Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Keeping faith

Retellings are part of the tradition of fairy tales and one of my favorite literary forms. Most of these, of course, are tales that originated so long ago we have no idea of their beginnings, although we may know their more familiar interpreters, and that provides a certain amount of latitude when deciding how to represent the story.

"Peter Pan"is a challenge for me in this regard, as we do have the original text of the original story in both J.M. Barrie's 1904 play, and in his 1911 book, but there are ways in which they disagree. The play itself went through numerous revisions during its first years. And then there are the multitudinous interpretations of both, some of which are better known than the originals, including the inescapable (trust me on this) Disney film which has become an overlay over nearly every Peter Pan retelling since its release in 1953. So many iconic representations that don't agree with the original, and here am I, trying to be true to the original without disregarding other interpretations or inadvertently stealing from them.

Our boys as most of the world now pictures them, courtesy of Disney Studios. (|Yes, that is commentary as well as an accurate credit.)

But it was not always thus. Behold, Peter Pan in red. And Captain Hook in blue. This is by Alice Woodward, from a 1907 novelization of the play by Daniel O'Connell. (And off to ABE Books your blogger went, having just discovered today that this book exists. Yes, there are affordable copies, and I can't wait to get that full set of pictures.)

Here we have an illustration by Flora White  from 1914, after the initial publication of "Peter and Wendy" in 1911. Possibly the skeleton leaves that Barrie describes Peter as wearing, but again he's in red.

Barrie himself chose Mabel Lucie Attwell to illustrate the gift book version of "Peter Pan" in 1921. Still not the green tunic and tights most people picture Peter wearing**. I'm also struck by how young he looks, unlike most versions since.

The first version I can find of Captain Hook in red is 1931, Gwynedd Hudson's illustrations.

 Although I wonder if this was colored in after 1953, because I have two books with versions of his art (hush), and in one, all the pictures are brown on white, and in the other, the colored plates appear as so:

Disney made the red coat iconic, and it's not until the 2000s that I find any new art with Hook wearing any color besides red. Without the red coat, the central metaphor falls right out of Peter Pan in Scarlet*. I want to think this is enough reason to keep the red coat. But mostly, I like James in red, even if Disney has earned  enough of my ire for distorting the original story that I try to avoid reference to that version altogether (not just for copyright reasons, although they would be enough). I make a nod to the original portrayals of Hook's garment toward the end of "The Stowaway," but James will wear his red coats (yes, they are plural) throughout the story.

And hence my little ballet of being as faithful as I can to the original, plus respecting what's come to be tradition, while trying to keep track of dozens of interpretations over the last 102 years.

*The only authorized sequel to the original, by Geraldine McCaughrean, winner of a 2004 contest sponsored by Great Ormond Street Hospital, to which Barrie willed all proceeds from his book.

**Where would Peter get green tights, anyway? The question answered itself as soon as I'd thought of it--he'd steal them from nurseries, of course.


  1. There'd be something to be said for having them both in red, but that might be heavy-handed.

  2. It's a central theme of Peter Pan in Scarlet, anyway. Ah well, I already have Peter returning to Neverland from London in James's cut-down black funeral coat, which as you know has its own thematic value.

  3. This is all, strangely, putting me in mind of book 11 of the Odyssey (aka "Homer's Necromancy"). Don't ask me why, my brain works in mysterious ways.