J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

imageThis deservedly classic book was originally published in 1911 as Peter Pan and Wendy though this edition by Starscape, an imprint of Tor Books, uses the more later title that most of us know it by.

On page 36 of Peter Pan is this lovely paragraph:

There was another light in the room now, a thousand times brighter than the night-lights, and in the time we have taken to say this, it had been in all the drawers in the nursery, looking for Peter’s shadow, rummaged the wardrobe and turned every pocket inside out. It was not really a light; it made this light by flashing about so quickly, but when it came to rest for a second you saw it was a fairy, no longer than your hand, but still growing. It was a girl called Tinker Bell exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.

Embonpoint is French for stout or corpulent depending on how you translate it. So Tinker Bell is fat. And there’s no indication she has wings. And she mends pots and pans according to Barrie elsewhere in this novel, which is why she’s called Tinker Bell. That got your attention, didn’t it? Not what you thought she was based on in the Disney animated film and countless other depictions of her? Larry Niven and Jack Zipes have both been known to comment that the original fairy tales were written for adults and children, and Barrie definitely wasn’t writing just for children when he set his tale down, as this is a cautionary tale for adults about what happens if you stop believing in fairies.

Vess says of the wings that:

Well, I guess I was following Arthur Rackham’s advice and illustrating between the lines. I thought that Tink would look nice with wings so I drew them on her. For me, good Illustration should always be seen as in collaboration with the text it is illustrating. I see nothing wrong in adding or subtracting from the author’s descriptions. I know that this would drive some readers up the wall but for me it creates a very interesting ‘third’ world that exists independently of either the printed word or the given illustration. One that activates the attentive reader’s imagination and allows her/him to take an active part in the story itself.

I read Peter Pan because I had watched the rather excellent 2003 film version of Peter Pan earlier this week. It was touted as the most accurate depiction of the short novel Barrie wrote, so I was interested to see if this was indeed true. Now, we have reviewed Peter Pan before and Marian  in her review of another edition noted correctly:

Peter Pan is a classic tale that has been enjoyed by many generations since its original publication in 1911. Barrie originally wrote Peter Pan as a play around 1903 but due to its success Barrie rewrote his play as a story. The most popular version of the story now would most probably be the animated Peter Pan produced by Walt Disney in 1953, which is the format with which most children are now introduced to Peter Pan. Though not a perfect retelling of the original story by James Matthew Barrie it is still a very good adaptation, with the usual musical score and comedy we have come to expect from the Disney studios. The rights to the story are now owned by the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital to whom Barrie donated all the royalties before his death.

I, by hook or crook, had avoided for all these years seeing the Disney version, but had seen Hook and the other aforementioned film version, so had a relatively open mind as what I was expecting from the novel.

So I settled in on a cold winter’s night to read it after going through our various literary reference guides, such as the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature and the Encyclopedia of Fantasy to see what they had to say. My first question was which version I had here as there’s no indication which version of the story this! So I asked Charles Vess if he know: ‘I believe that it’s the original text to Peter and Wendy, the prose version that Barrie’s based on his play. I know that it is unabridged with all the wonderfully weird bits of flotsam from Barrie’s imagination mixed in with the more typical Victorian sentimentality.’ That would mean it was published in 1911, about eight years after the play version was first staged in London. Both guides think highly of it with the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature being properly English in their praise!

Measuring a compact eight inches by five and a half, and a mere two hundred and twenty-one pages in length, it took me but three hours to read with a break to brew a cup of Earl Grey tea to take the chill off a slightly cold room.

Now that was appropriate, as Peter Pan is set fairly close to Christmastime and the London scenes are obviously meant to be both magical and also the antithesis to the perceived paradise of Neverland. I say perceived because like the true Oz, Neverland holds nightmares beyond your wildest imagining. Hook and his crew of pirates are predictably nasty, but so are the Lost Boys, who ‘are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses.’ (Barrie claims girls are too clever to fall out of their prams!) Indeed Barrie would do the Brothers Grimm proud with some of his descriptions of life in Neverland, as when a mermaid attempts to drown Wendy. All the Good Parts, as William Goldman said in The Princess Bride, are here. The 2003 version of Peter Pan comes very close to being true to what Barrie wrote, but it still shies away from some of the odder, more charming aspects such as Mrs. Darling rummaging through their memories:

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.

Nana, the Newfoundland (and in later versions, St. Bernard), who is the children’s nanny because the family is too poor to afford a real nanny, is portrayed exactly in the book as she is in the film. Peter, on the other hand, is a lot more charming in the film than he is in the novel.

If you appreciate classic literature from the Edwardian era that both children — say early teens — and adults will appreciate, go read this version, as you’ll find both the text and the illustrations by Charles Vess are up to his usual exceedingly high standards, with the crocodile being particularly pleasing! It’s not precisely what you’d expect based on the film versions from over eighty years (1924 saw the first version, with several dozen versions being done in total) no more than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the same as the film that everyone here has likely seen. (Hint — the film for the latter only covers half the book!) I found my reading of Peter Pan and Wendy to use the proper to be well worth the evening that it took. My deepest appreciation to Tor for printing this fine edition of one of the finest works of fantasy of the past century!

(Starscape, 2003)


Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I do the Birthdays and Media Anniversary write-ups for Mike Glyer’s file770.com, the foremost SFF fandom site. My current audiobooks are Simon R. Green’s Jekyll & Hyde Inc., Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. I just read Kathryn Kristine Rusch’s Ten Little Fen which was most superb. My music listening as always leans heavily towards trad Celtic and Nordic music. I’m watching my way though all twenty one seasons of the British forensic series Silent Witness. Yes, twenty one seasons. And I keep adding plants to my flat here, up to nearly thirty now including a miniature banana tree which is growing nice and my first pineapple bromeliad.

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