The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales: Peter Pan
In today's installment of The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales we are covering the story of Peter Pan. The Disney version goes as follows; In London, England, circa 1900, George and Mary Darling's preparations to attend a party are disrupted by the antics of their boys, John and Michael, who are acting out a story about Peter Pan. Wendy, their elder sister, tells them stories of Peter Pan every night. George, who is fed up with the stories, declares that Wendy has gotten too old to continue staying in the nursery with the boys. That night, Wendy and the boys are visited in the nursery by Peter Pan himself, who teaches them to fly with the unwilling help of his pixie friend, Tinker Bell. He takes them with him to the island of Never Land.
A ship of pirates is anchored off Never Land, led by Captain Hook and his first mate, Mr. Smee. Hook desires to take revenge upon Peter Pan for cutting off his hand but fears the crocodile who consumed the hand, knowing it is eager to eat the rest of him. When Pan and the Darlings arrive, he shoots at them with a cannon, and Peter sends the Darlings off to safety while he baits the pirates. Tinker Bell, who is jealous of Pan's attention to Wendy, persuades the Lost Boys that Pan has ordered them to shoot down Wendy. Tinker Bell's treachery is soon found out, and Peter banishes her. John and Michael set off with the Lost Boys to find the island's Indians, who instead capture them, believing them to be responsible for taking the chief's daughter, Tiger Lily.
Meanwhile, Peter takes Wendy to see the mermaids, but they flee in terror when Hook arrives on the scene. Peter and Wendy see that Hook and Smee have captured Tiger Lily to force her to disclose Peter's hideout. Peter frees her and returns her to the Chief, and the tribe honors Peter. Hook then plots to take advantage of Tinker Bell's jealousy of Wendy, tricking her into revealing Peter's lair's location. Wendy and her brothers eventually grow homesick and plan to return home. They invite Peter and the Lost Boys to return to London and be adopted by the Darling parents. The Lost Boys agree, but Peter doesn’t want to grow up and refuses. The pirates lie in wait and capture the Lost Boys and the Darlings as they exit the lair, leaving behind a time bomb to kill Peter. Tinker Bell learns of the plot, just in time to snatch the bomb from Peter as it explodes.
Peter rescues Tinker Bell from the rubble, and together, they confront the pirates, releasing the children before they can walk the plank. Peter engages Hook in combat as the children fight off the crew. Peter defeats Hook, who falls into the water and swims away over the horizon, pursued by the Crocodile. Peter commandeers the deserted ship and, assisted by Tinker Bell's pixie dust, flies it to London with the children aboard. However, the Lost Boys decide to return to Never Land with Peter rather than be adopted in London. George and Mary Darling return home from the party and find Wendy sleeping at the nursery's open window. Wendy awakens and excitedly tells about their adventures. The parents look out the window and see what appears to be a pirate ship in the clouds. George, who has softened his position about Wendy staying in the nursery, recognizes the ship from his own childhood.
The true origins of this story are rather different if not darker than the Disney version.
J.M. Barrie Version
The original was written by a man named J.M. Barrie, who had a unsettling obsession with young boys. The author was six years old when he lost his thirteen year old brother and he couldn't cope with the trauma. He couldn't grasp the idea that he will continue to grow, and his brother wouldn't. He used this pain in his works, giving his stories an eerie undertone.
Margaret and Alexander Barrie are the parents of James Matthew "J.M." Barrie, who was born in the Scottish town of Kirriemuir in 1860. He had one older brother, David who was considered "the perfect child". Sadly, the golden child who everyone adored fell and cracked his skull when he was hit by a ice skater. Unfortunately, David was never the same mentally and eventually due to the injury. Supposedly, J.M. was comforted by the fact that, in a way, his brother would stay a boy forever. From this point on, a fascination with boys and preserving their innocence was ingrained into Barrie's psyche.
In 1894, Barrie moved to London, where he met and married a woman named Mary Ansell. He gave his wife a St. Bernard dog as a wedding present. The couple never had children together, and evidence suggests that Barrie never consummated their marriage. He did, however speak about his toxic six year marriage with Ansell in his story "Tommy and Grizel (1990)"
Barrie wrote,"Grizel, I seem to be different from all other men; there seems to be some curse upon me.... You are the only woman I ever wanted to love, but apparently, I can't." Barrie and Ansell's relationship didn't last, which doesn't really come as a surprise. They were divorced by 1909.
Barrie met a couple of boys in a area attached to London's Hyde Park known as Kensington Gardens back in 1889. He noticed George and Jack Llewelyn Davies walking with their nurse. He reportedly befriended the four and five year olds after meeting their parents Arthur and Sylvia. The couple later had three more sons; Peter, Michael and Nico. For some reason, the Davies family allowed Barrie into their lives. After a short time, he gradually turned into "Uncle Jim". This is a little bit disturbing considering that he wasn't their uncle at all. He was a random guy who saw two kids at the park and became friends with them.
Now that we know more about the author's backstory, let's see how the story of Peter Pan came to be.
Peter Pan is now an iconic character, but he made his debut in The Little White Bird, a novel loosely based on George Llewelyn Davies. In the story, a boy named David becomes friends with the narrator who pretends he had a son who died. He makes up the lie to gain sympathy from David's parents. The narrator then gets uncomfortably excited when David's mom was duped! Now he was allowed to "take David utterly from her and make him mine." This sounds a lot like kidnapping. Throughout the book, the narrator makes up a story about a magical boy, named Peter Pan, who lives in Kensington Gardens and stays young forever. If you read the novel today, it has a really creepy vibe considering the way our society views predators.
Andrew Birkin wrote a biography titled Barrie and the Lost Boys. Birkin stresses his opinion that despite the disturbing undertone in his stories, he does not believe Barrie was a sexual predator. Instead, he calls him “a lover of childhood, but was not in any sexual sense the pedophile that some claim him to have been.” Piers Dudgeon has a more negative portrayal of the writer in his books, Neverland: J.M Barrie, the Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan. He makes his opinion of Barrie clear and even found some incriminating evidence proving that there was more to his relationship with the Davies children – other than being their “Uncle Jim.”
Firstly, Dudgeon dug up a letter Barrie wrote to Michael Llewelyn Davies, who was known as Barrie’s favorite Davies child. Is the fact that he has a favorite Davies child not strange enough? I don’t know how this odd behavior didn’t raise more flags, but it was a different time. The letter was written in June 1908, the night before Michael’s 8th birthday. The letter reads, “I wish I could be with you and your candles. You can look on me as one of your candles, the one that burns badly – the greasy one that is bent in the middle, But still, hurray, I am Michael’s candle. I wish I could see you putting on the redskin clothes for the first time… Dear Michael, I am very fond of you, but don’t tell anybody.” Barrie wants to watch him put on his clothes and tells Michael how he feels about him, but not to tell anyone. If that’s not damning evidence, I don’t know what is. Reading this letter is extremely uncomfortable, and if a letter like this was found nowadays, there would definitely be an investigation into the writer.
Sadly, Arthur died of jaw cancer in 1907, and Sylvia died of lung cancer in 1910. And guess who the legal guardian became over the Davies boys? Uncle Barrie. Even though he wasn’t their real uncle. Before she passed, Sylvia left behind a handwritten letter saying, “What I would like would be if Jenny would come to Mary & that the two together would be looking after the boys & the house.” Mary was the boys’ nanny, and Jenny was Mary’s sister. She didn’t seem to want to leave Barrie with her boys; otherwise, she probably would have mentioned it in the letter. However, Barrie transcribed the will and changed Jenny to Jimmy before sending it to the Davies’ maternal grandmother. That way, it looks like Sylvia wanted him to be their guardian.
Barrie managed to fool everyone and ended up as their legal guardian. Although this whole situation seems bizarre and illegal, it should be noted that there is no hard evidence proving that Barrie ever physically abused any of the children. Sadly, in 1915, George Davies was killed in World War I. George was the oldest of the Davies brothers, and after he passed, Barrie and Michael’s relationship grew closer. But then Michael left home to attend Eton College and had a difficult time adjusting. He was antisocial, troubled, but became good friends with Rupert Buxton, the son of a famed baronet. Reportedly, the two friends were inseparable, spending time together in school and on holidays. Unfortunately, Michael’s fate wasn’t much different from George’s. He and Buxton drowned together in Standford Pool, a large body of water not far from Oxford. It has been reported that the bodies were found clinging to each other. There aren’t many details surrounding the deaths, but some theories suggest that Davies and Buxton were lovers, and this was a suicide pact.
In later interviews, Michael’s younger brothers Peter and Nico said that suicide is a likely possibility. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure. Several years later, Peter became a successful publisher and seemed to be doing well for himself. But he destroyed all the letters between Michael and Peter. He hated that his name was associated with Peter Pan. Peter reportedly called the character “that terrible masterpiece.” His son Ruthven and various other people believe that Peter was driven to become an alcoholic by all this unwanted fame and attention. Peter was the brother who appeared to be positive and successful, but sadly, he threw himself under a subway train in London, in April 1960.
Barrie, on the other hand, died in 1937 of pneumonia. He generously gave the copyright of all his Peter Pan works to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, a children’s hospital. Knowing what I know now, this is a bit unsettling. However, he is no longer alive, and the hospital continues to greatly benefit from owning the rights.