Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

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

Grimm’s Fairy Tales

This week, I am writing about Grimms Fairy Tales.  Both Alice Hoffman and James Salter listed these in their top ten.  Apparently, based on my last 3 selections, I need to read more Alice Hoffman.  I have never heard of James Salter, so went to the all knowing Wikipedia.

I will admit that I have read this before, but I think the last time I read my compilation book of them, I was around 10.  I, have of course, in the last couple of years gotten to know the sanitized versions of the tales quite well (the fallout of having a four year old daughter).

I will also admit that I have not read through all of them at this time, so I will be doing another post in a couple of days once I finish all of them.  However, I have read through enough of them that I can give opinions and the true story on some of the ones that Disney has come through and “princessed” and sanitized.  I also can talk about the viewpoint on whether they truly are too bloody for children today.

Interesting note first, the Grimm brothers first published the book of tales, marketed towards children in the early 1800s but parents complained (apparently they did that even back then) that the tales were way too violent, so years later,  the brothers released an updated version with a few of the tales “cleaned” up.  So the stories we read today as the originals actually are probably already sanitized a bit.  This doesn’t mean that they are rated G by any means.

The charges of feminism that the fairy tales paint women in a negative light, making them appear dumb and in need of someone to rescue them, isn’t necessarily all that true.  Yes, in some tales, the girl is painted as a victim who is desirous of rescue, but in others, she is quite resourceful.  I am thinking here of “The Princess in Disguise”.  Her father, the King, promises her mother, the Queen, on her deathbed that he will marry no one unless she has golden hair like the Queen and is just as beautiful.  Of course, no one fulfills these requirements.  Until his daughter reaches of age.  So, he decides he will marry her.  Even way back when the story originated (who knows when as the Grimm brothers transcribed stories), this wasn’t acceptable.  So the girl runs away.  Hunters from another kingdom find her, and she hides her identity to keep herself safe…after she has shoved 3 gowns she forced her father into making in the hopes that he will be unable to marry her and a rough cloak of skins.  She then begins to work for the cook at this castle and contrives a way to show herself as  a princess to the King and to marry him.  And she succeeds.

Of course on the flip side, we have “Snow White”, who manages to smartly convince the huntsman to let her go. (the original version has the original proclamation from the mirror to come when she was 7, the story doesn’t signify when she runs away)  She then runs away and finds the 7 Dwarves (this is pretty similiar to the Disney version so far).  However, the wicked stepmother, upon hearing from her mirror about Snow White still being alive, disguises herself and goes as a peddler woman and sells her a poisoned hair comb.  Snow White puts the comb in her hair and falls down as dead.  When the dwarves return, they notice the comb and pull it out and warn her to be extra careful as the stepmother is after her and to not answer the door to anyone.  Well, the stepmother of course notices that she is not dead and redisguises herself and goes back, this time selling corsets.  Snow White puts up a little protest but then is so overcome with need for the corsets (of her own accord, not the stepmother’s) that she allows the woman to tie one on her, and the laces are pulled too tight and she collapses.  The dwarves save her again and re-warn her.  Then comes the apple, which the stepmother has spelled to be only poisonous on one side so she is able to take a bite out of it and convince Snow White (again) that it is ok.  She then falls down.  The dwarves can’t find anything so bury her in a glass coffin due to her great beauty.  A prince comes along and is so captivated by her that he requests to carry her body back to his castle.  As servants are carrying her, the piece of apple is dislodged from her throat and THAT is what causes her return.  Not a kiss.  They do kiss, and they do live happily ever after, but the jostling of being carried over paths is what saves her.  The stepmother goes to their wedding and they had ready red hot iron shoes, which they made her dance in until she fell down dead.

But men get the same treatment in the fairy tales.  “The Skilful Huntsman” has a young man in it who receives an air gun which will not fail to hit its target.  He then deceives three giants.  He sneaks away and the princess in the castle refuses to marry the man in the King’s Guard who says he killed the 3 giants so is exiled to sell pots (this seems to be a common punishment for princesses who refuse to do the King’s bidding in the tales I’ve read).  Other stories point at men who are smart outwitting dumb men.  In Clever Gretel, the man she is a cook/serving maid for is completely dumb.

Most of the tales in the half I have read so far have someone greedy getting punished in the end.

Recently (prior to picking Grimm’s fairy tales to read and partly causing me to pick the fairy tales for my next one) I was in the library and saw the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  I of course, had to get it.  It’s a good read for mothers or fathers of little girls and explores the whole new movement of princesses for little girls and where that might lead.  Peggy Orenstein is a humorous and easy to read author.   She talks about the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in regards to the original (or only slightly sanitized) tales, stating that Bettelheim says “…fairy tales and only fairy tales-as opposed to myths and legends–tap into children’s unconscious preoccupations with such knotty issues as sibling rivalry or the fear of omnivorous mother”.  Fairy tales show that those who stand fast are victorous.  Bettelheim goes so far as to say, according to Orenstein “without exposure to fairy tales a child will be emotionally stunted, unable to create a meaningful life”.  I did not read Bettelheim at all, beyond what is discussed in this book so can’t really go into depth of his viewpoints.  However, I don’t think he necessarily needs to go as far as saying any child without that exposure will be emotionally stunted.  I do know that as I read through these tales again, I remember how much I loved them as a child and why all the sanitized versions of Disney have always felt…lacking to me.  Unfortunately, Amelia (the four year old that has made me live in Disney princess land) has been a little ruined by those Disney versions and always looks a little confused when I read ones closer to the original.

Next time, I’ll go into the real stories behind some of the other sanitized versions.  Stay tuned for the parts that Disney didn’t want you to know!