Before I formally begin, I think I should make it clear that it is not I who should be thanked for last week’s Lit Soc on J M Barrie and Peter Pan, but it is Johnny Depp who deserves the gratitude of the delightful audience. You see if it weren’t for Mr Depp, I should imagine my passion for the story of Peter Pan should never have been ignited. Aged 15, in possession of a typical school girl crush I decided that I needed to watch the entire filmography of Johnny Depp and it was through this obsession that I ended up watching Finding Neverland. And that was that. I was hooked…on the film that is. It wasn’t until around 6 years later that I truly became enthralled with the world of Peter Pan and his strange little Scottish creator. Enter Kingston University and their undergraduate module on Children’s literature. Within ten minutes of our first lecture on Peter Pan, the most commonly used words by our lecturer had been dangerous, scary, paedophile, damaged, repressed, immoral and disturbing. Not what I had been expecting. So, filled with intrigue and determination, I set about finding out as much as I could about J M Barrie and the supposedly damaging tale of The Boy Who Never Grew Up.
James Matthew Barrie was born in 1860 in Kirriemuir, Scotland. By age 6 he was described as being short, nothing special when it came to school and he was rather the runt of the Barrie family. Already lacking in confidence and stature, the events of January 1867 were to further damage Barrie’s mental and physical state. On the eve of his 14th birthday, Barrie’s oldest brother David was tragically killed in a skating accident, leaving their mother devastated. She would never recover from this tragedy, despite Barrie’s best efforts to get her to re-engage with her remaining sons. He recounted once entering her bedroom and standing at her bedside while dressed in his dead brothers clothes in an attempt to cheer his mother, this however had the opposite effect and continued to do so for many years; ‘while Barrie became an adult, his brother remained the boy who never grew up.’
Already we can begin to see where the seeds for Peter Pan began to germinate, but it wasn’t until he met the Llewelyn Davies family that Peter really began to sprout. A chance meeting in Kensington Gardens between one man and his dog, and three young boys in the care of their nurse maid was to change the lives of all involved. The boys were the children of one Arthur Llewelyn Davies, and his wife Sylvia (aunt to the great Daphne du Maurier), both of whom were known to Barrie after he had met their sons. Sooner rather than later, Barrie had become an overpowering presence in the family household, disliked by Arthur but loved by the boys. It reached a point where Barrie would even accompany the family on their holidays, in pursuit of childhood adventures. Barrie felt comfortable around these young boys, having never grown much since he was a teenager, he felt unthreatened by their presence and he enjoyed the excuse that they provided for him to regress and play those beloved childhood games of pirates, and cowboys and Indians. It was on one such holiday that the Boy Castaways were formed, an unlikely group of young (and not so young) adventurers, sailing the seven seas and stringing up bad guys. It was the collection of text and photographs documenting these adventures that was the blueprint for the first performances of Peter Pan. In a country house, in a make believe game between an odd little writer and five young boys, a legend had been born.
However the joy surrounding Barries ‘adopted’ family was short-lived. Arthur died in 1907, leaving Sylvia a widow with five young children. Then three years later, tragedy stuck once again, with Sylvia dying of Cancer in 1910. It was around this time that the oldest of the five boys were reaching the age at which they would leave home for school and university. Barrie, taking on the role of guardian in the absence of Arthur and Sylvia did not like this, as he wished that they could stay young forever, much like Peter. Try as he might he could not stop them from “[swinging] monkey-wise from branch to branch in the wood of make-believe, until [they] reached the tree of knowledge,” as the Llewelyn Davies boys and Barrie drifted apart. The next few years were full of sorrow for the little mis-fitted group of Barrie and his ‘lost boys’. The arrival of WWI saw George and Michael Llewelyn Davies sent off to fight in France, from which only one would return. Sadly, in 1915, George was killed in battle; the first of Barrie’s boys that was to grow no older. Barrie was distraught, and six years later further heartache was to come to him. In 1921, Michael was found drowned in a lake at one of the Oxford colleges, a suspected homosexual suicide pact; another boy that would never grow a second older. For Barrie, in the last years of his life following these tragic and heart breaking events, he lived as a man “with hell in his soul”; an incredibly disturbed and unhappy man, deeply affected by the events of his turbulent life. Just over 20 years after Barrie’s death, one final tragedy was to befall the three remaining Llewlyn Davies boys. In 1960, Peter (namesake to the famous Pan), calmly and quietly drank in a pub close to Sloane Square, before walking down to the tube and throwing himself in front of a train. The day of his death he had been sorting through family papers, and had just filed away all concerned with his brother Michael’s suicide.
Unfortunately, over the years since his death, many damaging accusations have been made towards Barrie and whispers have been heard about the nature of his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys; not helped by the tragic events that ensued in their adult lives. However Nico, the youngest of the five has maintained that Barrie “was an innocent” whom they all loved dearly, and that Barrie was only able to pen a tale such as Peter Pan through his childlike innocence; he never meant any harm.
Peter Pan itself has always been, and continues to be a roaring success in whichever form it chooses to take. With all proceeds donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital for as long as the text and the hospital exist, it is a text that ‘does good,’ at least in one sense. Many have read Peter Pan as it should be, a rip-roaring whale-of-a-time children’s adventure story set in a magical land far far away. Alternatively it can be seen as dark, damaging and prone to Barrie’s episodic rants. Barrie has perfected the art in which the author winks over the head of the children to the adults, with his cascades of anger directed at mothers very much going unnoticed by his younger audience. Likewise, the uncomfortable dialogue surrounding Tinkerbell, and the kiss between Wendy and Peter goes unnoticed. And who can ignore the presence of the ticking clock in the belly of the crocodile, Barrie’s reminder to us that we have limited time here and that it is constantly ticking away, chasing us down. Neverland is described as being a map of one’s mind, whatever a child may imagine is a reality in their Neverland and without a doubt, Peter Pan is a map of Barrie’s mind; his Neverland. He is a strong presence in his own narrative, digging up his unconscious mind to shape what he considers to be Peter’s Neverland.
There is no Death of the Author in Peter Pan, rarely has a writer been so present in his work, but I do not think that this needs to be a cause for concern. Yes, as I mentioned, there are dark episodes, uncomfortable sexual references and much more; and no, perhaps these should not be included in a work intended for children. But what Barrie did in his writing was to a degree unintentional, and therefore unharmful to the childhood reader. The only reason that I am able to identify these aspects as harmful is because I am reading it through adult eyes, with a knowledge of Barrie’s past and an understanding of the implications. However, a child, keen for fun and adventure will marvel in the world of the Lost Boys, will want to join in with the quest to capture Captain Hook and will above all clap their hands to save the fairies. For Peter Pan is magical and a wonderful creation from the mind of one of our best writers from The Golden Age of Literature, and the minds of those young Llewlyn Davies boys.