Peter Pan’s Shadows in the Literary Imagination

Peter Pan’s Shadows in the Literary Imagination. Kirsten Stirling. New York: Routledge, 2012. 188 pp. 9780415888646. $125.00. [Kindle $36.71]

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Reviewed by Kayla McKinney Wiggins

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 155–158.]

Peter Pan’s Shadows in the Literary Imagination, Kirsten Stirling’s study of the literary legacy of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, came about, according to the author, as a result of teaching the play Peter Pan in a first-year seminar at the University of Lausanne. Stirling acknowledges in her introduction that it is not her intent to give a complete critical history of Peter Pan, that her focus is “on beginnings and endings, sources and sequels” (5), and her intent is to explore the ambiguities in Barrie’s play that have invited later writers to “fill in the gaps at either end of the story and provide interpretations of their own” (5). While Stirling accomplishes her goal to focus on beginnings and endings, sources, prequels, and sequels, a lack of overt connection between the discussions in individual chapters at times obscures the through-line of her argument.

Chapter One traces the textual origins of Barrie’s play, addressing the emphasis on authorship and storytelling that Barrie employs in the many versions of the story of Peter Pan. From its beginnings as a part of the storytelling in the novel The Little White Bird (1902)—later published as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens—and the adventures with the vacationing Llewellyn Davies family recounted in The Boy Castaways (1901) through its long stage history and the novelization of 1911 to the final published play of 1928, Barrie emphasized the communal nature of the story’s authorship, even going so far as to deny memory of having authored it in his introduction to the published version. Storytelling, as Stirling points out, is at the core of the work in all its forms, as a series of characters tell each other stories for various reasons and with various motivations, some benign but many dangerous to the point of deadliness.

Chapter Two considers the origins of Peter Pan in the rich theatrical tradition of the English pantomime, as Peter Pan long remained a staple of the Christmas season in London, competing for its audiences with the popular Christmas pantomimes. Stirling deals with the extensive textual changes that occurred over the years of writing and productions as Barrie toyed with and largely rejected the pantomime possibilities in the story of Peter Pan. Stirling further notes the pantomime qualities that remain: the echo of “skin parts” in the dog-nurse Nana, the traditional use of an actress to play Peter, Captain Hook as an “exaggerated pantomime villain” (29), and the employment of audience participation in the scene where children are asked to clap in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Stirling goes on to discuss the significant ways in which Peter Pan deviates from the pantomime tradition, primarily in its complex ambiguities regarding the nature and even the identity of its protagonist; its themes of love, life, death, and maturity; and even its function as a play for a mixed audience of children and adults.

Chapter Three deals with what Stirling calls “the opposed fantasies of Peter and Wendy” (63) as the two main characters vie for the role of protagonist and clash over their competing desires for domestic, adult bliss and eternal youthful adventure. Here the author deals with the uneasy sexuality inherent in Barrie’s text—and in the critical commentary on it—noting that while Peter Pan is “irresistible material for psychoanalytic criticism,” as is the life of Barrie himself, “attempts to impose a Freudian Oedipal reading on Peter Pan tend to be problematic” largely because the relationships in the play defy these easy designations (47). However, Stirling also notes that a “reading of Neverland as the unconscious” reveals disturbing elements, “including a deep-seated fear of female sexuality which underlies the irreconcilable trajectories of Wendy and Peter” (47). While this chapter may be too brief to truly deal with the issues it raises—issues which are at the core of Barrie’s complex and ambiguous treatment of the themes of love and sex, life and death—Stirling does a credible job of at least presenting the questions to be answered and acknowledging the scholarship of those who have gone before her in Barrie studies.

Chapter Four shifts from analysis of Peter Pan to a consideration of the prequels to Barrie’s play. After a very brief discussion of Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Starcatchers series for children, Stirling devotes the remainder of a long chapter primarily to a discussion of Regis Loisel’s series of French comic book prequels. While she clearly is a fan of Loisel’s work and her discussion of the dark six-volume re-visioning of Peter Pan as a psychologically damaged street child and serial killer is fascinating, the fact that only the first two volumes of the series have been translated into English tends to call into question the amount of time she gives to this work. Her analysis is compelling, but the frustration is all the greater for those readers who do not have access to Loisel’s work.

Chapter Five turns to a consideration of the ways in which Barrie’s life has been a tease for the popular and literary imagination. Stirling touches on the 2008 biography Captivated by Piers Dudgeon and the 2005 novel Jardines de Kensington by Rodrigo Fresán, but focuses primarily on the two film treatments of Barrie’s life, Finding Neverland (2004) and the earlier BBC drama series The Lost Boys (1978). Stirling acknowledges the difficulties inherent in biography and biopics, ultimately finding more integrity in the 1978 drama and the modern novel, both of which seem to attempt a more even treatment of the complexities of Barrie’s life and relationships than the harsh 2008 biography and the too-benign feature film.

Chapter Six is entitled “Ending Peter Pan.” In this chapter, Stirling addresses the difficulties Barrie seemed to encounter in concluding his most famous story, both as a play and a novel. She notes that neither of Barrie’s published versions of the story “ends in a completely satisfactory way” (111). While Stirling does not make an explicit connection between her earlier discussion of the ambiguity of the play as both domestic fantasy and adventure fantasy, she clearly grounds the difficulty of the ending in this conflict in her discussion of the final scene in the nursery and the image of Pan beyond the nursery window. Stirling suggests that Barrie continued to rework the ending in the theatrical productions because he could not end a children’s play on anything other than a happy note and/or because he could not find a satisfactory resolution for the conflict between Peter and Wendy either as rival protagonists or as representatives of opposing views of adulthood. Stirling further suggests that Barrie was avoiding the closure of a traditionally happy ending possibly because that ending could not be the romantic one that the pantomime tradition demanded and Wendy desired. She concludes the chapter with a discussion of the riddle of Peter Pan that takes her back covertly to her overall argument about origins and the observation that Barrie, having spent much time and ink on attempting to end this complex and ambiguous play, never “quite achieved the ending he was looking for” (126).

Chapter Seven, the final chapter, takes up the subject of sequels to Peter Pan, noting that unlike the prequels which have greater freedom to create their own reality in searching for the origins of the elusive Peter Pan, the sequels seem compelled to tie up the loose ends of Pan’s ambiguous story. Stirling discusses the pragmatic obstacles to any continuation of the Pan story, notably Barrie’s donation of the rights relating to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital and also Peter’s nature as a never-aging preadolescent. However, as she notes, the Peter Pan story is so much a part of the popular imagination that it draws other writers who struggle with the obstacles and the ambiguities in telling their own tales. Stirling references a number of sequels but devotes much of her discussion to Hook, the 1991 film by Steven Spielberg; Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006), a sequel by Geraldine McCaughrean which won an sequel competition hosted by the Great Ormond Street Hospital; and J. E. Somman’s 1999 novel After the Rain. While acknowledging that Hook has been widely criticized by Barrie scholars and fans, Stirling concludes, rightly, that “of all the sequels, prequels, and adaptations, it is arguably the most faithful to Barrie’s text,” noting that the film is “threaded through with textual echoes of Barrie” (141). In the end, Stirling notes, none of these sequels really captures the ambiguity and the complex intertextuality of Barrie’s own writings on Pan, in part because they are written for children.

Stirling concludes her interesting and highly readable text with extensive notes and bibliographies, including a thorough list of secondary material on Peter Pan and Barrie, and a comprehensive list of sequels, prequels, and adaptations of Peter Pan.


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