Loving Peter Pan
“Wendy, Wendy, when you are sleeping in your silly bed you might be flying about with me saying funny things to the stars.” J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
I loved Peter Pan.
I loved the fictional character I met in storybooks when I was a child.
I loved the real-life young man who embodied the character many years later.
I loved this story.
You know it. A little boy escapes when his nurse’s back is turned. He meets fairies, learns to fly, runs away to Neverland, and spends an eternity rescuing children from ‘growing up’. His is a life of adventure, passion, youth and defiance. He wars with pirates, plays with mermaids, and fights alongside Indians. His ‘family’ is a collection of scraggly urchins dubbed The Lost Boys. They are the boys he rescued from reality, from growing up into the drudgery of adulthood. They are ‘lost’ because their families back home can never find them. The lost idolize their flippant, fairy-dusted leader to the point of blind faith.
Pan is passionate, rebellious, wily, flirtatious, brave, witty, and just a little bit wicked. A rascal, on the cusp of growing up but never really there. All of his adventures orbit around protecting the most precious thing he possesses: the freedom to have fun. There is something attractive about his life on the page, especially to young women (like me) who live eyes-open for things magical and a tinge rebellious. And maybe that’s why…
I hated Wendy
I couldn’t stand that prissy girl with the pretty hair who seemed older than a child. That pretentious spoil sport! She flounced around in her ribboned nightgown, trying to be brave, but forever the damsel in distress. She was demanding. The Lost Boys even built a house to protect her because “she is the only lady”. Halfway through the book, Wendy insists that she be called Mother and Pan Father, though fatherhood is clearly a role far beyond Pan’s capacity. The two play act at adulthood, but it is all a game for Pan until Wendy implies she wants more than a game and spoils the fun. I remember watching the cartoon and just loathing Wendy.
Until I became her.
I was older and staring down a Pan of my own when I realized Wendy wasn’t asking Pan to drop all of his fun and freedom for her. She was asking him to respect her.
Respect the woman she was becoming. Respect her safety, her honor, her life, her potential, her purpose, her family, her values. Towards the end of the book, Wendy has a moment of panic where she cannot find her younger brothers. “Where are John and Michael?” she demands. Pan, who has known and ‘adopted’ her brothers cocks a brow and says “Who?”
Monsters who Fly
Literary theorists have dissected Barrie’s story and come to a disturbing discovery. Peter Pan isn’t just a boy frozen in time. He’s hundreds of years old. Barrie indicated that when the Lost Boys began to grow up, Pan would kill them. He’d replenish his following by kidnapping new children. In his spirit, Pan is broken, wounded, self-obsessed and violent. He’s unnatural. A grown man insisting on being a child forever.
I loved someone like that. Wendy did. So many of us do.
Maybe you have too. He’s fun, a little rebellious, and wants only to have a good time. It’s adventurous, magical, enchanting, until…
The mermaids of his acquaintance grab you by the hair and try to drown you while he looks on in amusement.
He shouts his defiance and declares his freedom when you ask for the games to become reality.
He demands more of you, but you have nothing left to give.
Your safety and well-being are not priorities when you’re in his care, but having a good time always is.
He’ll start saying things like
You’re just no fun anymore
You’re just like my (mom/dad/other adult he rebels against).
Why do you have to be so serious?
Why can’t we just keep it casual?
Why do you insist that we give this thing a label?
Pan wins a final victory over Captain Hook, but that is the only victory he can claim throughout the entire narrative…feeding a hairy pirate to a crocodile. He loses everything else.
Wendy goes home, and takes the lost with her. The children she brings back are adopted into loving families. She chooses that thing we’re taught to fear from the beginning: she grows up. She does it courageously. She falls in love and marries a man who also grew up. She has a daughter, and experiences joys and pain that Pan never will. She’s not a prissy damsel. She’s the braver of the two, coming into a fulfillment of everything she could be. Years later, Pan is still frozen, spying in her window, and begging to take her daughter too.
You know, growing up looks different. Fulfillment and purpose does not mean marriage, work, and children for everyone. And fun is so important. People who are fun and enjoy their life are some of my favorite people, but here is the thing about growing up.
Growing up means sometimes setting your own desires aside and doing what is necessary, good, and loving for the benefit of others.
Growing up means having to face your shortcomings to become better, stronger, wiser.
Growing up means loving people more than yourself, even if it means you don’t get to have as much ‘fun.’
Growing up means doing the hard things that will make your heart rich, and not just your mind distracted.
Growing up is hard, but it is also one of the most rewarding, beautiful, scary and adventurous things I’ve ever done.
It’s been many years since I loved Peter Pan. And it broke my heart to leave all the promise of a land where responsibilities don’t have to exist, but a better adventure was rooted in reality. It was safer, whole, and filled with promise.