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…
60 thoughts on “Refusing to Clap for Tinkerbell”
After a little thought, I’d agree with you – both about the story and childhood. Now, since I lack any writing talent, you must answer the implied challenge in your observations: Time for an alternative telling of this story … much like Little Red Ridinghood.
I happen to like the book (as literature, not as an accurate representation of anything ever), but I do not consider Peter to be human. To me, he’s obviously some sort of god, and gods are NEVER sane by human standards. The “Pan” part is not a coincidence, believe you me.
Also, I didn’t want to grow up (“mature” was a fightin’ word), but then, I still don’t, and I’m 29.
Actually, I like the book much, *much* better as an adult. There are an incredible number of very sly, wry, sardonic slams on Victoriana throughout the whole thing, and the fact that Pan wins in the end because of “good form” is just hilarious. (It’s also very illustrative of many Victorian/Edwardian racist tendencies, to wit the Indians…)
Also, ShinyHappyGoth is so right–Pan is a force of nature, not a real child.
The movie sucks. All the good stuff is *poof* disappeared, and Tinkerbell–who was yet another Force of Nature, totally unconstrained by conventions–was turned into cutesy-poo-ness. Bleargh.
My mother made my sister and I watch the play when it was on TV. Neither of us appreciated the fact and we’d point out things such as being able to see the strings when Peter would fly, and that Peter Pan shouldn’t have boobs. We didn’t clap for Tinkerbell, either… and never had to watch it again.
I got Peter Pan free with my Kobo (and lots of other ex- copyright books…. hope this doesn’t get removed by a spma filter) and finished reading it a few days ago.
I agree – Peter Pan is over-rated. Peter himself is the most vain and egotisitical ‘hero’ ever… and he forgets about everyone because they aren’t important to him. Sheesh, if any child was like that past the age of 2, you’d be worried.
There’s a big difference between movie and book, as ever. So how did your opinion of Disney overall turn out in the mind of the Young Budding Artist Ursula?
All the artist types I knew up through high school worshiped and adored Disney movies and nearly all aimed at working for them. For those I’ve met who actually did work there as artists, there was no love lost. The lack of creative input for all except the elite of the elite must have been a soul killer.
Like another commenter, I always took Peter Pan to be something other than human — hazards of a childhood spent reading fantasy novels, the sort where elves are Not Nice At All. Peter was clearly one of Underhill’s ilk — cruel in a casual rather than a premeditated way, forever young, unchanging, selfish in the complete way where everything outside of himself exists only for his amusement.
(The fact that his name is Pan — root of the word panic, the fear of the wilderness that drives humans mad? Sort of suggestive!)
In some ways he’s also a very realistic child-who-doesn’t-grow-up, with the Victorian rose-coloured glasses stripped off (see: complete selfishness, casual cruelty, and the way his naivety results in sexism/othering, not “innnocence” or tolerance).
Lots of good lessons for a kid, really, but not the ones that the people encouraging kids to clap for Tink were intending to pass on; more in the way of being a horrible warning!
I was a crap kid. I felt so out of place in childhood.
Sadly, I am not much better at being an adult; now I’m doing remedial childhood and it seems to be working better this time.
I thought PETER PAN was a tragedy, which seems to be a weird stance for a children’s book person to have, but what you’ve said is true: not growing up was a creepy punishment, not a great joy. Plus: eternal childhood and essentially Alzheimer’s? Oy.
I always rather liked the book but then I read it as an adult and appreciated the sly underground wit that most children would miss. And in my mind I extrapolated it into even a nastier world than it presents on the surface. Edwardian fairies weren’t sweet little darlings, they were sexy, destructive little liars that liked to lure little girls into the woods where they disappeared. I’m not sure you’re suppose to like Pan or Tinkerbell. They certainly don’t give a damn if anyone likes them.
I will say that I hated the movie. But I also hated Little Mermaid and if I recall correctly the movie has very little to do with the book. Today’s Disney has a nasty way of taking a good story and dipping it in sugar and coating it in splenda and wrapping it in sweet and low until it’s a diabetic nightmare of sugary swill. The sly humour and risky ugliness found in the earlier movies is long gone.
I don’t know if anybody has the nerve to be true to the book. I’d love to see Guy Ritchie take a stab at it.
I was one of those kids who didn’t like other kids, so I would not have survived long in Neverland. Yard duties always got after me in elementary school for reading at the lunch table instead of talking.
Anyone remember the Ramona Quimby series? Ramona was relatable but she irritated me in every book. I couldn’t stand her most of the time and I cringed through most of the books, but I liked Beatrice. Beatrice had the attitude I related to, but Ramona was where I was stuck in life. Somehow I kept wanting to read them so Beverly Cleary struck a chord somewhere.
Never read the book, saw the film version (and the rather awful live action version with Robin Williams in it, may whatever gods exist forgive me).
I agree with others who have said they saw Pan as not human. I think, in the book, it is said or implied that he was a human child kidnapped by Tinkerbell? But honestly, that seems like B.S. to me. I always sort of thought of Pan as being a version of Puck. Also a nature god of sorts, but more British than Greek. Greek Pan was a fairly sexual being, and I think the Victorian sensibility would have had a fit and fainted if the “real” Pan showed up in his loincloth. Even in a “grownup” book.
But seeing Peter Pan the character as a personification of that which motivates many children…makes some sense.
He doesn’t give a damn about taking care of his band of abducted kids. His motives for stealing Wendy are suspect – honestly she’s almost too old for him when he steals her, but (if the movie be believed) he really only wants her to come to Neverland to tell stories…about him. To him.
I liked the Disney film, but the reasons I liked it had nothing to do with the story. I adored the flying scene and I did like that the mermaids were not at all nice. I found the scene with the Indians amusingly offensive, like a hackneyed stand-up comedian in a cheap New York club.
But mostly, the flying.
I have never read the book. I think I have a copy somewhere, or used to, and may have started reading it, but I didn’t get far if I did.
I saw the movie at least once as a kid, maybe two or three times; I neither loved it nor hated it. We didn’t have Disney channel except when it was a free preview, and we didn’t have a VCR until I was in 4th or 5th grade, so I may not have seen it until then, which is probably a bit past prime. I know I’ve seen the older live-action one at least once, but it was in HS or college and I was watching more for the stagecraft and historic significance than for the story.
The one significant interaction I had with it was when we put it on in a community Readers Theater group I was involved with. I played a Lost Boy, the one who shot the Wendy-Bird. It still wasn’t and isn’t a favorite, but that did give me a bit of fondness for it.
I don’t remember particularly hating or liking Peter Pan as a kid (I read a lot of books). But I’ll admit I was one of those kids who didn’t want to grow up. In retrospect, this probably had something to do with having parents who were struggling to build a business; they worked insane hours, bad things (which given the business they were trying to run, often meant “dead animals”) happened to them even though they didn’t deserve it, and money was always nail-bitingly short. Despite this I had a very happy childhood, but I was aware enough of it to know that Bad Things, like responsibility and strained don’t-wake-the-kids arguments about money, were lurking just around the corner waiting to mug me when I was old enough to deal with them.
I was uninterested in being mugged.
I got tricked into growing up anyway (darn you, sex, for becoming too interesting to resist). And actually it’s not that bad; in retrospect, your point of view makes a lot more sense than mine. But yup. I guess I’m one of the kids that particular book was for.
It’s interesting, this is one of the reasons I really like the movie Hook. It’s got its bumps and bruises (like the lost boys’ Totally Radical speech patterns), but it’s ultimately about Peter recovering his childlike sense of wonder* while finding a balance between it and his adult responsibilities (and reassessing the priorities of those responsibilities while he’s at it).
*You seem to frown at the idea of a sense of wonder, but I think you have it in spades. That’s what makes a person slog through an estuary just to identify a bird, or build increasingly powerful model rockets, or… well, I think geeky behavior in general is centered around that sense of wonder. It’s the sense that, as the Discovery channel put it, the world is just awesome.
There’s a relevant quote by CS Lewis (who was very wise even if you don’t like the whole christian thing); “Young things ought to want to grow.”
Actually, I’ll include the full quote for context, because it’s one of my favorites:
Critics who treat “adult” as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development.
When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
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This is exactly how I felt about childhood and people always look at me like I have three heads when I say ‘I love being an adult, it’s so much better than being a child’. From how you described yourself, we probably were similar kinds of kids. I hated not having control over where I could go or what I could do (I usually just wanted to read a book and everyone else wanted me to Join In).
Peter Pan, one creepy dude.
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Funny, I hadn’t given it much thought, but i found it hard to relate to when I was a kid. I liked Tink until she behaved really nasty, but I think it was an infatuation/lust thing… who can resist a sexy fairy?! What i particularly couldn’t relate too though was the selfishness of Peter. He wasn’t a hero (in the original), he was a egotist. And he was an outsider (looking in on Wendy and the others through the window). Everything I didn’t want to be.
Unassociated, but in response to the CS Lewis quote, is that where Arrested Development got it’s name?
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