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Book Review: The Annotated Peter Pan: The Centennial Edition by J. M. Barrie

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If you want to know what’s in and behind the books we all really love —  The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm — you can’t beat this series of 14 annotated books, I’ve found.

These are beautiful hardcover editions of beloved books that Harold Bloom and Jacques Derridas wouldn’t even deign to opine upon, but readers love ’em. Each one is fully illustrated, usually with the original and most famous illustrations, and fully annotated with notes and background material that tell us about the author’s life and how his or her work came to life.

The Annotated Peter Pan is no exception. After “A Message for Those Who Have Grown Up” and other front matter, including a biography of Barrie, we are given Peter and Wendy, the novelized version of the famous play that was first performed on December 27, 1904, starring Nina Boucicault as the famous boy.

In case you know the story best from the 2004 film Finding Neverland, you’ll learn here that there were actually five Llewellyn Davies boys and that both their parents were alive when Barrie first met them in London. As you read about Peter and Wendy, of course, you’ll immediately recognize all the famous scenes — Wendy sewing Peter’s shadow to his feet, the children flying around the nursery and out the window, the redskins (Barrie was not politically correct; he names the tribe the Picaninny tribe), Tinker Bell drinking Peter’s poisoned medicine and being magically revived, the melodramatic battle between the boys and the pirates, and the return of everyone except Peter to the Darling house in London.

We learn some new things, too. The fairy is called Tinker Bell because she used to be a tinker, one who repairs pots and pans. There are (perhaps unconscious) references to other works of literature. “There never was a simpler happier family” may, for example, be an allusion to the first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (pg. 18-19). Barrie’s young hero “owes something to the cultural mania about Pan in the Edwardian era,” mania that included Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, and Dickon in The Secret Garden (pg. 19). Most surprising? Captain Jas. Hook went to Eton! His cabin on the pirate ship is arranged to look just like a student’s room at the famous public school.

Following this come a picture book Barrie and the Llewellyn Davies boys created; Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens; Barrie’s extremely long and complicated proposed scenario for a silent film of Peter Pan (which did not get made); a cinematic survey that includes Disney’s version, Steven Spielberg’s Hook, and Finding Neverland; and other miscellania. This splendid book is beautifully illustrated with a multitude of photos of Barrie, the Llewellyn Davies boys, and actresses who have played Peter.

What’s missing? The enchanting Threesixty Entertainment production of Peter Pan (created in about 2010) that is performed in a very large tent and uses electronics to give us 360 degree panorama of London and Never Land. It has Nana as a large puppet and a crocodile built of wooden clothes hangers with two men in white pajamas driving it. Although Barrie’s Mr. Darling is a timid man and his Hook is an Etonian, the creative director of Threesixty believes that Hook is actually modeled on King William III (“King Billy,” who was a dour Calvinist who spent much of his reign massacring the Irish). There’s a famous statue of William in Kensington Gardens. It’s also how Cyril Ritchard dressed in the most famous production of Peter Pan (1960) starring Mary Martin as the boy.

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  • Lorna Sampson

    Wow–thanks! I like how you described the book and I can’t wait to read it. Have not seen Peter Pan 360 but will look for that too.