Over the decades, Disney has crafted its own enchanting and family-friendly adaptations of fairy tales, often lightening the considerably darker source material. It’s no secret that the original Little Mermaid fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen took a much grimmer turn than Ariel’s happy ending, or that Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters faced a far more severe fate in Charles Perrault’s version than simply missing out on a prince. Even the Evil Queen from the Brothers Grimm’s tales met a more dramatic end than her Disney counterpart tumbling off a cliff. Peter Pan follows this pattern too.
However, lurking beneath the surface of Peter Pan is a colder, more unsettling darkness. Disney’s portrayal of the perpetually youthful boy may come across as whimsical, magical, and mischievous, but the true essence of Peter Pan in J.M. Barrie’s original book delves even deeper into mischief, occasionally crossing into darker territory in how he treats others. Yet, the darkest aspects of Peter Pan’s narrative don’t reside within the story itself but instead draw inspiration from J.M. Barrie’s real-life experiences.
The Origins of Peter Pan in the Early Life of J.M. Barrie
Before Peter Pan graced the stage and the pages of literature, James Matthew Barrie was captivated, perhaps even obsessed, with the idea of eternal childhood. In 1867, when James was just 6 years old, tragedy struck as he lost his older brother David in a heartbreaking ice skating accident. David’s 14th birthday was just a day away when the accident occurred. Such a traumatic loss at such a tender age undoubtedly left an indelible mark on James, shaping his thoughts and experiences throughout his life.
The untimely passing of his brother fueled James’s contemplation of childhood, and he became fixated on preserving its innocence. Later in life, he formed a significant friendship with the Davies boys, a relationship often associated with the origins of Peter Pan, though not always portrayed entirely accurately, as seen in the 2004 film ‘Finding Neverland.’
Yet, within this intricate tapestry of Barrie’s life, some crucial details are easily overlooked. James Barrie didn’t only lose his older brother; he also mourned the loss of two infant siblings. Considering the high infant mortality rates of the era, the specter of death loomed large over his early years. Tragically, he witnessed death’s impact on young lives all too often.
Another compelling facet of Barrie’s life is that, despite his fascination with eternal boyhood, he himself never became a parent. Instead, during the late 1890s and early 1900s, he found companionship in Jack and George Davies, who were merely four and five years old when they crossed paths with the author.
The notion of an adult spending extensive time with young boys might raise concerns, leading many to delve deeper into Barrie’s history and the inspirations behind his characters in Peter Pan’s tale. While his friendship with the Davies boys does raise eyebrows, it’s important to note that there’s no conclusive evidence of any nefarious intent. Instead, his connection with these young boys may have been rooted in his profound grief over his lost brother and his struggle to move on. Later, the Davies family expanded to include three more siblings, one of whom bore a rather familiar name: Peter.
J.M. Barrie, ‘The Little White Bird,’ and Peter Pan
The initial introduction of Peter Pan into the literary realm didn’t commence with the iconic novel that most readers readily recognize. Drawing inspiration from his late siblings and the Davies boys, J.M. Barrie penned a novel titled ‘The Little White Bird.’ This tale revolves around an adult who forges a close bond with a young boy, assuming a paternal role in the child’s life. Significantly, the boy in the story goes by the name David—a poignant reminder that James’s thoughts remained with his dearly departed brother even after more than three decades had elapsed.
‘The Little White Bird’ offers an enchanting explanation for the origins of children. According to the narrative, youngsters begin their existence as birds in the picturesque Kensington Gardens. When these avian beings shed their wings, they transform into human children and subsequently embark on the inevitable journey of growing up. This initial incarnation of Peter Pan takes the form of an infant who eludes the constraints of human existence by taking flight through a window. The story weaves a magical and somewhat somber origin for a character who would later embody both the enchanting and challenging aspects of perpetual childhood.
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and the Tragedy of Eternal Boyhood
As it turns out, the notion of eternal childhood isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. When we delve into the world of Peter Pan and his perpetual existence in Neverland, we discover that never growing up comes with its own set of perils—not just for Peter, but especially for those in his orbit. Contrary to the mischievously endearing boy depicted in Disney’s well-known adaptation, J.M. Barrie’s original novel paints a different picture. In Barrie’s narrative, Peter Pan emerges as less of a lovable prankster and more of a cryptic, almost supernatural being fixated on control. Beyond celebrating the carefree aspects of eternal youth, Peter harbors a peculiar bitterness toward anyone displaying even the slightest signs of growing up.
In Barrie’s tale, Peter Pan doesn’t merely engage in swashbuckling adventures with pirates; he dispatches them mercilessly. Admittedly, the pirates, particularly the vengeful Captain Hook, pose a constant threat to Peter, thus justifying his combative stance. However, Peter’s aversion to adulthood leads him to turn against even his closest companions. When the Lost Boys begin to exhibit traces of maturity, he eliminates them without hesitation. As Barrie himself writes in the novel, ‘The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according to as they get killed and so on; and when they seemed to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.’
Peter Pan’s obsession with eternal youth extends to immersing himself in the unbridled joys of childhood, including his fondness for seeking out new games. Lacking the structure and continuity of growing up, Peter remains eternally young, albeit with the drawback of an exceptionally forgetful nature. His memory is described in the book as unreliable and fleeting, hindering his ability to learn and adapt like ordinary humans.
While many adaptations of Barrie’s tale portray Peter Pan as a whimsical embodiment of eternal youth (who wouldn’t want to be a child forever, after all?), the actual narrative is far more shadowy. It’s not just the pirates, the Lost Boys, and even Wendy who face the darker side of Peter’s existence; it’s Peter Pan himself. His perpetual childhood prevents him from comprehending what he’s missing: the full spectrum of life experiences. Consequently, he resorts to controlling those around him, sometimes even resorting to death to preserve his cherished Neverland.
J.M. Barrie’s complex relationship with childhood and the specter of early death, likely influenced by his memories of his brother David and other significant children in his life, adds depth to the story. The theme of death continues to thread its way through the characters of Peter Pan and Barrie’s own life, revealing a narrative far more intricate and darker than meets the eye.