Peter Pan and Wendy

Inventing Wonderland by Jackie WullschlagerClassic children’s authors tend to acquire a mythic reputation, often a sort of shadow image of their most famous creation. Lewis Carroll and his desperate need for the friendship of little girls is the most obvious example, but J M Barrie comes a close second, being depicted as a man who couldn’t grow up, who turned his back on his own failed marriage to inveigle himself into a household already equipped with a gang of boys, thus allowing himself to both be, and not be, a sort of father without responsibilities and boys’ gang-leader — a view backed up by such books as Jackie Wullschlager’s (mostly disapproving) Inventing Wonderland, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens, and the film Finding Neverland.

Loaded with these preconceptions, I expected Peter Pan and Wendy, Barrie’s 1928 novelisation of his 1904 stage play, to be a sort of manifesto of eternal boyhood, but it turned out to be a slightly more honest and self-aware examination of that inability/unwillingness to grow up. Peter Pan, though a hero at times, is also seen as a distant, strange figure, more like a fairy changeling than a human boy, several times being described as heartless, and quite capable of forgetting Wendy (and Tinker Bell) as soon as they’re out of his sight. But as Barrie doesn’t seem to have sufficient sympathy or understanding of the other character in his book’s title (the only other really interesting character is Hook), we don’t get a proper examination of the alternative to Peter Pan-ism, i.e., growing up. Wendy, though she does grow up in the book, is made to feel guilty for the fact, even though (I’d say) she gets the better part of the deal.

Peter Pan and Wendy - Penguin Classics

Peter Pan and Wendy is a strange reading experience (to me as an adult, anyway). There’s a feeling that this isn’t supposed to be your introduction to the story — at the time it was written, Barrie could be pretty sure of your having seen the hugely successful play first — and we’re not really introduced to the characters (Wendy and the other Darling children have already heard of Peter Pan at the start, and aren’t surprised when he flies into their bedroom looking for his shadow), nor are we at any point being convinced of the logic (or illogic) of the story. It all just happens, and it’s the fun in telling it that is the main point. The story itself doesn’t have much weight — it’s so full of playful make-believe, there’s no sense of it going anywhere, nor of its having any logic to adhere to — but Barrie keeps things alive by the occasional bit of storytelling brio, such as when, after introducing the pirates and Captain Hook’s way of keeping them in check, Barrie says, “Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method,” making the story seem a much more live, active experience than most books. Barrie also has his moments in dramatising what’s going on in his character’s heads — the scene where Hook, thinking Peter Pan to be dead, is unable to feel triumph because of hangups from his schooldays, really adds an unexpected dimension of character.

The bizarre thing about Wendy being made to feel guilty for having grown up, at the end of the novel, is that, while she was in Never Never Land, she did nothing but play at being a mother to the Lost Boys. Peter Pan, on the other hand, has no need to grow up, as he lives constantly in a make-believe world of instant gratification, with adventures (in which he always wins) in constant supply. He is not so much the image of eternal boyhood as an ideal of a non-existent sort of boyhood (though one that boys may wish they had) which doesn’t have any emotional attachments. No mothers, no fathers, and no need of friends. (The Lost Boys are a constantly renewing bunch; Tinker Bell, devoted to Peter Pan, dies of old age after a couple of years and Peter forgets she ever existed.) The Darling children, including Wendy, take on this heartlessness while they’re in Never Never Land, not caring how miserable they’ve made their parents by disappearing suddenly in the night. On returning, they’re instantly forgiven, and herein lies the book’s main need for its fantasy element. The best fantasies, though they start out as escapes, end up having to face the thing they escaped from. Never Never Land is an escape from emotional consequences, but this continues into the real world after the children return, making you feel you haven’t really returned, and that this isn’t a truly satisfying ending.

J M BarrieBut although Peter Pan and Wendy only works because it ignores its own emotional implications, it can’t be because Barrie himself was unaware of them. His 1920 play Mary Rose could be seen as Wendy’s story with a more realistic twist, told from the point of view of those she left behind. In the play, Mary Rose is a woman who is twice in her life lost to a faraway fairyland, disappearing for years then returning having not aged, while those around her have. The second time, she disappears shortly after having given birth; when she returns, she pines for the baby she hadn’t finished nursing, but the boy is now a grown-up man, his mother all but forgotten. Here, then, the lack of emotional connection between a child and its parent which was, in Peter Pan, a result of a quite natural boyish retreat into imagination, is seen as the result of bereavement and loss, and so is perhaps that much more an honest expression of whatever it was that caused Barrie’s retreat from his own adulthood.


Alice at R’lyeh on YouTube

MorganScorpion has put her reading of Alice at R’lyeh up on her YouTube channel. I’ve embedded the reading here, but her channel’s well worth a visit for her readings of Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Oscar Wilde, M R James, and other weird writers’ stories & poems.


Fallacies of Wonderland

I’ve just been reading Aspects of Alice, a compendium of essays and extracts about the two Alice books and their author, dating from soon after Alice in Wonderland‘s publication (including a near-contemporary reviewer suggesting Carroll was plagiarising Tom Hood’s From Nowhere to the North Pole, which Aspects‘ editor Robert Phillips points out was published some years after the first Alice book) up to the late 1960s (with a short article called “Lewis Carroll — The First Acidhead”, written in such a hippie-ish idiom, it’s quite quaint).

The essays I enjoyed were of two types: those which were about Dodgson the man, full of the sort of facts you’d like to think you could remember well enough to drop into conversations (“Did you know Charles Dodgson invented a machine for noting down ideas in the night?”) but never can; and those which praise the books, usually in a suitably playful or poetic style (Walter de La Mare or W H Auden’s contributions, for instance), without insisting on an interpretation. The essays I didn’t enjoy were by critics who had a theory, and who were seeking to prove their theory by applying it to the Alice books. Or perhaps I should say, were seeking to disprove (disenchant) the Alice books by applying their theory. These critics were what I think of as reductionists.

Fantasy is easy prey to reductionists. I think this is because good fantasy (i.e., not allegory) has a free-floating symbolical quality to it, meaning it can be applied to anything you happen to be concerned about, and still seem relevant. The Lord of the Rings can be read as being about the Second World War, or the Atom Bomb, or political power, or personal greed, or the victory of the small against the powerful. It can even be just a compelling story, free of any sort of interpretation whatsoever. Reductionists say, “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.” And there’s no arguing with them because yes, it is about X; it’s also about all these other things, as well as being about nothing at all, but to this the reductionists just smile knowingly and say “Yes, but really, it’s all about X.”

The most obvious example are the Freudians, who get a whole section of Aspects. Freud didn’t write about the Alice books, as far as I know, and the essays herein are by lesser hands, which is perhaps why they’re so risible — these are lesser thinkers, working with another man’s theory. They go through the Alice books saying, “Ah yes, here of course we have a phallic symbol. And oh look, there’s another.” — counting off the phallic symbols as though the number of them might prove something. The height of ridiculousness comes on p. 361, where there’s a large-type heading, “The Symbolic Equation: Girl=Phallus”, which made me giggle. (I’d say it made me titter, only you know those Freudians…) One thing Freudianism — or any reductionism — can’t stand is laughter, which is perhaps a good test to hold up to any critic-with-a-theory. “Can you still believe it while laughing?”

It reminds me of my last encounter with a stuck-in-the-mud Freudian, Maureen Duffy’s The Erotic World of Fairy (I wrote a review of it on Amazon), where she proclaimed Peter Pan to be a “free-flying phallus”, as though that actually meant something, in fact was a damning indictment. Instead it conjured an image… that again led to giggling.

The Freudians aren’t the only reductionists in Aspects of Alice. That hippie writer is another. His reductionism is that all imagination is evidence of drug use. (Aspects also contains a version of Grace Slick’s lyrics to “White Rabbit”, which are a far better evocation of Alice-as-psychedelia. Slick’s lyrics aren’t reductionist, because they’re using the Alice books as a springboard to create something new, and end up adding to the books’ richness, not attempting to reduce it.) Another was “Alice’s Journey to the End of Night” by Donald Rackin, whose form of reductionism is to assert the Alice books are “a comic horror-vision of the chaotic land beneath the man-made groundwork of western thought and convention”. The counter-argument, that most people’s reaction to the Alice books is to enjoy them rather than get depressed, seems to have escaped him.

As well as laughter, another thing reductionism can’t handle is wonder. Fantasy works best, for those who like it, when it conveys a sense of wonder. Wonder might be defined as a moment of freedom from mere understanding, a sense of something greater than anything that can be put into words. You can only accept wonder for what it is, not reduce it, explain it, define it.

And at the end of it all, it’s the wonder that remains. I’ve forgotten all the reductionists’ attempts to convince me Alice is a phallus, or the tormented soul of modern man, or an acidhead in nursery dress. Instead, I want to read the Alice books again, if only to wash all that (oh so serious) nonsense out of my head and put a little of the genuine stuff in its place — the pure, fantastic, wonder-making nonsense, which is much more what the Alice books are about.

My own particular form of reductionism as far as the Alice books are concerned (I can’t help having one), is they’re about how ridiculous the adult world can seem to a child. The adult world is a world of reductionists — people who’ve lost their sense of wonder, or replaced it with well-reasoned blinkers against what they fear — which could be why the Alice books attract such a train of critics so blind to their own place in them:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Alice waited a minute to see if he would speak again, but as he never opened his eyes or took any further notice of her, she said “Good-bye!” once more, and, getting no answer to this, she quietly walked away: but she couldn’t help saying to herself as she went, “Of all the unsatisfactory —” (she repeated this aloud, as it was a great comfort have such a long word to say) “of all the unsatisfactory people I ever met —”