Monday 10 October 2011

Monday Spotlight: - The Annotated Peter Pan by J.M Barrie & Maria Tatar

It’s been a while since I featured a book in the Monday Spotlight, so for people who don’t know Monday Spotlight is a feature I started to talk about books and authors I loved as a child, and to give myself an excuse to re-read some of them. I got sent an advance copy of The Annotated Peter Pan: The Centenary Edition, which comes out tomorrow, and it seemed like a great excuse to start this up again! I know it’s a bit more formal than I usually am, but I seriously geeked out on this one, and have enough notes to pretty much write my own book on the subject, so apologies in advance!
Every time I read “All children, except one, grow up”, I get a tingle. Peter Pan has one of the most magical openings in literature; right away it hooks the reader and draws them into Peter’s world. From that one sentence, multitudes of questions are formed; it is, as Maria Tatar says in her introduction to The Annotated Peter Pan, “the consummate bedtime story”. It was read to me in this capacity as a child, but I already knew the story, somehow it has been in my head ever since I have existed. Peter Pan goes above and beyond the call of literature. It doesn’t just entertain, it teaches, moralises, enthrals, inspires, and utterly transports you. It has so many layers and lessons and asks the reader so many questions that you can read it over and over and take something different away from it every time. As a child it transports you from your everyday life into a world where it is possible to fly, and I think that having Peter Pan read aloud to you is one of the greatest reading experiences there is. My own feelings on the book are many and varied, but can best be summed up thus:
“the best thing about Barrie is he takes you beyond the earth, into the stars, but it isn’t scary or alien, it’s just like all the imaginary treasure islands I used to make up as a child – it’s exactly like anything that would come out of a child’s head, and so it feels like home”
The Annotated Peter Pan:  The Centennial Edition is a beautiful reading experience. Not only does it contain the text of Peter and Wendy, the title the novel of the play was originally published under; it also contains essays, biographies, and many of the original illustrations, along with the history of the story. The book itself is exquisitely done, with such attention to detail, and is full of a wealth of information, making it not just a book to be read and enjoyed, but one to be treasured and returned to time after time. The annotations and factual information enable it to be read from a cultural, biographical, and social standpoint, and knowing some of the story behind the story is intriguing to say the least. Reading this new version gave me questions that reading other versions would probably never have raised. Because the hardback is so beautiful it is easy to read the text as you would any other novel, rather than purely as a children’s story. In her Introduction to J.M Barrie, Maria Tatar describes Neverland as having “narrative sorcery”. I would say that not only Neverland, but the entire of this beautiful hardback, contains a kind of magic.
One of the big questions raised from this reading of the novel was whether Peter Pan could truly be classed as ‘children’s literature’ if it holds such deep questions about the joy of life and the inevitability of death that can make you read it differently time after time? And if it is children’s literature, do these questions lessen or increase its value in our culture?
Barrie’s writing style and description really are a delight, and to this day I’ve not discovered another author who writes quite like he does. Maria Tatar’s analytical style works well with Barrie’s musing, lyrical, and somewhat inconsistent narrator, and the thing that the annotated edition does more than anything is to emphasize the conflict of Barrie’s life – how he didn’t want to be a grown up, and never really felt that he was one, but at the same time was trapped into behaving like one by physically being one. I can totally sympathise with this, and it’s probably the idea of never having to grow up more than anything else which brings people back to the book and its many varied adaptations time and time again. This edition also provides more depth to some of his beautiful passages, by providing them with context, and informing the reader about the aspects of Barrie’s own life which often inspired them.
When I first watched the biopic Finding Neverland, a character makes a comment about how the ticking crocodile represents time, which eventually catches up with all of us. For some reason I’d never thought of it in that way, and it opened the text up to completely new interpretations. Tatar develops this with her comment that “Peter’s story walks a fine line between indulging the fantasy of eternal youth and menacing readers with the specter of death”. I had a revelation of similar magnitude in reading The Annotated Peter Pan, as I had never before thought that the ‘lost’ boys are lost in the context of being dead. I’ve read previously the passage about how Peter Pan accompanies dead children part of the way, and thought it was beautifully heart-wrenching, but never before associated it with Neverland, and having realised it now I feel totally stupid, as it makes so much sense.
There have been so many versions of Peter Pan over the years that it is often difficult to remember the original, which contains so much more than any of the adaptations, not merely in terms of the actual scenes which occur, but also for the depth of writing, the beauty and uniqueness of the description, and the reminder to the readers of how it feels to be a child. The Annotated edition has a brilliant feature on The Cinematic History of Peter Pan, and among its adaptations are some incredibly well –known films. The four which I go back to time after time are Disney’s animated version, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, Hook, P.J Hogan’s more recent ethereal Peter Pan (starring an actual boy as Peter!), and the amazing Finding Neverland. HookIn all of these films there is something of the beauty of Peter Pan and the magic of Neverland; of staying young forever and never having adult cares or responsibilities. The book notes, quite rightly, that “the story has moved from the literary to the mythical, with each generation creating its’ own Peter Pan”. For my siblings and me, Peter Pan is and will ever remain Disney’s feisty red-head, but this is the kind of question which can be debated in pubs for hours. Personally the importance of Peter Pan in my reading life cannot be underestimated, as it was one of the books which formed my early imaginative life, and I hate the idea of any child growing up without knowing about the boy who never grew up. This book has provided me with many things I didn’t know, interestingly that the film Hook was actually based on an idea which Barrie had but never wrote, about Peter falling in love and leaving Neverland. The most interesting thing I picked up from my reading of Peter Pan this time around was that everybody thinks it would great to be a child forever and to always have fun, but Barrie shows children in general, and Peter in particular, as being selfish, heartless, and cruel. Peter’s lack of memory is a curse of a kind; he has many adventures, but never remembers any of them, because it is only by growing older and moving on that we are able to have memories of times gone by.
The rights to Peter Pan were gifted to Great Ormond Street Hospital by J.M Barrie, and the centenary edition will fittingly also benefit the institution. One of the major things which stuck with me through reading this book was in discussion of Barrie’s bequest to Great Ormond Street, which said that through the gift of the boy who never grew up, Barrie had allowed hundreds more children to do just that. I think that if anybody is still in doubt as to the practical power of the imagination, they need look no further than this.
The universality of the story is something that has been appreciated time and time again. Peter Pan was one of the first novels, along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, to be written not just to entertain children, but also adults. It crossed boundaries and mixed genres. On its’ opening night, it gained huge approval from its primarily adult audience, and while providing the ultimate fantasy world for children, it offers the utmost in escapism for adults. You cannot help but be enthralled and absorbed by Peter’s adventures; by his callousness, forgetfulness, and utter charm, by the way he casually disregards anybody’s feelings but his own, by his love of fun and make – believe. In him, Barrie has captured all the extremes of childhood, and he is enchanting, if somewhat disturbing, a character to watch.
There is so much in Peter Pan to talk about, and anybody who hasn’t read the book, I really do hope that you will, whatever your age, because there is so much beauty, adventure, and pure joy to be gained from it that I guarantee you will come away from it with a different perspective on ‘children’s literature’.
This was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a book in a while, and without doubt it’s now one of the most beautiful books in my collection!

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