It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of Peter Pan, or something like it, and I spent an hour this morning listening to panelists on NPR sing its praises.
I would like to take a moment now to say that I hated Peter Pan as a child.
Still am not a big fan, honestly. I have mellowed and can appreciate it as a piece of literature of the era, can admire some of the more elegant bits and the narrative voice and all, but while children of all ages might have loved this book for a century, I can vouch for at least one particular child of about nine or ten who detested it in both book and movie incarnations.
It wasn’t the obvious reasons. It wasn’t that Peter is basically a freaky child-stealing weirdo lurking outside the house eavesdropping, who displays absolutely no concern for the well-being of those he steals—those are grown-up reasons, and did not enter into my consideration. Most kids don’t care about their parents being worried at home. It is not in their nature. (Nor did I particularly notice the line that Brom pointed out in the intro to his book The Child Thief—it says that when there were too many Lost Boys, or they began to grow up, Peter “thinned them out.” As a child I accepted this without thought. It’s only as a grown-up that I realized that Neverland is gettin’ seriously Logan’s Run right there. Yeesh.)
And it wasn’t the violence. Various commenters on the radio expressed mild dismay at how violent it all was. Pfff. I was all for violence as a kid, and I would pack ten times as much into Dragonbreath if my editors let me get away with it, because I remember that quite well. Unfortunately adults buy books for kids, and so you have to cater to the rather more prudish sensibilities of adults to write kid’s books, but them’s the breaks. The violence was fine.
Nope. What annoyed me the most was that Peter didn’t want to grow up.
Five years ago I would have started this next paragraph with “I may have been a strange child…” but I don’t think like that anymore—I suspect that my experience was, if not universal, at least fairly common, particularly among the bright and geeky among us.
I wanted to grow up.
Childhood, far as I was concerned, was for the birds. You were smaller and weaker and had no money and no power and no agency and you were stuck in school with people who were not very interesting, but whom you were expected to get along with because…err…you were the same age or something. (My mother, to her eternal credit, did not try to convince me that school was a glorious and wonderful experience and the best years of my life–she simply nodded glumly and said “Yep. College will be a lot better, I promise. Until then, just hang on as best you can.”) I wanted no truck with childhood. As far as glorious Victorian ideals of innocence and wonder go, I felt that you could stuff it, although I was a very polite and shy child and would never have said anything of the sort.
Thought it a lot, though.
The notion that someone would not want to grow up struck me as the sort of idiocy that only adults would come up with. Bear in mind that most of my reading material at the time was Star Trek novels and Robin McKinley and Pern and The Hobbit. These were grown-ups, or close to, and they had problems like plagues and dragons and warfare and exploding dilithium crystals. I wanted to do THAT. Give me a sword or a tricorder or a dragon (preferably bronze, thank you very much) or at least a fire lizard, and you could keep your not-growing-up crap.
I also, during the course of the Disney movie flatly refused to clap for Tinkerbell, despite my grandmother nudging me. It was a movie. How dumb did they think I was? If it had been playing in an empty room with nobody watching, Tinkerbell would still magically get better. There was not an alternate nobody-clapped ending where Tinkerbell dies and Captain Hook has Pan keelhauled.* And bugger if I was going to clap just because the adults around me thought it would be an adorable expression of childhood belief. We’d fought that battle with Santa already, I was not losing the ground I’d won at so much cost.
Make that a polite and shy and cynical and grumpy child who would rather have been kicked than patronized…
(I have forgotten more about being a kid than I have probably ever managed to learn about being a grown-up, but one of the things I was resentfully aware of at the time was that a lot of grown-ups had this image of how kids were supposed to act and feel that had no resemblance whatsoever to the actual life of children. The company of other children is often more Lord of the Flies than it is the Bobbsey Twins, and there is a large contingent of adults who will get dewy eyed about the sweet little children playing so nice together and carefully ignore Piggy’s corpse lying off to one side. Small wonder so many of us wanted off the island as soon as possible… )
Captain Hook was the only character I respected. It is probably not a coincidence that he was the only significant grown-up.
The other really creepy thing about Peter Pan, as far as small, grumpy Ursula was concerned, was Pan’s memory. That final chapter when it’s revealed that he’s forgetting everything, forgotten Tinkerbell, etc etc, was scary. Imagine losing track of your memory and your dearest friends and who you were and what you’d done. I saw myself wandering the tree houses and ruined ships of Neverland, writing thousands of notes and tacking them to every available surface—your name is Peter, you live here, you can fly, fairy dust is important, you killed a pirate, you had friends once and here are their names…
Peter, being a dumbass, did not even go mad and memoryless in what I considered the correct fashion. I would have written notes. And nobody was nearly concerned enough about Tinkerbell.
*I would have been quite interested to see this ending. Hmm, actually I still would…