Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Lovely Wendy's here to stay

My favorite character in Peter Pan may be obvious (what?), but Wendy Darling was always my next favorite. So I have felt protective about her portrayal for years, even before I learned of the character's origin. Wendy Moira Angela Darling was based on Margaret Henley, daughter of William Ernest Henley, author of the poem “Invictus” and the man Robert Louis Stephenson used as the inspiration for Long John Silver. (Again, so much involving Peter Pan folds back on itself.) Margaret was too young to pronounce her r's and called Barrie her “fwendy-wendy.” She died of cerebral meningitis in 1894, at the age of five.

Thus it's with relief I find respectful depictions of Wendy throughout the years, varied as they are. I think most of us are used to the depiction of Wendy in the 1953 animated Disney film, 

but before then, she was mostly depicted as darker-haired, from Alice Woodward's 1904 illustrations

to Flora White's in 1914

to Roy Best (the artist whose 1931 book illustrations are the first I've found of Captain Hook in a red coat). 

Those versions make the sudden appearance of Wendy as white-blonde a bit startling. (Also a little disturbing is how grown-up Anne Grahame Johnston's Wendy sometimes looks.) 

Nadir Quinto went a similar route, with a rather alarming Wendy in frosted eyeshadow. At least Peter is accurate to the book. And I suppose that could be an acorn button on the chain around her neck.

When it came to deciding how I wanted Wendy to look in The Stowaway, I had to give the matter real thought. Because I do describe all my characters physically, at least briefly, I had to think how she was most real to me. Finally I realized that in some sense she will always be the Wendy from the first copy of the original story I read, with Nora S. Unwin's 1950 illustrations. Her slight, elfin Peter will always live in my mind somewhere as well. (This, incidentally, is the mystery book I found in my mailbox two weeks ago. I believe it's a first edition. I remain baffled by its arrival.)

Without Wendy there would be no story. Because she's a girl, she was my entry point into the story, and while I didn't so much identify with her and her aspirations, I thought of her as someone I would like as a friend. I have the impression Barrie regarded her highly as well, given her rounded characterization. Wendy chooses her role as mother of the lost boys, accepts the trade-offs that come with it, and is the one at the end who not only gets her brothers home but finds a home for the boys. She accepts that Peter cannot give her what she wants from him, and she moves on with grace. While the Edwardian era did not offer a girl much alternative, I find it refreshing that Wendy actually looked forward to the role of being a traditional mother.This desire can be a difficult character trait to pull off even now, but Barrie did it without being either condescending or idealizing her.

I just learned that artist Jan Ormerod died on May 8. Her version of Wendy from 1988 is more carefree and whimsical than most, and it seems appropriate to close with her. Wendy deserves a few moments of abandon.

(Title quote from the 1954 Broadway musical version of Peter Pan, by the way.)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Defending the boy

I can't believe I've been driven to this (and I'm sorry, Captain, sir, I honestly am), but I have lost my tolerance for depictions of Peter Pan as a villain.

I've seen Peter portrayed as a vampire in one than one interpretation, as a fighter who uses foundlings and runaways as his soldiers in his war (Brom's The Child Thief), as a brutal young man who uses children to fuel his immortality (Zenescope's Neverland comics), as a mysterious being whose exact evil nature we will soon learn (the TV series "Once Upon a Time"). Just this morning I discovered a web comic called "The Assassin of Neverland." Only 30 pages so far, but I think the intent is clear.

These versions don't necessarily involve casting Captain Hook as a hero, although sometimes they do--frequently everyone in the story is equally dismal and/or morally defunct, leaving me nothing to enjoy in the telling. I have encountered so much unrelenting grimness in these stories that Disney's Peter Pan begins to come as a relief. Even versions of the character that fly (heh) even further against the original in their portrayal of Peter's origin or age--the Starcatchers series, the SyFy miniseries "Neverland"--shine brighter to me than they did formerly, in the face of such bleakness. The concept of Peter Pan has long provided an escape for children (if not adults) in need of one, and even if my heart lies with the purported villain of the original, I find this one of the story's signal virtues.

Disney Peter had his less-than-benevolent moments, but at least they were transient.

In his recent book, "I Wear the Black Hat," New York Times ethics writer Chuck Klosterman analyzes what makes a person the villain (noting that the same traits would garner different reactions in fiction and in real life--e.g. Batman). One of his characteristics is "knows the most and cares the least," and another is "super-human self-assurance." Looked at through that lens, it's easy to see Peter Pan as the villain. But perhaps because it is so easy to flip the narrative, doing so no longer holds any meaning it might have originally.

Yes, Peter can be seen as a thief of children and a real threat,and Barrie acknowledges the fact. But keep in mind that the Darling children returned home safely once they chose to. And before meeting Wendy, Peter only took boys to Neverland who fell out of their perambulators and weren't claimed by their parents--not children from loving homes. (Girls, he says, are too smart to fall out of their prams.) Remember also that Barrie describes Peter Pan as a psychopomp who meets children after their deaths to escort them partway. And yes, Peter kills blithely, but out of the innocence and ignorance of being an eternal child, not from malice.

It's the ambiguity in the original story which lends it resonance and continued relevance. A cardboard villain is easy to fight against. But a character who isn't quite a hero and isn't quite a villain, who forces you to consider why he does what he does and the effects his actions have upon him, who causes the reader or viewer to give genuine consideration to him and to the story--this character's complexity adds depth to the story, as opposed to eliciting knee-jerk, unquestioned responses. And takes away none of the magic.

Certainly I enjoy dark retellings of classic tales, but only if they're not too easy. Only if they give me some insight the original did not (see Gregory Maguire's "Wicked" series for how to do it right).I won't go so far as to call a moratorium on Evil Peter portrayals--as if that would even work, ha. Occasionally one still entertains me--I admit I enjoy the Zenescope comics more than I probably should. I'm even looking forward to OUaT, if mainly for ranting purposes. But it may be time to put Evil Peter into context.

I really want the shadow to have split apart from Peter into its own evil entity, but OUaT has not been known for listening to me.

As I noted in my review of Midnight in Neverland, I am finding that these interpretations have been written almost entirely after September 11, 2001. (And I hedge my statement only to cover any that I might find in the future, as so far everything I've read or seen along these lines is from this era.) This seems to me a surprising place for Americans' altered sensibilities about their safety in the world to come to rest, but certainly current YA fiction is rife with these themes.

Is is possible that stories for young people now contain enough looming threats and evildoers that we can return to allowing children--and adults--to see Peter Pan as more than yet another bad guy? After the outside threats are acknowledged and guarded against, we still have human nature to contemplate, and that is a mystery we have been unable to conquer, or even fully understand, for many and many a year. Longer, for certain, than there has been a Peter Pan. Even if he is a vampire.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Not an acorn, but a button

This may well be the most controversial thing I ever write. But a purist can't let public opinion stop her from conveying the truth, can she?

Peter Pan did not give Wendy an acorn, despite the scads of interpretations that depict exactly that. According to Mr. Barrie, he gave her an acorn button, which was enough of a distinction to start me wondering. An acorn button began to seem like something so commonplace in the Edwardian era as to need no explanation, but which most of us have no knowledge of now.

And a button seemed so much reasonable to me. It's this button which Wendy puts on a chain around her neck, which saves her life when the lost boys shoot her down from the sky with an arrow on Tinker Bell's orders.  How, I wondered, would Wendy go about putting Peter's acorn on a chain around her neck? Did she pull a tiny drill out of her sewing kit and put a hole through the cap before the sound could wake her parents?

As I had only suspicions but no grounded knowledge, I set my crack team of vintage costumers (yes, it turns out I have one, and useful that turns out to be) on the trail, and sure enough:


are acorn buttons. It's one of the terms for shank buttons made of wood or metal, often wrapped with decorative thread, and that fact would have been common knowledge in the era when Peter Pan was written.

So the button that stopped Tootles's arrow from killing Wendy? Was one of those, not one of these:

(The link will take you to directions to make an acorn necklace, but it requires glue and time to dry. Still not something that can be done in minutes). The confusion is understandable, and not just because of cultural changes. Peter is from the wilderness, Wendy from domestic life in the city--an exchange of acorn and thimble has thematic resonance. And he would have more access to acorns than buttons, although I'm sure he would have no problem finding the latter on the London streets.

Still. Accuracy, please! Mind you, I think trinkets like the one above are lovely, and I have a couple myself which I've been wearing even though I had that feeling they were incorrect. (The one above is from Hooligan Alley on I won't blame the 1953 Disney film for the error (not this time); that film's entire exchange came to down to Wendy giving Peter a thimble because he was so alarmed by her attempt to give him an actual kiss. Wendy doesn't put anything around her neck, and Peter saves her from falling when the lost boys shoot their slingshots at her at Tinker Bell's order. As much as I love the 2003 film, it carries more blame because Peter does in fact give Wendy an actual acorn.

Thus do fairy tales change over time, although when I can look to the original for facts, I will continue to do so and wave my tiny, ineffectual banner in an effort to draw attention to them. The thimble/kiss confusion does play a part in The Stowaway. It will be easy enough to insert a bit of correction while I'm in there.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


First, a man passing me on the street last week when I was on my way to a restaurant to  work on reading Midnight in Neverland. "The main character is a British Navy captain," he was saying to his friend. 

"What?" I thought. "I mean, yes, he is, but--huh?"

Second, The Peter Pan Alphabet, written and illustrated by Oliver Herford, from 1907. (So, based on Peter Pan the play, not the book.) It's sardonically beautiful and quite short, and you can read it for free from Project Gutenberg at the above link. Caveats, though, on references to the Indians (I know it was the times, but ouch) and Hook/crocodile art. Fine, maybe that last warning is just for me. 

I love this. It's referring to a scene where Hook, in battle with Peter, tries to blow up his ship, only to be foiled when Peter puts out the fuse. (The Stowaway may or may not have its own take on this.) It's also proof that the more things change...

I’m sorry for H, tho’ I don’t call Hook mean
For wanting to Blow Up his own Magazine.
I’ve known a Good Author blow up, in a Huff,
A Magazine just for not printing his Stuff.

Oh, why not one more:

Z is the Zebra the Boys didn’t meet,
But without which no Alphabet’s really complete.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Too dark in Neverland

This is my copy of Midnight in Never Land. The Post-It notes are tagging introductions of characters from the original Peter Pan (green), bits taken straight from Barrie (blue), bits that directly contradict Barrie (purple), gold star moments (yellow, for some reason), and moments I found completely jarring (pink). You can see why reviewing this would be difficult. I can't really do so without spoilers,and that isn't fair to readers or writers, but if you would like a spoiler, I can give you it in one word. Ask in the comments or contact me directly. I think it will explain a lot.

I picked up this book due to a misleading description, expecting a real prequel to the Peter Pan story, one about events that happened in Neverland before any of Barrie's characters set foot there. Instead I got another retelling of how the characters we know ended up on the island.

James Hauke is a perfect summation of this book as a whole. From the beginning he's half Barrie, half original creation. Gone are Eton and Oxford in favor of the self-made man, and gone is the playful humor that made him so unpredictable to his men. This James (named James Matthew after Mr. Barrie, as the book Capt. Hook also did) is well-written and his character development compelling. He was believable and complicated. He also wasn't Captain Hook.

Mr. Smee is the other character of most complexity, with a twist to his story at the end. Painfully, Disney is a definite influence here (Skull Rock, the name Mary), making me twitchy as I wouldn't tangle with their kopyright kops, and at times I thought this might almost be a dark version of the "Starcatchers" series.

My favorite aspect, and an opportunity I think the authors squandered, was some brief comparison between Peter Pan and Anansi. There was some real opportunity here to create a story of depth that tied in several mythologies to make them even more universal, but the story stopped short of following through. Instead, the book resorted to a conventional horror narrative by the end that wasn't false to what had come before, but left me disappointed.

I began reading retellings of Peter Pan because I felt like needed to know what's out there, what's commonly accepted as part of the mythos (whether correct or not), and if I'm writing something too close to someone else's interpretation that I need to redo. I went into this with my sword drawn, ready to defend my James from all takers. And yes, there are interpretations that make me grit my teeth, the kind that tell me to get back to work and fix it if I'm that concerned. But I didn't expect this reading to be so far from enjoyable. Yes, it's partly possessiveness, but it's also because these retellings are joyless, lacking in the humor and levity that make deeper themes easier to take in.

Wee James staves off the onslaught.

With the exception of the "Starcatchers" series (which goes too far into silliness in my book, but I'm finding that less objectionable as I continue this project), these tales are almost unrelentingly grim. Yes, of course there are dark themes in the original, which have too often been stripped out (*ahem* Disney). I'm working with them too. That's where the texture and depth are found. But to explore those at the expense of the jollity and whimsy of Barrie--I'm finding these books so bleak I'm not sure I will, or should, continue reading them. I don't think I'm gaining anything except the amusement in seeing which sources authors are obviously familiar with. Even Peter Pan in Scarlet is more gloomy than not. I'm fond of dark fantasy in general, but I guess...not here.

In addition, I'm finding too many examples of a pet peeve of mine: it's apparently too easy to strip the magic out of Neverland in the attempt to explain how everything began. In MiNL, the island gets its name from a scrawl on a map: "Never Land Here." And why can't Tinker Bell just be a pots and pans fairy? Why can't mermaids just be mermaids?

Another observation? Every one of these was written after 2001. An entire literary thesis lives in that.

I was looking forward to reading "The Child Thief," but I don't know anymore. Maybe that's a project for a time when I've finished The Stowaway, or when it's on hiatus before revising. For the time being, I'm in need of a chapter of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The downfall there is that I begin channeling Barrie's writing style after about a chapter (a useful skill when writing executive director letters for non-profit newsletters, but not so much when doing my own work), but I think it's worth the risk. And maybe the world could use a little more Barrie right about now.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Finding my way

This beauty is a 9" brass sextant, which I just bought for the purpose of teaching myself celestial navigation, because my narrator can't learn navigation if I don't. Mind you, Vivian ends up better at it than I'll ever be, and does it faster, but I need to know what she's talking about.

The fact that it's also handsome decor is a bonus.

The sextant goes along with the book and the DVD and the diagrams and a couple of downloads. Unfortunately, the sextant is heavy enough that I won't be hauling it around me everywhere--the printed or online materials will have to do some days. I don't need much more than a rough idea of how to do this, really, and I don't plan to volunteer my navigational services on anyone's ship any time soon. I just need to know what I'm talking about, and presumably all this will provide enough basics for me to do so.

I have the impression writers are prone to developing odd hobbies. Collecting odd decor too, perhaps. Thank goodness nautical props and art and instruments are pretty.