It was in 1904, at Christmastime, that American impresario Charles Frohman first staged James M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan: or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre. Perhaps the astute Jewish producer had noticed, as David Goldman put it in his December 2006 essay “Sympathy for Scrooge,” that “the Christmas season [is] a moment when the entire Gentile world is given over to a child’s view of things.”
Mr. Goldman insightfully observed that Dickens’ Scrooge caricatures Dissenters whose disdain for Christmas dated back to the Puritan attempt to abolish it. That attempt failed, in part because the Nativity story and its celebration serve a purpose: namely, to confute Adoptionism—to remind Christians that their faith is about God becoming man, not man becoming God. New England’s Christmas-spurning Puritans devolved, by way of Adoptionism, into Unitarians. Yet the persistent popularity of the Christened solstice relative to theologically weightier Good Friday and Easter might remind us that a reluctance to grow up, to “put away childish things,” to leave the manger and shoulder one’s cross, long antedates Barrie’s fiction. Perhaps neo-Scroogian cultural critics might deprecate our aversion to confronting mortality as “Christmas syndrome,” had not Barrie provided a scapegoat—a figure to whose account, under the rubric of “Peter Pan syndrome,” that folly may be charged with less manifest humbuggery.
Barrie’s cricket club-mate G.K. Chesterton regarded Peter Pan more fondly. In The Everlasting Man (1925), in the chapter “The Strangest Story in the World,” Chesterton wrote: “Peter Pan belongs not to the world of Pan but to the world of Peter.” But Chesterton’s time and culture are not ours, and the fault lies less in Peter Pan than in ourselves that we construe him so paganly.
Peter Pan is about the death of children, long a daunting challenge to both simple faith and learned soteriology. It is, however, equally about deadly parental neglect—about not wanting or loving children. It is all too timely for our era of selfishly infertile and casually feticidal adults. Perhaps we miss Peter Pan’s central themes in part because child death post partum has become far rarer than it was a century ago. We also may miss them, at least in part, because we dismiss as mere caricature the story’s main adult character, Captain Hook: We fail to recall and give due weight to the tradition, which goes back to the play’s first staging, under Barrie’s direction, that Hook be played by the same actor who plays Mr. Darling, a flawed father. Mr. Darling and Hook are, in fact, the same character, operating respectively in this world and in Barrie’s limbus puerorum, Neverland. Although, as G.B. Shaw noted, Peter Pan “is ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people,” appreciation of its burden for grown-ups requires attention to its main adult character. Appreciation of Peter Pan requires sympathy for Hook.
Never Growing Up as Child Death: The Autobiographical Origins of Peter Pan
Barrie worked on Peter Pan for a quarter century. It is not one work but two, one of which changed over decades without fixed form, and both of which Barrie anticipated or elaborated in other works published in his lifetime or posthumously. Although the play was first staged at Christmastime in 1904, its script was not published until 1928, and Barrie restaged it and revised its script repeatedly in the interim; even the only extant script for the play’s staging, unpublished and housed at Yale’s Beinecke Library, antedates and differs from the play described by reviewers on opening night. The title Peter Pan also refers to Peter and Wendy, later republished under the title Peter Pan and Wendy or simply as Peter Pan. This is a novel-form rendition of substantially the same story with dialogue sometimes different from that of the playscript as published, and with more profuse narrative commentary. The novelized version was first published in 1911, seven years after the play was first staged but seventeen years before its script was published.
The character Peter Pan first appeared in chapters 13-18 of The Little White Bird; or, Adventures in Kensington Gardens, a novel published in 1902; the Peter Pan chapters were republished in 1906 as a children’s book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The 1902 Peter Pan is an infant runaway who dwells on the bird sanctuary island in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake and consorts by night with fairies in neighboring Kensington Gardens. Boys abandoned in the gardens at night he either rescues and takes to his island or buries, if they have died of exposure. He fights no pirates and has no Neverland, save that real people never go to the bird sanctuary island in the Serpentine.
In July 1927 Barrie further elaborated the character of Captain James Hook in a droll address, “Captain Hook at Eton,” that he delivered at Hook’s putative alma mater. London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, to which the childless Barrie bequeathed his Peter Pan copyrights and royalties, has published, on its J.M. Barrie website, selections from Barrie’s notebooks, including 500 entries called “Fairy Notes” that date from 1903-1904 and illuminate the play’s writing, and a not entirely complete playscript, titled “Anon,” that dates from late 1903 and early 1904.
Some of Barrie’s letters and his biography of his mother (Margaret Ogilvie, published in 1896) also seem very helpful for understanding Peter Pan. The death of Barrie’s brother David at age thirteen, when James Barrie was six years old, left Barrie lastingly scarred psychologically. For the remaining 29 years of her life, Barrie’s mother abandoned James emotionally to mourn his dead brother. This gave rise in Barrie, per his biography of his mother, to an “intense desire to become so like [David] that even my mother should not see the difference.” Barrie’s effort to resemble his brother took its specific form from his mother’s habit of consoling herself with the thought that her dead son would remain a child forever—that she would meet him in eternity just as he had been when they parted. Young James Barrie resolved that he, too, would remain a child forever—that he would never grow up, in the hope of regaining his mother’s affection. “The horror of my boyhood,” he wrote in Margaret Ogilvie, “was that I knew a time would come when I must give up the games and how it was to be done I saw not. This agony still returns to me in dreams, when I catch myself playing marbles, and look on with cold displeasure; I felt that I must continue playing in secret.” This, Barrie reportedly observed in a letter to his sister, was how the dramatic theme of “a lost childhood” occurred to him. His Fairy Note 259 states: “The horror of growing up [is the] root idea of P[eter Pan].” In sum, Peter Pan is autobiographical in origin, and its theme of “never growing up” refers to dying as a child.
That Peter Pan is about child death, Barrie bluntly suggested in the program notes for the 1908 Paris production of the play: “Of Peter himself you must make what you will. Perhaps he was a little boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived of his subsequent adventures” (A. Birkin, J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, page 116). In Chapter 1 of Peter and Wendy, Mrs. Darling, on hearing of Peter from her children, dimly remembers from her own childhood “odd stories” about “a Peter Pan who . . . when children died . . . went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened.” It seems, then, that the term lost boys is a euphemism for “dead boys” (notwithstanding their miraculous return to London at play’s end), who go to Neverland not by flying but by dying. Peter Pan is not only a dead child but also a psychopomp for other dead children. In this context, Peter’s role of taking children to Neverland seems starkly menacing to parents, represented by Mr. and Mrs. Darling.
Indeed, the Fairy Notes extracted from Barrie’s notebooks in 1903-1904 suggest that Peter Pan, not Hook, was originally the villain of the piece. Consider the following:
19. Peter is sprite inveigling children away from becoming grown up?
22. Peter a sprite whom all mothers fear [because] of his drawing away children
166. The Boy Who Hated Mothers. (Title?)
174. Thus in first act it isn’t known why P so cruel & villainous.
Moreover, in Barrie’s Fairy Notes, pirates and a pirate captain first appear in notes 343 and 347 (out of 500). Barrie’s biographers relate that the role of Hook was created only after rehearsals began, to enlarge the scope afforded to the talents of actor Gerald du Maurier, originally hired to play only the role of Mr. Darling; to these improvisations du Maurier contributed no less than Barrie.
If the Lost Boys are, in fact, dead, what, then, is Neverland, and why do the boys go there? And if, as Barrie implies, Neverland is only “part of the way” to their final destination, why need they pause there, and how and when do they move onward? Part of the answer seems to be given in a narrator’s digression near the start of Peter and Wendy: Neverland is a configuration of a child’s mind, different for each child, that yields a high density of adventures; this implies that one goes to Neverland to have adventures, which are, for the Lost Boys, “of daily occurrence” (Peter and Wendy , Chapter 7):
I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of . . . a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it . . . and these are probably roads in the island, for the Neverland is always more or less an island . . . it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it . . . . Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact, not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed . . . . Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them.
In Chapter 5 of Peter and Wendy, Tootles is called “the most unfortunate” of the Lost Boys because “he had been in fewer adventures than any of them.” Among all Neverland’s adventures, the greatest is to die, as Peter famously declares in chapter 8 of the novel and Act III of the play: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” It is by dying to Neverland, or growing up, that Lost Boys move on, as is stated in Peter and Wendy, Chapter 5: “The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.” When a Lost Boy has had his fill of adventures, it seems, he grows up and moves on.
But not Peter. He never dies to Neverland. Although he has more adventures than any Lost Boy, he never grows up and never moves on. Fairy Note 297 explains: “P different from others in that he ran away while they were lost.” Peter tells Wendy, in Chapter 3 of Peter and Wendy: “I ran away the day I was born . . . because I heard father and mother talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” Peter never understands that “growing up” can and should be something different from the trajectory of the world, from merely pursuing money and respectability. He rejects growth because he knows only wrong growth; he is in rebellion, in love with stasis, because growth has been misrepresented to him. That is more an indictment of the world than of him. His problem is not that he won’t grow up, but that he can’t: Barrie wanted to subtitle the play, “the boy who couldn’t grow up,” but Frohman insisted on changing “couldn’t” to “wouldn’t.” Peter, though guiltless, is, nevertheless, flawed, and perhaps a child suicide: If “lost” is a euphemism for “dead,” then “runaway” may be a euphemism for suicide. Barrie’s own effort to remain childlike in imitation of a brother who had died in childhood was a kind of suicide, as Barrie seems to have understood. And even infant suicides who know no better are barred from eternal life, doomed to linger in the limbus puerorum—in Neverland. Peter can never die into eternal life because he has spurned this life, and Barrie’s playscript concludes with a narrator’s comment that evokes the pathos of Peter’s predicament:
It has something to do with the riddle of his being. If he could get the hang of the thing his cry might become ‘To live would be an awfully big adventure!’ but he can never quite get the hang of it, and so no one is as gay as he.
Peter Pan’s Redemptive Role
Peter Pan is not good, but he is useful. He steals children permanently or temporarily from their parents and enables them, in Neverland, to have “adventures”—that is, to gain new experience and thereby to grow up. His distinctive character flaw, his refusal to grow up, is what makes him useful and enables him to remain in Neverland, serving other children who need his help to grow up. He can help others to be saved precisely because he cannot save himself. This, sadly, may be Barrie’s view of his own calling.
Those whom Peter takes permanently are boys who have died young. For them, Neverland seems a dynamic and educative limbo, preparatory to the “awfully big adventure” of eternal life in spiritual maturity. Peter also takes other children to Neverland, however—children such as the three Darlings, who have not died and may return to our own world. These children, it seems, may include girls, who, like Wendy, are preparing for the cruel task of mothering boys. What is Neverland to this latter group of visitors, and why do they go there?
Insofar as the Darling children are indicative, these short-term visitors to Neverland seem to be children whose neglect or stifling by their parents impels them to resort to an interior fantasy world to have adventures (that is, gain new experiences) needed for maturation in this world. The distinction between these children and the Lost Boys is a bit blurry because any visit to Neverland is fraught with peril, and return is never certain: Children who act out their fantasies can—and, too often, do—die young. Any visit from Peter Pan betokens an estrangement of child from parent that entails risk of lasting bereavement, a death bell calling parents to repentance and reform—in particular, a bell calling parents who themselves have not grown up to do so before it is too late.
It is Mr. Darling’s flaws as a parent that bring Peter Pan to his children’s nursery and send them flying off to Neverland. Mr. Darling had not wanted children because they cost money; he preferred to employ his wife as his bookkeeper until she demanded children (Peter and Wendy, Chapter 1). His children sense this: When we first meet them, John, playing their father to Wendy’s Mrs. Darling, declares that Michael is not to be born—that no more children are wanted. Preoccupied with his financial position in the City, Mr. Darling spends little time with his children, to whom he says, chiefly, “A little less noise there.” His children amuse themselves at bedtime by making up stories about Peter Pan because Mr. Darling is too busy—and keeps his wife too busy—with social engagements to tell or read them stories. Moreover, to save money, he has hired as their nanny a dog who can neither read nor speak. It is to hear the children’s stories that Peter is first drawn to their nursery. Mr. Darling insists on leaving them alone to attend a business dinner, and he chains up their dog-nanny even after being advised that her barking indicates that she has sensed danger. He does this despite the express wish of his wife—who has glimpsed Peter at the window—that she were not going out. And so Peter steals Mr. Darling’s children off to Neverland, there to impart to them, through “adventures,” the help in growing up that their father has failed to give them.
Why should unloved children be taken briefly to a limbo for children who die young? Because love is life, and its lack is death. For children, loss of parental affection is a little death, as Barrie knew well from his own childhood. Both, in Barrie’s view, require experiences denied such children in this world to help them mature into loving adults, suited either for this life or for the life to come.
Implicit in this is a view that what qualifies one for eternal life, no less than for this life, is not innocence but experience. The souls of those who die young and innocent must be given experience by some mentor, in some limbo between this world and the world to come. This view diverges from recent Christian orthodoxy, which regards innocence plus baptism as sufficient for salvation. Barrie surely knew that; he was not doctrinally unlettered, having been raised in a devout Scottish Calvinist household, as his first book, Auld Licht Idylls, records. That aspect of orthodoxy, articulated by his mother with respect to his dead brother, had, however, inspired Barrie’s self-crippling desire never to grow up—and Peter Pan expresses Barrie’s desperate longing to outgrow that desire. The view of the afterlife of dead children implicit in Peter Pan challenges the assertion of Barrie’s mother that her dead son David would remain eternally a child. In Peter Pan Barrie implicitly asserts, contrary to his own mother’s obsession, that when a mother rejoins her dead child in heaven, she will find him no longer a child, but a mature soul who has grown up. Barrie also suggests, albeit fancifully, how the souls of dead children might mature.
That there is no salvation without growing up—and, hence, that those who do not grow up here must do so hereafter—is quite opposite to the glorification of refusal to grow up that those who excoriate the “Peter Pan syndrome” seem to ascribe to Barrie’s work. Perhaps many fail to see this in Peter Pan simply because it is unfamiliar. This notion was not alien to early Christian tradition, however. It was voiced by Clement of Alexandria, in a discussion of the afterlife of children exposed or aborted, in his never wholly Englished Eclogae ex Scripturis Propheticis (Eclogae 41 and 48, at lines 195 and 215). There, Clement also ascribes this view to a more complete version than is now extant of The Apocalypse of Peter, a second-century Christian text regarded as canonical both by the Muratorian Fragment and by Clement (per Eusebius):
The scripture says that the children who have been exposed are delivered to a caretaking angel, by whom they are educated and made to grow up; and they shall be, it says, as the faithful of a hundred years old are here. Wherefore also Peter in the apocalypse says: “And a lightning flash of fire leaps from those children and smites the eyes of the women [who exposed them].” . . . Peter in the apocalypse says that the children born out of due time [aborted] who would have been of the better part [the elect], these are delivered to a caretaking angel, so that they may partake of knowledge and obtain the better abode [heaven], having already suffered what they would have suffered had they been in the body.
Although it seems unlikely that Barrie knew of these passages, Barrie’s Peter Pan seems strikingly reminiscent of the “caretaking angel” in Clement’s Apocalypse of Peter.
Whatever its theological merits or demerits, the notion that salvation requires maturation need not be inconsistent with the gospels’ words on little children and the Kingdom of Heaven, found at Matthew 18:3-5 and 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, and Luke 18:15-17. That one must become like a little child to attain the Kingdom, and that the Kingdom is “of such,” can hardly be construed to mean that only the innocent can be saved, nor need it be construed to mean that innocence suffices for salvation or persists in eternity. A more robust construction may be that salvation requires becoming childlike in the sense of knowing that one is not yet what one can and should become; that, spiritually, one still has a lot of growing up to do; and that the Kingdom is of those who feel this. This is, in fact, Barrie’s point of departure in crafting Peter Pan . The very first of his Fairy Notes states: “No one has grown up ideas (not parents or anyone).” And the very first paragraph of Peter and Wendy observes that the essence of childhood is awareness of its transience: All children know, from the age of two, that they must grow up.
All children but Peter Pan. The efficient cause of Peter Pan’s refusal to grow up is a character flaw, a crowing self-satisfaction born of failure to understand that growing up need not entail becoming worse. Peter is hopeless: mistaking all change to be for the worse, he revolts against life to worship and immortalize himself just as he is—a caricature of paganism worthy of his surname. The final cause of Peter’s failure to grow up—its objective purpose—is, however, to render Peter Pan endlessly useful: So long as boys die young or parents neglect their children, he will be needed. For both causes, he can grow up only at the Eschaton, if ever. But to see only efficient causes and neglect final causes—the most ubiquitous of modern intellectual failings—is to see only Peter’s flaw and miss his usefulness. It is to see only the pagan and miss the loving Providence by which evil is made to bring forth greater good.
Darling—Hook as Pan’s Revelator
Because, biologically, the sole alternative to growing up is to die young, mere commonsense regard for natural law might suggest that a tale ostensibly about never growing up might be about child death. But natural law rarely suffices to induce us to confront horror while we can avoid it; for that, revelation is wanted. So far, I have tried to reveal the horror in Barrie’s tale, and Peter Pan’s role in redeeming us from that horror, in large part by reference to material external to the play or the novel. But how, lacking ready access to this material, is a theatergoer or reader to perceive and understand that role from the play or the novel itself? Not from the character of Peter Pan himself. Precisely because he never grows up, Peter is blithely innocent and ignorant of his own service. For Peter, it is all a game; he knows not what he does and so cannot be his own revelator.
Rather, in the play and the novel, Peter’s service in helping dead or unloved children to grow up is revealed chiefly by his foil, Darling—Hook, who is both (as Mr. Darling in London) a dreadful parent and (as Captain Hook in Neverland) a paroxysm of selfish rage against child loss. In both play and novel, Hook dies to Neverland asking, “Pan, who and what art thou?” His role is, in the end, to spur us to ponder that question and to suspect that Peter’s reply—“I’m youth, I’m joy, I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg”—is, as Hook deems it, “nonsense . . . proof . . . that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was” (Peter and Wendy, Chapter 15).
Hook is in Neverland to recover his (Darling’s) lost children and avenge himself on their abductor, Peter Pan. His right hand, which Peter has severed, is his posterity; the ticking-clock crocodile that swallowed the hand and that first follows and finally devours Hook is his mortality, against which his children were his only shield. He pursues his children not out of love, however, but out of tyrannous pride; at the play’s climax, when Hook fails to regain their obedience and force them to become pirates like himself, he proves quite ready to murder them. Either way, he will deny them freedom to grow up.
Moreover, Hook reacts to the loss of his own children by trying to murder all other children in Neverland, preferably in a way that kills them both in this life and the next. If he is to be reft of immortality, then so shall all the world. Hook’s Herodian quest is attended with perverse biblical allusions to the death and afterlife of children. His first attempted child murder is the drowning of the Indian maiden, Tiger Lily, whose people believe that “there is no path through water to the happy hunting ground” (Act III; Peter and Wendy, Chapter 8). Hook’s other attempted child murders, although sometimes by poisoning, are generally by drowning—above all, by forcing his victims to “walk the plank.” In an inversion of baptism, Hook seeks to kill children in a way that, at least in the belief ascribed to Tiger Lily’s people, will kill not only their bodies but also their souls. In the play (Act V, scene 1), although not in the novel, Hook declares, “A holocaust of children, there is something grand in the idea!” The phrase starkly evokes child sacrifice to Moloch and rejection of the God who provided a vicarious sacrifice for Isaac.
That Hook is Mr. Darling come to Neverland, both play and novel indicate diversely. Hook’s sartorial foppery caricatures Darling’s preoccupation with dressing for his business dinner. His piracy caricatures Darling’s financial job in the City and obsession with money. Like Darling, whose cowardice his children expose in the form of unwillingness to take his medicine, Hook “bled yellow” (Act III). Most tellingly, Hook claims to mourn his lack of children and of their affection:
No little children love me. I am told they play at Peter Pan, and that the strongest always chooses to be Peter. They . . . force the baby to be Hook. The baby! (Act V, scene 1)
There came to him a presentiment of his early dissolution . . . . “No little children to love me!” Strange that he should think of this, which had never troubled him before. (Peter and Wendy, Chapter 14)
It is not strange that Mr. Darling should visit Neverland, for he is far from grown up; this is the root cause of his incapacity to parent. He won’t take his medicine, he complains that no one coddles him as his wife coddles their children, and he demands that his wife lullaby him to sleep in his children’s nursery. He wants his wife to be his mother—a confusion lampooned throughout Peter Pan in the relationship between Peter and Wendy. Mr. Darling desperately needs an adventure, specifically the adventure of dying to self, which Peter obligingly provides to him as Hook. Moreover, Mr. Darling’s pursuit of his children to Neverland appears not to be strange to Peter’s experience. At the end of the novel, when Peter revisits Wendy after a year’s absence, she finds that Peter has forgotten Hook. And why? Hook was only one of many: “‘I forget them after I kill them,’ [Peter] replied carelessly.” Dealing with bereaved, enraged, negligent, and over-possessive parents is one of Peter’s routine functions; perhaps a Hook comes to Neverland with every Lost Boy.
Hook merits our sympathy because Mr. Darling does. It is by Captain Hook’s death in Neverland that Mr. Darling is redeemed in London. When his children return to him, a grace beyond his power to effect, he has been transformed into a loving father, not only to his own children, whose flight to Neverland his negligence had provoked, but also to the Lost Boys whom he, as Hook, had sought to murder. The promise of his penitential move into his dog-nanny’s kennel is fulfilled. Peter Pan is a tale of redemption, and its child protagonist is an agent of salvation, but to see this, one must appreciate that Hook is the self to which Mr. Darling must die.
Everyone understands that Peter, in Neverland, saves the Darling children from Captain Hook. Less widely understood is that this is tantamount to saving them in London from their father’s lack of parental love. Still less understood is that Peter saves the children by saving their father. “No one is saved alone,” as the present pope points out in his encyclical Spe Salvi; and many of us who might otherwise never grow up do so for the sake of our children.
Unfortunately, for those who fail to note that Mr. Darling and Hook are one, the former is a bit character, and his redemption is a peripheral development unrelated to the main story of events in Neverland. For such readers and theatergoers, Peter Pan is just a boy who won’t grow up, and his tale is a wistful one of parting from childhood. They understand no more of it than does Peter himself. In the end, however, thanks to Peter, Mr. Darling grows up; he needs no more trips to Neverland, and there is nothing sad or wistful about it.
The first public performance of Peter Pan was scheduled for December 22, 1904. A collapse of the ponderous stage equipment needed to make the cast seem to fly forced the opening to be postponed, however—to December 27, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. “God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” Peter Pan reminds us that we should let him do so—in our lives and those of our children—that with his help we each and all may never stop growing up.
R. Patard is father to two sons, whom he supports by working as an economist in Washington, D.C.