Category: Peter Pan Week
PETER PAN WEEK Day 5: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan

Hey, folks!  For the final of day “Peter Pan Week,” we’ve got a special treat:  Barrie scholar Kerry Mockler has written a post.  Readers of The Scop might know Kerry better as “Kbryna,” a regular commenter on this here blog and the woman behind The Moving Castle.  Kerry wrote her master’s thesis on The Little White Bird and is currently finishing a dissertation on Mr. Rogers at the University of Pittsburgh.1   Today she’s agreed to share her thoughts about the most enigmatic character in all of Peter Pan … the narrator!  Take it away, Kerry:

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We’re used to thinking of Peter Pan as a symbol of perpetual childhood, of carefree innocence, joy, adventure, and freedom … but Peter Pan also has nightmares.  What we forget, or never knew in the first place, is that at its heart, all of Barrie’s versions of Peter Pan are about loss and exclusion.  That famous first sentence – “All children, except one, grow up” – sets up these themes, which also serve to close the novel.  The loss of childhood (of one’s own childhood and of one’s child) finds expression throughout the novel, largely through the peculiarly ambivalent and enigmatic narrator.  Exclusion and longing form — for me, at least — the strongest themes of the book, which make it one of the most melancholy stories I know.  All those children, growing up, leaving behind Peter Pan who cannot grow up, and who masks his inability to grow up with the illusion of a defiant choice to remain a child.

Peter is not captain of the Neverland by choice, though he initially presents himself as an intentional runaway, defying the world that would have him grow up to be a man.  Instead, he is marooned;  when he tries to return to the home from which he has run away, “the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.”  Thus he moves on to the Neverland, where he deals with lost children who all eventually outgrow their trees and their boy-leader.  Peter’s memory, a continual tabula rasa, prevents him from forming lasting relationships with anyone;  even Tinker Bell, even Hook, are forgotten by the novel’s end — but the loss of that mother and that home are always with him.

The narrator of Peter Pan poses one of the biggest challenges to any reader;  he attempts to identify with both child and adult, leaving us as readers in a linguistic and psychological muddle.  The narrator’s inconsistency in using the first-person singular and first-person plural create confusion about his position in the text, and to whom he speaks:  is he an adult addressing adults?  or a child addressing adults? or an adult addressing both adults and children?  He is never clearly one or the other, and never seems to manage to merge both into one adult/child hybrid;  like Peter himself, the narrator is a “betwixt-and-between,” neither one thing nor any other.2 The narrator’s bitterness and unhappiness at his position is made clear at the end of the book, when the Darling children return home. Anticipating the reunion, the narrator says:

“However, as we are here we may as well stay and look on. That is all we are, lookers-on. Nobody really wants us. So let us watch and say jaggy things, in the hope that some of them will hurt.”

The narrator’s exclusion from the homecoming scene echoes Peter’s exclusion from his own nursery.  The narrator’s looking on from outside of the text recalls the image of Peter flying up to his old nursery window and finding it closed and barred. Watching the reunion of the Darlings, the narrator tells us:

“He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.”

Peter, of course, is not the only one to see the reunion;  the narrator looks on as well and speaks for them both as he narrates the one joy from which both he and Peter are barred.  As Hook and Mr. Darling are twinned, so too are Peter and the narrator.   At the end, they are the only two who remain:  Wendy grows up and Mrs. Darling dies, forgotten.  The cycle of little girls to do the spring-cleaning goes on and on, but Peter and the narrator remain alone, excluded, untouched by time.

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On that poignant note, we come to the end of “Peter Pan Week.”  While researching topics, I came across some great stuff I couldn’t fit into posts — including a few pretty hilarious Pan-related image macros, an incredibly disturbing headline, and a scathing review of Lars von Trier’s offbeat movie adaptation.  You should all count yourselves lucky that I didn’t make it “Peter Pan MONTH.”  Now that would be an awfully big adventure.

For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

Day Three: Tink or Belle?

Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum

Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.


  1. For those who have never been to Pittsburgh, it is worth noting that locals take their Fred Rogers very seriously.
  2. Upon returning to the Gardens in The Little White Bird, Peter is shocked to learn from the crow Solomon Caw that he is not still a bird, but more like a human — Solomon says he is crossed between them as a “Betwixt-and-Between.”
PETER PAN WEEK Day 4: The Neverland Conundrum

While discussing Peter Pan with my students last week, we found ourselves in a debate about the nature of magic in the book.  On one hand, it seems like all magic comes from Peter Pan — he seems almost able to control the island and its inhabitants with his very thoughts.  On the other hand, the Neverland1 occasionally seems to operate with an intelligence and power all of its own.  There’s a chilling moment as they approach the island that speaks to this disconnect:

“They had been flying apart, but they huddled close to Peter now. His careless manner had gone at last, his eyes were sparkling, and a tingle went through them every time they touched his body. They were now over the fearsome island, flying so low that sometimes a tree grazed their feet. Nothing horrid was visible in the air, yet their progress had become slow and laboured, exactly as if they were pushing their way through hostile forces. Sometimes they hung in the air until Peter had beaten on it with his fists.

‘They don’t want us to land, he explained.

‘Who are they?’ Wendy whispered, shuddering.

But he could not or would not say.

So who’s in charge, Peter or the Neverland?  People who have been reading The Scop all week may have a guess as to where this is going:  I think Barrie’s refusal to answer that question is a part of what makes Peter Pan so wonderful.  When a writer chooses ambiguity, he places the task of knowing The Answer on the reader — and instantly turns the book into a conversation.

At least, that’s usually how it works.  But I’ll admit that there’s something about this contradiction that feels more frustrating than others in the book.  I think that’s because it has to do with the rules of the world.  By all means, make your characters and events ambiguous, but please be specific about the spaces those characters inhabit.  I’m reminded of something screenwriter Blake Snyder talks about in his book, Save the Cat! He mentions the problem of “Double Mumbo-Jumbo” — the idea that audiences will only accept one piece of magic per movie.  (Or, as Snyder puts it: “You cannot see aliens from outer space land in a UFO and then be bitten by a Vampire and now be both aliens and undead.”)2

This “double mumbo-jumbo” is something I see in a lot of books and movies, and it bothers me quite a bit.  I’ve read  Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes every October for the last fifteen years;  over that time, I’ve become aware that the book contains, not one, but two magical forces:  the Dust Witch and the carousel.3  The problem with these competing forms of magic is that they ask too much of the audience too late into the story.  Even worse, the lack of clarity about the world erodes our faith in the author, meaning we do not engage the way we should.

So here, at last, may be an honest to goodness flaw in Peter Pan.  I have to admit that part of me feels relieved.

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For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

Day Three: Tink or Belle?

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.


  1. I love that Barrie uses an article in front of “Neverland” … I just sounds cooler.
  2. Obviously, this rule does not apply to Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier.
  3. While we’re talking about magic carousels, I’ve always thought Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord commits this very same infraction … only in that case it’s less a question of “double mumbo-jumbo” than “double plot convenience.”
PETER PAN WEEK Day 3: Tinker or Belle?

While re-reading Peter Pan, I had in my mind something Mary recently said about Tinker Bell:  she is decidedly low class.  The very fact of her being a tinker condemns her to the bottom rung.  Also, by the time Barrie was writing, the word “tinker” had become shorthand for someone of Irish, Scottish, or Gypsy descent.  Add to that a foul mouth1 and you’ve got a pretty damning portrait.

So where did our culture get its image of Tinker Bell as a coquettish pixie?  From the book, you silly ass!

For every classed description Barrie gives of Tinker Bell, he writes another that contradicts it.  He goes out of his way to establish her delicate femininity:  “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.”2 Later on in the book, he describes her dressing room in terms that confirm her as a lady of refined taste:

No woman, however large, could have had a more exquisite boudoir … The couch, as she always called it, was a genuine Queen Mab, with club legs; and she varied the bedspreads according to what fruit-blossom was in season. … Tink was very contemptuous of the rest of the house …  and her chamber, though beautiful, looked rather conceited, having the appearance of a nose permanently turned up.”

So which is she, crude pot-mender or elegant sylph?  Of course, the answer is that she’s both … and maybe that’s the part of the reason she’s so compelling as a character?

I’m not blowing anyone’s mind when I observe that Peter Pan is ripe with these sorts of contradictions:  Peter is at once a innocent and heartless,  Neverland is both a dream island and a nightmare space (more on that tomorrow), Wendy is equal parts child and mother, etc …  Pretty much every element of the story contains this sort of discrepancy.  I wonder if that’s part of what makes the book so re-readable –  you’ll never be able to “get” what Barrie’s talking about.3 When I think back on Great works of literature, from the Bible to Beowulf to Alice in Wonderland, I notice similar inconsistencies;  it makes me wonder whether these gaps are part of their greatness.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with my favorite musician, Andrew Bird.  At the time, he had just broken from his jazz roots and was starting to write more traditional pop music.  He mentioned having some anxiety over whether his new songs would be too “exhaustible.”  I think he was expressing a desire to do in his music what Barrie does in his book:  create a riddle without an answer.

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For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

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.


  1. She only opens her mouth to shout “Silly ass!”
  2. “Embonpoint” is defined as either “plump” or “bosomy,” depending on your dictionary.
  3. One million blog-points goes to whatever reader can explain to me, in precise terms, what exactly Mrs. Darling’s “kiss” is.
PETER PAN WEEK Day 2: The Problem with Peter

For years, I have had one simple belief about portraying Peter Pan on film:  it can’t be done.  More specifically, it’s can’t be done by an age-appropriate actor.  There’s a general consensus that Peter is supposed to be about six or seven years old.1  This is understandably young for such a complex roll, and so the part usually goes to a woman (as it did in Barrie’s original stage production) or, in the case of the 2003 movie, to a fourteen year-old from Dylan, Texas.  Critics were quick to condemn the liberties that the 2003 screenplay took with the plot (the ending involves a flying Captain Hook) … but none of them complained about how grown-up Peter was.  A few even applauded the daring choice to add a little sexy into this stale classic.

This shouldn’t be a surprise.  Popular culture has been trying to age-up Peter Pan for decades.  Case in point:  despite the fact that Barrie states “the most entrancing thing about the boy was that he had all his first teeth,” most students in my children’s literature class still assumed Peter was around eleven or twelve years old.2

I understand that filmmakers might feel they have no choice but to cast an older actor, but I still don’t think it’s right.  Peter as a character is defined by his complete lack of testosterone.  That’s the point of the whole friggin’ book:  he can’t follow Wendy into adulthood.  Asking viewers to accept a Peter Pan with an Adams’ apple is like asking them to accept a James Bond with a hillbilly accent3 — changing the character changes the character.

All this takes me back to loving the (traditional) non-traditional casting of a woman for the roll of Peter Pan.   In some essential way, Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan remain truer to the character of Peter Pan than any male actor with even one adult tooth in his head — they may be “grown up,” but they will never be men.

At least that’s what I thought before this kid came around:

Last August, I had the pleasure of seeing a Ben Harrison stage production of Peter Pan that proved me wrong.  The show cast an actor named Nate Fallows who seemed to “get” just how young Peter Pan needed to be.4  Every gesture and word was infused with an animal recklessness that disallowed any sort of heartthrobby nonsense.  Similarly, the entire production was about how young and violent he was.  Even Michael (played by an actor half his age) felt wise and mature next to this Peter.  It was the first adaptation I had ever seen that felt like the book I so loved.

While watching the show, I kept imagining what the production would have been like without this deliberate focus on Peter’s youngness:  it wouldn’t have been a show worth watching.  It would have felt no different than watching the (tame) musical, or the (boring) Disney cartoon, or the (sexed-up) 2003 adaptation — just a string of fanciful set-pieces and sentimental Edwardiana.  Peter would not approve.

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For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:

Day One: Literary Dress Rehearsals

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.


  1. Though Barrie does not specify an age, he does describe Peter as still having all his “baby teeth”.  Also, Barrie asked that the Kensington Gardens statue of Peter be fashioned after photographs of a six year-old Michael Llewelyn Davies.
  2. I think another part of this confusion stems from the fact that Peter and Wendy are said to be the same age, and she seems impossibly mature for a six year-old.  My response:  Wendy is playacting romantic maturity, just as she playacts childbirth in her opening scene.
  3. Actually, I’d totally watch something called “Jimmy-James Bond”.
  4. The show is still touring the country, for those interested. It’s probably worth noting that the flying scenes made me cry.
PETER PAN WEEK Day 1: Literary Dress Rehearsals

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 FinnMore 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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 .
Announcing PETER PAN Week!

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.