A literary recommendation: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens & Peter and Wendy

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1902)
written by J.M. Barrie
illustrated by Arthur Rackham (1906)

Peter and Wendy (1911)
written by J.M. Barrie
illustrated by F.D. Bedford

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

J.M. Barrie introduced his famous Peter Pan character in a story called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1902.  It was originally published part of a larger work, The Little White Bird, and then released on its own, accompanied by gorgeous Arthur Rackham illustrations, in 1906.

The story begins with Peter in infancy, a physical state that he never leaves, at least within this story.  There is no pixie dust – rather, Peter can initially fly simply because he isn’t old enough to know that he cannot.  He flies away to Kensington Gardens, a real life public park, and lives a carefree life among the birds and fairies that reside there.  The story is largely episodic and there isn’t really an overarching plot.  However, there is a concentration on character development, particularly on Peter’s fickle attitude regarding returning to his home and his mother.  He does return home at one point and peers through an open window into his nursery, where his heartbroken mother is sleeping on what would have been his bed.  Still, Peter decides not to enter at the point and doesn’t return for good until some months (maybe years) later.  When he does he receives a shock that is really quite heartbreaking, at least in the context of the book:

He went in a hurry in the end, because he had dreamt that his mother was crying, and he knew what was the great thing she cried for, and that a hug from her splendid Peter would quickly make her to smile. Oh! he felt sure of it, and so eager was he to be nestling in her arms that this time he flew straight to the window, which was always to be open for him. But the window was closed, and there were iron bars on it, and peering inside he saw his mother sleeping peacefully with her arm around another little boy.

Peter called, ‘Mother! mother!’ but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to the Gardens, and he never saw his dear again. What a glorious boy he had meant to be to her! Ah, Peter! we who have made the great mistake, how differently we should all act at the second chance.

Peter and Wendy

In 1904, Barrie introduced his much, much, much more famous sequel, the play known simply as Peter Pan.  In 1911, Barrie adapted the play into the novel Peter and Wendy, illustrated by F.D. Bedford.  Some things have changed – Peter is no longer an infant, for example.  Kensington Gardens is no longer mentioned, replaced by the distant Neverland.  The sidekick Tinkerbell and the rival Captain Hook are introduced.  Those familiar with the Disney movie are more or less familiar with the general plot.  Peter whisks three middle class, urban youth from their English home and takes them to his adopted homeland, the fantastic Neverland, for wild adventures with the Lost Boys, redskins, pirates, and mermaids.

However, the tone is quite different from what most people associate with the Peter Pan mythos.  For one thing, the characters in Neverland are not simply playing a game.  They play for keeps.  The entire redskin tribe is massacred.  Captain Hook “tears” his insubordinate lackeys with his prosthetic.  Captain Hook isn’t whimsically chased into exile by the crocodile.  No, he’s run through by a sword and devoured, for good.  There are many poignant, even sad moments.  Peter might have some fear of death but he views it differently from most of us.  In this scene, he faces imminent destruction by drowning, trapped on an island rock during high tide:

Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremour ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

dying rules

Shockingly (to me, anyway), Captain Hook is not presented as Peter’s mortal enemy and Tinkerbell is not his constant, eternal companion.  In fact, when asked about them only a year after the adventures he doesn’t even remember them!

“Who is Captain Hook?” he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.

“Don’t you remember,” she asked, amazed, “how you killed him and saved all our lives?”

“I forget them after I kill them,” he replied carelessly.

When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, “Who is Tinker Bell?”

“O Peter,” she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.

“There are such a lot of them,” he said. “I expect she is no more.”

I expect he was right, for fairies don’t live long, but they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.

Jesus.  This whole passage struck me as devastating.  Also of note is that the Lost Boys return to England with Wendy, Michael and John and move in with the family.  Hilariously, they all grow up to be rather boring, working in banks and the like.

If there is a theme or intent to this book, I would say that Peter and Wendy is some sort of manifesto condemning children, and the arguments are hard to argue with:

Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked.

Throughout both books, parents feel a genuine, excruciating, but almost bittersweet pain at the loss of their children, a feeling that is certainly transmitted to the reader.  In other words, a story that is often portrayed as an ode to eternal youth (Michael Jackson) is in truth a sometimes painful tale of the heartlessness of children and the mothers that can’t help but love them.

On a completely separate and unemotional note, Barrie interestingly jumps around in tenses rather frequently.  He jumps from the past to the present to the future and back again, which is really engaging.  The present tense sequences usually describe a setting in a picturesque manner, reminiscent (I imagine) of the original play that inspired the novel.


One response to “A literary recommendation: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens & Peter and Wendy

  1. I love the story of Peter Pan and this book is absolutely beautiful! I just finished a painting for the February 24th Peter Pan-themed benefit in Santa Fe Art Galleries… fb.me/IQ5u8SsL using this same book as subject for the painting. Let me know what you think!

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