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J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan by Andrew Birkin

J.M. Barrie was a novelist, playwright, and author of "Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up". He was childless in his marriage, and grew close to the five young boys of the Llewelyn Davies family, becoming their guardian and devoted surrogate father when they were orphaned.

This biography of Barrie's life, as it relates to the Peter Pan story, is of much interest for anyone wanting to know the "real" story behind Peter Pan.

Margaret Oglivy By Her Son J.M.Barrie (1896), by J.M. Barrie

Biography by J. M. Barrie of his mother.

Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth : A Psychological Perspective on a Cultural Icon (Studies in Jungian Psychology, 82) Ann Yeoman

From one reader: "I've just finished reading Ann Yeoman's stunning Jungian book, Now or Neverland...I'm going to read it again quite soon, as it is so packed with new information and living ideas a single reading can't do it justice... I shall certainly never read PETER PAN the same way again -- forget Mary Martin or that Disney fraud."

Neverland: J. M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan, by Piers Dudgeon

In his revelatory Neverland, Piers Dudgeon tells the tragic story of J. M. Barrie and the Du Maurier family. Driven by a need to fill the vacuum left by sexual impotence, Barrie sought out George du Maurier, Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather (author of the famed Trilby), who specialized in hypnosis. Barrie’s fascination and obsession with the Du Maurier family is a shocking study of greed and psychological abuse, as we observe Barrie as he applies these lessons in mind control to captivate George’s daughter Sylvia, his son Gerald, as well as their children—who became the inspiration for the Darling family in Barrie’s immortal Peter Pan.

Barrie later altered Sylvia’s will after her death so that he could become the boys’ legal guardian, while pushing several members of the family to nervous breakdown and suicide. Barrie’s compulsion to dominate was so apparent to those around him that D. H. Lawrence once wrote: J. M Barrie has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die.

The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction (New Cultural Studies), by Jacqueline Rose

Peter Pan, Jacqueline Rose contends, forces us to question what it is we are doing in the endless production and dissemination of children's fiction. In a preface, written for this edition, Rose considers some of Peter Pan's new guises and their implications. From Spielberg's Hook, to the lesbian production of the play at the London Drill Hall in 1991, to debates in the English House of Lords, to a newly claimed status as the icon of transvestite culture, Peter Pan continues to demonstrate its bizarre renewability as a cultural fetish of our times.

Modern Drama: Defining the Field, by Ric Knowles, Joanne Elizabeth Tompkins, W.B. Worthen

Theatre, like other subjects in the humanities, has recently undergone quintessential changes in theory, approach, and research. Modern Drama - a collection of twelve essays from leading theatre and drama scholars. Using incisive analyses of both modern and postmodern plays, the contributors examine varied topics such as the analysis of periodicity; the articulation of social, political, and cultural production in theatre; the re-evaluation of texts, performances, and canons; and demonstrations of how interdisciplinarity inflects theatre and its practice.

How Fantasy Becomes Reality : Seeing Through Media Influence Karen E. Dill

"Professor Karen Dill has done a remarkable job in presenting the scientific facts about the huge...impact that TV, films, video games, and music have on us all, and she has done so in a way that is engaging and easy to understand. How people can take control of the media in their lives rather than continuing to be controlled by the media industries."--Craig A. Anderson, Distinguished Professor of Psychology; Director, Center for the Study of Violence; Iowa State University

Discovering Great Artists: Hands-On Art for Children in the Styles of the Great Masters (Bright Ideas for Learning) Mary Ann F. Kohl, Kim Solga

Featuring more than 150 activities, this guide teaches the styles, works, and techniques of the great masters—Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and more.

The Annotated Peter Pan (The Centennial Edition) (2011), by J. M. Barrie, Maria Tatar

One hundred years after J. M. Barrie published the novel Peter and Wendy, Maria Tatar revisits a story that, like Alice in Wonderland, bridges the generations, animating both adults and children with its kinetic energy. The adventures of the Darling children with Peter Pan and Tinkerbell in Neverland are the seminal tale of escape and fantasy. Inspired by Barrie's real-life adventures with the five Llewelyn Davies boys he adopted, the story of Peter Pan has a deep and controversial history of its own that comes alive in Tatar's new edition.

The volume contains period photographs, full-color images by iconic illustrators, commentary on stage and screen versions, and an array of supplementary material, including Barrie's screenplay for a silent film.

Page updated: April 3, 2015

Who Was Peter Pan?

The Origin, History and Psychology
of the Story of Peter Pan

"Who Was Peter Pan? The Origin, History and Psychology of the Story of Peter Pan" was reviewed and edited by assistant professor of literature in English literature at University of Birmingham, Dr. Louise Kane, BA Hons, MA (University of Oxford), PhD (De Montfort).

Maude Adams as Peter Pan, 1916. The actors who played the part of Peter Pan were usually women. The original play was first opened in 1904, London. Sir James (Matthew) Barrie (1860-1937). was a dramatist and novelist from Scotland, and later developed his writing in London, and was the creator of the boy who refused to grow up.

Peter, of Peter Pan, was the real boy Peter Llewelyn Davies, the family of whom Barrie became fully integrated with, and the story itself is based on the untimely death of one of Peter’s siblings, David, who died at thirteen years old in a tragic ice-skating accident and it had a grievous effect on his mother.

She invented a ‘ghost child’ story in which she continued to imagine her son was, like a ghost, preserved in time for ever, never to grow up [1]. This combination of ideas and real persons formed the basis for the character of Peter Pan.

Maude Adams as Peter Pan, 1916

The Background of Peter Pan Playwright James Barrie

Peter Pan movie, 1924

Barrie was acquainted with untimely death—Born May 9, 1860, the playwright of Peter Pan, James Barrie, was the ninth of ten siblings, many of whom did not survive childhood.

Barrie's mother dominated his childhood and retained that dominance after he grew up, before she succumbed to increasingly ill health and eventually became bed-ridden [2]. Barrie's relationship with his mother has been described by some as based on fantasy, while others have argued that this relationship was central to the notion of "mother-worship" inherent in the story of Peter Pan, and that his mother seems to have become the heroine of some of his writings [3].

An academically gifted student, Barrie attended the University of Edinburgh before pursuing a career in journalism, his first job as a reporter on the Nottingham Journal. In 1894, aged 34, Barrie was married to an actress Mary Ansell. Largely an unhappy marriage, the couple had no children and in 1909 Barrie obtained a divorce, then a relatively rare event, on the grounds of his wife’s admitted infidelity with the novelist Gilbert Cannan.

Barrie’s Relationship with the Davies (Peter Pan) Family

From 1897, Sylvia and Arthur Llewelyn Davies, a young ‘society’ couple, played an important part in Barrie’s life. Their friendship began when Barrie, out walking his dog in Kensington Gardens one day, happened to entertain their two oldest children, George and Jack.

At this point, Barrie was an accomplished novelist and playwright, having published several novels, including Auld Licht Idylls (1888), and a run of successful West-End plays. Then aged three and four, the children were enchanted by Barrie’s goofy face-pulling and vividly imaginative stories. Their nanny was looking after the children that day and soon introduced Barrie to the family, family he practically became a part of over time.

The Invention of the Peter Pan Story and Play—Through 1904, 1911

The Llewelyn Davies’ baby, Peter, became the subject of the Peter Pan story that Barrie’s mother had apparently started in her desire to keep her child immortal. Peter's everlasting youth is attributed to his exposure to starstuff, a magical substance which, apparently synonymous with ‘fairy dust’, had fallen to earth.

On his visits to the house Barrie entertained the boys with his stories of ‘Peter’, who was created by violently rubbing the five sons of the Davies family together. The Peter character developed apace: soon he was able to fly out the window and took on the name of the lusty Greek god of music, Pan. Peter Pan also gained a female friend, Wendy.

In 1902, five years after his visits to the Davies boys began, Barrie included the character in his novel, The Little White Bird, and in 1904 the embellished playtime story became a play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,which was performed in London in December of that year. After the play’s success, Barrie adapted it into a longer piece of work, the novel Peter and Wendy, which was released in 1911.

As Marc Forster, the director of Finding Neverland—the 2004 film depicting Johnny Depp as J. M. Barrie—has recognised, there is a timelessness and universality to the story of Peter Pan: "There are so many themes to explore—mortality, immortality, the transition from childhood to adulthood." Interestingly, the character of Peter Pan has been traditionally played by a woman in stage productions.

Personality of Peter Pan

Peter is mainly an exaggerated stereotype of a boastful and careless boy. He is quick to point out how great he is, even when such claims are questionable, such as when he congratulates himself for Wendy's successful reattachment of his shadow. Peter has a nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude, and is fearlessly cocky when it comes to putting himself in danger.

Part of that nonchalant attitude towards danger is reflected in his flying out of open windows at great heights, and some have questioned, especially with modern remakes of the film, just what lesson these reckless scenes are teaching children, who might then try and indulge in that Peter Pan, Superman-supernatural ability—this is not baseless conjecture, but while perhaps rare, enough children have actually imitated Superman, for one, in “flying” out of windows, that the possibility is real.

In some variations of the story and some spin-offs, Peter can also be quite nasty and selfish. In Hook, the eponymous character famously tells Peter that he is "parasitic". In Walt Disney's adaptation of the tale, Peter appears as somewhat judgmental and pompous. For example, he calls the Lost Boys 'blockheads' and when the Darling children say that they should leave for home at once, he gets the wrong message and angrily assumes that they want to grow up.

J. M. Barrie and the Davies Family: the Post-Pan Years

Although both Barrie’s play and novel were big successes, for the families involved in the play, tragedy after tragedy seemed to follow. Arthur Davies, the father of Peter and his brothers, died of cancer in 1906, just two years after the play was first performed. A few months later Peter's mother, Sylvia, died of cancer, and it was decided at her request, that Barrie, who had become something of a companion and constant visitor to Sylvia, would be the boys’ guardian.

The boys were mocked by other children because of the now famous play. Peter referred to it as "that terrible masterpiece"[4]. The oldest Davies son, George, for whom the story was originally written, died in the battlefields of World War I in France. Peter's other brother, Michael, drowned while at Oxford University in England in 1921, while Peter Davies, then an alcoholic, himself committed suicide in 1960. Peter Davies is said to have hated the notoriety he experienced with being the basis for the naming of Peter in Peter Pan.

Peter Pan Story Adaptations and Disney's Peter Pan

After the play was produced in 1904, a number of adaptations have appeared, both on the stage and in films, most notably in the form of Disney’s Peter Pan movies. After Paramount Pictures’ release of Peter Pan as a silent animated movie in 1924, the first adaptation of Barrie’s story in Disney movie form appeared in February 1953 when the story was brought to life in the 14th movie in Disney’s Animated Classics series.

As a large number of Disney movies (even some of the well-known productions) did not pay off financially, to ensure that the movie was a box-office success for Disney, the studio injected scenes of violence with hopes that the cartoon movie would help make the company more solvent.

Disney's Peter Pan. Created after World War II. Disney cartoonists shifted their work from children's cartoons to war propaganda films from Pearl Harbor Day, until the end of the war. Disney, pressed for money from losses during the war, deliberatly escelated the violence in the Peter Pan cartoon, for more cinema pull.

However, it wasn’t his movies that lifted Disney out of possible financial ruin, but television Mickey Mouse Club, which began running in the 1950s. From the profits generated by the television production, Disney not only paid off the company’s debts but was also able to commence the creation of his theme park kingdom, the first, Disney Land, being built in California in 1955, followed by Disney World in Orlando, Florida in 1971.

The magic of Peter Pan is alive in both Disneyland and Disney World Magic Kingdom in a children’s attraction, ‘Peter Pan’s Flight’, and a number of films based on the story have been produced up until fairly recently. The best-known of these are Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Disney’s animated Return to Neverland (2002) and Universal Pictures’ live-action version, Peter Pan (2003).

Another symbol of Peter Pan’s iconography is the fact that Tinker Bell—the fairy force behind the magic wand who is featured in both Peter Pan and then in the 1960s Wonderful World of Disney television series—has become a universal child-icon for little girls. Disney's huge success in marketing the magic of the Disney princesses has extended into a similar Tinker Bell merchandising campaign; today, the Disney Store and Disney theme park gift shops feature slippers, pencil cases, fancy-dress costumes, backpacks, and even crockery, all bearing Tinker Bell’s persona.

Psychology of Peter Pan and Peter Pan Syndrome

Ever the escapist, Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood adventuring on the small island of Neverland as the leader of his gang the Lost Boys, interacting with fairies and pirates, and from time to time meeting ordinary children from the world outside.

Such is the power of Peter’s unique characterization and personality that a psychological pseudo-disorder, Peter Pan Syndrome, has been named after him. Explored extensively by Dr Dan Kiley, the syndrome refers to men that never grew out of boyhood, at least in terms of psychological development [5]. A recent example that is often cited is the way in which Neverland became Michael Jackson’s fortress-retreat, a place where escapism and fantasy ruled and not-so-magical reports and accusations of child molestation with boys surfaced, and then disappeared.

Some have questioned Barrie’s relationship with the Davies’ children, which appears to be an unfounded accusation. (Similarly, what are apparently unfounded allegations, have been raised concerning Lewis Carrol's obsession with his character Alice, and his relationship with the girl on whom the story was based). Barrie himself has been seen as a child-like, innocent figure who enjoyed the company of young children, albeit in a completely innocent fashion [6].

In another example of the way Disney movies contain characters who, at times, deviate from the innocence required in a children’s movie, Tinker Bell has often been described in terms of an impish—on the verge of sexy—playful little fairy. Tinker Bell is always on the edge of living up to her potential naughtiness, but somehow manages to retain her girlish innocence, not unlike the myriad personalities of Miley Cyrus in Hannah Montana.

Despite the tragedy behind the Peter Pan story and the difficult questions with regards to the story’s characterizations, the magic of the 1904 play continues over 100 years later.

Conclusion of the Psychology and History of the Peter Pan Story

In conclusion, there are many aspects of Peter’s character which have invited psychological investigation. Additionally, the intriguing personal circumstances behind the story, both in terms of the author, J. M. Barrie, and the real-life ‘Lost Boys’ of the Davies family, means that there is another layer to the Peter Pan story that has been obscured by the success of the Disney adaptations, adaptations that added violent elements that did not appear in Barrie’s original story.

There is, of course, another aspect of the story the warrants further probing: the relationship between Wendy and Peter. Or more specifically, the question "Did Peter Pan ever kiss Wendy in the original books, plays or the Disney movie?" Debates played out across fan forums encapsulate the long-standing interest in this question.

As one young fan puts it, in typically teenage language, “ok, so in Peter Pan (2003)—the movie with the real people—how come after Wendy kisses Peter and Peter wins the ship she tells peter, “oh the cleverness of you...” WHAT?! Did he, like, plan for her to kiss him or something? And I don't get why after they dance Peter gets all mad when she talks about love?" [7].

Another puzzled poster desperately asks for help on similar questions regarding Peter’s intentionality: "AND did Peter have a plan throughout the whole movie or something?!?! I am so confused! PLEASE HELP! Was anybody totally appalled when Wendy kissed Peter in the 2003 movie and then he turned pink and went hurling through the air? Or was it just me? I mean, how could they do that and ruin it like that? They never kiss in the book and maybe it would have been ok if they just kissed at the end but the pink shooting star was really bad" [8].

Whatever the reasoning behind it, it seems like the inevitable Disney kiss, a staple feature of the Princess films, avoided in the action-adventure movie of the 1950s and non-existent in Barrie’s original story, finally surfaced in the 2003 movie, some 99 years after the first performance of the play. What J. M. Barrie, who created the almost a-sexual creator of Peter Pan, would have made of this is anyone’s guess.

Bibliography for the Story of Peter Pan:

1. Beerbohm, M. (Jan 7, 1905). The Child Barrie. The Saturday Review, 13-4.

2. Carpenter, H. (1985). J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan: ‘That Terrible Masterpiece’ in Secret Gardens: a Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, 170-87. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

3. Entry for Barrie, J.M (Matthew). Encyclopedia Britannica. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/54080/JM-Barrie

4. Hallett, V. (Nov 8, 2004). The Pain Behind Peter Pan. US News and World Report, 137 (16). 73.

5. Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. London: Corgi.

6. Peterson, J. (2010, May). The Dark Side of Peter Pan. College of Liberal Arts & Sciences: University of Illinois.

7. Mestrovic, S. (1991). The Coming Fin De Siècle: An Application of Durkheim's Philosophy to Modernity and Postmodernism, 227. Abingdon: Routledge. See also Barrie’s biographical account of his mother, Margaret Oglivy (1896).

Illustrations and Photos:

1. Anonymous poster (Nov 6, 2006). The Literature Network Forum. http://www.online-literature.com/forums/showthread.php?20038-Your-thoughts-please.

2. Anonymous poster (Feb 4, 2007). The Literature Network Forum. http://www.online-literature.com/forums/showthread.php?20038-Your-thoughts-please.

Other References for Peter Pan article:

J.M. Barrie. (2015). The Biography.com website.

AYCNP Pages Related to the Story of Peter Pan

Disney Biography

Media Effects on Children - Disney Princess movies, other children's movies, kid's horror movies

Ways to help children - Children and Art

Parenting Resources - Parenting Advice and Tips

Keywords to The Psychology and History of the Peter Pan Story: child psychology, peter pan, peter pan story, psychology of peter pan, peter pan syndrome, disney movies, disney children's movies, history peter pan, children's movies, psychology of movies, movies psychological