It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than 100 years since Peter Pan was first created. Most of us know Peter Pan as a classic Disney story about a beloved boy who never grows up. Although he lives in a magical world filled with adventure and fairies, it’s not exactly the happy fairy tale we envision. Like many other Disney adaptations, Peter Pan was derived from some dark and tragic origins.
The original story was written by a man named J.M. Barrie, who had an unsettling obsession with young boys. The author was six years old when he lost his 13-year-old brother, and he couldn’t cope with the trauma. He couldn’t grasp the idea that he would continue to grow and his brother wouldn’t. He used this pain in his works, giving his stories an eerie undertone.
Check out the creation and transformation of the “boy who never grows up.” (Beware, this may ruin your childhood.)
Margaret and Alexander Barrie are the parents of James Matthew “J.M.” Barrie, who was born in the Scottish town of Kirriemuir in 1860. He had one older brother, David, who was considered “the perfect child” (we all have one of those in the family). Sadly, the golden child who everyone adored fell and cracked his skull after being hit by an ice skater.
Unfortunately, David was never the same mentally and eventually died due to the injury. Supposedly, J.M. was comforted by the fact that in a way, his brother would stay a boy forever. I think you can see where this is going. From this point on, a fascination with boys and preserving their innocence was ingrained into Barrie’s psyche.
In 1894, Barrie moved to London, where he met and married a woman named Mary Ansell. He gave his wife a St. Bernard dog as a wedding present. The couple never had children together, and evidence suggests that Barrie never consummated their marriage. He did, however, speak about his toxic six-year marriage with Ansell in his story “Tommy and Grizel” (1990).
Barrie wrote, “Grizel, I seem to be different from all other men; there seems to be some curse upon me… You are the only woman I ever wanted to love, but apparently, I can’t.” Barrie and Ansell’s relationship didn’t last, which doesn’t really come as a surprise. They were divorced by 1909.
Barrie met a couple of boys in an area attached to London’s Hyde Park, known as Kensington Gardens, back in 1889. He noticed brothers George and Jack Llewelyn Davies walking with their nurse. He reportedly befriended the four- and five-year-olds after meeting their parents, Arthur and Sylvia.
The couple later had more sons: Peter, Michael, and Nico. For some reason, the Davies family allowed Barrie into their lives. After a short time, he gradually became known as “Uncle Jim.” This is a little bit disturbing, considering he wasn’t their uncle at all. He was a random guy who saw two kids at the park and became friends with them.
Peter Pan is now an iconic character, but he made his debut in “The Little White Bird,” a novel loosely based on George Llewelyn Davies. In the story, a boy named David becomes friends with the narrator, who pretends he had a son who died. He makes up the lie to gain sympathy from David’s parents.
The narrator then gets uncomfortably excited when David’s mom was duped! Now he was allowed to “take [David] utterly from her and make him mine.” This sounds like kidnapping. Throughout the book, the narrator makes up a story about a magical boy named Peter Pan, who lives in Kensington Gardens and stays young forever. If you read the novel today, it has a really creepy vibe, considering how our society views predators.
Andrew Birkin wrote a biography titled “Barrie and the Lost Boys.” Birkin stresses his opinion that despite the disturbing undertone in his stories, he does not believe Barrie was a sexual predator. Instead, he calls him “a lover of childhood, but was not in any sexual sense the pedophile that some claim him to have been.”
This reminds me of the Michael Jackson scandal. I’m not going to get into that here, but some people view him as a child predator, and others see him as a child at heart- making up for his own lost childhood. Everyone will have their own opinions. Either way, I think it’s safe to say that J.M. Barrie’s books would not fly these days.
Piers Dudgeon has a more negative portrayal of the writer in his books, “Neverland: J.M Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan.” He makes his opinion of Barrie clear and even found some incriminating evidence proving that there was more to his relationship with the Davies children – other than being their Uncle Jim.
Firstly, Dudgeon dug up a letter Barrie wrote to Michael Llewelyn Davies, who was known as Barrie’s favorite Davies child. Is the fact that he has a favorite Davies child not strange enough? I don’t know how this odd behavior didn’t raise more flags, but it was a different time. The letter was written in June 1908, the night before Michael’s 8th birthday.
The letter reads, “I wish I could be with you and your candles. You can look on me as one of your candles, the one that burns badly – the greasy one that is bent in the middle, But still, hurray, I am Michael’s candle. I wish I could see you putting on the redskin clothes for the first time… Dear Michael, I am very fond of you, but don’t tell anybody.”
Barrie wants to watch him put on his clothes and tells Michael how he feels about him, but not to tell anyone. If that’s not damning evidence, I don’t know what is. Reading this letter is extremely uncomfortable, and if a letter like this was found nowadays, there would definitely be an investigation into the writer.
Sadly, Arthur died of jaw cancer in 1907, and Sylvia died of lung cancer in 1910. Guess who the legal guardian was over the Davies boys? Uncle Jim, of course. Before she passed, Sylvia left behind a handwritten letter, saying, “What I would like would be if Jenny would come to Mary & that the two together would be looking after the boys & the house.”
Mary was the boys’ nanny, and Jenny was Mary’s sister. She didn’t seem to want to leave Barrie with her boys; otherwise, she probably would have mentioned it in the letter. However, Barrie transcribed the will and changed “Jenny” to “Jimmy” before sending it to the Davies’ maternal grandmother. That way, it looked like Sylvia wanted him to be their guardian.
Barrie managed to fool everyone and became their legal guardian. Although this whole situation seems bizarre and illegal, it should be noted that there is no hard evidence proving that Barrie ever physically abused any of the children. Sadly, in 1915, George Davies was killed in World War I. George was the eldest of the brothers, and after he passed, Barrie and Michael’s relationship grew closer.
But then Michael left home to attend Eton College and had a difficult time adjusting. He was antisocial and troubled but became good friends with Rupert Buxton, the son of a famed baronet. Reportedly, the two friends were inseparable, spending time together in school and on holidays.
Unfortunately, Michael’s fate wasn’t much different from George’s. He and Buxton drowned together in Standford Pool, a large body of water not far from Oxford. It has been reported that the bodies were found clinging to each other. There aren’t many details surrounding the deaths, but some theories suggest that Davies and Buxton were lovers, and this was a suicide pact.
In later interviews, Michael’s younger brothers Peter and Nico said that suicide is a likely possibility. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure. Several years later, Peter became a successful publisher and seemed to be doing well for himself. But he destroyed all the letters between Michael and Peter. He hated that his name was associated with Peter Pan.
Peter reportedly called the character “that terrible masterpiece.” His son Ruthven and various other people believe that Peter was driven to become an alcoholic by all this unwanted fame and attention. Peter was the brother who appeared to be positive and successful, but sadly, he threw himself under a subway train in London in April 1960.
Barrie, on the other hand, died in 1937 of pneumonia. He generously gave the rights to all his Peter Pan works to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, a children’s hospital. To this day, the hospital continues to greatly benefit from owning the rights.
Writers can’t always predict how their work will resonate with their audience. But Peter Pan came out at a time when the entire culture was obsessed with boyhood (I told you it was a strange time). As a result, readers of the early 20th century appreciated it. It struck a more powerful chord with the upper and middle classes.
At the time, people were getting paranoid that their boys were becoming too “soft” and losing their masculinity. For some reason, Barrie’s stories helped. This fact further culminated in the book “Boyology” by Henry William Gibson. It’s basically a pseudo-science tone that suggests parents, schools, and other institutions must preserve the “wildness” of boyhood.
Of course, today, the “wildness” of boyhood is considered toxic masculinity. In his book, Gibson wrote, “When he starts out to be a boy, he is more a little beast.” He went on to explain, “He is, though, a man in the making.” Soon after, immense efforts to develop and protect the organic nature of boyhood began.
“Boys will be boys” was a pretty big priority at the time. This is obviously completely different than society’s outlook on the subject today. In 1908, Robert Baden-Powell wrote “Scouting for Boys,” which helped spark The Boy Scout Movement. Furthermore, in 1917, Father O’Flanagan established the orphanage Boys Town in Nebraska. Oh, how things have changed.
Placing Peter Pan in the middle of this “boyology” movement was creative, but kind of risky. I guess it made sense at the time, but if you think about it, does it really help push masculinity? If boys are supposed to become men, Peter Pan doesn’t really teach that.
Brian Herrera, a Princeton professor who teaches “Queer Boyhoods,” said, “I see Barrie as being in conversation both with and against.” He went on to explain, “He said that the idea that there is something precious and extraordinary about boyhood, but he doesn’t seem to see adult masculinity as the natural next step of the boyhood wildness, but as a cruel step away from the magic of boys.”
So how old is Peter Pan? Although it sounds like a simple question, the debate is still going on. One opinion states that since Peter Pan was first published in 1906, Peter is at least 110 years old & Barrie was born in 1860. Therefore, Peter is 156 years old.
But seriously, if we try to answer how old Peter Pan is in the book, there are a few debates about how old Peter pan is. The oldest he ever appears to be is 13. The novel states that he still has all his baby teeth. A Quora reader by the name of Raymond Martinez wrote: “Usually, children before the age of adolescence still have some “milk teeth” or the teeth that grew out from their infancy. These milk teeth, or first teeth, normally get replaced by permanent teeth as children transition from childhood to adolescence. It would be quite safe to assume that Peter Pan’s age is no more than 12 years old in the story. And he never grows old, hence his milk teeth are still intact.
As the story goes, Peter and the Lost Boys are the boys who “fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way, and if they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent far away to the “Never Land” where Peter Pan is their captain. In the eyes of someone from this generation, this can be seen as a queer allegory.
Herrera expressed, “Peter Pan’s defiance is read as an abdication of the responsibility of maturity, and like gays, an abdication of the responsibilities of patriarchal heterosexual masculinity.” He continued that “Peter finds a non-procreative, homosocial world to be ample enough for his everlasting happiness? That’s pretty darn queer.”
In his 2004 essay about Barrie in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane wrote that “In Peter Pan, Barrie achieved the rarest alchemy of all, the one that no writer can plan or predict: he invented a myth.” It’s true; there is a dark and sad undertone that you feel when you read the story as an adult, more than when you watch the movie as a child.
Peter Pan always gave off a dark vibe, very different from the family-friendly children’s books that are published nowadays. Maybe it’s because, like all myths, the pain and tragedy that the story is derived from make it so timeless. Disney’s fairy dust covers up the dark origins of their popular characters. Disney is known for changing the tragic princess stories into fairy-tale dreams.
As we know, Peter Pan was first introduced to the world in an adult novel by J.M. Barrie, “The Little White Bird.” It was a tale of a man who was fond of a little boy and wants to steal him away from his mother, when Peter Pan’s character is a seven-day-old baby who believes he can fly. At the time, this specific section of the book earned a lot of praise.
Thanks to critical acclaim, Barrie quickly realized that Peter Pan could be an even bigger character. He was certainly right about that. In 1904, Barrie decided that he would create a stage play about the character known as Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. He published more chapters about Peter Pan in 1906 in a book called Peter Pan in the Kensington Garden.
But in “The Little White Bird,” the original story, Peter leaves home and never ages. He stayed one week old forever. Believing that his mother will always leave the window open for him, Peter happily plays with the birds and fairies without fearing that he will lose her affection. However, when he decides to go back to her, he is heartbroken.
Not only are the windows barred, but his mom is cuddling another baby. He realizes his mom’s love was conditional and that she replaced him. Well, that got dark real quick. The story of Peter Pan is much more tragic than the iconic portrait we all know and love.
One of the biggest controversies that critics and biographers spent decades arguing over is whether or not Barrie’s affection for the boys was sexual. The question has never been answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Obviously, we all have our opinions, but there is no way to know for sure. Despite being married twice, many of Barrie’s acquaintances described him as asexual.
Nicholas, the youngest of the Davies children, said, “I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring undergrowth for anyone – man, woman, adult, or child.” He went on to proclaim, “He was innocent.” Sexual or not, Barrie had an unusual relationship with the Davies kids, especially since he changed their mother’s will to become their legal guardian.
To be fair, before he became their legal guardian, Barrie was a faithful friend to the entire Davies family. They even brought him and his wife on a family vacation. Naturally, Barrie spent most of his time playing with the kids around the lake and told them endless stories of fairies and pirates.
Later, these tales would become a book of photographs just for the family, authored by Peter Davies and published by Barrie. It’s also widely believed that Peter Pan is based on George Davies, who was 5 when 37-year-old Barrie befriended him and his brother.
For years, Peter Pan was known as a play. Other than the chapters we mentioned earlier, there were no book versions of Peter Pan’s story. In 1911, Barrie finally turned his play into a novel titled “Peter and Wendy.” Yes, Wendy was Barrie’s character, too. Did you know the author partially based Peter Pan on himself?
Peter is a complex fictional character and stemmed from a mixture of people in Barrie’s life. But when he created the character, Barrie took some inspiration from himself. Peter is portrayed as an insufficient, strange, outsider in British society. Supposedly, that’s how Barrie felt. However, one of the main similarities is that they both seemingly had a lack of sexual desire. This is, of course, debatable.
In the story, Wendy wants Peter to act like a father, but he literally has no idea what she wants him to do. In 1894, Barrie got married. He clearly loved children, but he didn’t have any of his own. Apparently, his wife desperately wanted to have kids. It’s unclear why exactly the marriage ended. But this is a possible reason.
Barrie did describe his relationship with his wife as toxic, but he may have been uninterested in sex, which can also cause a relationship to deteriorate. Barrie kept a personal journal where he wrote: “Greatest horror – a dream I am married – wake up shrieking.” Something tells me Peter Pan might have the same reaction.
In the Peter Pan book and play, Barrie keeps the backstory that he created in “The Little White Bird,” except Peter can leave the Kensington Gardens. He has all of Neverland to explore and play in. Neverland is filled with Lost Boys to play with, pirates to fight, and Wendy Darling and her offspring magically transform into mothers, replacing his original one.
Another difference is that Peter is a little bit older. When he created the character, Peter was just a tragic one-week-old baby left alone. But now, Peter is a pleasant, cheerful school-aged kid. Basically, instead of a Victorian tragedy, the story became a timeless fantasy. The most devastating part about this version is when Wendy grows up and can’t play with Peter anymore or be his mother forever.
In the end, you are hit with the emotional weight you’ve been dreading. Peter meets Wendy as an adult who is “helpless and guilty, a big woman [with] something inside her… crying, ‘woman, woman, let go of me!’.” She feels sad that she had to grow up and abandon Peter the way his mother did. The guilt of not staying young with Peter tore her apart.
The interaction caused Peter to cry… but not for long. Wendy’s daughter Jane was there, ready to replace Wendy. When Jane grows up, her daughter moves on, and so on. At the end of the day, there were always more children for Peter to play with. I guess in a strange way, the story had a happy ending, despite its alarming origins.
In both the book and in the play, Peter kills the pirates, seemingly without any remorse. In the book, we discover that he also killed the Lost Boys. The reason for these killings can be to “thin the herd” or maybe because they are just growing up… which was against the rules in Neverland. You get a playful vibe that the victims will soon get up smiling and want to play more. But that wasn’t the case.
Peter Pan also altered the bodies of the Lost Boys so that they can fit through tree holes leading to their underground layer. I told you this sounds like a crime novel. Since Peter can’t really tell the difference between what’s real and make-believe, he would sometimes give the Lost Boys pretend meals and then refused to believe that they were still hungry.
The Lost Boys and the Darlings are faced with danger throughout the play and book. Peter, however, sees the danger as entertainment as opposed to being scary. He always ends up saving them, but it’s because he wants to show off his own cleverness, not necessarily because he wants to help him.
The idea of Neverland began with Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies kids were playing around a lake in the countryside. It was a fun land filled with youth and joy, almost making the deaths, starvation, and mutilation not feel real. But once you look at Neverland literally and acknowledge the Lost Boys and Darlings as real people, this exciting adventure becomes disturbing.
The latest version of the Peter Pan story is “Lost Boy” by Christina Henry. In this rendition, bloodthirsty Peter Pan is a sinister cult leader, rather than the spirit of eternal youth. Peter lures little boys away from their families, starves them, and then forces them to play a game called “Battle,” which drives them to murder each other.
He doesn’t kill them but makes someone else do it. The boys both love and hate Peter Pan equally (sounds like Stockholm syndrome). The boys are stuck in Neverland forever and have no way of getting back home; Peter is their only “protector,” so they stick with him. This ending is sadder than Barrie’s ending.
If you think about it, this version isn’t inconsistent with Barrie’s portrayal of Peter. The difference is that Barrie didn’t look at the story from the Lost Boys’ perspective because he didn’t create them to be characters with their own feelings and perspectives. He saw and treated the Lost Boys as objects in a game the same way Peter does.
Having the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives is something that comes with adulthood and maturity. Seeing everyone as pieces in your game of life is childish. For Peter, thinking from the perspective of others is utterly impossible. Barrie’s play and book both make that very clear. Peter represents youth and is described as “gay and innocent and heartless” and no one really matters other than himself.
It appears that when Barrie first came up with the idea for the character, he saw Peter as a fantasy. Living selfishly and heartlessly yet innocent was appealing to Barrie, which is why he was able to turn the story into a sentimental fairytale. Later, he wanted to grow up and develop true empathy and realized that he could not.
But both versions of the story keep Peter as the ideal selfish child. This makes it easy for Peter Pan to turn into a villain instead of a hero. The true story of Peter Pan is a divine fantasy combined with your worst nightmare. Furthermore, you can look at the author in the same way. Is Barrie a storytelling genius, or a twisted man who ruins the lives of children?
Does Peter Pan remind you of Christmas? There is actually a historical reason for that. Back in the day, the play was mostly performed during the holiday season. At the time, most plays geared toward young kids were based on either fairytales or nursery rhymes. But when Peter Pan hit the stage, it was something new and exciting.
People wanted to see something new, and Peter Pan was just that, adding magic to the holiday season. With flying, pirates, and fairies, it didn’t take long for the story to be a part of the Christmas tradition in New York and London. It eventually continued to spread all around the world.
Okay, if we are going to be honest here, Peter Pan was racist. Not necessarily the character, but the story itself. To create the Piccaninny tribe, Barrie took qualities from various different groups of native people and squished them together. Disney’s adaptation also portrayed them offensively as a stereotypical Native American tribe.
However, if you look at Barrie’s original text, it’s more difficult to understand what he is going for. When Peter Pan first debuted, it was at the peak of the British Empire, so the tribe had some Australian, North American, Caribbean, and native Asian features. Plus, the name Piccaninny comes from the term “pickaninny,” which is a variation of the word “pequenino,” meaning “tiny” in Portuguese. It was an offensive word used in the UK to describe natives – or any small, dark-skinned kid living in a colonized society.
As we mentioned, Barrie left the rights and proceeds from Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital’s children’s charity. The hospital has the right to royalties for everything in the UK. This means they receive royalties for broadcast, publication, on-stage production, and adaptations. However, the royalties don’t extend to sequels, prequels, or spin-offs.
With the exception of the play in the US and Spain, the copyright for Peter Pan expired everywhere else. It’s okay, though, because the hospital brought in a lot of money just because of the royalties. Barrie actually told the hospital never to disclose the amount they were making off of Peter Pan, and they respected his wishes. Despite all the unsettling origins of the story, the legacy has done a lot of good.
Each year since the script was written, Barrie would switch it up a little, constantly updating the story. Because of that, the version of Peter Pan that we are familiar with is set in the late 1950s and early 1960s – the time that society’s idea of young and old was beginning to change. By updating Peter Pan for a whole new era, the story about the boy who never grows up stayed fresh and exciting.
In the original script, there was no fairy dust; it was added later for safety reasons. Initially, Peter and the Lost Boys could fly whenever they wanted. However, after several reports of kids injuring themselves trying to fly off their bed, Barrie added Fairy Dust, and the characters couldn’t fly without it.
Back when Peter Pan was a popular stage play, the production pioneered new stage effects. In the original production, Tinker Bell was just a dot of light on the stage! She was moved around by a focused mirror. In the productions now, the character is a stunning puppet designed by Sue Dacre, a talented puppet maker for Jim Henson.
Believe it or not, Peter Pan didn’t wear all green. That was Disney reinventing the character. Reportedly, in the original productions, Peter wore tan, brown, auburn, and cowbells. To stay true to the time period, in our version of the story, Peter Pan wears a leather jacket, and his look resembles a young James Dean.
In 20th century England, adventure novels were gaining popularity. Barrie’s preference was an adventure and his friend Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote “Treasure Island.” When Barrie imagined Neverland, he had all those explorations in mind. In the original version of the play, Hook’s final words were “Floreat Etona,” the Eton motto.
While talking about the character, Barrie confirmed that Captain Hook attended Eton College (from Treasure Island). He also revealed that Captain Hook knew Long John Silver. Even though the novels were written by different authors, they seem to have lived in the same fictional universe. In fact, Barrie confirmed in “Peter and Wendy” that Captain Hook was the only one Long John Silver ever feared.
If you really think about it, our version of Peter Pan isn’t much different than the original. The darkness of Barrie’s Peter Pan still lingers in the character popularized by Disney. The most significant quality is the fact that he is a kid forever. Dr. Professor Allison Kavey, an expert on the history of Peter Pan, explained…
“The Peter in the Little White Bird and Peter and Wendy is among the most honest depictions of a literary child I think I have ever read. He is selfish, devoted to his own entertainment, and except in battle scenes, incapable of taking care of himself. He also loves like a child, without thought the effect his love has or what it will mean if he forgets for a whole.”
To appeal to a younger audience, Disney took away some of the characters’ sinister traits. For example, Peter Pan was a young teen instead of an infant. Disney then accessorized him with the cultural standards of the time. Peter Pan was resourceful and spunky, exactly what you would expect from a 1950s American child.
As the decades went on, more subtle changes were made to keep the character relevant. Throughout the years, Peter Pan has become a symbol for eternal childhood. To be a kid again means no worries and responsibilities that come with adulthood- something we all struggle with. Peter Pan gives an appealing escape, so despite the dark origins, the story continues to be beloved.