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  • Preparing Boys for WarJ. M. Barrie's Peter Pan Enlists in World War I's "Great Adventure"
  • Laura Ferdinand Feldmeyer (bio)

To die will be an awfully big adventure.


On May 3, 1922, renowned author and playwright Sir James Barrie stood fearful and silent before the students of the University of St. Andrews.1 Three years earlier, he had been honored by the student body when they elected him rector of the university—a position given to men, and later women, of "great worth and fame" to serve on the University Court as a student advocate.2 Elected in 1919 at the close of World War I, Barrie had delayed his inaugural address several years, delivering it at last near the end of his term as rector in his self-proclaimed "first and last public appearance."3 Finally provoked by the audience to speak, Barrie delivered his famous speech "Courage," which personified "Youth" and "Age" as symbolic characters. In it he questioned Britain's engagement in World War I, accused Age of ignorantly glamorizing warfare, and urged the Youth to demand a say in the national matters that concerned them. Seeing himself as part of Age, which he also referred to as "the Old Men," Barrie confessed, "When war did come, we told Youth, who had to get us out of it, tall tales of what it really is and the clover beds it would lead to. We were not meaning to deceive, most of us were as honourable and as ignorant as the Youth themselves; but that does [End Page 57] not acquit us of stupidity and jealousy, the two black spots in human nature which, more than love of money, are at the root of all evil."4 Unknown to the audience (and unknown to the public until 1935), Barrie had participated in the War Propaganda Bureau (WPB), a secret government operation that turned to English writers for help.5

Although most of the papers of the WPB (also referred to as Wellington House) were lost or destroyed when the bureau shut down at the end of World War I, there is strong evidence that Barrie—along with other writers such as Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—contributed to the bureau that organized "public statements of the strength of the British case and principles in the war by well-known men of letters."6 However, as Jeffrey Reznick writes in John Galsworthy and Disabled Soldiers of the Great War, "many former WPB writers and other authors became deeply embittered about the Allied propaganda machine and their role in the creation of patriotic pamphlets, heroic fiction and 'front line' but glamorized reporting" long before the end of the war.7 Remorseful of his involvement in creating and promoting the "tall tales" that equated war with a great adventure, Barrie sought to empower youth: "You have more in common with the youth of other lands than Youth and Age can ever have with each other. … Even the hostile countries sent out many a son very like ours, from the same sort of homes, the same sort of universities, with the same sort of hearts, who had as little to do as our Youth had with the origin of the great Adventure."8 Barrie's use of the phrase "great adventure" would have undoubtedly recalled one of Peter's most famous lines ("To die will be an awfully big adventure") in the minds of the audience, as Peter Pan, in addition to being a popular play and novel, had become one of Britain's most pervasive propaganda tools during the war. As such, Peter's youthful declaration of bravery became an anthem of pro-war sentiment: a great adventure for "The Great War."

In the context of our contemporary culture—in which the phrases "boy crisis" and "crisis of masculinity" have entered our everyday vocabulary with publications such as the Peter Pan-referencing Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (1999) by James Garbarino—histories that discuss the ways in which boys are taught to be men take on a new poignancy and immediacy. As...


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