Archive for November, 2010

I’ll never forget the first time I read J. M. Barrie’s own novelization of ‘Peter Pan’.

I was in fourth grade and it was reading-time in the library of my elementary school. I already knew and loved Peter Pan from the Disney film (and from an obscure audio version on vinyl with songs my sister and I had loved to sing) but I had never read Barrie’s novel. It was a short book; it looked small and unimposing. Easy. I took it from the shelf and sat down at the long wooden table and started to read.

Within the first few sentences, I realized I’d stumbled into something that was a lot deeper and darker than I could have imagined.

What hit me so hard was the level of powerful adult regret, longing, and shame that runs throughout that little book. There’s the love-hate relationship with children. And the Doppelganger-thing between Mr. Darling and Captain Hook that, onstage and onscreen, is too often little more than an excuse for a good actor to play a double-role, is—in Barrie’s book—an emotionally rich and devastating undercurrent that runs through the story. (The scene where Mr. Darling pours his medicine into the dog’s bowl and attempts to turn it into a joke in front of his family is still almost too unbearable to read.)

In Peter Pan, growing up is a kind of death sentence. Wendy seems more aware of that than anyone.

One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

That is why the scenes in which Wendy spends her final night as a child in the nursery feel like a condemned prisoner’s last night on death row.

Death has an interesting and prominent place in Barrie’s little book.  Tootles the Lost Boy baring his breast for Peter’s dagger (Strike, Peter! Strike true!), Wendy bravely walking the plank; all of these are full of the feeling of young children playing at death, rehearsing it, trying it on for size. Peter is not afraid of death because he cannot imagine the end of his own existence. Death will be an awfully big adventure, he famously says as he’s about to be swallowed by the rising tide—because, like all young children playing at death, he believes he will be there to experience it.

The primary terror that runs throughout Barrie’s little book is the terror of forgetting and being forgotten. Peter’s parents forget him. John and Michael forget their parents. Things (i.e. people) that matter enormously suddenly do not matter at all, as if they never existed.

The last word in Barrie’s little book is heartless.

‘…and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.’

It’s an amazingly unexpected ending, raw and real, and still has the power to shock me a little. Today it makes me think of the words of the Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, ‘Heaven and earth are not human-hearted / they treat the ten thousand things as straw dogs.’ Lao Tzu is presenting heartlessness as a kind of wisdom worth seeking and attaining; in Barrie’s utterance of that word you can hear both his own resentment and terror at the inescapable fate of forgetting and being forgotten, as well as the beginning of a kind of acceptance of it. He’s just standing on the threshold of it, not yet able to step all the way in. It’s a difficult place to be, and it’s called growing up.


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