I, like most children of the twentieth century, spent my childhood fantasizing that a feral little boy and a cheeky fairy would swoop into my room in a swirl of fairy dust and lead me off on an adventure that would take me to “the second star on the right and straight on till morning.” In case you had a thoroughly deprived childhood, I am of course referencing J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic Peter Pan. This year, “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” turns 100. That is to say, that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Peter and Wendy the novelization of Barrie’s play Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which debuted on the London stage in 1904. The character of Peter Pan actually first appeared in The Little White Bird in 1901, and later those stories were released as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, but for all intents and purposes, the Peter Pan most of us came to know and love so well was born in 1911.
I cannot imagine my world without knowing and loving Peter, Wendy, John, Michael, and all of the Lost Boys. The book was just always there, and I am by no means a Disney fan, but I always adored the 1953 animated version. I used to run around our tiny little house in the woods jumping off beds and couches throwing glitter in the air hoping that one day I would actually take flight just like Peter. When Hook was released in the early nineties, I became obsessed, watching and rewatching the VHS. It made Neverland so much more real and vivid-tangible even. I wanted to run around with the Lost Boys having food fights, sleeping in tree houses, and fighting pirates. My mother tried to turn me on to the Mary Martin stage for screen version, but I never took to it. Even to my young mind, it always seemed sacrilegious to have a grown woman playing a young boy. I liked realism even as a four year old.
I spent most of my childhood living a rather “wild” existence in the middle of the woods. I have no brothers or sisters and we never had neighbors, so I developed a very keen imagination. I have always gravitated to fantasy, so a magical land that could only be reached via happy thoughts and fairy dust where children roamed freely without ever having to worry about the daunting fate of growing up, sounded like heaven. I wanted to sleep in trees, visit mermaids and Indians, wrestle and shoot slingshots, and fly around with Peter. In fact, I wanted to be Peter. I never identified with Wendy and her mothering nature. I was a child of the wilderness, choosing to spend my days stomping in creeks, fishing in the lake down the road, and riding my bike as fast as I could up and down our long and winding gravel driveway rather than playing house. I lived very much in a Panian manner until school forced me to civilize. I was a wild, amoral thing, running around with usually only animals of various species for playmates since my parents could not entertain me all the time, collecting mud on my rubber boots and tangles and various bits of twigs and leaves in my long blond hair usually while shedding clothing if the weather was warm enough. It’s no wonder Peter Pan was my idol. I even had a Peter Pan themed party for my fifth birthday. I think you can probably guess who I dressed as.
As I grew older and was forced to civilize, I still loved Peter and Neverland. He represented everything I loved about childhood. I was petrified of growing up, and hated every step I had to take from my undomesticated early years. As a child, I was very much aware of that stage’s fleeting nature and wished to be in the moment of it as long as I could. I do think children in our society grow up far too quickly without savoring childhood. I think Barrie, who was robbed of his own due to his brother’s death, appreciated how magical and special it is, and how quickly it can leave us.
A respect for the preciousness of childhood is something that I hold dear, and there are times, certainly, when I long for my own again. When I do, I usually turn to the book or one of the films, and remember to keep the little piece of Neverland that exists within all of us alive. Although I am all grown up now and do love being an adult (sometimes), there is a little part of me that will always be that untamed apostle of Peter Pan with leafy tangles in my hair and hands on hips, crowing with fierce abandon.
Happy birthday, Peter, I’ll always keep the window open for you and Tink.