Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Dark Side of Peter Pan

To preface: No, Peter Pan is not officially a fairy tale. But the story has become popular enough and many people do consider it to be a fairy tale, especially with the addition of its characters to the show Once Upon a Time. And generally, most people who have an affinity for fairy tales also tend to really like such classic fantasy stories such as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. Also, this book has multiple references to fairy tales in it.

Neverland: J.M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan by Piers Dudgeon is a fascinating read. The cover of the book promises as much. I was at first skeptical -"There might be scarier books, but it's unlikely that any will be as luridly creepy as Neverland," claims Michael Dirda of The Washington Post. On the front he promises "a history of psychological domination and submission, unnatural family relations, predatory abuse and suicide." Author Nina Auerbach "was literally captivated by this story." I was worried that the book might be full of sensationalized, wild accusations and unable to live up to such high praise.

But in my humble opinion, the book didn't disappoint. It covers in depth the history behind the writing of Peter Pan. Many of you may be familiar with Finding Neverland, which introduced the public at large to the friendship of J.M. Barrie, the play's author, with its real-live inspirations-the Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother Sylvia. Barrie got to know the family quite well and the games he played with the boys were woven into his literature. The movie portrays it as a sweet relationship, with a quasi-love story between Barrie and Sylvia.
J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan

But of course the true story runs much deeper-and in many ways much differently-than the Hollywood version. Piers Dudgeon takes us all the way back to George Du Maurier, who was not only the grandfather of the Llewelyn Davies boys, but an author and artist whose works and adventures in mysticism and hypnotism deeply affected the younger Barrie. Some of the first chapters were a little hard to get into initially, just because those characters weren't ones I was as interested in learning about at first. But give it a chance and you will be just as absorbed with learning about the bohemian lifestyle of artists in Paris in the nineteenth century and the disturbing practices of hypnotizing their models. 

I appreciated Dudgeon's writing. He begins with the history that has been handed down to us on the subject-the often romanticized version-but, in detective style, starts by uncovering holes in certain theories and going deeper and deeper into the mystery of what really happened between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family. He backs up all of his claims with solid evidence-letters and diaries from the family and their friends. He is careful not to claim speculations are truth, but by the time you have combed through the evidence with him you will probably also agree that his theories are very likely.
George, John, and Peter Llewelyn Davies in 1901

Given that people will jump to conclusions, especially with such dark hints, I should clarify that it is not likely at all that Barrie was sexually abusing the boys. However, there was a weird sort of psychological abuse going on that definitely had parallels to sexual abuse. It's hard to summarize without painting a wrong sort of picture and I'd really encourage anyone interested to read the book yourself, but a lot of it had to do with hypnotism, which surprised me. I had never taken hypnotism very seriously, considering it a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing, but it was all the rage among artists in the late 1800s and at the turn of the century. Much like drugs, it can give the people experiencing it a certain high and become very addictive, with negative long term affects that weren't discovered until, for some people, it was too late.

For a while I've had this half baked theory about Peter Pan that in my youth I gathered from the Disney version and didn't really take seriously. In one of the earliest posts on this blog I mentioned that there is no record of anything bad Captain Hook did-he is just seeking revenge against the cocky boy who cut off his hand and gave a crocodile a bloodlust for him, and that it is possibly Peter who is the villain. Turns out I was more right than I realized. One of the early titles of Peter Pan was actually "The Boy Who Hated Mothers" (Barrie had an extremely complex relationship with his domineering mother). Later, Barrie himself describes Peter as a "demon Boy" and was disappointed at the statue of his title character erected in Kensington Gardens, because it "didn't show the Devil in Peter." And really, when you think about it, the play is about a boy who steals children from their nurseries, luring them away from their parents, much like the Pied Piper (as in fact his second name, Pan, is a reference to the god who plays the flute). As Peter himself says, "I forget people after I kill them" (I believe this was from Peter and Wendy, not Peter Pan)

And, in a way, that is exactly what he did to the Llewelyn Davies boys. Both parents, Arthur and Sylvia, died tragically early. Barrie literally changed Sylvia's will so that instead of the boys' nanny and her sister raising them, he took them as his own. The boys themselves later in life either died early in tragic (sometimes suspicious) accidents, or committed suicide. Again, they are all complex situations too detailed to describe here, but it would not be untrue to say that Barrie indirectly had a hand in many of those deaths (including Sylvia's).

To bring the whole business back to traditional fairy tales, Peter Llewelyn Davies-thought to be the main namesake for Peter Pan (when in fact, both of those Peters were named for a fictional character penned by George Du Maurier, Peter Ibbetson) later in life published a collection of fairy tale-inspired short stories written by his contemporaries. I introduced the book and reviewed the collection here and here back in 2012 when the book was rereleased.

It's not the happy or idyllic picture that many of us associate, or want to associate, with one of our favorite childhood stories. But it's definitely one of those instances where the truth is stranger than fiction. Now I want to reread the play and see if I pick up on different things based on what I now know.


  1. Sounds like a book I should definitely read. I actually don't like Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland though, but I love fairy tales.

  2. Woah, I did not know about the dark side of what may have been happening surrounding the writing of Peter Pan. But... what does that have to do with the actual story of Peter Pan? Does this mean that J. M. Barrie meant Peter to appear as a villain to us? Because I never thought of him as being portrayed as a villain in the book. I kept looking for any sign of that while rereading the unabridged version, but the book itself didn't make him look at all suspicious of being evil.
    For one thing, he /said/ he hated mothers, but I looked deeper and found that he secretly longed for a mother, because in the book he listened at the window to Mrs. Darling's telling the story of Cinderella, and really wanted to know how the story ended. Also, he had nightmares about who he may have been before he ran away from home. Also, he made Wendy a mother for the lost boys! Or was he basically making a mockery of the idea, by pretending to be a grown-up himself, being the "father"?

  3. carol-you're one of the first people, especially in the fairy-tale loving world, I've ever heard not to love those two stories! And you've read the originals? (I can understand if you're not as crazy about the other versions...)

    Writer4Christ-I know it's way more than I expected too.
    As far as Peter Pan's character-again I have to reread it with new eyes now. And the play itself went through multiple revisions so I'd be very curious to see how Peter is portrayed in the earliest version as opposed to the one that's published now, which I would assume would be the later ones?

    And his relationship with mothers in the book is probably very closely related to his relationship with Barrie's actual mother. After his brother died at an early age (in an accident that, Dudgeon proposes, was possibly James Barrie's fault), his mother took to bed and basically lived in the past, obsessing over her dead son to the point of neglecting her live one. So it's a love-hate relationship-he longed for her love, as he does long for a mother in the book, but is also bitter and resentful (and possibly had a guilt complex that fed his desire to make it up to her).

    Also if the fairy tale choice is significant, Cinderella has a terrible mother figure.

  4. I may skip this one. I'm too attached to Peter Pan. I mean, I know Peter's no squeaky clean hero. However, I just always thought of him as an anti-hero who was all the good and bad things about childhood rolled up into one.

  5. Adam-it's funny, just after I had published this post, I was listening to a Disney World playlist and the music for the ride Peter Pan's Flight came on. And despite all I know now about the sordid background of the author, I still got crazy happy listening to the music and remembering how magical the ride was when I was a child, and watching the Disney movie with my siblings. When I read the play I thought it was a fantastic journey into the potential of the imagination, and the mind of a child. And even if some of the original intentions were darker, that's still a way to read it, and the way most people interpret the story. I hope my readings never cause me-or my readers-to feel like it "ruins" a favorite story, just gives them more ways to view it.

    But yes, I totally understand. If someone came out with a book about how one of the authors of Beauty and the Beast was a psychopath or something I would probably refuse to read it

    1. I usually don't read much about the authors of the stories anyway (gives me more time to find more stories). It's really more that after OUaT's take on Peter Pan as a scheming villain, I've had just about enough of Peter Pan's dark side. I've always had a fondness for the heroes who were just a little off center. You know, the fools, scoundrels and tricksters. However, many modern authors push it too far and turn these characters into out-and-out villians or into unlikable characters.

  6. Have you read the book 'Troublesome Things', by Diane Purkiss? She has some really interesting thoughts on the darkness of Peter Pan, and the story in general. It's a really good fairy book for those into the analytical side.

    I consider Peter Pan a fairy tale - it's one of my favourites, and all the more so for the undercurrent of darkness, made all the more interesting when you learn more about Barrie's life, and the parallels it shares with the story.

    1. I have not! I haven't really read at all into the history of Peter Pan until just this month when I read this book-my only other exposure was the movie "Finding Neverland". I'll have to check it out!

  7. Kristin, I love your blog so much, particularly this discussion I just discovered re: Peter Pan. When I became obsessed with writing my novel, "Alias Hook"—which views Barrie's Neverland from the perspective of Captain Hook—I went back to "Peter and Wendy," and I was astonished at how much darker and more subversive it is than the familiar play; it's about children but not necessarily FOR children. The fairies attend orgies, the pirates and Indians routinely slaughter each other for the boys' amusement, and a strange, simultaneous adoration and fear of women—specifically, mothers—runs throughout the story.

    As a child, I always had a soft spot for Captain Hook. And I started to imagine how awful (and lonely) it would be for an adult trapped in a world run by little boys. But I didn't want to make Peter the villain. He's a child, doing sometimes willful, childish things, but he's only the antagonist to Hook's protagonist.

    1. Thank you! And your book looks very intriguing, I really want to check it out! I still haven't gotten around to rereading Peter Pan but expect it to be a different experience this time around. There's definitely a lot to be explored with the themes in Barrie's plays

  8. Yo this is a pretty lit story

  9. Cool post, but u need to fix two pictures, ykno. After this was nice reading, waitin for more