Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Read: 21 January, 2014

I picked this up in my quest to pre-read children’s novels so that I can be a better judge of what to read or recommend to my son. Since there are many versions of Peter Pan circling around and it can get a little confusing, I read the novelization of the play published by Sterling Children’s Books’ Unabridged Classics (which I’m given to understand is elsewhere called Peter Pan and Wendy).

The story’s major points should be familiar to anyone who grew up watching Disney movies – Peter Pan is a little boy who never grows up. He, and his fairy companion Tinker Bell, take three siblings – Wendy, John, and Michael – to the magical island of Neverland where they meet the Lost Boys, fight pirates, encounter mermaids, meet “Redskins,” and see a ticking crocodile (it had swallowed a clock, you see).

There was a lot more to the story. Peter, for example, isn’t just a little impish but mostly good-hearted. In the book, he is much more like a Trickster, rather immoral. He does do good sometimes, but he can also do bad things. He is, as Tinker Bell is described, “not all bad; or, rather, she was all bad just now, but on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change” (p.38).

There’s an awful lot of casual violence in the story, and I can see how that’s shocking to many readers. Yet at the same time, I can remember playing these sorts of games as a child, and we “killed” each other entirely without second thought. Why would we? We knew it wasn’t real. This, I imagine, is what Barrie was trying to capture. The characters behave amorally because they are, in some way, conscious of their own fiction.

What I found a bit more shocking was all the gender essentialism and racism. The book is, understandably, a product of its time, but it hasn’t aged well. I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel reading a story to a young child where one woman is so consumed by jealousy that another woman is getting some attention that she conspires to have that other woman killed, and another woman is tempted to run away from home by the prospect of having little babies to be mother to and the joy of darning their socks. (Even if Tiger Lilly is pretty awesome.) Then there’s the “Redskins.” Yeeeesh…

I found the book to be very interesting. It was loaded with concepts that will have me thinking for a long time. But for all that, I didn’t enjoy it very much. The narrative style was very interesting and often funny, but it always kept a barrier between reader and narrative so that I was never able to really immerse myself in the story. I do think that much of it works better on stage.

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