One of the Best Fantasies Ever (But Handle with Care)

Everyone has heard of Peter Pan; but I wonder how many of you have read the book, Peter Pan, by James M. Barrie, published in 1904.

Please forget the Disney cartoons and stuff like that. Barrie first wrote Peter Pan as a play for children. When it was resoundingly successful–it’s still performed today–he wrote it up as a novel.

I promise you, you’ve never read a book like this. Barrie was highly educated, witty, clever, intelligent, and quite successful in his own time; but he was also a very weird dude. As an adult, his best friends were young children. He was briefly married, but the marriage didn’t work. He spent most of his time playing with other people’s children–inventing games for them, telling stories: all perfectly innocent. But also kind of strange.

Peter Pan reads like it was written by a four-year-old boy with a fully adult grasp of the language and culture–which may not be too inaccurate a description of Barrie himself. Its lesson, stated often and in so many words, is that children are “gay and innocent and heartless.” It’s that “heartless” bit, so masterfully executed here, that blows the reader away.

Peter Pan and his fairy sidekick, Tinker Bell, get up to some pretty naughty–one might even say wicked–behavior. As a perpetual child whose conscience has never begun to develop (a Victorian presupposition), Peter cares about no one but himself, is interested in no one but himself, and yet utterly charming. These are characteristics he shares with the traditional image of a psychopath.

As if he himself were Peter Pan, Barrie effortlessly (well, it seems effortless!) takes the story in any direction he wants it to go, whether it makes sense or not. Some of his throwaway lines will take your breath away: for instance, after lavishing praise and love on Mrs. Darling (Wendy’s mother) throughout the book, Barrie remarks, “Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten.” Whew!

Warning: This is an altogether pagan book. There is not a vestige of holy truth in it. The Victorians considered themselves a Christian people, but sometimes the mask slipped. Peter Pan is a witness against them. That the book is a work of rare artistic merit shows how wonderfully we can misuse the gifts God has given us.

Not to be a prig: Peter Pan is a fantastically entertaining book, a fantasy whose throttle is wide-open from cover to cover, and a literary classic. Reading it will not put the Christian on the sliding board to Hell.

In fact, the totality of Barrie’s vision here ought to prove deeply instructive.

Under the seduction of make-believe, and flying, and fairies and all the rest, lies only death. That’s what the vision all boils down to in the end, and Barrie was honest enough to show it.

Or maybe he was so truly Peter Pan that he just didn’t care.