As an adult reading Barrie’s novel for the first time, I find myself quite saddened that I did not discover Peter Pan and Wendy as a child. Yet I’m also unsure that if I had read the story when I was six or eight, or even twelve, that I would have fully understood the brilliance of Barrie’s satire. The novel is charming on two levels: its whimsical flights through children’s fantastic imaginary worlds and its scathing commentary on adult society and their aloof, condescending attitudes toward children and fantasy. Somehow, Barrie seems to convey both an extraordinary sense of wonder and excitement about all the adventures that Peter initiates and/or invents for himself and his Lost Boys, while at the exact same time managing to be critical of the way that adults (particularly those of a certain "British" attitude) look down upon the desire to have adventures and believe in magic.
In fact, Barrie’s portrayal of British society makes me wonder about the way that the British managed to establish such a presence around the world. The great colonizers with an empire upon which the sun never set, you might imagine that these were people with great imaginations, a robust curiosity about the world, and a strong taste for adventure – and no doubt some of them were keen on exploration. But the way that Barrie tells it, all adult males are quite content to put on their suits, uniformly tuck an umbrella under their arms, and head off to the office, while their wives have tea with the other ladies, give their children a nightly draught of all-purpose “medicine” and tuck their children into bed by seven o’clock. British children, it seems, were the only members of society who wanted anything to do with the faeries, pirates and Indians – or, as so crassly Barrie calls them, “Redskins.”
But even Barrie’s scathing commentary on the adult world is expressed with humor that makes the medicine go down. Here is my favorite example of the novel’s satire, in a passage explaining how Captain Hook won a battle with the Indians by defying the commonly accepted rules of warfare:
To what extent Hook is to blame for his tactics on this occasion is for the historian to decide. Had he waited on the rising ground till the proper hour he and his men would probably have been butchered; and in judging him it is only fair to take this into account. What he should perhaps have done was to acquaint his opponents that he proposed to follow a new method. On the other hand, this, as destroying the element of surprise would have made his strategy of no avail, so that the whole question is beset with difficulties. One cannot at least withhold a reluctant admiration for the wit that had conceived so bold a scheme, and the fell genius with which it was carried out.
Here, Barrie pokes fun at historians and military strategists, who put great stock in the famed method of simply lining up facing each other in a field and firing away until one army or the other ran out of men. (Ah, those Redcoats.) In particular, Barrie highlights the European’s tendency to set themselves up as sitting ducks to be unvaryingly attacked by the Indians “just before the dawn.”
But least you think that his novel is all social satire and would be inaccessible to children, let me assure you that he maintains an extra- ordinary sense of wonder about the world and the children’s adventures throughout the novel as well. It is as though in explaining to adults the way that children live thoroughly and wondrously through their imaginary adventures, he opens the world of imagination even wider to children themselves:
I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island, for Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of color here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose… Of course, the Neverlands vary a good deal. John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together.
And so on and so forth, Barrie describes the “Neverlands,” the individual worlds that children create within their minds that are so obviously and infinitely better than the world into which they must grow up and enter. And Peter Pan and Wendy is ultimately a book about the ways in which the adult world invades the Neverlands, and the strange pull that we feel when we “must” grow up and give up our ties to that other, better place that we have created for ourselves. I’m sad that I didn’t discover this novel when I was a kid, but I’m thrilled that I’ve discovered it now and I can’t wait to share it with my own children because this is one of those brilliant stories that is magical no matter how young or old you might be when you read it.