A friend gave me a copy of “Peter Pan in Scarlet” by Geraldine McCaughrean yesterday. It’s one of those books I’ve toyed with the idea of reading, but something has always stopped me. I started it last night and so far I’m really enjoying it. Really. Such a pleasant surprise.
It got me thinking about a number of things, however. Why was I reluctant to read this book? A number of reasons I suppose, chief among them being the fact that I love Peter Pan. LOVE. Almost as much as I love Robin Hood (I’m also strangely reluctant to see the new Robin Hood film). And in my love of Peter Pan I’m reluctant to see that character mangled. Again.
If you haven’t read Barrie’s Peter Pan, (or Peter Pan and Wendy) you should. Not that I am a purist but Peter embodies something about childhood, youth and the wild that I think gets missed in most of the interpretations. You see, Peter, while a hero, a marvellous boy, a dazzling exciting friend, is not a very safe person to be around. And that makes adults very uncomfortable.
Peter is dangerous because Peter has no concept of death. Nor of injury or disaster. Peter can’t conceive of anything “bad” happening because it doesn’t happen to him. Ever. “To die would be an awfully big adventure” he says. And that is that. Prepared with these words, assured of his own continued existence even beyond death (because nothing, not even death, can destroy Peter), he puts fear aside. And of course survives.
Wendy and the boys can’t continue on like this, as we are reminded right from the outset “all children grow up, except one”. Peter will rescus them, no doubt about that, but only to drop them into greater peril the next moment.
The hero who is not quite the hero – the feral child, the reckless youth, the embodiment of youth, joy and freedom – is also the fire that burns everything that comes into contact with it. Our heroes need something more. The attempts to introduce or elaborate on a supposed romance between Peter and Wendy (which I really don’t believe is there to begin with) fail for me because Peter can’t really ever be trusted. He cannot be relied upon and I need that in a romance hero.
Peter is a child. He can be daring and heroic. He can also be petty and self-agrandising. To alter that would be to alter him. To make him a hero in the true sense would also alter him. And he doesn’t do change. Peter is Peter, the eternal child and reckless hero. He’s gorgeous and dazzling but in the end you have to let him go.
In this way “Peter Pan in Scarlet” is working for me so far in a way that other adaptations have not. The sense I always had of Peter comes through very strongly here. But the children, having been adults and then returning to childhood, seem to see him in a different light. Nibs, unable to leave his own family asks “What has Neverland got that could possibly be better than you?” while the others, when Peter calls for them to have a WAR, grow silent.
The Twins stopped fighting. John brushed sand off his sailor suit.
‘No,’ said Wendy. ‘Don’t let’s.’
‘No,’ said Curly. ‘Let’s not.’
‘No,’ said John. ‘Not a War.’
Perhpas it was the clammy touch of the mist. Perhaps it was the ghost of a memory. Perhaps, in far off Fotheringdene someone leaned against the war memorial on the village green…
‘Done War,’ said one Twin.
‘Me too,’ said the other.
‘Michael wouldn’t like it,’ said Slightly.
And this was point where the book had me. Completely, utterly. Because the children did go back to London. They lived their lives and grew up as they had to. They lived through World War One and it has left an indellible mark on them. And Peter, lucky Peter, will never understand that. To become a whole person, the child must grow up. There will be pain and loss, there will be suffering, but without it there will never be understanding and value placed on life. As writers, struggling to capture that, perhaps we need to remember Peter, glorious character that he is, will never be able to develop and as such will never get his own Happily Ever After. Indeed to get it themselves, the other characters have to leave him in the end.
Peter is magnificent. He is a marvel. He is youth and joy and freedom. But he is also a tragedy.