As promised, I’m devoting this entire week to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Today I’d like to discuss the long path leading up to the creation of this iconic character.
Thanks to Johnny Depp, most people know that Peter Pan was a 1904 stage play before it was a novel, but what Finding Neverland fails to mention is that the character of Peter Pan actually goes back even further — to a book called The Little White Bird. Published in 1902, The Little White Bird was an adult novel that featured an unaging boy named Peter Pan who lived among birds in the middle of Kensington Gardens.
It would be a stretch to call this earlier book a prequel. Yes, the kid’s name is Peter Pan, and, yes, he refuses to grow up, but that’s where the similarities end. This proto-Peter lacks the cockiness and capricious violence of his later incarnation. When he meets a girl, he asks to marry her. When he’s granted a wish by the fairy queen, he asks to return to his mother. I simply cannot accept that this pansy would turn into the pirate-murdering, rooster-crowing, teeth-gnashing Peter Pan that I know and love.1
I don’t think Barrie intended for his readers to see the characters as contiguous. Rather, I think he considered Kensington Peter to be a sort of “dress rehearsal” — one of many incarnations necessary for the creation of his final character. Even the stage play, which much more closely resembles the 1911 novel, lacks much of the depth of character and theme found in the later book. Scholar Jack Zipes agrees in his introduction to a Penguin edition of Peter Pan:
“There is a sense that [Barrie] wanted to provide definitive closure to the story with the publication of the prose novel in 1911 … The ‘definitive’ novel is the most complicated and sophisticated of all the versions of Peter Pan.”
As someone who has read Peter Pan a number of times, I think the work shows. The 1911 edition, while simple in language, is unbelievably rich in theme.2 The idea that something this good can only be got after countless revisions thrills me as a reader, but the writer in me trembles. There is something terrifying in the possibility that a great character may take several passes to get right — that long after publication a story might still bear revision. When do you stop revisiting past work? Unless you’re George Lucas, the answer to this question might be “never.”
Other Examples of Literary Dress Rehearsals
In the interest of expanding the conversation, I tried to think of some other books that functioned as literary dress rehearsals. I’m sure there are a lot more out there, but here’s what came to mind:
Huckleberry Finn – More than once during the latest Huck Finn Debacle, I had to remind myself that Huck started out in 1876 as a supporting character in Tom Sawyer. It wasn’t until eight years later that he got his due in Huck Finn.
Sara Crewe – Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful heroine first found life in a stripped-down serial novel in 1888. Fourteen years later, she appeared in a stage adaptation titled A Little Un-Fairy Princess. It was only after that that Burnett revised A Little Princess to create the Sara we know today.
Gollum – In many ways, The Hobbit is a functional prequel to The Lord of the Rings. However, I’ve always felt there was a serious disconnect in the two characterizations of Gollum.3 His moral journey in the later books belies the riddle-asking monster-in-the-dark characterization from the earlier volume.
The Addams Family – Strictly speaking, these aren’t “literary” characters, but I often think about the fact that Charles Addams drew the members of his “Addams Family” for years before thinking to give them names. It wasn’t until the 1964 television show that the family really hit pop culture. Looking back on Addams’ older cartoons, you can see how over time he was able to tweak and refine his family into the distinct characters we know today.
Bod Owens – A more contemporary example of character dress-rehearsal might be Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I know a central chapter from the novel (“The Witch’s Headstone”) was first published as a standalone short story, but I have not read the original version. I’m curious to know whether the characterization of Bod Owens changed in any significant ways — anyone out there have a copy?
So those are a few literary dress rehearsals that I can think of. I have this nagging feeling that I’m missing some big examples … feel free to toss in others in the comments.
Tomorrow, check in to learn why I long believed Peter Pan to be an unfilmable story . . . and read about the London stage production that proved me wrong.
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For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:
Day Two: The Problem with Peter
Day Three: Tink or Belle?
Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum
Day Five: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan (special guest post!)
Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.
- there is a whole separate conversation to be had about how the “rules” of Kensington Gardens” don’t work with the “rules” of Neverland — more evidence that the two books were not meant to exist in the same universe. ↩
- My wife has observed that she can’t read the book with a pen in her hand because she’ll compulsively underline every sentence — they’re all that good. ↩
- This is closely related to the differing characterization of “the ring,” which too conveniently transforms from a straightforward invisibility-device to an all-powerful MacGuffin . ↩
Mark Twain has a story about his bruising encounter with newsman Horace Greely that ends with: “I could have made a very neat retort but didn’t, for I was flurried and didn’t think of it till I was downstairs.” I often feel that way about The Scop — no sooner do I hit “publish” then I discover something that should have been added to the piece. Well, today’s post is an attempt to fix that problem. I’m revisiting a few subjects that deserve followup:
In response to my post discussing the “betrayal” of discovering Christian imagery in the Narnia books, blogger KBryna pointed out how Lewis perpetrates an even greater deception: tricking readers into thinking Turkish Delight is delicious. This is perceptive and true. I remember when my friend Laurel took a trip to Scotland and purchased a very expensive box of handmade Turkish Delight. When I learned of this, I made her promise not to try a piece until she got home. Why? Because I’m a sadist and I wanted to watch her suffer. Here’s how it went down:
Shortly after posting this piece, Phil Nel sent out a link to an article titled “E-Readers and the Future of Picture Books” by Jerry Griswold1. Reading the article was reassuring: if Jerry Griswold isn’t worried about electronic picture books, then neither am I!
Earlier in the week, I googled “e-book piracy.” The first image was this Kindle Pirate I drew for my post. That’s because it had been used in a C-Net article titled “Kindle E-book Piracy Accelerates.” The article is great, and it goes a long way toward answering some of the questions I brought up. My new dilemma: this doodle, which took me about two minutes to draw, will probably reach a wider audience than anything else I create for the rest of my life. (Sigh.)
This post was inspired by a Cathy Day article discussing a critical flaw in writing MFA programs. Since publishing her article, Day has found herself caught up in a lot of controversy. Also, my 7 year-old cousin Asher took exception to my dismissal of Lego and sent along this thoughtful response:
Nice try, kid — but drawing a cool picture doesn’t make you any less WRONG about the superiority of Construx.
You should be sitting down for this last one. At lunch the other day, my friend Chandra gave me the academic term for what Alan Gribben did to Huck Finn: “dynamic equivalence intralingual translation.”2 I defy you not to drop that sucker into your next dinner party conversation.
While I’m meta-blogging, I also want to give a special thanks to sites that have shined a light on The Scop: A Fuse #8 Production, Cockeyed Caravan, 100 Scope Notes, Fierce & Nerdy, Mr. Schu Reads, and the SDSU Children’s Literature Blog to name a few. These are all fantastic blogs that you should drop everything and visit right now!
- 1. Jerry and Phil are both people I admire for their ability to make children’s literature scholarship relevant to the layman reader ↩
- 2. I found an article online that breaks the term down: “Dynamic equivalence is based on the principle of equivalent effect, i.e. that the relationship between receiver and message should aim at being the same as that between the original receivers and the SL message” … “intralingual translation” is simply defined as “rewording.” ↩
A nice bit of description:
“Creeping eyes open against the drowsy crust congealed in their corners …”
– D. M. Cornish
Tonight in our children’s literature class, I’ll be leading a discussion on J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. In undergrad, this replaced Through the Looking Glass as my very favorite novel. I have read it at least a dozen times since then, and my love for the book has only grown. When I started brainstorming ideas for Peter Pan posts, I realized there were too many great topics to pick from. So, instead I’m announcing that next week will be “Peter Pan Week” (insert crowing sound). Each day, I’ll be doing a post on a different aspect of the book. If there’s any specific topic you want to see discussed, let me know in the comments. Until then, happy reading!
For any interested parties, feel free to check out posts from previous books in the course:
Little Goody Two-Shoes (published) by John Newbery
The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
And I’ve posted the full reading list here.
From Chapter Two:
“‘Well, hullo, me boy,’ Craumpalin declared, making an easy showing but possessing a distinct air of a man interrupted.”
– D. M. Cornish
About a week ago, I got an email from my publisher requesting an author headshot. As you might imagine, I immediately began to freak out. I have been dreading the author photo for months now. First off, I’m not even sure whether I approve of the concept. As a reader, I sort of hate knowing the face behind the story. Secondly, cameras and I don’t really get along. The hilariously-deadpan photo from my “About Me” section? That was me trying to look approachable. And now I had to take a photo that would live on the back of Peter Nimble forever! In desperation, I reached to friends via Twitter and Facebook asking for tips and advice. Here’s what I got:
A) “Laura F.” suggested I put my hand under my chin so people know I have a heavy brain.
B) When I asked my agent what to do, he mentioned how much he loved J.R.R. Tolkein’s author photo and wondered whether I could do something like that.
C) “Go Sleeveless!” was the advice from my friend Kyle
D) Matt B. suggested I try and mix in a little Oscar Wilde.
E) John E. recommended I show off some of my other skills by flashing a yo-yo1
F) Several friends warned me against holding any books, so I decided to use them to prop up my elbow in the hopes it might further underline the heaviness of my brain (see “A”)
G) Knowing my love for Shel Silverstein, “Rob O.” wondered whether I should grow a beard like my icon.
H) My wife, not wanting to waste her weekend, recommended I hire Olan Mills to take the photo.
Put them all together and here’s the result:
It might be hard to see behind the glasses, but I also threw in a little “blue steel” to win over moms and lady-librarians. Overall, I’d say it looks pretty damn good … glad to know my friends are looking out for me.2
From Chapter Thirteen:
“‘What did you think a life of adventure was?’ She smiled condescendingly. “It is a life of violence.'”
– D. M. Cornish
Yesterday, I talked briefly about the joy of finding how books from my past have subconsciously influenced my work. Today, I’d like to discuss the opposite discovery: when you read something new that puts words to your most secret thoughts. Those are the moments when I leap from my chair and scramble for a pen because what I’ve just read must be written down! English poet Alexander Pope describes this “aha!” moment perfectly:
True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.
So many great authors have inspired this feeling in me. Here are a few such “ne’er so well expressed” observations that have really blown me away:
MOBY DICK – Herman Melville
“… truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”
I have often argued this same point among friends and family: that the secret to being cozy lies in a part of you being cold; the moment a person is warm all over, they are too warm. However much I may have felt this in life, I could never have said it so well as Melville.
The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton
“Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.”
Chesterton is a master of pith. Case in point: before having really read any Dickens, I was still able to read his book Charles Dickens: the last of the Great Men and love every word — that takes a special type of writer. (If you like the above line, I’d recommend you check out the ChestertonQuote Twitter feed.)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling
“Both glasses hissed and frothed: Goyle’s turned the khaki color of a booger.”
A small observation, but profound nonetheless.
Foundling – D. M. Cornish
“Convinced as a child that writers had a key to unlock other worlds and convinced as a young man that there were ways to be fantastical without conforming to the generally accepted notions of fantasy …”1
These are but a few writers who reached into my brain and scooped out (what I had thought to be) original thoughts. Ordinarily this would make me feel violated or robbed, but these authors managed to express the thought so perfectly that I can’t help but feel like I’ve just discovered a conspirator … or a new friend.
- emphasis mine ↩
I learned a new definition for “Fiasco:”
“Rossamund had seen had seen them before. In them he knew women kept their rouges, blushes and balms: the tools of beauty … even a young lad like himself could not help but be amazed by the simple yet profound transformation. He did not think a little rosying of the cheeks and lips and whitening of the nose could be so flattering.”
– D. M. Cornish
Foundling, ch. 13
In last week’s children’s literature class, Mary taught Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. This meant I got to kick back and just enjoy re-reading the book. While doing do, I came across a passage in which Sara describes the view from her attic window:
“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” she said … “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to. And it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.”
The subject comes up again a few chapters later:
When the square suddenly seemed to begin to glow in an enchanted way and look wonderful in spite of its sooty trees and railings, Sara knew something was going on in the sky. … she invariably stole away and crept up the flights of stairs, and, climbing on the old table, got her head and body as far out of the window as possible. When she had accomplished this, she always drew a long breath and looked all round her. It used to seem as if she had all the sky and the world to herself.
These passages stood out to me because I am in the middle of writing a book that is largely “about” rooftops, and it includes a few observations very similar to the ones above. While I did not deliberately set out to copy pay homage to A Little Princess, I am pretty sure I couldn’t have written my rooftop story if I hadn’t of first read them in Burnett when I was a child. (I can’t help but wonder if PL Travers felt the same way?)
This happens to me a lot. While revising Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes, I was continually rediscovering how this or that moment/character/theme/word was actually inspired by something I had read long ago. This seems right to me. Some writers make a big deal out of creating from nothing; I, for one, am more comforted by the thought that I create from the things that live within me — things put there by other, greater minds. On the shoulders of giants, and such. I love realizing how forgotten books are still unconsciously informing me, and I hope to continue making such discoveries for as long as I write.