The Boy Who Never Grew Up: Behind Peter Pan’s Dark Origin Story
When anybody thinks of Peter Pan, they likely recall the Disney animated film that became a beloved staple of many childhoods. To a legend that dates back more than 100 years, it has a more sinister origin story that most people don’t know much (or anything) about.
Peter was famously known as the boy who never grew up and whom many young boys aspired to be. The brilliant brains behind the myth, author J.M. Barrie, had a disturbing obsession that lent to the dissolution of his life and marriage.
Enduring A Tragic Childhood
Born in the Scottish town of Kirriemuir in 1860, James Matthew “J.M.” Barrie and his older brother, David, were the sons of Margaret and Alexander Barrie. David was considered “the perfect child” until tragedy struck the family one day.
Tragically, Margaret and Alexander’s golden child fell and cracked his skull after being hit by an ice skater. David was never the same again and died from the injury eventually. Barrie allegedly felt comforted that his brother would remain the same age forever. Thus, his fascination with boys and maintaining their innocence came to fruition.
Barrie’s First Marriage Was Tumultuous
Barrie moved to London in 1894, which is where he met and married Mary Ansell. As a wedding present, he gave her a St. Bernard dog. Due to evidence, it’s proposed that Barrie didn’t consummate their marriage, and that’s why they never had any children together.
In his story Tommy and Grizel, Barrie referenced the six toxic years he spent with Ansell. He wrote, “You are the only woman I ever wanted to love, but apparently, I can’t.” It’s not a surprise that their marriage didn’t last, resulting in their divorce by 1909.
Introducing Uncle Jim
In an area called Kensington Gardens (attached to London’s Hyde Park), Barrie met a few boys in 1889. He saw two brothers, George, and Jack Llewelyn Davies, walking with their nurse. Allegedly, Barrie took a liking to the four and five-year-olds after meeting their parents, Arthur and Sylvia.
Later on, Sylvia gave birth to more sons: Peter, Michael, and Nicholas “Nico.” Their parents, for reasons unknown, allowed Barrie into all of their lives. Not too long after this, Barrie became known as “Uncle Jim” – a creepy fact considering there was no blood relation.
The Grand Debut Of Peter Pan
The Peter Pan that we all know and love has been a fabled fictional character for decades now. But, he actually made his initial debut in the novel The Little White Bird. Loosely based on George Llewelyn Davies, the story was about a boy named David that befriends the narrator and pretends his son died. It was a lie in order to gain sympathy from David’s parents.
So, when David’s mom fell for it, the narrator gets a bit too overjoyed. He shares that he can, “take [David] utterly from her and make him mine.” Considering how modern society views predatory behavior, this is eerily uncomfortable and would be thought of as inappropriate these days.
What Did One Author Have To Say About It?
In the biography titled Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin, he has a different opinion than most. He believes that Barrie’s intentions with young boys were anything other than explicit and predatory. Instead, he considers Barrie “a lover of childhood” despite the preconceived notions that people have about him.
Similarly, people are also divisive about Michael Jackson. Some considered Jackson as having a predatory nature, while others saw him as a child at heart trying to recapture his fleeting childhood.
Other People Had Their Suspicions
Not everybody thought favorably about Barrie, specifically Piers Dudgeon. In his novel, Neverland: J.M. Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and The Dark Side of Peter Pan, Dudgeon claims that there was something more going on between Barrie and the Davies boys.
Dudgeon went as far as to share some incriminating evidence against Barrie. He found a letter that Barrie wrote to Michael (who was Barrie’s favorite) the night before his 8th birthday in June 1908. Let’s just say that it was insinuating some rather inappropriate things.
Becoming The Boys’ Guardian
Unfortunately, in 1907, Arthur died of jaw cancer, and Sylvia died three years later from lung cancer. You can only guess who became the legal guardian of their children. Yes, Uncle Jim.
The boys’ nanny was named Mary and Jenny was her sister. She was hesitant to leave the boys under Barrie’s wing because she probably would have put that in the letter. Sneakily, Barrie transcribed the will and changed “Jenny” to “Jimmy” before sending it to the Davies’ maternal grandmother. This way, it appeared as if Sylvia wanted him to be their guardian.
Growing Up With Uncle Jim
Barrie got away with fooling everybody by becoming their legal guardian. The entire situation is quite strange and, not to mention, illegal, there is actually no substantial evidence that proved Barrie physically hurt any of the Davies children.
In 1915, the eldest brother, George Davies, was tragically killed in battle during World War I. After he passed away, the bond between Michael and Barrie became more prominent. But, that was cut short after Michael left to attend Eton College where the adjustment wasn’t easy. Michael was antisocial and troubled, yet he became best friends with Robert Buxton, a famed baronet’s son. The two were inseparable.
Michael Was Met With A Tragic Fate
Sadly, Michael’s fate didn’t differ too much from George’s. He and Buxton drowned together in a large body of water near Oxford, called Standford Pool. Reportedly, their bodies were discovered clinging onto one another. Some theorized that Davies and Buxton were lovers and that this was a tragic act to declare their love for each other.
Michael’s younger brothers, Peter and Nico, in later interviews, expressed that it’s possible they took their own lives. But, we will never know the truth. Peter went on to become a successful publisher. He destroyed all the letters between Michael and himself and detested that his name was linked to Peter Pan.
Peter Despised Peter Pan And All That Came With It
The character of Peter Pan was once called “that terrible masterpiece” by Peter. Ruthven, his son, and others think that Peter became an alcoholic due to all of the unwanted and undesired attention from fame. On the outside, he appeared to be successful and optimistic, but perhaps that was a front. He took his own life in April of 1960.
In 1937, Barrie passed away from pneumonia. Generously, he gave all the rights to his Peter Pan works to the Great Ormond Street Hospital. The hospital still largely benefits from owning the rights.
Peter Pan And The “Boyology” Craze Of The Early 20th Century
While writers sometimes can’t foresee how their work will have an impact on their audience, Peter Pan was definitely an anomaly. In the early 20th century, the culture just so happened to be enamored with boyhood. Readers weren’t the only ones impacted by this magical story of a boy who never grows up, the middle classes were, too.
People of the time were concerned that their boys were becoming too “soft” and not masculine enough. Barrie’s stories apparently helped, for some reason. In a book by Henry William Gibson called Boyology, he suggests that parents, schools, and other institutions should keep the “wildness” of boyhood intact.
The Philosophy Behind “Boys Will Be Boys”
Even though the saying “boys will be boys” is deemed toxic masculinity these days, it was encouraged and supported back then. Gibson wrote, “When he starts out to be a boy, he is more a little beast.” He continued, “He is, though, a man in the making.” Staunch efforts to develop and protect the innate nature of boyhood became prioritized soon after.
Making “boys will be boys” a priority at the time is the complete opposite of society’s view of the subject in the 21st century. In 1980, Robert Baden-Powell wrote “Scouting For Boys,” which assisted in prompting The Boy Scout Movement. And, in 1917, Father O’Flanagan established the Boys Town orphanage in Nebraska.
A Boy Who Refused To Grow Up And Become A Man
It’s interesting to put Peter Pan in the middle of the whole “boyology” phenomenon. But, it was also a bit risky at the same time. How does it encourage and teach boys to become men? It doesn’t really; in fact, it’s the opposite.
Brian Herrera, a Princeton professor, positions an interesting outlook. He says, “I see Barrie as being in conversation both with and against […] He said that the idea that there is something precious and extraordinary about boyhood, but he doesn’t seem to see adult masculinity as the natural next step of the boyhood wildness, but as a cruel step away from the magic of boys.”
What Is Peter Pan’s Actual Age?
While this answer may be simple, it’s still being debated to this very day. One of the theories is that since Peter Pan was first published in 1906, Peter is at least 110 years old. And, because, Barrie was born in 1860 that makes Peter 156 years old. Peter’s age was never mentioned in Barrie’s play or novel.
The oldest Peter ever appears to be in the story is 13 years old and he still possesses all of his baby teeth. Thus, he’s likely anywhere between 12 and 13.
Creating The Myth Of Peter Pan
Anthony Lane, in his 2004 New Yorker essay, writes, “In Peter Pan, Barrie achieved the rarest alchemy of all, the one that no writer can plan or predict: he invented a myth.” There’s a sad and dark tone underlying the story when you read it as an adult, even more than when you saw the movie as a child.
It’s undeniable that Peter Pan always gave off a melancholic and tragic vibe, one that’s the complete opposite of the family-friendly Disney films we all know. Perhaps, just like all myths, this is derived from depressing, disturbing, and very human origins, which is why it remains a timeless tale.
Forming The Character Of Peter Pan
As mentioned earlier on, Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird in which Peter is a seven-day-old baby who believes he can fly. In fact, that specific part of the story made it famous. Barrie knew he could take things further due to the success of the book and Peter’s character.
In 1904, Barrie created a stage play about the boy who wouldn’t grow up, known as Peter Pan. Two years later, he published more chapters about Peter in Peter Pan in the Kensington Garden.
One Week Old Forever,
However, in the original story of The Little White Bird, Peter leaves home and doesn’t age. He stayed one week old for all time. Believing that his mother will leave the window open for him always, he plays with the birds and fairies, not fearing that he would lose her affection. So, when he returns to her, he is crushed by a horrifying reality.
The windows are barred and his mother is affectionately cuddling another baby. Devastated, Peter learns that his mother’s love is conditional and that it was only a matter of time before he would be replaced. That darkness of Peter Pan’s upbringing is more tragic than the well-known portrayal of him.
The Underlying Nature Of Barrie’s Relationship With The Boys
According to historians and biographers, the most controversial element of Barrie’s life was whether or not his relationship with the Davies boys was inappropriate or not. To this day, there is no concrete evidence to say that he did or didn’t have such an association with them. Despite this, his closest acquaintances said that he was never attracted to anybody.
Nicholas, the youngest of the Davies boys, revealed, “I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring undergrowth for anyone – man, woman, adult, or child.” Regardless of this statement, it can’t be denied that Barrie had an unusual relationship with them.
It Was Still An Odd Relationship
People will continue to think whatever they want about Barrie. But, even before he became the Davies boys’ legal guardian, he was a loyal friend to the whole family. Barrie and his wife even went on vacation with them. He was around a lot, playing with the kids around the lake, and sharing stories about fairies and pirates.
Later on, these stories were turned into a book just for the Davies, written by Peter Davies and published by Barrie. George Davies (it’s widely believed) was the inspiration for Peter Pan’s character, who was only five when 37-year-old Barrie established a friendship with him and his brother.
It Started Out As A Play
We all know now that Peter Pan was a play before it was anything else. Aside from the chapters mentioned earlier, there weren’t book versions of Peter Pan’s story. Barrie finally made the play into a novel called Peter and Wendy. And, Peter was loosely based on Barrie.
An intricate and unique individual, Peter was formed from a mix of different people in Barrie’s life. He is portrayed as an outsider in British society, similar to how Barrie perceived himself. Wendy wants Peter to act more fatherly, but he has no idea how to be that way. In Barrie’s experiences with women, they desired the same thing from him.
A Toxic Marriage Once Again Alluded To In His Works
Barrie got married in 1894 and it was never clear why the marriage ended. His wife was desperate to start a family of her own, but Barrie felt differently (or, rather indifferently). It’s interesting since he loved children so much.
One possible reason was that Barrie’s relationship with his wife was, in his words, toxic. In his personal journal, he wrote: “Greatest horror – a dream I am married – wake up shrieking.” Peter Pan would probably share the same feelings about marriage.
How Does The Story End?
In both the Peter Pan book and play, the backstory from The Little White Bird is the same, except that Peter can leave Kensington Gardens. Neverland is his playground. It’s filled with Lost Boys to goof around with and go on adventures, pirates to fight, and Wendy Darling and her offspring miraculously transforming into mothers. They replace his biological mother who abandoned him.
Additionally, Peter is slightly older instead of an upsetting one-week-old, neglected baby. In this version, he is a cheerful and vibrant school-aged kid. Wendy inevitably grows up and can’t play with Peter any longer, or remain a loving maternal refuge.
The Emotional Weight Between Wendy And Peter
Of course, the end supplies us with the inevitable dread we’ve been anticipating. Peter meets grown-up Wendy. She is “helpless and guilty, a big woman [with] something inside her… crying, ‘woman, woman, let go of me!’” Of course, she feels sad for abandoning Peter the same way his mother did. Guilt tore her apart.
While Peter cried during the interaction, it didn’t last for long. Jane, Wendy’s daughter, was in line, waiting to replace her mother. The chain continues and Peter will always have children to keep him company. It’s a happy ending, right?
Peter, Peter, The Serial Killer
In both the book and the play, Peter ruthlessly kills the pirates without any noticeable remorse. And, in the book, it’s revealed that he killed the Lost Boys for possible reasons such as to “thin the herd” or perhaps because they were growing up which wasn’t allowed in Neverland.
Disturbingly, Peter also altered the bodies of the Lost Boys so they can fit through tree holes into their underground layer. Peter can’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, so he would give the Lost Boys pretend meals sometimes, refusing to believe that they were actually hungry.
Inside The Truth Of Neverland
Throughout the book, the Lost Boys and the Darlings are faced with many dangers. But, Peter being Peter, views the danger as pure entertainment instead of being scary. He ends up saving them every time, yet it’s because he wants to show off his cleverness, not because he actually wants to rescue them.
So, where did the idea of Neverland come from? It began when Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies kids were playing around a countryside lake. There was only joy and youth, which was a distraction from the deaths, starvation, and other gruesome things that happened. You will probably never think of Neverland the same way again.
Peter Pan…The Cult Leader?
One of the most recent versions of the Peter Pan story is Christina Henry’s Lost Boy. In her rendition, Peter Pan is a bloodthirsty cult leader instead of the embodiment of eternal youth. He lures little boys away from their families, starves them, and forces them to play a game called “Battle,” where they are driven to kill one another.
The boys don’t really love or idolize Peter, but they’re perpetually stuck in Neverland and have no way of returning home. He is their only source of safety, so they must obey him and follow his orders.
The Lost Boys In Her Version Aren’t Too Far Off From The Original
If you really give some thought to it, Henry’s version of the classic tale doesn’t stray too far from Barrie’s portrayal of Peter. However, the one glaring difference is that Barrie didn’t focus on the Lost Boys’ perspective, rendering them 2D characters without original thoughts, feelings, or perspectives. They were objects, just as Peter saw them.
Thinking from another perspective is impossible for Peter, and he could be understood as a narcissist. Viewing everyone as pieces in a game is childish, which is exactly what Peter does.
Peter’s Development (Or Lack Thereof)
When Barrie was first creating the idea of Peter Pan, he envisioned him as a fantasy. Being selfish and heartless yet maintaining innocence appealed to Barrie, which is how he was able to turn the story into a fairytale ripe with sentimentality. Even though he had intentions to develop Peter into a more empathetic character, he realized it wouldn’t work.
Both versions of the tale keep Peter true to his selfish child roots. This way, it’s easier for Peter to become a villain rather than a hero. At its core, the story of Peter Pan is a wild fantasy mixed with a wicked nightmare. Is Barrie a clever storyteller or just a warped man who ruins the lives of children?
Peter Pan’s Connection To Christmas
For some, the tale of Peter Pan is associated with the magical tradition of Christmas. The historical reason behind this is that during that time of year most plays were performed. In those days, plays were usually geared toward young children and based on either fairy tales or nursery rhymes.
When Peter Pan took the stage, it was completely new and fresh. Not only this, but it also added to the holiday spirit with flying pirates and fairies. The story didn’t take long to become integrated into the Christmas tradition and, eventually, that magic spread throughout the world.
The Enduring Legacy Of The Boy Who Never Grew Up
As you know, Barrie left the Peter Pan rights and proceeds to the Great Ormond’s Street Hospital’s children’s charity. They hold the rights to the royalties for everything in the United Kingdom. So, they receive all royalties from broadcasts, publications, on-stage productions, and adaptations, but not sequels, prequels, and spin-offs.
The copyright for Peter Pan expired everywhere else except for the play in the U.S. and Spain. This isn’t too awful considering the hospital raked in a generous amount of money from the royalties. Barrie actually told the hospital to never share the amount they were earning from Peter Pan, which they respected.
Fairy Dust And Its Origins
Barrie would switch it up a little by constantly changing the story every year. Because of these alterations, the version of Peter Pan that we are most familiar with takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During those periods, society’s conception of young and old was changing. With Barrie updating Peter Pan for an entirely new era, the idea of the boy who doesn’t grow old or grow up remained exciting.
In the original version, there’s no fairy dust due to safety reasons, and it was added later on. At first, Peter and the Lost Boys could fly whenever they wanted to, which resulted in children trying to leap off of their beds, hurting themselves. Thus, Barrie added fairy dust as the only way one could fly.
The Versions Changed Over Time
Initially when Peter Pan was just a stage play, Tinker Bell’s character was a dot of light on the stage. She moved around by using a focusing mirror. In current productions, the character is a beautiful, intricate puppet designed by Sue Dacre, a talented puppet maker for Jim Henson.
Also, you might be shocked to know that Peter Pan didn’t always wear green like in Disney’s version. In the original productions, Peter wore earthy colors such as tan, brown, and auburn, and donned cowbells. And, in another, he wears a leather jacket to resemble James Dean.
Captain Hook Attended Eton College
Adventure novels were all the popularity in 20th-century England, such as Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. In the play’s original version, the last words of Captain Hook were the Eton College motto, “Floreat Etona.” Even though both stories were penned by different authors, they both seemed to have existed in the same fictional realm.
Barrie confirmed that Captain Hook attended Eton College and that his friend was Long John Silver. He also confirmed in Peter and Wendy that Captain Hook was the only one that Long John Silver feared.
Disney Kind Of Had Their Own Take
In order to grab the attention of younger audiences, Disney had to strip away some of the characters’ darker traits. But, there is still some of the original darkness from Barrie’s original version of the character into the one that Disney popularized. Peter Pan remains a beloved story and a timeless classic.
An expert on Peter Pan, Dr. Professor Allison Kavey, explained something quite touchingly. She said, “The Peter in The Little White Bird and Peter and Wendy is among the most honest depictions of a literary child I think I have ever read. He is selfish, devoted to his own entertainment, except in battle scenes, incapable of taking care of himself. He also loves like a child, without thought the effect his love has or what it will mean if he forgets for a whole.”