The character of Peter Pan was first developed by J.M. Barrie in his 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird. In this semi-autobiographical tale, the narrator tells his young ward David about a week-old infant named Peter who overhears his parents discussing their future hopes for his adult life. This all sounds rather dreadful to him, so Peter absconds to Kensington Gardens where he encounters the various fairy folk who make this London park their home. These few chapters in The Little White Bird inspired Barrie to write a full theatrical play entitled Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904. The chapters in Little White Bird were slightly rewritten and published as the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906.
Though published to capitalize on the success of the play, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is not a prequel to Peter Pan. Rather, it is a first draft of sorts. Barrie would revisit many of the themes and situations in that short story, not the least of which being the flying boy who refuses to grow up. Kensington Gardens would become Neverland, though Peter does allude to having spent some time in the Gardens when he first decided not to age. Maimie, the girl who develops an affection for Peter, becomes Wendy. Finally, in 1911, Barrie rewrote his play as a novel. Peter and Wendy became the definitive literary version of the story that has inspired countless adaptations on stage and screen since.
The script of the play was not published until 1928, and stagings are seen infrequently today. More common are the 1953 Disney animated feature film and the 1954 Broadway musical, which originally starred Mary Martin in the role of Peter. This latter version was aired for television in 1955, 1956, and 1960 (and more recently recast and performed again in 2014). Another notable adaptation was the 1924 silent film, for which Barrie wrote a screenplay but which ultimately chose to adapt his original play instead. This version, like most, maintained the play’s tradition of casting a woman in the role of Peter. Disney's film broke with that tradition by casting Bobby Driscoll as the voice of the boy who never grows up, as did the 2003 feature film version starring Jeremy Sumpter in the starring role opposite Jason Isaacs as Hook and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy.
The 1924 silent film version of Peter Pan.
Another tradition originating with the play and carried on through subsequent adaptations was the same actor portraying both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. In Disney's animated film, the incomparable radio actor Hans Conried provided the voice for both characters without being burdened by the heavy make-up required of stage actors. Original drafts of the play were absent the dashing pirate, simply on the count that he was not necessary. Any pretense of evil was ably supplied by Peter Pan himself.
Barrie understood children too well to be sickeningly sentimental about those little angels. One can see from the flippancy with which they talk about killing and other misadventures that Barrie portrays Peter and the Lost Boys as true children, who may be alternately sweet and cruel, filled with wonder and curiousity at one second while horrid and bloodthirsty the next. He may have idealized childhood but certainly not children. Like Andersen and his mermaids, Barrie sees that being in a primordial, pre-moral state does not make one sinless, but merely ignorant that they are sinning. In fact, Barrie supplied mermaids of his own to reflect this.
If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing.
The children often spent long summer days on this lagoon, swimming or floating most of the time, playing the mermaid games in the water, and so forth. You must not think from this that the mermaids were on friendly terms with them; on the contrary, it was among Wendy's lasting regrets that all the time she was on the island she never had a civil word from one of them. When she stole softly to the edge of the lagoon she might see them by the score, especially on Marooners' Rock, where they loved to bask, combing out their hair in a lazy way that quite irritated her; or she might even swim, on tiptoe as it were, to within a yard of them, but then they saw her and dived, probably splashing her with their tails, not by accident, but intentionally.
They treated all the boys in the same way, except of course Peter, who chatted with them on Marooners' Rock by the hour, and sat on their tails when they got cheeky. He gave Wendy one of their combs.
The most haunting time at which to see them is at the turn of the moon, when they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then, and until the evening of which we have now to tell, Wendy had never seen the lagoon by moonlight, less from fear, for of course Peter would have accompanied her, than because she had strict rules about every one being in bed by seven. She was often at the lagoon, however, on sunny days after rain, when the mermaids come up in extraordinary numbers to play with their bubbles. The bubbles of many colours made in rainbow water they treat as balls, hitting them gaily from one to another with their tails, and trying to keep them in the rainbow till they burst. The goals are at each end of the rainbow, and the keepers only are allowed to use their hands. Sometimes hundreds of mermaids will be playing in the lagoon at a time, and it is quite a pretty sight.Neverland as a whole reflects this truth about the child psyche. The island is a manifestation of the Edwardian child's interior world of the imagination, and what is it filled with? Pirates, so-called "savages" and "cannibals", wild creatures, and other harrowing things. Nor is it simply the interior world of boys, filled as they are with rats and snails and puppy dog's tails. This far-off land's fairies and mermaids aren't exactly sugar and spice and everything nice. A precondition of meeting Peter, laid out in the novel’s final words, is for a child to be "gay and innocent and heartless." That is an apt description of childhood, Neverland, and Peter himself.
Peter and Wendy has an air of tragedy about it, as Barrie manages to idealize childhood flights of fancy while at the same time recognizing the imperative not only to grow up, but to mature in the process. Towards the end of the novel, careful literary allusions are made to the idea that Captain Hook is really what Peter Pan would become if he merely got older without complementary moral, spiritual, and intellectual development. Her escapades in Neverland are what impart wisdom and maturity on young Wendy.
By two bells that morning they were all stirring their stumps; for there was a big sea running; and Tootles, the bo'sun, was among them, with a rope's end in his hand and chewing tobacco. They all donned pirate clothes cut off at the knee, shaved smartly, and tumbled up, with the true nautical roll and hitching their trousers.
It need not be said who was the captain. Nibs and John were first and second mate. There was a woman aboard. The rest were tars before the mast, and lived in the fo'c'sle. Peter had already lashed himself to the wheel; but he piped all hands and delivered a short address to them; said he hoped they would do their duty like gallant hearties, but that he knew they were the scum of Rio and the Gold Coast, and if they snapped at him he would tear them. His bluff strident words struck the note sailors understand, and they cheered him lustily. Then a few sharp orders were given, and they turned the ship round, and nosed her for the mainland.
Captain Pan calculated, after consulting the ship's chart, that if this weather lasted they should strike the Azores about the 21st of June, after which it would save time to fly.
Some of them wanted it to be an honest ship and others were in favour of keeping it a pirate; but the captain treated them as dogs, and they dared not express their wishes to him even in a round robin. Instant obedience was the only safe thing. Slightly got a dozen for looking perplexed when told to take soundings. The general feeling was that Peter was honest just now to lull Wendy's suspicions, but that there might be a change when the new suit was ready, which, against her will, she was making for him out of some of Hook's wickedest garments. It was afterwards whispered among them that on the first night he wore this suit he sat long in the cabin with Hook's cigar-holder in his mouth and one hand clenched, all but the forefinger, which he bent and held threateningly aloft like a hook.
Despite his sympathy with children, Barrie also presents parents as sympathetic figures and almost as soon as the Darling children get to Neverland they want to return to their mothers' bosom. Part of Peter's malevolence is rooted in his rejection of the nurturing relationship between children and their parents.
'Listen, then,' said Wendy, settling down to her story, with Michael at her feet and seven boys in the bed. 'There was once a gentleman——'
'I had rather he had been a lady,' Curly said.
'I wish he had been a white rat,' said Nibs.
'Quiet,' their mother admonished them. 'There was a lady also, and——'
'O mummy,' cried the first twin, 'you mean that there is a lady also, don't you? She is not dead, is she?'
'I am awfully glad she isn't dead,' said Tootles. 'Are you glad, John?'
'Of course I am.'
'Are you glad, Nibs?'
'Are you glad, Twins?'
'We are just glad.'
'Oh dear,' sighed Wendy.
'Little less noise there,' Peter called out, determined that she should have fair play, however beastly a story it might be in his opinion.
'The gentleman's name,' Wendy continued, 'was Mr. Darling, and her name was Mrs. Darling.'
'I knew them,' John said, to annoy the others.
'I think I knew them,' said Michael rather doubtfully.
'They were married, you know,' explained Wendy, 'and what do you think they had?'
'White rats,' cried Nibs, inspired.
'It's awfully puzzling,' said Tootles, who knew the story by heart.
'Quiet, Tootles. They had three descendants.'
'What is descendants?'
'Well, you are one, Twin.
'Do you hear that, John? I am a descendant.'
'Descendants are only children,' said John.
'Oh dear, oh dear,' sighed Wendy. 'Now these three children had a faithful nurse called Nana; but Mr. Darling was angry with her and chained her up in the yard; and so all the children flew away.'
'It's an awfully good story,' said Nibs.
'They flew away,' Wendy continued, 'to the Neverland, where the lost children are.'
'I just thought they did,' Curly broke in excitedly. 'I don't know how it is, but I just thought they did.'
'O Wendy,' cried Tootles, 'was one of the lost children called Tootles?'
'Yes, he was.'
'I am in a story. Hurrah, I am in a story, Nibs.'
'Hush. Now I want you to consider the feelings of the unhappy parents with all their children flown away.'
'Oo!' they all moaned, though they were not really considering the feelings of the unhappy parents one jot.
'Think of the empty beds!'
'It's awfully sad,' the first twin said cheerfully.
'I don't see how it can have a happy ending,' said the second twin. 'Do you, Nibs?'
'I'm frightfully anxious.'
'If you knew how great is a mother's love,' Wendy told them triumphantly, 'you would have no fear.' She had now come to the part that Peter hated.
'I do like a mother's love,' said Tootles, hitting Nibs with a pillow. 'Do you like a mother's love, Nibs?'
'I do just,' said Nibs, hitting back.
'You see,' Wendy said complacently, 'our heroine knew that the mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back by; so they stayed away for years and had a lovely time.'
'Did they ever go back?'
'Let us now,' said Wendy, bracing herself for her finest effort, 'take a peep into the future'; and they all gave themselves the twist that makes peeps into the future easier. 'Years have rolled by; and who is this elegant lady of uncertain age alighting at London Station?'
'O Wendy, who is she?' cried Nibs, every bit as excited as if he didn't know.
'Can it be—yes—no—it is—the fair Wendy!'
'And who are the two noble portly figures accompanying her, now grown to man's estate? Can they be John and Michael? They are!'
'"See, dear brothers," says Wendy, pointing upwards, '"there is the window still standing open. Ah, now we are rewarded for our sublime faith in a mother's love." So up they flew to their mummy and daddy; and pen cannot describe the happy scene, over which we draw a veil.'
That was the story, and they were as pleased with it as the fair narrator herself. Everything just as it should be, you see. Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked.
So great indeed was their faith in a mother's love that they felt they could afford to be callous for a bit longer.
But there was one there who knew better; and when Wendy finished he uttered a hollow groan.
'What is it, Peter?' she cried, running to him, thinking he was ill. She felt him solicitously, lower down than his chest. 'Where is it, Peter?'
'It isn't that kind of pain,' Peter replied darkly.
'Then what kind is it?'
'Wendy, you are wrong about mothers.'
They all gathered round him in affright, so alarming was his agitation; and with a fine candour he told them what he had hitherto concealed.
'Long ago,' he said, 'I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.'
I am not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true; and it scared them.
'Are you sure mothers are like that?'
So this was the truth about mothers. The toads!
Still it is best to be careful; and no one knows so quickly as a child when he should give in. 'Wendy, let us go home,' cried John and Michael together.
'Yes,' she said, clutching them.
'Not to-night?' asked the lost boys bewildered. They knew in what they called their hearts that one can get on quite well without a mother, and that it is only the mothers who think you can't.
'At once,' Wendy replied resolutely, for the horrible thought had come to her: 'Perhaps mother is in half mourning by this time.'
This dread made her forgetful of what must be Peter's feelings, and she said to him rather sharply, 'Peter, will you make the necessary arrangements?'
'If you wish it,', he replied, as coolly as if she had asked him to pass the nuts.
More sentimental adaptations portray Peter as simply whimsical. More mature ones imbue him with the air of a trickster or tempter figure. Disney's Once Upon A Time television series was one of the few to make him an outright villain, driven to selfish, evil deeds by his disordered desire to reclaim his youth.
However he is portrayed, Peter Pan remains emblematic of everything anarchic, chthonic, and charming about children. He does not grow up, because children don’t grow up. Yes, a child will grow up into an adult, but children never grow up. They're always the same age.