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  • Making Wishes Innocent:Peter Pan
  • John Griffith (bio)

Peter Davies, the boy whose name suggested "Peter" for James 'Barrie's hero, knew first-hand what went into the making of Peter Pan. He had watched the shy, moody and oddly aggressive Barrie befriend him and his brothers more out of a need for playmates than for sons, and he had seen the story of Peter Pan emerge from Barrie's obsession with youth, play, and brittle, airy fantasy. Thus aware of both the charm and the emotional sources of Barrie's work, Davies called it a "terrible masterpiece."1

The work quickly came to be regarded as a classic, and this has meant, among other things, that most people have lost sight of what is terrible about it. Assisted by Walt Disney's movie-makers and uncounted editors, abridgers and illustrators, the story of Peter Pan has been enshrined as a cheerful, whimsical celebration of childhood, a story about flying and swordflights and other adventures, with a little puppy-love interest thrown in on the side. But in the form Barrie himself gave to the story, it is more than that; it is a work of classic fantasy which insists on its very unreality and reveals the psychological sources from which such a deliberately insubstantial fantasy springs.

Barrie's fantasy world, "the Neverland," is first presented as part of "the map of a person's mind,"2 created from the welter of conscious and unconscious material stored there. It is an ambiguous place: one part of the psyche desires and therefore creates it; another part denies and retreats from it, insisting it is only make-believe, when it threatens to become too real. The conflict of desire and fear which Barrie's characters feel may appear to be the classic dilemma of children's literature: the conflict between staying home and running away. And the adventures of the Darling family may seem similar to those of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island or the children in the Narnia Chronicles. But the Neverland is, in a [End Page 28] subtle way, much more dangerous. The worlds of Treasure Island and Narnia do not threaten or lure the characters in quite the same way. The Neverland is more disturbing in a sense because it is too desirable. And therefore Barrie must deny it all the more emphatically.

For, in Barrie's mind, the issue of whether to fly away or stay at home was really settled before the story ever began. Any biography of him shows that the idea of ever really detaching himself from his home and mother would have been unbearable. His imagination had committed itself absolutely to the image of the faithful child who would remain a child. Therefore the departures had to remain sheerest game and make-believe. Moreover, Barrie undercut the fantasy because he apparently could not bear its implications. For in the Neverland there exists for him a mother-wife figure whom he can't, even there, embrace and a villain of a father he can slay. Such visions were very likely too frightening for him to stand by, so that as soon as he hinted at them he had to repudiate them. And since he could neither fulfill them not get rid of them, he was immobilized.

That is why the fantasy of flying to the Neverland takes the form it does in Peter Pan. Barrie was plagued all his life, and quite consciously, by an excessive concern for his mother's affection. When he was six years old, his thirteen-year-old brother David, his mother's acknowledged favorite among her ten children, died in an ice-skating accident, and as a result his mother suffered a nervous collapse. James set himself the impossible task of replacing his dead brother in her affections—by way of "playing physician," as he put it, to heal her of her debilitating grief. From his seventh year on, his whole life resolved itself—again, quite consciously—into a prolonged campaign for his mother's love; the desire to please and amuse her was the first commandment of his existence. "Wait till I'm a man," he recalled crying to...


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