Pan and Peter Pan

Text of the Twenty-sixth Frank Tate Memorial Lecture, given at the University of Melbourne, on Friday, 10 August 1979.


Plato is in the habit of calling his writings, his dialogues, after the name of a person, and although the habit is not fixed for there are a few exceptions — perhaps I should say because the habit is not fixed — we should seek the reason or principle behind this practice. It is not enough to say it is “just a habit” as if that meant blind and/mechanical adherence to one way of doing things for, in the first place, it is not invariable, and, in the second place, Plato is too imaginative and flexible a writer to be the captive of his own technique.

To explore the reasons why Plato calls most of his writings after a person would be a lengthy and worthy study, but for my purposes I need allude to only one of the reasons and I do this by contrasting what Plato does with what we do. When we treat an important and serious matter there is a strong inclination to indicate by the title what that serious matter is, and we justify ourselves by pointing out that the reader foreknows what is in the book because of the title. The reader has a right to know what is in the book, and, indeed, we as readers expect to know whether a book will be of interest or of service to us merely by a perusal of the title — unless it be a work of fiction, in which case there are prejudiced doubts as to whether or not it is either serious or important.

The titles of books — or of lectures, come to that — are thought to be labels of some kind, a means of identifying the contents. We cannot take it for granted that nobody would write a book unless they had something significant to say about a serious and important matter because readers and writers alike have lost sight of what is serious and important. There is only one subject worthy of our attention — ourselves, humankind, Man.

             What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty, in form and moving! how express and admirable in action! how like an angel in apprehension! how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

                                                                                                              Hamlet, Act II, sc. ii.

What is Man? Who are we?

Every book has the same title, Man, for every book shows something of that infinite in faculty, but we do not read as if the book is exhibiting and exemplifying Man, we read as if the book will tell us about some disembodied subject-matter or other — leather-working, flowers, cooking, stocks, travel, pollution or whatever. We no longer see, clearly and steadily, what is serious and important and for it we have substituted what interests, engages or amuses us — as if the mere fact of our interest, engagement or amusement were enough to justify us and we can then refer to what is serious and important to us as if that were the same as what is serious and important.

If the writer is a kind of teacher, then I do not want to have my prejudices about what is important to me confirmed and made into what is important simply. I would hope and pray that the writer would not address what already interests me in the way in which it interests me. I need to be enlarged, to see things as they are more clearly and as a whole, and that is what the teacher assists, so that I begin to see how the particularity of what interests me and the provinciality of how I see it are related to the whole, to the all, to what the Greeks called Pan,

Every book must be read, if it is read at all, as carrying the title Man. The title the author gives it is, at best, a subtitle and we should be aware of the limitations of the author if he does not bring the specialty that he deals with into relation with the whole, with the all which is Pan. It is, of course, this notion of specialty and specialization which is at once our power and our curse. We have been hoodwinked into supposing that unless we know something, some specialty, we do not know anything. It would be a hard saying but a truer one if we affirmed that unless we know everything we do not know anything, and, I suppose, it was considerations such as these which led Socrates to say “I know that I do not know”. It is conveniently forgotten that he could also be understood to have said “I know what I do not know” and even “I know because I do not know”.


It is a common enough habit for intellectuals to speak of problems. There is the problem of knowledge and the problem of pollution and there are countless books with titles like The Problem of Method and The Problem of Philosophy. I  sometimes reflect that what we really need is a definitive treatise on The Problem of Problems. It is, perhaps, only a symptom of our anxiety that this phraseology is so common, but like most anxiety symptoms it carries its own confusing source within it.  

To speak of the problem of pollution is to create a rhetorical picture in which out there somewhere there is a disembodied problem. But pollution is not a disembodied problem, it is pre­cisely and completely the outcome of human activity. The problem — if we follow this rhetoric — is not in pollution or some aspect of the natural environment but in mankind; the cause of pollution is to be found in human activity. “We have met the enemy and he is us” in the immortal words of Pogo. Technology is used primarily to do something about the pollution in the fantasy belief that nothing needs to be done about the human activity.

The other confusion in the anxiety symptom of referring to “problems” is that the rhetoric suggests, of course, that the dis­embodied problem has an equally disembodied solution. Every­body knows that problems have solutions and so a habit of mind develops in which it is assumed that if we could only find the solution, the problem would be solved, it would disappear. Initi­ally, this draws attention away from the cause of these “problems” — namely, ourselves — but finally and ultimately it discredits the genuine utility which technology has because it cannot come up with the final solution.

The slow degradation of the human spirit by the intellectualized rhetoric of problem-solving, by the notion of the intellect as an instrument, has driven some thinkers into isolation. Refusing to allow themselves to be degraded into computers without plans and instructions, they have separated themselves from social life and its activities and have become either gurus or hermits. The former have encouraged followers to form social worlds which do not disturb them while the latter have often retreated into the minutiae of their academic subject-matter or have expended infinite care and attention on trivia. I do not blame such people, although I do regret the occurrence and feel that I — and, indeed, all of us — are poorer for their distance. And they, too, are poorer. I remind myself of John Dewey’s saying that philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing: with the problem of philosophers and becomes a method for dealing with the problems of men. 

Plato’s dialogues

This, of course, is precisely what Plato did in the dialogues. He, in the course of conversations among human beings, formu­lated the “problems of men”, the human condition, and explored and analyzed, without ever presuming to take from any reader or listener the responsibility and right to decide for himself. Plato does not write about what is trivial and so he does not have to claim or presume importance by grandiose titles. Nor does he write about the superficial or the ephemeral, but only about what is involved in being human. There is a Greek epigram “Wherever I go in my mind, I meet Plato coming back”. Part of the greatness and the fascination of Plato is that he has explored not his mind or my mind, but the human mind, so that when we go to him we find ourselves, in principle if not in some particular fact. He names each dialogue after a person because that person, like every person, has responsibility for what he says, and because whatever opinions or knowledge which may lurk in the words is not self-subsisting and disembodied, but exists in the conversation through the intellect and words of the speaker. It always remains human.

There is another curious fact which merits some thought, namely, that it is quite possible that Plato’s name did not appear on the dialogues. It is quite certain that his name appears in them only twice. There is nothing to suggest that Plato tried to hide his authorship — everybody must have known who wrote the dialogues — but somehow Plato thought it better not to insist on this authorship, and he clearly avoided the tediousness of more modern literary and philosophic polemics in which the writer becomes the subject-matter and the ostensible subject-matter is relegated to the role of battlefield.

The limits of human knowledge

One of the dialogues, named after the main speaker Critias, is famous as the first telling of the Atlantis story and as being incomplete and unfinished. Countless words have been written about Atlantis and arguments continue to this day about its existence or non-existence, its location, the date of its disappear­ance and so forth. Very little has been said about the apparent unfinished state of the dialogue except that it is incomplete and one editor manages to trivialize the whole affair by saying “why we are left with but a fragment must remain a puzzle for the literary historian . . .” Perhaps if we hear the final lines of the dialogue we shall understand that we do not have a fragment and that it is not merely a puzzle for the literary historian.

Critias is speaking of the early inhabitants of Atlantis:—

Such was the magnitude and character of the power which existed in those regions at that time; and this power the God set in array and brought against these regions of ours on some such pretext as the following, according to the story. For many generations, so long as the inherited nature of the God remained strong in them, they were submissive to the laws and kindly disposed to their divine kindred. For the intents of their hearts were true and in all ways noble, and they showed gentleness joined with wisdom in dealing with the changes and chances of life and in their dealings one with another. Consequently they thought scorn of everything save virtue and lightly esteemed their rich possessions, bearing with ease the burden, as it were, of the vast volume of their gold and other goods; and thus their wealth did not make them drunk with pride so that they lost control of themselves and went to ruin; rather, in their soberness of mind they clearly saw that all these good things are increased by general amity combined with virtue, whereas the eager pursuit and wor­ship of these goods not only causes the goods themselves to diminish but makes virtue also to perish with them. As a result, then, of such reasoning and of the continuance of their divine nature all their wealth had grown to such a great­ness as we previously described. But when the portion of divinity within them was now becoming faint and weak through being oft times blended with a large measure of mortality, whereas the human temper was becoming domi­nant, then at length they lost their comeliness, through being unable to bear the burden of their possessions, and became ugly to look upon, in the eyes of him who has the gift of sight; for they had lost the fairest of their goods from the most precious of their parts; but in the eyes of those who have no gift of perceiving what is the truly happy life,” it was then above all that they appeared to be superlatively fair and blessed, filled as they were with lawless ambition and power. And Zeus, the God of gods, who reigns by Law, inasmuch as he has the gift of perceiving such things, marked how this righteous race was in evil plight, and desired to inflict punishment upon them, to the end that when chastised they might strike a truer note. Wherefore he assembled to­gether all the gods into that abode which they honour most, standing as it does at the centre of all the Universe, and be­holding all things that partake of generation; and when he had assembled them, he spake thus: . . .

Does this sound as if the author, for some accidental cause, had omitted the ending? Does this sound incomplete? Does it seem a fragment? It surely seems much more probable that Plato intended to make clear his own view of the limits of human knowledge, that there are some things which we cannot, in principle, know. Or perhaps what Zeus said is available to us in the history of mankind. If we were chastised by our history we might strike a truer note. It is tempting to explore this possibility but I am more concerned at this time with the dialogue that precedes the Critias, namely, the Timaeus. In this dialogue, which deals with the cause of the universe, Timaeus asks that he be forgiven if he speaks not with complete certainty but rather tells a likely story (eikos muthos), which he later calls a likely account (eikos logos). Thus, in advance, a highly sophisticated mathematical physics is claimed to be nothing more than a likely story, which implies the possibility of other likely stories—certainly the ex­plicit refusal to admit having the final answer. What we call “science” is merely a probable account, a likely story — no more, no less.

Only one subject matter

In the light of these preliminary remarks, I should now like to state again my conviction that there is only one subject-matter — ourselves — and that although we seek knowledge, in principle, it is always our specific and particular selves who are doing the seeking and who constitute the ground of the inquiry. What does this mean for what we fondly call the social sciences? It is a very difficult question to answer. What is the subject-matter of the social sciences? What is its methodology? What kind of status or significance do its findings have? Many people, particularly many young people, have turned to the social sciences in order to find out about themselves and about the endless difficulties which seem to beset the human race. They have turned in vain to the extent to which the social sciences themselves have claimed to be value-free. To the extent to which they are value-free, they are value-less.

Behaviourism — the current fashion

The current fashion in American academic psychology is, of course, behaviourism, and in solemn mock-scientific fashion it has steadfastly refused to admit any of the hallowed words of our tradition, like honour and dignity, dismissing them as merely “the rhetoric of freedom”, and it has childishly insisted that it will admit only what is observable, namely, behaviour. They set out to deny, to abolish “autonomous man”. When the science of psychology, as they understand it, is established it is claimed that the principles will be available for a technology of behaviour so that people, that is, behaviour, can be controlled and the human world (if that is what it still will be) can be directed and manipu­lated. Of course, plain ordinary folk ask immediately who will do the controlling and who will determine what behaviours are permissible and what are not.

It does not seem to occur to these social psuedo-scientists that they are, at best, telling only a likely story, but since humility is in the vocabulary of freedom’s rhetoric they have been “con­ditioned” not to recognize it either in words or in themselves. It is hard to tell at this time whether these social technocrats will be players in tragedy or comedy—if we do not survive they will doubtless cool themselves with the thought that they could have saved us if we bad not been so maladaptive, and if we do survive they will warm themselves with congratulations that it is because (and not in spite of) their efforts.

This academic fashion of psychology is undoubtedly power­ful, particularly in the United States where it harmonizes with the prevailing cult or culture of technology. But its force, its power and the number of its adherents does not make it right and, indeed, its insistence on being the one right way and its crisis rhetoric are at least suggestive of its ultimate weakness. I, at any rate, am not concerned with behaviour but with conduct — human actions carrying value and responsibility, and I do not believe that I shall understand myself (or anyone else) by seeking the smallest unit or monad of behaviour. Understanding comes not by breaking down into supposed atoms, smallest parts, but by organizing into wholes, into temporal, spatial, logical and moral sequences.

If, then, I want to get help in understanding myself as human, if I accept Man as the ultimate subject-matter, where am I to turn? If my misgivings about those who claim to be social scientists are justified or even just strong enough for me not to heed them, where else might I look? I do not want to turn Man, myself, into an abstraction, into yet another disembodied subject-matter. I do not believe, I cannot accept, the proposition that I am merely “a repertoire of behaviours appropriate to a given set of contingencies” as some psychologists tell me, nor the proposition that I am the sum of the roles that I play as some sociologists aver. Where shall I go to find out who I am? And not just who I am in particular but, more importantly, who I am in principle? To find out about this “piece of work” called Man?

Consult an oracle

It occurs to me that I would like to consult an oracle, seeking not the solution to a problem, but a mirror in which I can see myself, at least to some extent, seeking a short, pithy saying on which and in which I can reflect. But immediately I remember that the most famous of oracles, the one at Delphi, had inscribed on the temple of Apollo, Gnothi seauton, Know thyself, which frustratingly exhorts me to do what I am trying to do. It is characteristic of the Oracle, I think to myself, that it would speak thus. It is of little or no help.

My frustration with the oracular statement grows and I begin to complain again, “It’s just like an oracle . . .” and I suddenly hear myself. If the saying is “just like an oracle” then it may well conceal in one sense but it also; reveals in another. The saying tells something about the oracle and on another occasion it would be interesting to pursue that line of inquiry but now I shall apply it to myself. If I cannot know me, myself, directly, what is “just like” me? And immediately the answer comes “Your sayings and doings”.

Sayings and doings

I have uttered many words and performed many actions and their number is startling and also their contradictory and con­fused natures make it difficult for me to deal with them. I wish that I had started this search to know myself earlier, when I was younger and had more energy and fewer words and deeds. Life was simpler then. Immediately this insight begins to simplify my task. There are elements of my childhood which stand out so clearly that I must have had some kinship with them, they must have struck a responsive chord in me that I should remember them so vividly and so fully. I do not remember very distinctly many specific words and actions, not in great quantities at any rate, but I do remember certain stories, certain poems, even though I can­not recall the specific circumstances and occasions on which I heard them.

Peter Pan and Wendy

One such story I remember (and which you may remember too) is Peter Pan. And I must make a confession, to myself if not to you, that on going back and reading the story it turns out to be different from what I thought I remembered so clearly. If I were the subject-matter of this lecture, if you had any reason to be interested in me, and if I felt secure enough to let you be, then we could explore the discrepancies. As it is, let me set before you the first discrepancy only. The story is called Peter Pan and Wendy, not just Peter Pan. I recalled Wendy, of course, but not the fact that she was co-ordinate with Peter Pan in the title.

The author, J. M. Barrie, is clearly dedicated to the Delphic principle “Know thyself” as he indulges himself in reflecting on whatever is happening in the story.

I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonish­ing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, threepence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather con­fusing, especially as nothing will stand still. “Of course, the Neverlands vary a good deal . . . (p. 6)

A person’s mind

Have you ever seen a map of a person’s mind? Have you drawn your own map? Barrie recognizes the process and also the difficulties of it — the map of a child’s mind is “not only confused, but keeps going round all the time”. This child’s mind is called the Neverland (although each apparently has his own and they “vary a good deal”), and it is “more or less” an island, which is a bit vague, made more certain, in one sense, by the word “always”. And there may be “another map showing through” which is rather confusing, “especially as nothing will stand still”.

Is this recognizable to you? Is it more in keeping with your own reality than the textbooks of psychology? Of course, it would be possible to refer to Freud’s topography of the mind, the conscious and unconscious and so forth, but Barrie’s meta­phor has a value in itself and at least we should not translate it into Freud’s metaphor, particularly if it is more familiar to us. Notice, if you would, the absence of any technical language; we are explaining ourselves in our terms.

In this notion the child’s mind is powerful. It has structure, or partial structures, overlaying one another, but it is essentially dynamic, never still. It is the ultimate human energy source. There is no explanation of where it came from or how it got there or what is to be done with it, if anything. The story, as a whole, tells what happens to it and it is adumbrated in the opening sentences:—

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up . . .

and the first paragraph concludes

You always know after you are two. Two is the begin­ning of the end.

This may seem an ominous and melancholy prediction but I do not sense any regret on the author’s part. It is simply a given that all children (except one) grow up, and that they realize this by the time they are two years old. In the opening of our story it is not Wendy herself but her mother, Mrs. Darling, who wants her “to remain like this for ever”.

The title which Barrie chose (and which I forgot) gives co-ordinate status to Peter Pan and Wendy, so that in some way we are drawn to compare them at the beginning and at the end.

At the beginning Wendy is coupled with her two younger brothers, John and Michael, but they are all old enough to attend Miss Fulsom’s school and they are all young enough to respond to Peter Pan and to learn how to fly. They seem close enough to their original state to be or to become aware of it again, and with Peter Pan’s help they do, but none of them, not even Wendy, ever fall under his spell completely. Whatever has happened to them in their early years cannot be eradicated.

Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact: not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed. When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are night-lights. (p. 7)

The Neverland is full of adventures, continuous adventures, and they can be very frightening although they can use or work upon familiar everyday things.

Moreover, the relation of the Neverland to our ordinary world is complicated,

. . . because it is quite impossible to say how time does wear on in the Neverland, where it is calculated by moons and suns, and there are ever so many more of them than on the mainland. (p. 84)

The map which emerges from all this is one of a powerful process, self-sustaining, but aware of outside objects even if they are capable of rapid transformation by its own power, and in which time has no real meaning, always full in and of itself, but able to cause self-fright. This is the map of the child’s mind, this is the map of Peter Pan.

The mind seeks itself

As you all know, Peter Pan, Wendy and the rest set out for the Neverland, and

. . . after many moons they did reach it, and, what is more, they had been going pretty straight all the time, not perhaps so much owing to the guidance of Peter or Tink as because the island was out looking for them. It is only thus that anyone may sight those magic shores. (p. 47)

We can identify, then, a further characteristic of this map that Barrie draws for us — the mind seeks itself.

Strange to say, they all recognized it at once, and until fear fell upon them they hailed it, not as something long dreamt of and seen at last, but as a familiar friend to whom they were returning home for the holidays. (p. 47)

The mind, in other words, recognizes its own origin and nature. I do not wish to say more about this remarkable Never­land (which is so similar to Freud’s Unconscious) because it is beyond words — it defies the laws which give sense to language and action. It is inside and yet we travel to it; thinking we seek it, it finds (or hunts) us; it is now and it is then; it is of our own making and yet it is our origin; it is everything and nothing.

It would be easier to deal with Peter Pan himself, who may turn out to be just as serf-contradictory, but who speaks and acts throughout the whole story and who comments on what is happening. And, after all, Peter Pan is the only permanent resident of the Neverland as far as we know.

Unfortunately, the first picture we have of Peter Pan is couched in terms which can only be understood if we speak first of Mrs. Darling, Wendy’s mother.

She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right hand corner. (p. 1)

It is Mrs. Darling who first sees Peter Pan:

She started up with a cry, and saw the boy, and some­how she knew at once that he was Peter Pan. If you or I or Wendy had been there we should have seen that he was very like Mrs. Darling’s kiss. He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees; but the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When he saw that she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her. (pp. 10-11)

Peter Pan narcissistic

In spite of what we may think of this image, there is no doubt that Peter Pan is pre-sexual, or, rather, that he loves only himself, he is narcissistic, there is no love or sexual object outside of himself. This fact is annoying, especially as he has “a voice that no woman has ever been able to resist”, particularly to Wendy, to Tinker Bell the fairy, and Tiger Lily, the “redskin princess”.

Wendy says,

. . . she would give him a kiss if he liked, but Peter did not know what she meant, and he held out his hand expectantly”, (p. 30) Tinker Bell is insanely jealous and pulls Wendy’s hair and threatens to do so every time she and Peter kiss. Much later Peter’s lack of understanding becomes clearer yet:’Peter,’ (Wendy) asked, trying to speak firmly, ‘what are your exact feelings for me?’ ‘Those of a devoted son, Wendy.”I thought so,’ she cried, and went and sat by herself at the extreme end of the room.’You are so queer,’ he said, frankly puzzled, ‘and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.”No,   indeed,   it  is   not,’   Wendy   replied   with  frightful emphasis. Now we know why she was prejudiced against the redskins.‘Then what is it?”It isn’t for a lady to tell.’

‘Oh, very well,’ Peter said, a little nettled. ‘Perhaps Tinker Bell will tell me,’

‘Oh yes, Tinker Bell will tell you,’ Wendy retorted scorn­fully. ‘She is an abandoned little creature.’

Here Tink, who was in her boudoir, eavesdropping, squeaked out something impudent.

‘She says she glories in being abandoned,’ Peter inter­preted. He had a sudden idea. ‘Perhaps Tink wants to be my mother?’

‘You silly ass!’ cried Tinker Bell in a passion. She had said it so often that Wendy needed no translation.

‘I almost agree with her,’ Wendy snapped. Fancy Wendy snapping, (pp. 114-115)                    

Peter Pan is not aware of an opposite sex and so he is not aware of his own sex. In a very profound sense he has no sex, although Barrie makes clear, consciously or unconsciously, that he is, potentially, the male principle or that he is the potential male principle. There is little need to belabour this point. The name Peter itself is suggestive and Barrie states:

To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy. (p. 29) and even his great admirer concurs,

‘Yes, he is rather cocky,’ Wendy admitted with regret, (p. 7)

Much later, on the pirate ship, Peter crows and is called a doodle-doo and he is described as strutting up and down on deck, but the strongest testimony comes from the pirate chief himself, Captain Hook:

It was Pan he wanted, Pan and Wendy and their band, but chiefly Pan.

Peter was such a small boy that one tends to wonder at the man’s hatred of him. True he had flung Hook’s arm to the crocodile; but even this and the increased insecurity of life to which it led, owing to the crocodile’s pertinacity, hardly account for a vindictiveness so relentless and malignant. The truth is that there was a something about Peter which goaded the pirate captain to frenzy. It was not his courage, it was not his engaging appearance, it was not —. There is no beating about the bush, for we know quite well what it was, and have got to tell. It was Peter’s cockiness. (p 130)

It is hard to disentangle the metaphor when we remember that Captain Hook has lost a member to Peter Pan, and the most useful member, the right hand, at that. In its place there is a terribly destructive iron claw or hook.

Peter Pan general traits

To return to Peter Pan and his general traits. Barrie does not believe he ever thought (p. 27), and his attempts to stick on his shadow with soap suggests he does not understand causal connections and is limited by the reality of the physical world. But he is powerful and ruthless.

For reply Peter rose and kicked John out of bed, blankets and all; one kick. (p, 34)

and fairies

.  .  .  were rather a nuisance to him, getting in his way and so on, and indeed he sometimes had to give them a hiding. (p. 31)

and he . . . sat on the mermaids’ tails when they got cheeky. (p. 89)

Together with these not wholly admirable traits he is forgetful.

Certainly (Wendy, John and Michael) did not pretend to be sleepy, they were sleepy; and that was a danger for the moment they popped off, down they fell. The awful thing was that Peter thought this funny. ‘There he goes again!’ he would cry gleefully, as Michael suddenly dropped like a stone. ‘Save him, save him!’ cried Wendy, looking with horror at the cruel sea far below. Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that en­grossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next time you fell he would let you go. (p. 44)

And again,

Peter was not with them for the moment, and they felt rather lonely up there by themselves. He could go so much faster than they that he would suddenly shoot out of sight, to have some adventure in which they had no share. He would come down laughing over something fearfully funny he had been saying to a star, but he had already forgotten what it was, or he would come up with mermaid scales still sticking to him, and yet not be able to say for certain what had been happening. (p. 46)

In addition, Barrie tells us that Peter “just said anything that came into his head”, and he made up things about which he knew absolutely nothing, and he often spoke “at venture”. His band, however, “were not allowed to know anything he did not know” (p. 57). He himself was

the only boy on the island who could neither write nor spell; not the smallest word. He was above that sort of thing, (p. 85)

His courage was almost appalling and when there is danger he responds:

They had been flying apart, but they huddled close to Peter now. His careless manner had gone at last, his eyes were sparkling, and a tingle went through them every time they touched his body. (p. 48)

He has a sense of honour, too, of a kind, at least:

‘(Tink) thinks we have lost the way,’ he replied stiffly, ‘and she is rather frightened. You don’t think I would send her away all by herself when she is frightened.’ (p. 51)

and he is not so sorry that Tiger Lily is to be marooned as he is angry at the fact that it was two against one. But he insists that Wendy take the only means of escape from the rock even though she suggests drawing lots. ‘And you a lady; never.’ But of course Wendy is not a lady, she is a girl, and the sense of honour is based on fantasy.

But this courage and sense of honour verges on self-destruc­tion:

He swore this terrible oath: ‘Hook or me this time’.

Now he crawled forward like a snake; and again, erect, he darted across a space on which the moonlight played: one finger on his lip and his dagger at the ready. He was frightfully happy. (p. 142)

And again,

Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face, and a drum beating within him. It was saying, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’. (p. 103)

Perhaps his denial of mothers is only a wish never to have been born, a self-destruction through non-being.

Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very over-rated per­sons. (p. 28)


It was only in Peter’s absence that they could speak of mothers, the subject being forbidden by him as silly. (p. 61)

But he weakens:

‘O Wendy lady be our mother.’

‘Ought I?’ Wendy said, all shining. ‘Of course it’s fright­fully fascinating, but you see I am only a little girl. I have no real experience.’

‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Peter, as if he were the only person present who knew all about it, though he was really the one who knew the least. ‘What we need is just a nice motherly person.’ (p. 78)

and we are told explicitly that he despised all mothers except Wendy and he gets very angry at Mrs. Darling because she did not see that she could not have Wendy.

The reason was so simple. ‘I’m fond of her too. We can’t both have her, lady.’ (p. 170)

He is possessive, exclusive, and unable to brook competition in good feelings.

But the fundamental power of Pan is clear.

In his absence things are usually quiet on the island. . . . But with the coming of Peter who hates lethargy, they are all under way again: if you put your ear to the ground now, you would hear the whole island seething with life. (p. 55)

Pan is life. I do not need to remind you of the power of the Greek god.

Riddle of existence

This brief analysis of Peter Pan, and the extracts that exemplify and support it, come as a shock to the sentimental and idealized picture of a boy who would never grow up, who lived with the fairies in Kensington Gardens, and to whom ‘make-believe and the true were exactly the same thing’. The picture Barrie paints is not wholly attractive and I have omitted one significant element:

Sometimes, though not often, he had dreams, and they were more painful than the dreams of other boys. For hours he could not be separated from these dreams, though he wailed piteously in them. They had to do, I think, with the riddle of his existence. At such times it had been Wendy’s custom to take him out of bed and sit with him on her lap, soothing him in dear ways of her own invention, and when he grew calmer to put him back to bed before he quite woke up, so that he should not know of the indignity to which she had subjected him. (p. 136)

After the victory over the pirates and the final demise of Captain Hook in the jaws of the crocodile,

He had one of his dreams that night, and cried in his sleep for a long time, and Wendy held him tight. (p. 161)

Although  Barrie  is  not  absolute about it,  it  seems  that Peter Pan, like Oedipus in the play of Sophocles, is tormented by ‘the riddle of his existence’. In spite of all our adventures, all our power, even the Peter Pan in us, Peter Pan himself, we are unable to obliterate that question, “Where do I come from? Who am I?”

Peter thought of mothers as ‘very over-rated persons’ but being grown-up, being a man, and fathers, aroused him even more.

He was extraordinarily agitated now. ‘I don’t want ever to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun . . .’ (p. 31)


If (Wendy) did not mind the parting, he was going to show her, was Peter, that neither did he.

But of course he cared very much; and he was so full of wrath against grown-ups, who, as usual, “were spoiling everything . . .” (p. 121)

The grown man

If we do not — with Barrie—accept Peter Pan as the ideal of childhood, if we do not see him as human, should we look at what he hates most, his opposite, the grown man? Now the only grown men are Mr. Darling, Wendy’s father, and Captain Hook, the former in this world, the latter in Neverland, but ultimately swallowed by the crocodile.

I do not believe that we would want to hold up Mr. Darling as a model, as a paradigm of the adult male. First, he is not the equal of his wife, whom he won because he

. . . took a cab and nipped in first, and so he got her. He got all of her, expect the innermost box and the kiss. He never knew about the box, and  in time he gave up trying for the kiss. (p. 2)

Second, he is stunted in feeling and also controlling:

For a week or two after Wendy came it was doubtful whether they would be able to keep her, as she was another mouth to feed. Mr. Darling was frightfully proud of her, but he was very honourable, and he sat on the edge of Mrs. Darling’s bed, holding her hand and calculating ex­penses, while she looked at him imploringly. She wanted to risk it, come what might, but that was not his way; his way was with a pencil and a piece of paper . . . (p. 2)

What a sense of honour!

Third he is a conformist:

Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours. (p.  3)


. . . yet he sometimes wondered uneasily whether the neighbours talked. He had his position in the city to con­sider. (pp. 4-5)


Mr. Darling used to boast to Wendy that her mother not only loved but respected him. He was one of those deep ones who knows about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him. (p. 2)


It is an astounding thing to have to tell, but this man, though he knew about stocks and shares, had no real mastery of his tie . . . (pp. 16-17)

Further glimpses of him reveal that Mr. Darling is obstinate, self-deceiving, lacking in self-control, a cowardly cheat with a sadistic sense of humour. Also he has tantrums.

 ‘That’s right,’ he shouted. ‘Coddle her! Nobody coddles me. Oh dear no! I am only the breadwinner, why should I be coddled, why, why why!’ (p. 22)

But perhaps this says all that needs to be said:

. . . Mr. Darling felt in his bones that all the blame (for losing the children) was his for having chained Nana up, and that from first to last she had been wiser than he. Of course, as we have seen, he was quite a simple man; indeed he might have passed for a boy again if he had been able to take his baldness off; but he had also a noble sense of justice and a lion courage to do what seemed right to him; and having thought the matter out with anxious care after the flight of the children, he went down on all fours and crawled into the kennel. To all Mrs. Darling’s dear invitations to him to come out he replied sadly but firmly:

‘No, my own one, this is the place for me.’ In the bitterness of his remorse he swore that he would never leave the kennel until his children came back. Of course this was a pity; but whatever Mr. Darling did he had to do it in excess: otherwise he soon gave up doing it. (p. 166)

I am reminded of the second inscription at Delphi Meden Agan, Nothing in excess, nothing too much. But to continue,

Every morning the kennel was carried with Mr. Darling in to a cab, which conveyed him to his office, and he re­turned home the same way at six . . . (p. 166)

and he says to his wife

‘Full of remorse as ever, dearest! See my punishment: living in a kennel.’

But Mrs. Darling is not taken in and she replies,

 ‘But it is a punshment, isn’t it, George? You are sure you are not enjoying it?’ (pp. 168-169)

Of course he is enjoying it, and of course he might have passed for a boy again— he is nothing but a bald-headed, de­generate Peter Pan. Is this what growing up means? There is a scope of power and imagination and beauty which endears Peter Pan to us, in spite of all his selfishness; but Mr. Darling is simply petty, and he resembles the crocodile,

like all slaves to a fixed idea, he was a stupid beast. (p. 151)

There is justice perhaps in the fact that Peter Pan at the end takes

. . . Mrs. Darling’s kiss with him. The kiss that had been for no one else Peter took quite easily. Funny. But she seemed satisfied. (p. 177)

The picture of Mr. Darling, and indeed of the adult male, the grown man, is not attractive:

All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine-driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out that iron door? That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his chil­dren was once John. (p. 179)

The only alternatives?

Are these, then, the only alternatives before us, Peter Pan or Mr. Darling? If so, I would prefer Pan, but perhaps we are not forced to a choice. The bearded man was once John and he doesn’t know any story to tell his children. But that reminds me that

. . . Wendy was just slightly disappointed when (Peter) admitted that he came to the nursery window not to see her but to listen to stories. ‘You see I don’t know any stories. None of the lost boys know any stories.’ (p. 35)

and even earlier, Wendy had had some intuition of this:

‘Don’t go, Peter,’ she entreated, ‘I know such lots of stories.’ Those were her precise words, so there can be no denying that it was she who first tempted him. He came back, and there was a greedy look in his eyes now which ought to have alarmed her, but did not. (p. 33)

Stories are what Peter and the lost boys want but do not have— presumably that is why they are lost; stories are what the bearded John doesn’t know and therefore cannot tell his children’. Stories are in the keeping of Wendy and Mrs. Darling, they are the prerogative of mothers apparently.

Whether this is so, in Barrie’s view, because of the nature of women or simply because of the social role which has been assigned to them it is hard to say. At a time when women’s roles are under severe and serious scrutiny — and, therefore, by implication, men’s roles also—1 would not want to treat lightly such a topic. I would only say that because women bear children by a natural role, they have the opportunity of being closer to our origins and for being closer to children (before they are done for at the age of two) than men. It would not surprise me if they knew more.

Tidying up the mind

Instead of the roles of mother and father, let me draw your attention to the stories which are told, the stories which are so irresistible to the Peter Pan in us, to that which is lost, to those who are lost. The stories bring a kind of peace and security as well as delight, although like Barrie’s own story of Peter Pan and Wendy, they may contain elements of viciousness and violence, they may portray a world of unreason, of capriciousness and un­controllable forces. Although this may well be true, the stories, because they are repeated and because of their content, do show a pattern in things and they are the means by which the world comes to be ordered.

Quite early on, Barrie himself tells us that

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repack­ing into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had pickedthis thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, press­ing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on. (p. 5)

This tidying up of children’s minds is not, of course, accom­plished physically as this passage indicates, but it is accomplished nevertheless by the stories heard, particularly in young children, immediately before going to sleep. The stories, often told by the mother, live on in the child’s mind and order, bring within bounds, the energy found therein. The stories are the means by which children (or the childish within us) are made human. Peter Pan is not human, charming and attractive though he be; he is ultimately a monster, although I realize that this is to judge him in human terms when I have just stated that he is not human. If you doubt it, let me remind you of what happens when he returns to see Wendy one year after her return.

. . . when she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, ‘Who is Tinker Bell?’. ‘O Peter,’ she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.(p. 178)

And Barrie tells us that when Wendy’s grand-daughter

… Margaret grows up she will have a daughter who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and this will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless. (p. 185)

Peter Pan and children too, for a time, are heartless and they must learn, if they are to be human, to have a heart. Peter Pan never learns this which is why, from a human stand-point, we must judge him a monster.

The need to develop love

This view that Barrie, in my opinion, builds into his story, indicates quite clearly a task for education. We must all learn to have a heart, to have heart, to care for others, to love. Barrie is at great pains to link the three terms ‘gay’, ‘innocent’ and ‘heartless’ together — he does so on more than one occasion — and the question arises whether in ceasing to be heartless we must also cease to be gay and innocent.

It is curious to observe that Mr. Darling and the lost boys when grown up are certainly not gay — but solemn, stuffy, stodgy, self-important — and nor are they innocent. But do they have any heart? The answer must surely be that they do not. They seem to have the worst of all outcomes, having lost their gaiety and innocence without having gained a heart. They are not so spontaneously ruthless as Peter Pan but when Wendy, John and Michael returned with the six lost boys Mr. Darling was ‘curiously depressed’ and ‘they saw that he considered six a rather large number’ — there is no heart, only a calculator, a ticker-tape machine, and wounded vanity.

The task of education is not to stop children being ‘gay and innocent and heartless’ but rather to temper gaiety and inno­cence by the development of love. You will recall that Peter Pan, while on the slippery rock in the lagoon, gave the pirate a hand to help him up.

It was then that Hook bit him. Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness: no one except Peter. He often met it, but he always forgot it. I suppose that was the real difference between him and all the rest. (p. 100)

If the world were just, we would have little use for love which forgives — there would be nothing to forgive. How to live in an unjust world, or rather a partially just world, without be­coming cynical or withdrawn, is a very difficult learning task. And how to preserve, in the presence of serious and solemn events, a degree of gaiety is equally hard.

Why do not Mr. Darling and his sons, and the lost boys, achieve this? Perhaps they have not gone on listening to stories or perhaps they have heard the wrong stories.

Before they had attended school a week they saw what goats they had been not to remain on the island; but it was too late now, and soon they settled down to being as ordinary as you or me or Jenkins minor. (p. 177)

What are the stories that we tell in school? There are stories with strange titles like history and geography and mathematics and, heaven preserve us, literature. This collection of stories, which we call the curriculum, needs to be examined. Perhaps Peter Pan should be called in as a consultant but since he would probably forget to come we can make an attempt on his behalf. But perhaps all I need do is to go back to what I was saying earlier about Plato and the dialogues. If we want to turn out Mr. Darlings and lost boys then all we need is disembodied subject-matters—if we tell ourselves and our students stories without heart then we can predict the inevitable outcome, unless it is mitigated by the presence of our own heart.

All this takes me back to Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus which is all about loving, about persuasion, and about the telling of stories, the giving of speeches.

In the beginning, as Phaedrus and Socrates are walking towards the shade of a distant tree, Phaedrus refers to the local story that Boreas had carried off the nymph Oreithyia there and says:

. . . but for Heaven’s sake, Socrates, tell me; do you believe this tale is true?

Socrates replies:

If I disbelieved as the wise men do, I should not be extra­ordinary; then I might give a rational explanation, that a blast of Boreas, the north wind, pushed her off the neighbouring rocks as she was playing with Pharmacea, and that when she had died in this manner she was said to have been carried off by Boreas. But I, Phaedrus, think such explanations are very pretty in general, but are the inventions of a very clever and not altogether enviable man, for no other reason than because after this he must explain the forms of the Centaurs, and then that of the Chimaera, and there presses in upon him a whole crowd of such creature, Gorgons and Pegasuses, and multitudes of strange, inconceivable, portentous natures. It anyone disbelieves in these, and with a rustic sort of wisdom, undertakes to explain each in accordance with probability, he will need a great deal of leisure. But I have no leisure for them at all; and the reason, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, as the Delphic inscription has it, to know myself; so it seems to me ridiculous, when I do not yet know that, to in­vestigate irrelevant things. And so I dismiss these matters and accepting the customary belief about them, as I was say­ing just now, I investigate not these things, but myself, to know whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon or a gentler and simpler creature, to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.

In the same spirit, I would not want you to explain away Peter Pan as if it were merely a crude, anthropomorphic and pre-scientific legend which has been superseded by the ‘scientific truth’. It is right to accept the stories, the old stories, simply as stories, and let them knowingly or unknowingly be brought to bear upon the Delphic task of knowing ourselves.

At the end of the dialogue, after Socrates has affirmed the primacy of the spoken over the written word — a primacy well understood by Peter Pan who wanted to be told stories, not to read stories, not to have stories read to him—Phaedrus wants to go, but Socrates detains him, as he detains us:

“Is it not well to pray to the gods here before we go?

Of course.

O Beloved Pan, and all you other gods of this place, grant that I become beautiful within, and that such external posses­sions as I have be friendly with me inwardly. May I think the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only a temperate man may bear and endure. Do we need anything more, Phaedrus? For me the prayer is enough.

Make it a prayer for me too, since friends have all things in common.

Let us go.”

Text: Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1930.