Post-Disney, ‘Peter Pan’ is a name rather tainted with ‘cuteness’ cooties, I suppose. And if we translate it into its root forms we get: ‘Rock Pagan’, which sounds like the name of the lead singer of an epically naff US Heavy Metal band. Something has gone awry. What happened to the Pan in Peter Pan?
There are three main Barrie versions of Peter Pan. In the first, he is as a seven-day-old half-bird, half-human creature flying around Kensington Gardens: this is in chapters 13–18 of Barrie’s adult novel The Little White Bird (1902; these chapters were excerpted and republished in 1906 as a standalone, with nice Arthur Rackham illustrations, under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens). Then there was the stage play, the celebrated and for many core representation: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (first performed 27 Dec 1904, and a big hit). Finally there is the novelisation of that play, Peter Pan and Wendy (1911). I’d like to say something about the play, and maybe I’ll get around to that some day; but its copyright status is tricky (see here under this entry on ‘perpetual copyright’), and I’m going to stick with the novel for the time being.
The question, then, is 'why Peter Pan?'. And perhaps it is not that surprising that the Disney clean-cut young lad or the girl-actor-in-green-tights-and-tunic versions of ‘Peter Pan’ have overwritten older apperceptions of the god. The crucial thing about Peter is that he is a child; he is, indeed, always a child (moreover the only child who will never be troubled with puberty). Remind me of the famous opening line of Peter and Wendy? Oh, that's right: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ Pan, on the other hand, is the goat-cocked god of adult appetites such as drinking wine and hearty bestiality.
That’s a statue from the rectangular peristyle Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, and therefore pre-79.AD in provenance. But, golly, that’s an arresting image though, isn’t it? Not even Rock Pagan would get up to that, in a suite of the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile, no matter how much coke he'd snorted. Could anything be further from our sense of what ‘Peter Pan’ represents? Something odd is going on here.
One way to understand what that ‘something’ is would be to excavate the modern English resurgence of interest in Pan. This, it turns out, has two phases. First there is an 18th century revival of interest in Pan as a phallic god (probably non-coincidentally, 1757 was when that Herculaneum statue, above, was excavated). Richard Payne Knight published his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus in 1786. Knight explores a variety of fascinating highways and byways of the worship of Priapus, tracing its spectral presence in the Christian era (chapters include ‘Scotland, and its Phallic celebrations’; ‘Phallic figures on public buildings’; ‘Ireland, and its Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘Horseshoes nailed to stable doors, a remain of the Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘The ancient god Priapus becomes a saint in the Middle Ages’; ‘Robin Goodfellow’; ‘Easter, and hot-cross-buns’; ‘May-day festivities, and the May-pole’; ‘Bonfires’; ‘Lady Godiva, the Shrewsbury show, and the Guild festival at Preston’; ‘The Knights Templars’ … wait, what was that about hot cross buns?). But the main thing Knight does is trace all this back to Pan. Originally ‘worship of generative and nutritive, powers of the Deity’ focussed on animals, especially bulls. But:
The Greeks, as they advanced in the cultivation of the imitative arts, gradually changed the animal for the human form, preserving still the original character. The human head was at first added to the body of the bull; but afterwards the whole figure was made human, with some of the features, and general character of the animal, blended with it. Oftentimes, however, these mixed figures had a peculiar and proper meaning, like that of the Vatican Bronze; and were not intended as mere refinements of art. Such are the fawns and satyrs, who represent the emanations of the Creator, incarnate with man, acting as his angels and ministers in the work of universal generation. In copulation with the goat, they represent the reciprocal incarnation of man with the deity, when incorporated with universal matter: for the Deity, being both male and female, was both active and passive in procreation; first animating man by an emanation from his own essence, and then employing that emanation to reproduce, in conjunction with the common productive powers of nature, which are no other than his own prolific spirit transfused through matter. Not sure about that; but OK—Pan.
These mixed beings are derived from Pan, the principle of universal order; of whose personified image they partake. Pan is addressed in the Orphic Litanies as the first-begotten love, or creator incorporated in universal matter, and so forming the world. Lycæan Pan was the most ancient and revered God of the Arcadians, the most ancient people of GreeceThe Greek ‘Pan’ means, ‘all’, of course.
According to Plutarch, the Jupiter Ammon of the Africans was the same as the Pan of the Greeks. This explains the reason why the Macedonian kings assumed the horns of that god. The case is, that Pan, or Ammon, being the universe, and Jupitera title of the Supreme God (as will be shown hereafter),the horns, the emblems of his power, seemed the properest symbols of that supreme and universal dominion to which they all, as well as Alexander, had the ambition to aspire.See also: the horns on the brow of Moses. Now this is exactly the sort of thing we are today deeply uncomfortable associating with childhood, except that Knight’s Pan must be a ‘youth’, since he represents new life, the rebirth of the cosmos after the death of the year. Perhaps we are happiest thinking of this in more abstract terms, as ‘the piper at the gates of dawn’ rather than (to quote Knight one last time) ‘Pan pouring water upon the organ of generation; that is, invigorating the active creative power by the prolific element.’
I mention the Piper, there, for obvious reasons: Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. The novel postdates the first appearance of Barrie’s Peter Pan by a couple of years, but Grahame had been meditating upon ‘Pan’ long before his fellow Scot. Grahame’s first book, Pagan Papers (1893) includes this essay on ‘The Rural Pan’. Here are its opening three paragraphs:
Through shady Throgmorton Street and about the vale of Cheapside the restless Mercury is flitting, with furtive eye and voice a little hoarse from bidding in the market. Further west, down classic Piccadilly, moves the young Apollo, the lord of the unerring (satin) bow; and nothing meaner than a frock-coat shall in these latter years float round his perfect limbs. But remote in other haunts than these the rural Pan is hiding, and piping the low, sweet strain that reaches only the ears of a chosen few. And now that the year wearily turns and stretches herself before the perfect waking, the god emboldened begins to blow a clearer note.When these paragraphs are written Wind in the Willows is still a decade and a half away, but Dawngate scene is here in nascent form. The difference is one of whom occupies centre stage—in the earlier book, Pan; in the later book the mole and water-rat. The chapter ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (from which Pink Floyd took the title for their first album, thereafter rendering the phrase forever hippy, weed-scented and a bit naff) reinscribes the encounter:
When the waking comes at last, and Summer is abroad, these deities will abroad too, each as his several attributes move him. Who is this that flieth up the reaches of the Thames in steam-launch hired for the day? Mercury is out -- some dozen or fifteen strong. The flower-gemmed banks crumble and slide down under the wash of his rampant screw; his wake is marked by a line of lobster-claws, gold-necked bottles, and fragments of veal-pie. Resplendent in blazer, he may even be seen to embrace the slim-waisted nymph, haunter of green (room) shades, in the full gaze of the shocked and scandalised sun. Apollo meantime reposeth, passively beautiful, on the lawn of the Guards' Club at Maidenhead. Here, O Apollo, are haunts meet for thee. A deity subjectively inclined, he is neither objective nor, it must be said for him, at all objectionable, like them of Mercury.
Meanwhile, nor launches nor lawns tempt him that pursueth the rural Pan. In the hushed recesses of Hurley backwater where the canoe may be paddled almost under the tumbling comb of the weir, he is to be looked for; there the god pipes with freest abandonment. Or under the great shadow of Streatley Hill, "annihilating all that's made to a green thought in a green shade''; or better yet, pushing an explorer's prow up the remote untravelled Thames, till Dorchester's stately roof broods over the quiet fields. In solitudes such as these Pan sits and dabbles, and all the air is full of the music of his piping. Southwards, again, on the pleasant Surrey downs there is shouting and jostling; dust that is drouthy and language that is sultry. Thither comes the young Apollo, calmly confident as ever; and he meeteth certain Mercuries of the baser sort, who do him obeisance, call him captain and lord, and then proceed to skin him from head to foot as thoroughly as the god himself flayed Marsyas in days of yore, at a certain Spring Meeting in Phrygia: a good instance of Time's revenges. And yet Apollo returns to town and swears he has had a grand day. He does so every year. Out of hearing of all the clamour, the rural Pan may be found stretched on Ranmore Common, loitering under Abinger pines, or prone by the secluded stream of the sinuous Mole, abounding in friendly greetings for his foster-brothers the dab-chick and water-rat.
"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. "Here, in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"This is a vision of Nature as the vehicle of the Numinous from which all specifically phallic reference has been carefully removed (though I do wonder about the artfully positioned vine in that Paul Bransom illustration, there: the frontispiece to the 1913 edition, no less). Grahame's is the inheritor of Knight’s ‘pantheist’ Pan, but there’s nothing mischievous about him; nothing playful, lustful, goatish (there's nothing mischievous, either, about Machen's monstrous 'Great God Pan' (1890), although there's plenty that's shudderworthy, not to say horrible and misogynistic). We might wonder why Ransome's figure is half-goat at all. (In a related datum: Rock Pagan, we all know, played woodwind, uncredited, on Pink Floyd’s first album). It's not an archetype that has disappeared, either; and I don't only mean in terms of repeated adaptations of Wind in the Willows or Peter Pan. The first Narnian encountered by any of the children in Lewis's could-hardly-be-more-Christian Lion/Witch/Wardrobe is the Pan-ish faun, Mr Tumnus; who beguiles Lucy back to his home where he drugs her with tea. Very odd. Two is the fact that Lyra's demon in Dark Materials is called 'Pan'. A series of books about, in the final analysis, killing God.
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.
"Rat!" he found breath to whisper, shaking. "Are you afraid?"
"Afraid?" murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. "Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!"
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
Sudden and magnificent, the sun's broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.
I’m not sure this brings us any nearer to an answer to the ‘why Peter Pan?’ question. I’ve gone on too long (and not for the first time), so I’ll wrap up with two related points. One has to do with Captain Hook—played on the stage, according to the venerable tradition inaugurated by Barrie himself, by the same actor who plays Wendy’s father. I leave the ‘Oedipal reading’ as an exercise for the reader. Instead I want to suggest a different interpretation of this figure: with his splendid hat, and his hook-for-a-right-hand, and his inexhaustible energy and vigour that is, somehow, intimately tied to the being-in-the-world of Pan himself. Here’s Richard Payne Knight one last time:
We find on the medals of Melita [a representation of Priapus] who seems by his attitude to be brooding over something. On his head is the cap of liberty, whilst in his right hand he holds the hook or attractor, and in his left the winnow or separator, so that he probably represents Ἐρως, or generative spirit brooding over matter.Maybe Hook is a type of Ἐρως, though Barrie also positions him as a malign anti-Priapus, existing in a poised opposition to the pro-Priapus of Peter himself.
But there’s something more directly relevant, I think. The thing about Pan is that he’s the only god to have died in our time. Gods don’t die; that’s what ‘immortal’ (a synonym for ‘god’) means—indeed, that’s pretty much all it means in the Greek and Roman pantheons, where gods are otherwise exactly as petty and moody and selfish as the worst of humanity. So what happened with Pan? Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (c. AD 100) relates how a sailor voyaging to Italy at some point during the time of the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37), and passing the island of Paxi, heard a voice booming across the water: ‘Thamus, art thou there? When you reach Palodes be sure to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.’ Thamus did so, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.
In Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, the cry ‘Great Pan is dead’ becomes an ecstatic celebration of the Christian succession to diabolic Paganism. But one thing Barrie’s Peter Pan clearly isn’t, is an ecstatic celebration of Christianity. It is, however, a famous expression of the tendency of the young to laugh in the face of personal extinction. To die, Pan declares gloriously, would be an awfully big adventure.
"Pan, who and what art thou?" [Hook] cried huskily.In the movie adaptations, Hook doesn’t share his existential bravery—a ludicrous gibbering coward in the Disney film, a desperate old man in the rather good 2003 movie (‘old, alone, done-for!’). He’s not like that in the original story; on the contrary, he meets death bravely and with honour (the only thing that scares him, were told, is the sight of his own blood, which is ‘an unusual colour’). In his final battle with Pan, he actually undergoes a kind of symbolic rejuvenation, returning to his days as an Eton schoolboy—and doing so, as it were, ‘fittingly’:
"I'm youth, I'm joy," Peter answered at a venture,
Hook was fighting now without hope. That passionate breast no longer asked for life; but for one boon it craved: to see Peter show bad form before it was cold forever.Stop a bit: go back to the novel’s opening sentence. ‘All children, except one, grow up.’ That’s not true though, is it? Or to be more precise: it’s true only from the perspective of adulthood. A roomful of adults can say to one another, ‘well, we all grew up, didn’t we? That was an inevitable part of our life.’ But that’s not the way the matter presents to children themselves; and surely its children whose perspective should predominate in a case such as this? Not all children grow up. Barrie knew this better than most.
… What sort of form was Hook himself showing? Misguided man though he was, we may be glad, without sympathising with him, that in the end he was true to the traditions of his race. The other boys were flying around him now, flouting, scornful; and he staggered about the deck striking up at them impotently, his mind was no longer with them; it was slouching in the playing fields of long ago, or being sent up [to the headmaster] for good, or watching the wall-game from a famous wall. And his shoes were right, and his waistcoat was right, and his tie was right, and his socks were right.
James Hook, thou not wholly unheroic figure, farewell.
For we have come to his last moment.
Seeing Peter slowly advancing upon him through the air with dagger poised, he sprang upon the bulwarks to cast himself into the sea. He did not know that the crocodile was waiting for him; for we purposely stopped the clock that this knowledge might be spared him: a little mark of respect from us at the end.
He had one last triumph, which I think we need not grudge him. As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab.
At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved
"Bad form," he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.
Thus perished James Hook.
When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say "Is that you?" "I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to", wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), "and I said in a little lonely voice, 'No, it's no' him, it's just me.'" Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. [Andrew Birkin, J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2004)]Everybody knows that the closest thing we have to an ‘Alice Liddell’ original for Peter Pan, are three of the Llewelyn Davies boys: George, Peter and Michael. George died in the Trenches barely out of his teens, and little Michael (Barrie's favourite: he wrote to him every single day, which sounds ... weird and rather oppressive to me) drowned in suspicious, probably suicidal circumstances in 1921. Peter survived to the 1960s, but never outgrew the fame of his connection to Peter Pan, which he came to loathe. He drafted an account of his family history, cheerily titled Morgue, walked out of his house and threw himself under a tube train.
Everybody knows that Barrie had no children of his own; that his own marriage was almost certainly unconsummated. But more relevant, I think, than biographical data, is the larger context. One thing reading into the 18th and 19th-century grounds of Childrens’ Literature does for you is reveal how intertwined it is with death. Eric, or Little By Little. Alice. The Water Babies. It’s the Psychic Death Klaxon. It has to do with the way this mode of literature was born out of an age when children died as a matter of course. At the moment I’m torn between different interpretations of this persistent feature of the mode. Is it that children are involved dialectically in death because they are new life? Or is it that having children entails confronting your own mortality—because howevermuch you love you kids and however earnestly you pray that you predecease them (how horrific it would be to outlive your own children!) nonetheless it is an absolutely central part of raising children that they will be loving and laughing and drinking wine in the sunshine when you yourself are cold and dead in the ground—that this, in a core sense, is the whole point of having children. Not a terribly comforting thought, no matter how awfully big the promised adventure may be. Rock Pagan's new solo album is about precisely this, as a matter of fact.