Thursday, March 13, 2014

Defending Mr. Smee

I didn't realize when I began writing The Stowaway that I would become protective of characters I had formerly not been overly concerned about. Such as poor Mr. Smee, being seen by the world today as an ineffective bumbler when he was originally nothing of the sort.

The first Smee, as acted by
George Shelton in the 1904 theater
production of Peter Pan.

J.M. Barrie describes Smee as Irish and a Nonconformist--e.g., not a member of a state religion like the Church of England. He does not mention his first name, allowing that detail to be guessed at by numerous tellers of the Peter Pan story, not always in ways of which I approve. For example, "He was called Smee because he looked like a Smee."--Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry. Really? Must we be that disrespectful to the original? (I confess to having a little fun with Mr. Smee's first name in The Stowaway, but I do my best to be respectful otherwise. In fact, it's hard for me to refer to him without the honorific of "Mr." after so long writing about the crew with the formality with which their captain addresses him.) 

In Barrie's Peter Pan, we first see Mr. Smee as "an oddly genial man who stabbed, so to speak, without offence." Make no mistake, he has no compunctions about killing, taking lost boys hostage, and other acts of piracy.

Smee had pleasant names for everything, and his cutlass was Johnny Corkscrew, because he wriggled it in the wound. One could mention many lovable traits in Smee. For instance, after killing, it was his spectacles he wiped instead of his weapon.

Bob Hoskins, who plays Mr. Smee in the movie Hook in 1991 and reprises the role in Syfy's 2011 Neverland, touches upon the quality the original Mr. Smee possesses of being a genial sociopath, in that the women of Neverland fear him. But even Hoskins does not portray him with characteristics that he would be required to have in his role of bo'sun of the Jolly Roger (not first mate, another common mistake).

Barrie does describe Smee as "rather stupid," and indeed he is less educated than the erudite Jas. Hook, with little understanding of his captain. But as bo'sun, Mr. Smee must have some degree of intelligence and a great deal of common sense. The bo'sun (or boatswain) is responsible for the maintenance of all the equipment on a ship, from rigging to anchors, and supervises the crew who work on the deck. Mr. Smee has a working knowledge of every aspect of sailing the Jolly Roger. And while it is popular to depict the crew of the Roger as a pack of dunderheads, if that were so, there wouldn't have been a ship around long enough to present worthy foes to Peter Pan.


Also, a bo'sun's whistle looks like this.

ABC's Once Upon a Time takes regular liberties with its characters, and amusingly has created a William Smee closer to Barrie's character than Disney's, a competent and decent man--perhaps more decent than Mr. Barrie would have liked. Christopher Gauthier's interpretation could expand to include a trait which Barrie does describe as native to Mr. Smee--a curious quality of unknowingly inciting pity from others. Perhaps other portrayals confuse this quality with idiocy?

Christopher Gauthier in Once Upon a Time

There was little sound, and none agreeable save the whir of the ship's sewing machine at which Smee sat, ever industrious and obliging, the essence of the commonplace, pathetic Smee. I know not why he was so infinitely pathetic, unless it were because he was so pathetically unaware of it; but even strong men had to turn hastily from looking at him, and more than once on summer evenings he had touched the fount of Hook's tears and made it flow. Of this, as of almost everything else, Smee was quite unconscious.

[Pg 202] 

Most striking of all, Mr. Smee possesses traits which Hook himself hopes to embody:
For long he muttered to himself, staring at Smee, who was hemming placidly, under the conviction that all children feared him...Feared him! Feared Smee! There was not a child on board the brig that night who did not already love him. He had said horrid things to them and hit them with the palm of his hand, because he could not hit with his fist; but they had only clung to him the more. Michael had tried on his spectacles.

To tell poor Smee that they thought him lovable! Hook itched to do it, but it seemed too brutal. Instead, he revolved this mystery in his mind: why do they find Smee lovable?

Richard Briers--also known for playing Tom Good
 in  BBC's"Good Neighbors"--as Mr. Smee
in the 2003 Peter Pan film.
[Pg 206]

He pursued the problem like the sleuth-hound that he was. If Smee was lovable, what was it that made him so? A terrible answer suddenly presented itself: 'Good form?'
Had the bo'sun good form without knowing it, which is the best form of all?
This Mr. Smee is far from the man seen in so many books and films who regularly trips over his own feet, who doesn't seem like anyone a ship captain would rely on for anything. Yes, the common depiction of Mr. Smee provides ample comic relief, but at the expense of a character who originally possessed depth and even a bit of mystery.


  1. I have always seen Smee as a man whose real ambition is to serve his captain, but that his ambition goes no further than that. It's not that he couldn't be a captain himself, but that he doesn't want to be. He likes being the Bo'sun, he likes having clear instructions, and achievable goals. He's not stupid, and he's not interested in pushing himself more than he wants to. In the corporate world, he would be that middle manager who gets through his inbox and goes home relaxed.

    1. Exactly. And that makes him a perfect second-in-command.

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  2. Disney in general thrives on stereotypic characters and bumbling villains. A stupid Boatswain would have gotten everyone killed.

    1. I've always thought Disney's strength is in "pretty." Their cute and/or comic characters usually come off as grotesque to me, and the insulting generalizations are inseparable from that.