Neverland and fairyland- J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan and British fairy tradition

arthur_rackham_serpentine

One of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Barrie’s story

This is a slightly amended version of an earlier post, re-posted because the old one was getting bombarded with spam!

Scottish author, J. M. Barrie, is renowned as the creator of Peter Pan, the central character of a play of that name and of two stories Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) and Peter and Wendy (1911).  I would argue that his work has had a profound influence subsequently upon popular conceptions and conventions regarding faery.  A good deal of Barrie’s material on fairies was drawn from British tradition, in which respect he can’t be criticised.  However, it is what he invented that has probably had to be most profound effect on representations of genre.

Barrie and tradition

The traditional elements in his descriptions of fairy kind include the following:

  • language- Barrie has Tinker Bell speaking a language incomprehensible to human children (although Peter Pan has learned it).  Her speech is like “the loveliest tinkle of golden bells” and is also described as high-pitched squeaking.  This fits well with many older descriptions of fairy speech;
  • dancing- the fairies’ favourite pastime is dancing and by their waltzing around they create fairy rings.  Mushrooms left in the circle are seats not tidied away by their servants, according to Barrie (a first hint of his cute tendencies).  When they are happy, they “feel dancey.”  When they are troubled, they are “undancey”;
  • not working- Barrie is inconsistent in this.  He declares that “they never do anything useful… They look tremendously busy, you know, as if they had not a moment to spare, but if you were to ask them what they were doing, they could not tell you.” Elsewhere, he has them milking their cows, building and repairing pots and pans.  This uncertainty as to the exact nature of the fairy economy is long-standing;
  • glamour- Barrie’s fairies employ magic to disguise their houses and to hide themselves.  This is a standard fairy trait and Barrie tells us that pretending to be something else is “one of their best tricks.  They usually pretend to be flowers”;
  • diminutive- Barrie’s fairies are all small– Tinker Bell for example is “no longer than your hand, but still growing.”
  • concealment– Barrie’s fairy folk are shy of human contact, only appearing after dark and when the gates are locked in Kensington Gardens and disguising themselves as flowers if they are caught in the open;
  • alien- “Fairies indeed are strange” and it is only the half-boy, Peter Pan, who really comprehends them and knows that, often times, the only way to communicate with them is in the rough physical language they use themselves.  He often cuffs them and gives them a good hiding, according to Barrie; and,
  • bad temperament– in Tinker Bell’s vindictive jealously of Wendy and in their use of physical chastisements, Barrie’s fairies are very traditional.  They tweak Peter’s nose when he sleeps across a fairy path; they ‘mischief’ those they take against.  “Nearly all the nasty accidents you meet with in the Gardens occur because the fairies have taken an ill-will against you and so it behoves you to be careful what you say about them…”  “If the fairies see you … they will mischief you- stab you to death, or compel you to nurse their children, or turn you into something tedious, like an evergreen oak.”  Of Tinker Bell, Barrie explains that she “was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good.  Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.  They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a compete change.”  For regular readers, these accounts of abductions, violence and the need to speak circumspectly will be very familiar.

Barrie’s inventions

Significant aspects of the character and abilities of Tinker Bell have nothing to do with British tradition though.  Barrie’s most notable inventions include:

  • fairy-dust- this enables fairies to fly.  It covers Tinker Bell and rubs off; we are not told what it is;
  • fairy light- every fairy gives off a very bright light.  She cannot control it (“about the only thing they can’t do”) but “it just goes out of itself when she falls asleep;”
  • fairies nest in trees, we are told, although Barrie also has them occupying more conventional houses and palaces arranged in streets too;
  • they are closely linked to flowers– there is some traditional material here, in the association with natural life and verdancy, but for Barrie “they dress exactly like flowers and change with the seasons, putting on white when lilies are in and blue for bluebells, and so on.  They like crocus and hyacinth time best of all as they are partial to a bit of colour, but tulips (except the white ones, which are fairy cradles) they consider too garish…”

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Fairies and children

For Barrie, there was a very close link between children and fairies.  This manifests in three ways:

  • they are born from babies’ laughter- “when they first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about and that was the beginning of the fairies.”  Every time a child is born, another fairy will appear;
  • they are particularly drawn to children:  Barrie tells us that “it is frightfully difficult to know much about fairies, and about the only thing known for certain is that there are fairies wherever there are children… They can’t resist following the children…”
  • childrens’ disbelief in fairies kills them.  A fairy’s life is short in any case, although “they are so little that a short time seems a good while to them.”  Worse, though, is the fact that “children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies ad every time a child says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ there is a fairy that drops down dead.”

The bond between the delicate and pretty fairies and children that Barrie conjures fits ill with much of the rest of the delineation of their characters- the pinching, the grudges and the cruelty, but it is the ‘natural’ association between infancy and faery that has proved abiding.

Finally, it is also notable that Barrie was not immune to the quasi-adult treatment of fairies that had pervaded much Victorian literature and art.  There is a curious and uncomfortable tension between Peter, Tinker Bell and Wendy, with the two females competing for the attention of and the right to care for Peter.  Tink herself is introduced thus: she was “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage.  She was slightly inclined to embonpoint.”  Later Wendy describes her cattily as “an abandoned little creature” and that aura of wantonness pervades the character.  All in all, Tinker Bell appears to be an adult.  She is “quite a common fairy” and is not very polite, using “offensive” and “impudent” language to Wendy in their squabble over Peter.  This might be read as sexual possessiveness, or it might be the childhood exclusiveness of ‘the best friend.’

Further reading

In other posts I have examined the impact of other famous literary works on traditional British fairy-lore, books including Harry Potter, the Water Babies and the works of Mrs Ewing.

8 thoughts on “Neverland and fairyland- J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan and British fairy tradition

  1. Hello! I love this post! I am currently writing about Tinkerbell for university. You have some really great quotes from Barrie himself in this blog post, would you be able to give me the citations where you found those? I would really appreciate it!
    Best Regards,
    Pia

    Like

    1. Pia

      My main sources were Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’ (1906) and ‘Peter & Wendy’ (1911), although I’ve also looked at the original stage play for Peter Pan as well (more for the way that Tinker Bell was represented in live performances).

      John

      Like

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