Posterity is a harsh editor. A favoured book or character may not last the test of time. Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) was a favourite writer in his day, and arguably England's favourite playwright at that time. But it is on the enduring fame of one character - Peter Pan - that Barrie's reputation still lives. Generations have loved Peter, even, unwisely, emulated him. So, in his own, quiet way, will JM Barrie, baronet, outlive his contemporaries?
Yet Barrie almost didn't reach this pinnacle. For he gave the world two Peter Pans, profoundly different from each other. How many writers can so transform a character in this way and yet attain literary immortality? Barrie may stand alone in this regard. Have a look, now, at the two Peters.
The Little White Bird
Peter Pan first appeared in The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens (1902). The chapters relating Peter's story were later published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906)
In this, Barrie's original telling of the Peter Pan story, Peter is but one week old. Barrie puts forth the theory that souls live various lives in succession, and that human souls inhabit birds before they are reincarnated as people. Little Peter did not remember that he was no longer a bird, and so he flew out of the nursery window one night.
He flew to Kensington Gardens, a large, well-known park in London. There he tried to make friends with the birds in the park, who were not thrilled at this little flying baby. When they convinced Peter that he was no longer a bird, Peter lost the ability to fly. He tried to make the best of it; thrushes built a watertight nest for him to use as a boat, and Peter sailed up and down the Serpentine, a lake which runs through Kensington Gardens. Peter eventually became friends with the fairies that live in the park. He made little reed pipes - Pan pipes - and played them for the fairies. In return, the fairies granted him a wish. Peter wished to fly.
Peter flew home. The nursery window was open, and his mother slept beside the empty crib. Peter almost woke her, but decided instead to return to the park, in order to say one last goodbye to his friends there, sail on the lake, and play his pipes for the fairies. This took quite some time. When his goodbyes were said and done he flew back. This time the window was shut, and there was a new baby in the crib. Peter had already had his chance to grow up, and had missed it. From that day on he lived in Kensington Gardens, forever one week old, neither human nor bird.
Peter and Wendy
The more commonly-known version of Peter Pan began when Barrie wrote a play about him entitled, appropriately enough, Peter Pan (1904). This story was the basis for Barrie's novel Peter and Wendy1 (1911). The various stage musicals and the motion pictures all derive from this second incarnation of Peter Pan.
In this version, Peter is older, almost prepubescent, a change necessary for staging, but also allowing diverse new characters to be added. There is the Darling family, but especially Wendy Darling, who adds a degree of Platonic romance to the story. Captain Hook, the embodiment of adult villainy, appears - Barrie's original story has no villain. The story is enriched with these near-allegorical elements, that take elements of life and personify them, while at the same time becoming more of a fairy tale, more swashbuckling and derring-do.
It is, perhaps, possible to over-analyze the symbolism in Peter and Wendy. Can the crocodile which swallowed a clock represent time, which ultimately preys on young and old alike? Neverland, the world inhabited by Peter and others like him, is a far cry from Kensington Gardens. It is a sampler of children's adventure-story elements: American Indians, pirates, and so on. The original version of Peter depends more on magic in everyday existence. How a book can become more philosophical in some ways and less in others is not a conundrum: read the two Peters and see how one differs from the other.
Sir James Barrie was a melancholy man, forever looking backward to some imagined or half-remembered innocence and youth. His generosity (he helped finance Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated voyage to the Antarctic in 1912) led him to will the copyrights to Peter to the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital; thanks to a little legal manoeuvring, this copyright is still in effect.
His formidable talent as a writer allowed him to limit his melancholy and remake his most famous character in a gentler mode - sweeter, more palatable. The trend has continued, until now 'Peter Pan' is a term for men who attempt, despite all evidence to the contrary, to remain youthful and uncommitted; a synonym for mummified irresponsibility. This paragraph from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens captures Barrie's attitude exactly:
Peter called 'Mother! mother!' but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to the Gardens, and never saw his dear again. What a glorious boy he had meant to be to her! Ah, Peter! we who have made the great mistake, how differently we should all act at the second chance. But Solomon2 was right - there is no second chance, not for most of us. When we reach the windows it is Lock-out Time. The iron bars are up for life...