Friday, May 15, 2015

A baby named Peter

Despite what contemporary retellings may say, Peter Pan was never a street urchin or a fairy or a vampire, or even an orphan.

Rather, as J. M. Barrie tells us in The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens, 

His age is one week, and though he was born so long ago he has never had a birthday, nor is there the slightest chance of his ever having one. The reason is that he escaped from being a human when he was seven days' old; he escaped by the window and flew back to the Kensington Gardens.

If you think he was the only baby who ever wanted to escape, it shows how completely you have forgotten your own young days.

Well, Peter Pan got out by the window, which had no bars. Standing on the ledge he could see trees far away, which were doubtless the Kensington Gardens, and the moment he saw them he entirely forgot that he was now a little boy in a nightgown, and away he flew, right over the houses to the Gardens. It is wonderful that he could fly without wings, but the place itched tremendously, and, perhaps we could all fly if we were as dead-confident-sure of our capacity to do it as was bold Peter Pan that evening.

But the little boy's presence frightened the fairies, and the birds shunned him. He went to bird-sentinel Solomon Caw for help, and Solomon told him could stay in the park, but would never be anything other than "a Betwixt-and-Between." Peter he was happy enough with this pronouncement, and made himself a reed pipe to play upon, and eventually, with the help of the thrushes, a boat made of a nest and the remnants of his old night-gown so that he could sail about on the Serpentine lake.

Peter always thought he could return home. He visited once, but could not resolve himself to stay. And when he tried a second time,

He went in a hurry in the end because he had dreamt that his mother was crying, and he knew what was the great thing she cried for, and that a hug from her splendid Peter would quickly make her to smile. Oh, he felt sure of it, and so eager was he to be nestling in her arms that this time he flew straight to the window, which was always to be open for him.

But the window was closed, and there were iron bars on it, and peering inside he saw his mother sleeping peacefully with her arm round another little boy.

Peter called, "Mother! mother!" but she heard him not; in vain he beat his little limbs against the iron bars. He had to fly back, sobbing, to the Gardens, and he never saw his dear again.

And yet Peter, being so young, lost himself in adventures and did not think much of his old home again. One night a little girl named Maimie stayed after closing time in the park to see the fairies (not without incident), and there encountered a little boy out in the snow with no clothes on, in a meeting reminiscent of another in Peter's later literary life.

She said, out of pity for him, "I shall give you a kiss if you like," but though he once knew he had long forgotten what kisses are, and he replied, "Thank you," and held out his hand, thinking she had offered to put something into it. This was a great shock to her, but she felt she could not explain without shaming him, so with charming delicacy she gave Peter a thimble which happened to be in her pocket, and pretended that it was a kiss. Poor little boy! he quite believed her, and to this day he wears it on his finger, though there can be scarcely anyone who needs a thimble so little. 

The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens was published in 1902, and was the first literary appearance of Peter Pan. After the success of the 1904 play featuring the boy who never grows up, the seven chapters (out of twenty-six) about Peter were published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Illustrations by artist Arthur Rackham, including 49 color plates of his oil paintings, added to the popularity of both the book and Rackham himself. It's had a number of reprints since then, including one by the Folio Society. My own copy, found at Insatiables in Port Townsend, WA, is from 1976.

In 1912, when a statue of Peter Pan appeared in Kensington Gardens one morning, it was considered by many to be too commercial, akin to a statue of Harry Potter being erected in a major public park after only one book in the series. Now, of course, the statue of Peter is one of the best-known landmarks in London and the world.

For the entire text of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with many of the Rackham illustrations, see Project Gutenberg.


  1. Appeared? The statue just APPEARED there?

  2. It was quietly installed during the night so children would think the fairies had put it there.