C.S. Lewis believed a children’s book that is enjoyable only by children is a bad children’s book. Just as a connoisseur of fine food can still enjoy a simple meal of bread and butter, he maintained, so a literary person should still be able to enjoy simple books for children.
I realized some time ago that I’d never read Peter Pan. It’s a classic of children’s literature, so I decided to obtain a copy of the book and mend this serious flaw in my literary education.
Peter Pan tells the story of a girl named Wendy and her brothers John and Michael. Their quiet existence in a London suburb is interrupted by the arrival (through an upstairs window) of an arrogant boy named Peter Pan who has never grown up. Peter offers to take Wendy and her brothers to the Neverland, an island inhabited by pirates and Indians and mermaids, where they can live a jolly life. Oh, did I mention that Peter happened to arrive by flying? Wendy and her brothers follow Peter to the Neverland, only to find the pirates—particularly one Captain Hook—are a good deal nastier than they had expected.
Peter Pan has been tremendously influential since its publication, inspiring a number of films, several prequels and at least one sequel. (I have a suspicion that Ocarina of Time—which features a green-clad boy with a fairy who lives among children who never grow up—was strongly influenced by Peter Pan.) Like Sherlock Holmes, Robinson Crusoe and Count Dracula, Peter Pan has become an archetype.
But never mind all that. Only one question concerns us. Is Peter Pan worth reading?
I was glad to discover that Peter Pan is actually quite a good book. The narration is serious and matter-of-fact, which makes the ludicrous events of the book that much more charming. The style is dry and humorous (in a serious sort of way) and never condescending. One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is that the narrator never talks down to the reader. Like all great writers of children’s literature, the author of Peter Pan mastered the difficult art of respecting his audience.
A literary critic would find in Peter Pan a lively meditation upon the transience of youth and the “gay and innocent and heartless” nature of childhood. A Freudian psychologist would probably find all sorts of awful insinuations about motherhood and sexuality. Most readers, however, will find nothing more profound or disturbing than a fanciful tale that somehow manages to bring together pirates, Indians, mermaids, fairies and a ticking crocodile.
One of my few complaints about the book is that several of the protagonists are, for lack of a more polite term, jerks. The villains aren’t all that bad in comparison. Yes, Captain Hook is a wanton murderer, but I couldn’t help but pity him in his futile quest to conquer his self-doubt and justify himself. I felt very little sympathy for Peter Pan, though. He’s an arrogant, selfish, insensitive git. Tinker Bell is worse: vain, jealous, ungrateful and murderous. Old Tink does redeem herself partway through the book, but she’s never very likable. As much as I enjoyed Peter Pan, I would probably have liked it more if Peter and Tinker Bell hadn’t been such twits.
On the whole, I think Peter Pan is a fine book, a worthy classic of children’s literature that, like Peter himself, is pretty timeless.