Peter and Wendy

I suspect I’m like most people in that I am most familiar with the story of Peter Pan as told in the 1953 Disney film. The film is based on a 1904 play of the same name by J.M. Barrie. The play’s author novelized the play as Peter and Wendy in 1911. As it turns out, the first motion picture novelizations appeared around this time. The upshot is that Peter and Wendy is probably one of the most enduring novelizations ever written.

To be honest, Peter Pan is not my favorite Disney film. Peter always seemed like a bit of a jerk and while Hollywood in general was not known for its cultural sensitivity in the 1950s, the song “What Made the Red Man Red” is a low point in racist portrayals of Native Americans. Still, there’s a lot I feel like I ought to like about Peter Pan. It’s the story of kids who don’t want to lose their imagination by growing up, which is a theme that appeals to me a lot as a writer of imaginative fiction. Also, Captain Hook and his crew are among the most iconic pirates in fiction, which should appeal to me as a writer of pirate fiction. Of course, the Disney film does have its good points. I love its portrayal of Tinker Bell and I feel the movie actually improved a bit on Barrie by changing the location of the Neverland from “first to the right and straight on till morning” to “first star to the right and straight on till morning.”

So, I sought out Peter and Wendy. It’s probably no surprise that I liked the book more than the movie, even if the movie was made by Walt Disney. The Native Americans in the book are still stereotypes, but it’s easier to see how they were connected to the Native Americans of the period’s dime novels and would be the ones kids would see in their imaginations. The pirates were wicked and wonderful. Mr. and Mrs. Darling show a lot of love and concern for their children. The biggest surprise, though, was the relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy Darling.

In the novel, Wendy shows affection for Peter, but Peter doesn’t quite understand that affection and doesn’t how to return it. Peter describes himself as “gay and innocent and heartless.” Although I’m no expert on J.M. Barrie, this takes on an interesting added dimension when I read that he was likely asexual. A lot about Peter Pan and his relationship with Wendy feels like the author trying to come to terms with a kind of relationship he didn’t completely understand.

My favorite element of the story is the emphasis on holding onto the imagination and the importance of storytelling. After all, the reason Peter brings Wendy to the Neverland is so she can serve as a storyteller to the Lost Boys. Ultimately, it’s Wendy the storyteller who brings the Lost Boys back from the Neverland to grow to adulthood under the care of her parents. In this way, Peter and Wendy reminds us that we shouldn’t forsake our imaginations and the stories of our youth because they can be a way to help us understand and process the reality around us.

I encourage you to join me on adventures to lands near and far. You’ll likely even find a few pirates along the way. You can learn more about my fiction at http://www.davidleesummers.com.

15 comments on “Peter and Wendy

  1. annieoldley says:

    You’re completely right about the sexual side of the story. Did you know Wendy was really based on a young prostitute named Minna or Minnie that Barrie knew as a kid but was completely confused by? Those Victorians weren’t as innocent as you’d think!

    • Thanks for sharing. Minna’s is a sad tale, but definitely opens a window onto the darker side of Victorian times. Also, this was an aspect of Barrie’s life I hadn’t read about, but it does fit in the big picture of his life.

  2. After I received notice of this blog post, I was going to come here and give a detailed possible background of Mary “Minnie” Rae Simpson. But it looks like somebody beat me to it (thanks for that). As can be seen from the link made in the comment above, The Loveshade Family has gotten associated with the possible background of Wendy’s inspiration. The story is told in “Ek-sen-trik Discordia: The Tales of Shamlicht” by Reverend Loveshade (a shared pen name I will only admit to having used once.) There’s a rumor the “notorious” out-of-print book will be returning in a new edition.

    But I’m going to take off my fiction writer’s hat for a moment and pull out my responsible journalist press card.

    I’ve seen several reports of the story that Wendy Darling was based on the young harlot Mary “Minnie” Rae Simpson. According to “Victorian Children,” the photographer who took her photo reported she also identified herself as “Mrs. Berry,” which I can see could have been “Mrs. Barrie,” and she was reportedly born in 1860 or 1861. I’ve also seen an unverified record of a Mary Rose Simpson born in 1860, the same year as J.M. Barrie. I can verify that Alan Moore (author of “V for Vendetta” and “Watchmen”) did essentially reverse the Peter/Wendy rolls in his book “Lost Girls,” Peter pushed to an extreme. But while Moore did acknowledge hearing of Minnie Rae, he said that was after he wrote “Lost Girls.”

    While I’ve seen various reports of possibilities, I’ve seen no conclusive evidence that Wendy was based on Mary “Minnie Rae” Simpson. Frankly, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever have conclusive evidence of Wendy’s inspiration because everyone involved is long gone.

    Putting my fiction writer’s hat back on, I do think David Lee Summers may well be right about the relationship issues in Barrie’s original story. Wendy wanting Peter to kiss her very shortly after he entered her bedroom, and Peter not knowing what a kiss was, could have reflected Barrie’s own confusion as a youth or even as an adult growing up in the Victorian Era.

    • Thanks for all the additional thoughts here. Yes, it’s often difficult to untangle the hypothetical, possible, and compelling from the definitive. Speaking just as a writer, especially since I’m no Barrie expert, I’d actually be a little surprised if Wendy was based on only one person. When I create a character, I often pull characteristics from several people and it’s often not a conscious process. It’s only when I look back at a character that I realize that they exhibit qualities of person A, B, and C.

  3. I also was really struck by the insulting portrayal of Native Americans in that movie. Almost as awful as the crows in Dumbo.

    I don’t know about the author’s sexual orientation, but my read is that all the girls in the movie are pursuing a romance with Peter despite his seeming disinterest. Tinkerbell clearly loves him and is intensely jealous of Wendy. In fact, she tries to get Wendy killed. The mermaids all flirt with him. Tiger Lily is also interested, although more restrained. Wendy in turn is jealous of Tiger Lily and declares that she wants to go home. It’s kind of like those anime, like Tenchi Muyou, where everyone falls in love with the same person, you know?

    • Actually, you do touch on another interesting difference between the book and the Disney movie. In the Disney movie, all the girls are infatuated with Peter Pan. In the book, it’s pretty much just Wendy and Tinker Bell. Tiger Lily really has no romantic interest in Peter and the mermaids are the classic mermaids of legend who seduce everyone they run across to drag them to their doom So, yes, Peter is seduced by mermaids, but so is Wendy. Of course, Peter isn’t falling for it!

      I think your reading of the Tinker Bell/Peter relationship holds for the book. In the book, I got the impression that Peter was comfortable with this relationship because he knows it can never be more than it is. It’ll never be more than kids playing at love and jealousy. With Wendy it’s different. All he’d have to do is decide to grow up like she will and they could have a romantic relationship. That’s something Peter doesn’t seem interested in pursuing. But yes, the Disney film definitely has that Tenchi Muyou vibe!

  4. Related to David reading that J.M. Barrie was actually asexual, the concept of asexuality/androgyny was actually touched on “Peter and Wendy,” which I think would be a rare thing for it’s time.

    In Chapter XVII, “When Wendy Grew Up,” is this which is about fairies (keep in mind the idea of “pink for girls and blue for boys” didn’t really become standard in America until the 1950s):

    “They live in nests at the tops of trees; and the mauve ones are boys and the white ones are girls, and the blue ones are just little sillies who are not sure what they are.”

    • Good catch and I do remember reading that line in the book. I will note, I find “standardized” colors for things bothersome. Not the least of which is referring to political parties by color. I won’t say more here lest I go on a tangent worthy of its own blog post.

  5. Perhaps slightly on a tangent, the Peter Pan ride (which is in several Disney parks) is one of my favorite amusement park rides. When I was I think a teenager I was on it when it got temporarily stuck, and I got to study it in more detail than I would have otherwise. And the park gave us all a bonus for getting stuck. I think that incident was what really sparked my interest in Peter Pan and Wendy Darling (and maybe the fact I had a crush on a girl named Wendy).

    • I remember that ride well. Of some note, the ride I remember being stuck on when I was quite young was Pirates of the Caribbean. I wonder if that’s one of the factors in my love of pirate fiction!

  6. Ironically, I just watched a repeat of the TV game show “Jeopardy.” The final category was characters in children’s literature. I don’t remember the exact “answer” (for those who don’t know, on “Jeopardy” you’re given the answer and then have to decide the correct question). But the answer was something like this is a character from early 20th century children’s literature who received her name “because she mends the pots and kettles.”

  7. I didn’t know who Minnie Rae Simpson was. What a grim life.

    I agree about how wonderful and important it is to keep our childhood imagination as we mature into adulthood.

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