I was in my late fifties by the time I finally got around to reading J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. As a child, I had seen Disney’s 1953 animated feature, as well as the 1954 musical starring Mary Martin. So I thought I knew the story pretty well. But the minute I opened the book, I realized I had missed the best part, Barrie’s peculiar way of narrating the tale. The end of the first paragraph convinced me:
” . . . Henceforth, Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.”
The beginning of the end? Clearly, this is Peter Pan’s point of view. But it also happens to reflect the author’s view of the world. I mean, the world of children. Barrie enjoyed many lasting friendships with children, so he knew what he was talking about when it came to describing their world and their minds’ inner workings. He also knew a good deal about fairies:
” . . . When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”
He knew about the special powers of moms, too. Like their ability to tidy up children’s minds while they are asleep:
“It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day.”
But Barrie keeps his focus mainly on Peter Pan, Neverland, and the Darling children, Wendy, Michael, and John. Through the author’s matter-of-fact narrative, we discover new details of Peter’s character that we couldn’t have gotten from any of the dramatic settings of the story, not even Barrie’s own staging of the play.
The sum of Peter’s views amounts to this: One should believe in fairies and never grow up. Right. Most of us already knew as much. But Barrie reveals many other things that most of us probably didn’t know about Peter Pan. Not that he spells out the whole of it. No one could do that, and Barrie shows us why: It is because the map of a child’s mind “. . . is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zig-zag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island . . .”
Barrie goes on to explain that each child has a personal Neverland that varies a good deal from all others. On the whole, though, “the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood in a row you could say of them that they have each other’s nose, and so forth.”
So there you have it: Neverlands exist in all children’s minds, and on these magic shores “children at play are for ever beaching their coracles.”
Grown-ups have mostly abandoned their Neverlands, and no one knows this better than J. M. Barrie: “We too have been there,” he confesses, “We can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.” He was keenly aware of what he had lost when he drifted away from his own boyhood. He remembered it well, but there was no returning to Neverland because there was no returning to childhood.
A wistful longing haunts this book, and it manifests itself clearly when Wendy Darling, as a grown woman, tries to explain it to her daughter, Jane:
“Why can’t you fly now, mother?”
“Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way.”
But Wendy did know the way: It was through her own daughter’s imagination that Neverland would continue to thrive in her own. And through her daughter’s daughter, and so on.
“The moment you doubt whether you can fly,” warns Barrie, “you cease forever to be able to do it. The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply that they have perfect faith. For to have faith is to have wings.”
Image is by the author.