It’s always interesting to look into a book that has been Disney-fied, particularly where the Disney-fied version has almost entirely usurped the original in the collective conscious. I would say that Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is just such a book. After all, though I only remember so much of the Disney version, everything I can think of comes from the Disney version. I thought it would be fun to disabuse myself of what I thought I knew.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Mary Gaitskill.)
I hardly think a discussion of the story behind Peter Pan is really necessary here. Everyone knows the tale of the eternal boy who takes a group of children to live in Neverland. Instead, I think I’ll focus on what surprised me about the book.
One thing that surprised me was how odd the children’s usual world was before they ever went to Neverland. For example, the children’s nanny is a dog:
Mrs. Darling loved to have everything just so, and Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so, of course, they had a nurse. As they were poor, owing to the amount of milk the children drank, this nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana, who had belonged to no one in particular until the Darlings engaged her. She had always thought children important, however, and the Darlings had become acquainted with her in Kensington Gardens, where she spent most of her spare time peeping into perambulators, and was much hated by careless nursemaids, whom she followed to their homes and complained of to their mistresses. She proved to be quite a treasure of a nurse. How thorough she was at bath-time, and up at any moment of the night if one of her charges made the slightest cry. Of course her kennel was in the nursery. She had a genius for knowing when a cough is a thing to have no patience with and when it needs stocking around your throat. She believed to her last day in old-fashioned remedies like rhubarb leaf, and made sounds of contempt over all this new-fangled talk about germs, and so on. It was a lesson in propriety to see her escorting the children to school, walking sedately by their side when they were well behaved, and butting them back into line if they strayed.
You might say that the kids had a dog that the adults treated like a nanny as a joke, but I’m not so sure this is a joke. Sometimes the parents seem to be kidding that the dog is their nanny, but other times they don’t. I was confused, but I suspect they might really be using a dog as a nanny.
Beyond that, there is the fact that the children’s mother finds Peter’s shadow and keeps it:
She returned to the nursery, and found Nana with something in her mouth, which proved to be the boy’s shadow. As he leapt at the window Nana had closed it quickly, too late to catch him, but his shadow had not had time to get out; slam went the window and snapped it off.
You may be sure Mrs. Darling examined the shadow carefully, but it was quite the ordinary kind.
Nana had no doubt of what was the best thing to do with this shadow. She hung it out at the window, meaning “He is sure to come back for it; let us put it where he can get it easily without disturbing the children.”
But unfortunately Mrs. Darling could not leave it hanging out at the window, it looked so like the washing and lowered the whole tone of the house. She thought of showing it to Mr. Darling, but he was totting up winter great-coats for John and Michael, with a wet towel around his head to keep his brain clear, and it seemed a shame to trouble him; besides, she knew exactly what he would say: “It all comes of having a dog for a nurse.”
She decided to roll the shadow up and put it away carefully in a drawer, until a fitting opportunity came for telling her husband. Ah me!
A mother finding a shadow and keeping it certainly doesn’t seem ordinary. That seems a tad bit magic-tinged to me.
Dogs for nurses? Keeping a shadow in a drawer? These children had a plenty fanciful life long before they ever got to Neverland.
Beyond that, the thing that struck me was how Peter Pan is kind of an @**hole. He kills people. He has a tendency to forget the children if not reminded. He takes credit for the achievement of others. He seems had-pressed to interfere when Tinker Bell tries to have Wendy killed. I know the whole point is that he’s supposed to be the ultimate ‘boy,’ but he seemed far more self-centered than any child I’ve ever met. He has some redeemable impulses from time to time, but he’s nowhere near as nice a guy in the book as Disney made him. I always thought he was supposed to have a heart of gold and merely be problematic due to ignorance, but he’s really kind of a jerk.
But, all that aside, I did enjoy reading the book. It was charming. There was something of the world of the child about it, though perhaps a little more of the world an adult creates when telling a child a story.
Really, I think I’ve already said the word that can sum the book up best. What is Peter Pan? Charming. Take that in any way you want