Our theme for October is “Why I Believe.”
WENDY: Peter, are you expecting me to fly away with you?
PETER: Of course. That’s why I came. Have you forgotten it’s spring cleaning time?
WENDY: I can’t come. I’ve forgotten how to fly.
PETER: I’ll teach you again.
WENDY: Oh no, Peter—don’t waste the fairy dust on me.
PETER: (frightened and shrinking) What is it?
WENDY: I’m old Peter. I’m ever so much more than twenty. I grew up a long time ago.
PETER: You promised not to!
WENDY: I couldn’t help it. I’m a married woman now, Peter.
PETER: No! You’re not!
WENDY: Yes. And the little girl in the bed—is my child.
PETER: No she’s not! No she’s not! (He sinks to his knees, sobbing. Wendy goes to Peter to comfort him, but then turns and runs from the room. Jane is awakened by his sobbing.)
WENDY: Oh, if only I could go with you.
PETER: You can’t. You see Wendy, you’re too grown up.
— Excerpt from the final scene of Peter Pan (1954), a musical based on the play by J.M. Barrie
I’m not a particularly emotional person. Sure, I’m struck by your average nostalgia now and again, and I feel a bit down in the bleakness of mid-February. I get frustrated but can count only two or three times I’ve been truly angry. I don’t cry often, and I’m not one to spill my guts, even in a vulnerable, personal conversation.
Unless, that is, I’m thinking about Peter Pan.
Now I know, I know, that Peter Pan weirds some people out. He’s a manchild in tights dancing around and carrying on about fairy dust and making a young girl his mother. And J.M. Barrie was a bit of an odd duck. And the story has some morbid origins. And various retellings (of which there are many—maybe too many) of the story have been called racist, sexist, and just plain bad art. But allow me to explain.
Peter is an utterly charming character. He loses his shadow, for goodness sake! He thinks a thimble is a kiss. He can fly. He knows that if you just squeeze your eyes closed hard enough, you’ll be transported to a different world. His best friend is a fairy who is mostly invisible to the human eye. The imagination that Barrie grants him will never cease to amuse me. The tender little details, the innocence and optimism with which he views the world—it’s all a perfect image of what the Bible would call “faith like a child.”
Peter meets Wendy, and much fun is had exploring Neverland and defeating the perfectly evil Captain Hook. Wendy has to go home eventually, but she promises to come back each year.
But Wendy falters. Wendy, who never knew such a beautiful, magical world existed until the night Peter alighted in her window and she sewed on his lost shadow. Wendy, who learns to fly. Wendy, who gathered together a group of boys and showed them what it meant to be family—she grows up. This perfect, magical world full of fairies who drink poison to save their master and crocodiles with clocks lodged in their stomachs is gone forever. She can never go back, simply because she has committed the all-too-natural act of growing up. She is distraught when Peter comes back for her many years later, and Peter is, too. For a moment. But he, the eternal child, moves on quickly. “If only I could go with you,” she cries. “You can’t,” Peter replies abruptly once he understands. “You’re too grown up.” And so she is. She is “ever so much more than twenty.” Wendy is cast out, exiled from the greatest place she’s ever know.
This story shows up elsewhere, and goes like this: character is a sweet, happy-go-lucky kid. He believes in things like magic or Santa Claus or the power of love. But suddenly (or perhaps incrementally, without the character even noticing the change), the character becomes too old, too practical, or too jaded to believe in the thing that once brought him so much joy. That world, the thing he loved so much and invested so much time in, dies. And something inside him dies, too. The childlike awe, the unfettered belief—it’s all gone and the audience is left sobbing into their Cheerios. Or maybe that’s just me.
In The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Peter and Susan learn that this will be their last trip into the wardrobe. “I’m pretty sure [Aslan] means you [Lucy] get to come back some day,” says Peter. “But not Su and me. He says we’re getting too old.” But they’re king and queen of Narnia! my heart protests. How can you send them away? Regina Spektor sings a heartbreaking song to accompany the scene in the film version. “You’ll come back / when they call you / no need to say goodbye.”
In The Polar Express, the main character struggles with belief through a trip to the North Pole to visit Santa. He’s skeptical until the magical moment when Santa appears, and the boy is chosen from among dozens to receive the first gift of Christmas. He chooses a bell from the sleigh and treasures the bell for the rest of his life. “At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell,” he says on the last page (and in the last scene of the film version). “But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even [my sister] found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.” He can hear the bell because he has not grown too old. But my heart aches for these (fictional!) characters—parents and sisters and friends—who have forgotten the magic they once knew.
I used to believe that Wendy was the tragic character of Peter Pan. Peter was the hero. Peter defeated Captain Hook with help from Tinkerbell. Tinkerbell almost died drinking poison meant for Peter, but he saves her by getting the audience to clap if they believe in fairies. The audience claps to save her. Every time. No matter how silly they think this breaking of theater’s fourth wall is. They clap because if they’re anything like me, they’ll do whatever it takes to preserve that one small scrap of belief. They don’t want to grow old. They want to stay with Peter forever, and if that means clapping can save a fairy, so be it. So I used to think that Peter was the hero because he taught us to believe.
But recently, I’ve started to wonder if he’s the tragedy of the story. Maybe Wendy is happy to have grown up. Sure, she wishes she could go back, but now her daughter Jane gets to experience Neverland. It’s bittersweet, but maybe Wendy knows it’s for the best. I’ve started to see Peter as a sad character, one who is stuck in perpetual childhood and might never know the joy of a real kiss. But I’m a little afraid it’s because I’ve grown up.