who lived in Kensington garden as the main character of the 1904 production; Peter Pan or The Boy Wouldn’t Grow Up. The play was a success, and soon Barrie’s publishers re-printed the chapter of ‘The Little White Bird’ which featured Peter as its own book ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’ accompanied by the delightful illustration my Arthur Rackham. With gaining popularity Barrie adapted the play to novel form and ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ was published in 1911.

The genius of Peter Pan is that it written solely for the entertainment of children. The magical dream-realm, with, mermaids, ticking crocodiles, Indians tribes, where you can fly and play all day but return to the waiting arms of devoting parents appeals to children’s imaginations. It is freedom personified, and even comes with a safety net, if anything goes wrong, and you find yourself at the end of a plank, then Peter is always there to save you. This is a world where children will always been drawn to as, it is free and safe, and thereby the story is as relevant today as it were a century ago.

Since then, Peter, the Darling siblings, The Lost Boys and Captain Hook, have become ingrained in modern culture. Everyone knows the story, even if they haven’t actually read the book. It has been adapted into films and animations, by the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers, and the hugely successful all-star sequel ‘Hook’ with Steven Spielberg at the helm.

As a child I LOVED the stories of Neverland, I was introduced to them firstly by the Disney animation, and then panto and I even won the role of Wendy in a school play. I read the book (despite the difficult language and the heavy narration), and found myself amazed by both the story and the exquisite illustrations (although I did feel the need to enhance the pictures by self-colouring them, after all Neverland shouldn’t be monochrome!) Both my children, adore the book, but one thing I did find whilst reading it them, is that through adult’s eyes it reads very different.

I was shocked at how much darker Neverland from an adult’s perspective. Nowhere does it say that Neverland is a place where children don’t grow up, but merely a place where Peter doesn’t age, in fact Peter’s rule that growing up is forbidden has rather sinister connotations especially in regards to the implied enforcement.

“The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which against the rules, Peter thins them out.”

As a grown up Peter becomes less appealing, his self-assured personality, and his butterfly nature makes him less of a reliable captain, and hero, making the whole Neverland seem like a much darker and dangerous place. Whether these dark undertones are picked up my children, I don’t know, and I do wonder if it really matters. After all fairy-tales aren’t exactly fluffy and light and children tend to let their imaginations to venture as dark as they want to go.

These undertones, of course are picked up on my adults and have on many occasions been put to great use, for instance the Peter Pan and indeed the Neverland with the Disney ABC television’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ are exquisitely dark and terrifying. Or the 1987 vampire movie ‘The Lost Boys’ where the bloodthirsty runaways are looking for a mother.

So Peter Pan is a truly integrated into modern culture its appeal being multi-layered; the surface a place of freedom and play for children that sparks their imagination and the bottom, being a darker world that stirs the shadowy parts of adults imaginations.

Staying in The Neverland, our next post is a review of the recently published Heidi Schulz penned sequel to Peter Pan, Hook’s Daughter!

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