Barrie’s story is not about the joys of staying young, but of the need to become something new every day.
I just finished a book that I’ve never read before, and I had to write about it. It’s not a new book at all. It’s a book that we’ve probably all seen on the shelves. We’ve watched the Disney version as kids. However, it’s not a book that many people actually end up reading, which, as I found out, is a real shame.
James Matthew Barrie wrote several books, but Peter Pan is certainly his most famous. It has been used for musicals and several films, notably the Disney cartoon, Hook, Finding Neverland, and a later adaptation of the novel in 2003. The storyline begs to be retold. The idea of flying away to a magical world of adventure is the wistful dream of many a grad student, certainly (this I know from experience).
What I found, however, having seen all the movies listed above, is that the book carries an essential message that the movies tend to nervously avoid. And that’s what makes the book so powerful as both children’s literature and a story that adults can appreciate as well.
The main idea of Peter Pan centers on a single key concept: eternal youth. It’s a theme that spans millennia. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, who falls in love with the mortal Tithonos. She begs Zeus to make him immortal so that they can be together forever. Unfortunately, she forgets to ask Zeus to make Tithonos eternally young as well. And so the ill fated new immortal shrivels and shrinks with aging, unable to die, until he becomes the very first grasshopper. I know. You’ll never look at those creatures the same way again.
Peter Pan, on the other hand, is eternally young, unchanging and timeless. When he entices the Darling children away to Neverland, they enter a dreamlike existence and they soon forget how long they have been away from home and even who they were before.
The movies have taken this idea of a boy who never grows up and embraced the joy and wonder of it fully, but they have lost sight of the purpose, the moral of the story, as it were. The cartoon, of course, deliberately keeps things light and frivolous. It’s Disney, after all. Peter Pan is a jolly, elven creature who flies away at the end of the story and lives happily ever after. The latest version (and my favorite) stays closest to the book, but still essentially changes who Peter Pan is. While Peter is represented as a self-centered little boy who wants “always to be a boy and have fun,” throughout the movie, he learns a youthful sort of love and becomes a better person.
Therein lies the problem. Peter Pan is not just about being eternally young, but about the problem of changelessness. We all long for immortality. Aging and death are two of the things that terrify humans most. However, when Barrie wrote Peter Pan, he identified something very wrong with the simple concept of staying young forever.
The Peter Pan of the book is not as friendly as the ones shown in the movies. Barrie describes Peter as frivolous, carefree, and very forgetful. He lives forever moment by moment, and so he cannot ever change.
Peter Pan is not about the joys of staying young, but of the need to become something new every day. We are not supposed to envy Peter Pan, except briefly, as we might think nostalgically back on the days when a box of Lego’s or a favorite stuffed animal was all we needed to enter another world. But that is not something we want to return to forever.
What resonated most with me was the final word in the book: “heartless.” So long as children are innocent and heartless, Barrie says, they might stay young like Peter Pan. To be heartless, for Barrie, means to be carefree and self-centered, as all children are – until they grow up. Immortality in the world of Peter Pan is imperfect. A perfect immortality, the one we anticipate, is that which allows us to become better and better with each new day: eternal, but always changing, learning, growing. In The Last Battle, Lewis describes the ending as a beginning, in which each chapter is not just as good, but better than the one before.
Peter Pan is a wonderful book for children. They will love the adventures that the Darlings have, the fairies and flying, the mermaids and Indians and pirates, and the ticking crocodile. Barrie writes in that humorous, brilliant fashion that is all but lost in children’s literature today, which allows a book to be utterly enjoyable for a child and equally entertaining for an adult. I found it delightful, humorous, and enchanting.
To me, this book represents exactly what a children’s book should be: a book that grows with the child and tells a new and deeper story with each rereading.