When J. M. Barrie wrote his famous children’s book, Peter Pan, it was an era when British children of the middle and upper classes were relegated to the nursery – as far removed from the company of their parents as possible. The majority of fathers were distant figures who rarely ever figured in their children’s lives and mothers ran their households with the assistance of a bevy of household staff. It was the nanny who featured most in the lives of Victorian children.
Children were expected to be proper little ladies and gentlemen. Ideally this meant miniature representations of their parents. Not seen and not heard, boys of school age were sent off to boarding schools, while girls were tutored on how to be ladies and wives. In such an environment, the figure of a boy who vows never to grow up, and lives a life of endless adventures touched by magic, would be a figure of irresistible appeal to children – and more than a few adults, as well.
While there is no doubt that the repressive Victorian age needed a figure like Peter Pan as an antidote for the constraints placed upon children, his character’s refusal to grow up represents a denial of the change needed for the emotional growth required to outgrow the selfishness of childhood. As children, the majority of us believed the world revolved around us, and everything was put upon Earth for the express purpose of supplying us with amusement. Any of us who have run into adults who still cling to those beliefs know full well how annoying these people can be.
In his new book, Tigerheart, author Peter David has taken J. M. Barrie’s classic tale of the boy who wouldn’t grow up and has passed it through the prism of his imagination to present a slightly different vision from the original. Instead of the central figure being the boy who doesn’t want to grow up, our hero is Paul Dear, a boy who wants more than anything to make his mother happy again.
Paul was enthralled by the tales his father told him about The Boy and the magical land of Anyplace where he fought pirates and caroused with Indians. At night, when Paul looked in the mirror, he was certain the figure who appeared opposite him in the glass was none other than The Boy himself. In his travels through the Kensington section of London, Paul would chat with the squirrels and pixies who inhabited the various shrubs and trees he passed. In his dreams, he would hunt the lands of Anyplace in the copy of a fearsome white tiger.
Paul’s life is proceeding along just fine until a tragedy strikes his family that results in his father telling him that he has to be the man of the house, and his mother telling him that it’s time to grow up. As growing up means no longer talking to pixies or seeing The Boy in the mirror, his mother takes him to a doctor who gives him pills that will ensure he grows up. Paul knows the only way he can make his mother happy again — and pull the family out of its tragedy — is by going to Anyplace. For that, he has to believe.
A chance meeting with an ex-pirate in the park sends him on a quest to a curio shop where he finds the mummified remains of Flickerbell the pixie. Through the standard practice of clapping his hands and saying, “I Believe,” he is able to revive what turns out to be a very pissed off pixie. She promises to take Paul to Anyplace if he will exact revenge upon the person responsible for “killing” her: The Boy. Obviously there’s something rotten in the state of Anyplace, and The Boy’s denial of Flickerbell’s existence (pixies can only die if people stop believing in them) is only the tip of the iceberg.
Welcome to the dark side of Peter Pan. The Boy is selfish, egocentric, lies to ensure that he is the centre of attention, and is firm in the belief that nothing can happen in Anyplace that he doesn’t want to happen. Like all spoiled children who are used to getting their own way, he is blind to anything but his own needs, and sulks when he’s not the centre of attention. Even when Paul saves The Boy’s life, more by fluke than anything else, The Boy convinces himself that he wasn’t really in any danger and that Paul’s intervention hadn’t really been necessary.
For The Boy, not growing up means not accepting responsibility for his actions and not caring about the feelings of others. For Paul, growing up doesn’t mean giving up all he loves in the world or his ability to talk to animals and pixies; it means opening up your world to include others in it. The Boy only thinks of others in terms of what’s in it for him. He doesn’t rescue Flickerbell from pirates because he particularly cares what happens to her one way or another, but because it gives him an opportunity to be the centre of attention by being brave.
While the theme sounds serious, author Peter David has done a wonderful job of making Tigerheart slyly humorous. While Paul and his family speak and act like people from our time period, other characters talk and think like they came out of Victorian literature. Gwenie (a girl who The Boy has been bringing to Anyplace as a den mother for his followers for quite a while), acts, thinks, and talks like she just stepped out of the pages of the original Peter Pan. The depiction of the Pica Tribe, the local “Red Indians” in Anyplace, is so Victorian and politically incorrect that it’s funny and an obvious dig at the whole “Boys Own” Adventure/White Man’s Burden attitude that characterized children’s literature of that period.
Tigerheart is that rarest of creatures, the gentle satire, where instead of twisting a dagger into your side to make a point, the author pokes you in the ribs with his finger. From start to finish this book is a delight to read and is sure to raise more than a few smiles, and offer readers any number of surprises. Most of all, though, it reminds us that just because we’re adults, it doesn’t mean we have to be boring, and that change is a nothing to be afraid of.