Last year Kipling, this year Barrie; both now dead for the 50 years that puts their work out of copyright. Three new illustrated versions appear this month.
Nicholas Tucker considers the enduring appeal of the eternal boy now, in publishing terms, approaching his 80th birthday.
Peter Pan, the play that started it all, is showing its age these days, with annual Christmas productions increasingly giving way to shorter runs or different shows. Children may have to continue believing in fairies even more convincingly if Peter and his expensively large cast of friends are going to be around for very much longer.
Barrie’s book presents different problems. Originally he let other hands turn his play into print before getting down to the job himself. His own version, originally entitled Peter and Wendy, finally appeared in 1911. This lack of urgency reveals itself in the discursive style he adopts throughout, and the book has never really become a ‘well-loved classic’. Barrie’s readers have always had to be prepared to swallow a certain amount of facetious whimsy, and today references to Peter blowing out the stars plus odd snobberies and arcane household details sit even more uneasily than they did 80 years ago.
So much for the bad news; the important point is that Peter Pan still remains a work of genius that gets closer to children’s imaginary worlds than most books before or since. The nearest approach to its main plot is best found among the spontaneous games children have always played where danger, death and destruction all flit by until it is time for tea. Such were the games played by the Llewelyn Davies boys, to whom Barrie was so devoted, on the island set in the grounds of Black Lake Cottage, Barrie’s holiday home in Surrey. Barrie had a part in these games too, but as an equal rather than an overseer, and he also had exceptionally clear recollections of his own imaginative games when young. Now, note-book at the ready, he provided himself with an ideal chance to revive such memories. The end result was a collection of scenes many of which children would have been happy to write themselves if they had the ability. Indeed, in his preface Barrie claims there are lines in Peter Pan which are direct quotations from the Llewelyn Davies boys.
The close identity with children’s fantasies helps explain the extraordinary fascination of various plot details in Peter Pan. The moment Peter flies into Wendy’s room is capable even now of silencing an otherwise bronchitic, crisp-consuming young theatre audience like the one I sat among recently. (I wonder if the Queen thought of it on the occasion she woke up in her Palace bedroom to find Michael Fagan there, a rather different type of Peter Pan figure?) When it was first performed so many children tried to fly after seeing the play that Barrie was forced to bring in the idea of first putting on fairy dust, so proving it’s not just Video Nasties that arc sometimes imitated to had effect. The original Wendy House remains as enchanting now as it always was, despite being found today in nursery and playgroups all over the land. Other details stay equally compelling: Captain Hook’s iron claw, the ticking crocodile, the nurse-maid dog, and the desert island itself. In fact Peter Pan looks forward to William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies as well as back to The Swiss Family Robinson. Those who accuse Barrie of mere sentimentality should remember the thread of violence that also runs through Peter Pan, with Peter himself an amalgam of the born leader and the natural bully. (‘Peter Pan has spoken’ he announces at one point; 43 years later the evil Jack in Lord of the Flies gets his two young henchmen to intone ‘The chief has spoken’ after one of his pronouncements.) Peter is of course only playing, but there is enough mention of blood, stabbing, decapitation and torture here to remind both adults and children that there are dark as well as light sides to the imagination at however young an age. Barrie’s particular genius was to point out such controversial home truths in a manner that still managed to prove highly acceptable to all concerned.
The other major theme in Peter Pan is the notion of maternal separation, a sensitive issue especially with smaller children and therefore something of particular interest to them. From the moment Mr and Mrs Darling leave their children in the house without adequate supervision this theme of separation is referred to almost continuously. It all starts when Wendy, John and Michael fly away from their parents to Neverland, where they encounter other children who years before have fallen out of their prams to remain permanently unclaimed ever since. These ‘Lost Boys’ are overjoyed at the prospect of obtaining a surrogate mother in the shape of Wendy, but they are tricked into apparently killing her with their bows and arrows. Later on, when Wendy is restored, the pirates plan to kidnap her because they too would like a mother.
This prolonged playing with the romantic possibilities of maternal separation in its various forms is finally terminated by a chilling little speech from Peter himself. Mothers, he says, will not always remember their lost children and forever keep the bedroom windows open in expectation of their return. In his own case, when he had eventually flown back, ‘the window was barred, for my mother had forgotten all about me and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.’ Faced by this desolate image the Darling children panic and decide to fly home. But Peter gets there first and shuts the window himself, declaring ‘when Wendy comes she will think her mother has barred her out; and she will have to go back with me.’ But he later controls his jealousy and the Darling children are re-united with their parents, who also agree to adopt the other lost boys.
Children enjoying adventures well away from parents is a cliche in children’s fiction, but Barrie breaks new ground by also describing children’s realisation of their emotional dependency upon these same parents. This is something usually passed over in the adventures of young heroes and heroines away from home in stories by E Nesbit, Enid Blyton and many others. Once again Barrie helps children to see themselves in the round.
Young people who already know the play will almost certainly welcome another chance to go through it again in book form, but those who do not may be put off by some of the text’s surface barriers already mentioned. A great deal therefore depends on whether the illustrator can entice readers with the promise of riches still to come. Unfortunately the book has not always been well served here. In contrast to the enormous advantage gained by The Wind in the Willows once it was illustrated by E H Shepard, Peter Pan first saw book form disadvantaged by soppy illustrations from Mabel Lucy Attwell. These virtually ignored exciting characters like pirates and redskins, concentrating instead on children pictured as too small to so much as contemplate taking on any adult villain in a fight. Even Nana the giant Newfoundland dog is made diminutive, with Peter himself very much the pampered boy star of a junior ballet class.
But if Mabel Lucy Attwell did not lay down a template for future illustrators in the way Tenniel achieved for Alice, all subsequent artists had still to follow conventions established in the play’s first production such as Captain Hook’s Charles II dreadlocks, John’s top hat, Smee’s spectacles and Peter’s hands on hips stance. Illustrated editions of the book since include work by Edward Ardizzone and Shirley Hughes, both rather dark and cramped here, a fairly anonymous pop-up book illustrated by Borje Svensson and a truly dreadful Walt Disney version, with Peter a grinning all-American extrovert surrounded by cute kids and cuddly animals. The Ladybird Peter Pan is hardly any better, packed with full frontal smiles even from normally morose pirates, and Richard Kennedy’s swirling line drawings for the Puffin edition, although lively, are too all over the place to satisfy younger readers anxious for telling detail as well as overall effect. More recently, in 1984, Hodder and Stoughton published a successful version, illustrated by Peter Stevenson. This starts with an excellent map and later the picture of the children’s Edwardian bedroom, complete with model sailing ship, cleverly foreshadows imaginary events still to come. He also creates a convincingly seductive Tinkerbell, portrayed as both womanly and bitchy – just the type of extra detail with which an artist can supplement Barrie’s stage-craft, where Tinkerbell is of course only a small flashing light. Each page has the odd fairy or animal in the margin, and the total impression is very pleasing.
Of the newest editions the version by the American artist, Michael Hague, is also well worth a look (Methuen). His illustrations share the type of Victorian density found in Richard Dadd’s fairy paintings, at times too much so for younger eyes to cope with. But his Peter, half hippie and half wild boy, for once looks exactly the sort of child who might indeed reject Mrs Darling’s closing offer of domesticity. Another favourite artist, Michael Foreman, has gone for humour rather than magic in his new edition published by Pavilion Books. His Wendy is not beautiful but certainly bold, while Peter is a cheeky urchin out for laughs rather than adventure. This may not be everyone’s interpretation, but provides a useful balance to the occasional mawkishness of Barrie’s text. But the most striking new Peter is found in Jan Ormerod’s illustrations for Viking Kestrel’s new edition. Portrayed as a grinning sprite, near nude and full of mischief, Peter is totally his own person, belonging neither to the human world nor to anywhere else. Other characters are also well represented in this artist’s stimulating combination of black and white and colour pictures, where Wendy is a tough little girl with dark spiky plaits rather than the usual flowing locks – and why not?
Lastly, an oddity. Gilbert Adair, who recently made a brave shot at writing a new Lewis Carroll story in Alice‘s Adventures Through the Needle’s Eye, now tries his hand at extending Barrie in Peter Pan and the Only Children (Macmillan). Jenny Thorne’s accompanying illustrations are effective, but Adair’s text soon becomes too much of a good thing. While Carroll’s sometimes acerbic epigrams lend themselves quite happily to imitation, the mixture of snobbery, sexism, sadism and sentiment that represents Barrie at his worst is now best passed over rather than re-created, however skilfully. The revelation that Hook is in fact Peter’s father is cleverly done though in a sense already in the play, given that Hook is regularly played by the same actor who also portrays Mr Darling, father to everyone else when the curtain falls.
Where ordinary young readers are concerned, however much they may love their father and mother there will always be some lingering resentment of parents’ superior strength and power. Considerable satisfaction may therefore be gained, albeit unconsciously, from the spectacle of one small boy with enough courage both to kill off a negative image of persecuting fatherhood (Hook) then later to reject a second, more benign symbol of parental authority represented by Mr and Mrs Darling. But such an act of bravery also condemns Peter to spend the rest of his life alone, and a hero who can be both fervently admired and profoundly pitied is always going to be especially cherished. I hope children will continue to get the chance to take Peter to their hearts, either by seeing the play or else through reading one of these illustrated versions that now do their job so well.
The recent versions of Peter Pan referred to by Nicholas Tucker are as follows:
Illustrated by Michael Hague, Methuen, 0 416 09392 2 £9.95
Illustrated by Michael Foreman, Pavilion, 1 85145 179 X, £8.95
Illustrated by Jan Ormerod, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 80862 8, £7.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.2007 5, £1.95
Peter Pan and the Only Children, Gilbert Adair, ill. Jenny Thorne, Macmillan, 0 333 43968 6, £7.95
Nicholas Tucker teaches at the University of Sussex. Amongst his many publications, The Child and the Book: A Psychological and Literary Exploration (Cambridge University Press) is a standard work.