A Book to Share: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Barrie’s story is not about the joys of staying young, but of the need to become something new every day.

I just finished a book that I’ve never read before, and I had to write about it.  It’s not a new book at all. It’s a book that we’ve probably all seen on the shelves.  We’ve watched the Disney version as kids.  However, it’s not a book that many people actually end up reading, which, as I found out, is a real shame.

James Matthew Barrie wrote several books, but Peter Pan is certainly his most famous.  It has been used for musicals and several films, notably the Disney cartoon, Hook, Finding Neverland, and a later adaptation of the novel in 2003.  The storyline begs to be retold.  The idea of flying away to a magical world of adventure is the wistful dream of many a grad student, certainly (this I know from experience).

What I found, however, having seen all the movies listed above, is that the book carries an essential message that the movies tend to nervously avoid.  And that’s what makes the book so powerful as both children’s literature and a story that adults can appreciate as well.

The main idea of Peter Pan centers on a single key concept: eternal youth.  It’s a theme that spans millennia.  Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, who falls in love with the mortal Tithonos.  She begs Zeus to make him immortal so that they can be together forever.  Unfortunately, she forgets to ask Zeus to make Tithonos eternally young as well.  And so the ill fated new immortal shrivels and shrinks with aging, unable to die, until he becomes the very first grasshopper.  I know.  You’ll never look at those creatures the same way again.

Peter Pan, on the other hand, is eternally young, unchanging and timeless. When he entices the Darling children away to Neverland, they enter a dreamlike existence and they soon forget how long they have been away from home and even who they were before.

The movies have taken this idea of a boy who never grows up and embraced the joy and wonder of it fully, but they have lost sight of the purpose, the moral of the story, as it were. The cartoon, of course, deliberately keeps things light and frivolous. It’s Disney, after all. Peter Pan is a jolly, elven creature who flies away at the end of the story and lives happily ever after.   The latest version (and my favorite) stays closest to the book, but still essentially changes who Peter Pan is.  While Peter is represented as a self-centered little boy who wants “always to be a boy and have fun,” throughout the movie, he learns a youthful sort of love and becomes a better person.

Therein lies the problem.  Peter Pan is not just about being eternally young, but about the problem of changelessness.  We all long for immortality.  Aging and death are two of the things that terrify humans most.  However, when Barrie wrote Peter Pan, he identified something very wrong with the simple concept of staying young forever.

The Peter Pan of the book is not as friendly as the ones shown in the movies.  Barrie describes Peter as frivolous, carefree, and very forgetful.  He lives forever moment by moment, and so he cannot ever change.

Peter Pan is not about the joys of staying young, but of the need to become something new every day.  We are not supposed to envy Peter Pan, except briefly, as we might think nostalgically back on the days when a box of Lego’s or a favorite stuffed animal was all we needed to enter another world.  But that is not something we want to return to forever.

What resonated most with me was the final word in the book: “heartless.”  So long as children are innocent and heartless, Barrie says, they might stay young like Peter Pan.  To be heartless, for Barrie, means to be carefree and self-centered, as all children are – until they grow up.  Immortality in the world of Peter Pan is imperfect.  A perfect immortality, the one we anticipate, is that which allows us to become better and better with each new day: eternal, but always changing, learning, growing.  In The Last Battle, Lewis describes the ending as a beginning, in which each chapter is not just as good, but better than the one before.

Peter Pan is a wonderful book for children.  They will love the adventures that the Darlings have, the fairies and flying, the mermaids and Indians and pirates, and the ticking crocodile.  Barrie writes in that humorous, brilliant fashion that is all but lost in children’s literature today, which allows a book to be utterly enjoyable for a child and equally entertaining for an adult.  I found it delightful, humorous, and enchanting.

To me, this book represents exactly what a children’s book should be: a book that grows with the child and tells a new and deeper story with each rereading. 

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on February 1, 2011, in Book Review, Books, Children's Literature, Faerie, Fantasy, Melissa Rogers, Story and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. That has long been a favorite book of mine. You should read some of Barrie’s other works, too – he actually wrote several, but they all get eclipsed and forgotten because of the success of Peter Pan. You can find several of Barrie’s works for free online (I got five or six of them on Kindle).

    • I actually read a free edition on my iPad! There are many books like that that I’ve always wanted to read, but never plunked the money down for and read. So, now I have the opportunity to discover some new favorites amongst the old classics.

      This one was fabulous. Barrie is such a great storyteller, so I have no doubt that his other works have the same wit and humor and clever writing style.

  2. Excellent commentary, Melissa–thoughtful and wise. You give me hope for the future of literary study!

    • Thanks! The book really left an impression on me. I felt like I could write a lengthy essay on it and had to squish my thoughts into a very short commentary on what I thought of it. I wasn’t sure if I got my point across clearly. Glad you liked it.

  3. The Never Fairy

    Well said! There certainly is a darkness and bittersweetness that most people don’t realize Barrie put in there. Changelessness, indeed! Peter Pan is to be pitied, perhaps. But it’s also like Barrie is telling us that NEITHER childhood or adulthood has anything to be envied. In a grass is always greener sort of way. Peter Pan lives for the moment, and maybe that’s what we’re meant to do — but with the wisdom and sensibility that comes from being grown up. 🙂

    Two other books about Pan worth reading… they’re both different from ‘other’ Pan books out there…
    A story based on Barrie’s own idea for more:
    Click!
    And a great ‘What if?’ adventure (but it’s not for the kids!): Click!

    Thanks for the cool commentary and insight into this beloved classic!
    BELIEVE!

    • Thanks for commenting! Yes, I do agree that when the children stay and grow up, that doesn’t seem quite right either, like there should be a third option which involves a real happily ever after. The bittersweet in that book really sets it apart from so many others.

      The books look interesting! They’ll have to go on my list. I love a good read. =)

  4. Peter Pan is my absolute favorite!!! He’s such a chilling character, isn’t he? Dressed like a revenant in his coat of skeleton leaves. Advocating the draughty window. “There were odd stories about him; as that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they would not be frightened.” Yet the Darlings end up frightened enough on their flight, because he can scarcely remember who they are. I’ve heard that Barrie connected the closed and barred nursery window with the “shades of the prison house” in Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode. Peter is stuck on the outside. He is the eternal lord of the limbo of infants.

    • The scary element of his character was entirely unexpected to me. Barrie portrayed him masterfully and he really is chilling. As much as enjoyed the childlike wonder of the latest film, it did not capture the spirit of the book or of who Peter Pan is supposed to be.

  5. I cannot wait to read the book, and the more I hear people rave about it, the more I think it’ll have to be the next book I pick up from the library. The 2003 film is also my favorite of the adaptations so far (though I do like the Disney one, for being sheer adventurous fun), and it certainly feels like it does a better job than all the others of capturing the tragic nature of Pan’s existence. I see how the movie changes him from the book and other version, since, after all, he does manage to learn something and love by the movie’s end, but even with that step forward he is incapable of admitting that he learned or growing up. He is still left outside, defiantly alone, unable to reach his full potential. That’s the element that stuck with me so much from the movie, and I do find it fascinating even if it’s different from the book.

    One friend who did read the book, however, told me that the 2003 movie is the only version yet to have perfectly nailed the line “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” Peter whispers it calmly, confidently to Hook as the Captain prepares to kill him. *shrug* I can’t verify the moment’s literary authenticity, but it sure works for the movie.

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