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Twelve Facts You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Origins of Peter Pan

August 23, 2016
Keri Horan
Riveted Editorial Board

It’s the Summer of Twists here at Riveted, and one of the biggest twists I’ve seen so this summer is what the cast of  the 1991 Robin Williams film Hook looks like 25 years after its release. (Also, how is it possible that movie came out 25 years ago??) In case you haven’t seen it, here it is:

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This image got me thinking about the origins of Peter Pan. The character has been around for more than a hundred years, but what did it look like at the very beginning? What twists and turns did Barrie’s original story take to become what we know it as today? If you’ve ever seen Finding Neverland, you have a little bit of an idea, but there’s so much more to the story. Here are ten facts you might not know about where Peter Pan actually came from (and two about where he went).

The First Time Peter Pan Appeared in Literature Wasn’t in the Eponymous Peter Pan
Little known fact: the first time the character Peter Pan appeared in a published work wasn’t actually in Peter Pan. It was in an earlier novel by James (J.M.) Barrie called The Little White Bird, first published in 1902. While the overall novel is fairly dark, several chapters are much lighter in tone and establish the background for Peter Pan. This section of the book received acclaim apart from the overall book, helping Barrie to realize Peter could be a much bigger character. For the next thirty years, he worked on Peter’s story as both a play and a novel, switching back and forth between the two. In 1906 he pulled the original story of Peter out of The Little White Bird, and published it as a standalone novel titled Peter Pan in Kensington Garden.

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J.M. Barrie Wrote the Play in 1904 but it Didn’t Appear in Print until 1929
As a result of Peter’s popularity in The Little White Bird Barrie began developing a play: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The play was produced for the first time on December 27, 1904 and was incredibly well received. But with each performance came tweaks, so Barrie waited to put the play in writing until 1929.

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Part of its Initial Popularity is Because of the Christmas Pantomime Tradition
You might not immediately think of Peter Pan as a Christmas story, but its production in the early years tended to be focused on the holiday season. Plays geared towards children based on nursery rhymes and fairly tales were usually produced this time of year. When Peter Pan hit the stage, though, it was something entirely new—with flying, fairies, and pirates, it quickly became a popular part of the Christmas tradition in London and New York, and eventually spread around the world.

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Barrie Finally Wrote the Novel Version in 1911
By 1911 Peter Pan was well known as a play, but there was no novel version of Peter’s story (besides those chapters mentioned earlier). Finally, he adapted the play into a novel and simply called it Peter and Wendy.

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J. M. Barrie (Partially) Based the Character of Peter Pan on Himself
Peter is a complex character and has characteristics of a lot of people in Barrie’s life, but he started with himself. Peter is presented as an inadequate outsider in British society, which is how Barrie saw himself. One of the biggest similarities between the two is the apparent lack of sexual desire. Wendy wants Peter to act like a father, but Peter literally can’t imagine what it is she wants him to do. And though Barrie married in 1894 and loved children, he never had any of his own, though his wife desperately wanted them. It’s unknown whether Barrie was impotent or just uninterested in sex, but regardless the marriage deteriorated, ending in 1909. What we do know, though, is in his personal journal Barrie wrote: “Greatest horror—dream I am married—wake up shrieking.” And it seems Peter would have the same reaction.

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He Also Had His Older Brother in Mind
The other huge influence on the character of Peter was Barrie’s older brother, David. When Barrie was six years old, David died in an ice skating accident two days before his fourteenth birthday. It mystified and disturbed Barrie while he would continue getting older, the memory of his brother never would—people would always picture him as a thirteen-year-old child. It certainly casts a dark shadow on the phrase “boy who would not grow up.” And his brother David wasn’t the only death. His mother had ten children, but by 1929 when he finally wrote down the play, only one of his nine siblings was still alive. The themes of life and death are explored throughout his works.

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Which Got a Little Weird…
Barrie’s mother openly favored David over all her other children. When David died, James quite literally tried to fill his brother’s shoes. He would dress up in his brother’s clothes and act like him to try to make his mother happy. Like I said: it was a little weird.

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And Then He Met The Lleweyn-Davies Boys
Now these guys you’ve probably heard of. While walking his dog in Kensington Gardens near his home in London, Barrie struck up a friendship with Sylvia Davies and her five sons: George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico. Barrie claimed in the introduction to the first print edition of the play that Peter is a result of the boys: “I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame…That is all he is, the spark I got from you.” His relationship with the family has been the subject of many pieces of writing over the decades, as well the film Finding Neverland. And while many have speculated over the past hundred years, there’s nothing to suggest he had an inappropriate relationship with the boys.


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He Also Really Loved the Popular Adventure Novels of his Time
Early 20th century England was really, really into adventure stories. Robert Lewis Stevenson was writing Treasure Island, Barrie was particularly fond of Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and society as a whole couldn’t get enough stories about sending ships overseas to “discover” things, which seemed to be a big pastime for the British. Stevenson was a personal friend of Barrie’s, and Barrie went so far as to write in Peter and Wendy that Captain Hook was the only person Long John Silver feared. When he imagined Neverland, he definitely had all those exploration stories in mind.


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And Then There’s That Whole Imperialism Thing
Let’s just be honest here: Peter Pan (the book, not necessarily the character) is definitely racist. Barrie pretty much took qualities from a bunch of different groups of indigenous people and smashed them together into the Piccaninny tribe. Disney’s adaptation made them into an offensively stereotypical Native American tribe, but in Barrie’s original text it’s not so easy to figure out what he was going for—and that’s kind of the point. This was the height of the British Empire, so his Picaninny tribe had features of Australian, North American, Caribbean, and Asian indigenous peoples. The name Piccaninny, which is derived from the term “pickaninny,” a variation of the Portuguese word pequenino meaning “tiny” was widely used in the UK to describe the indigenous people the Caribbean and Australia. It has since come to be understood as an offensive term used to classify any small, dark-skinned child living in a colonized country. Still not convinced? Let’s look at one of Tiger Lily’s few lines: “Peter Pan save me. Me has velly nice friend.” Yikes. And the Disney adaptation didn’t do any better; she got no lines at all.


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Despite All That, Peter Pan’s Legacy Has Done a Lot of Good.
When Barrie died, he decided to give all proceeds from Peter Pan to the Great Orman Street Hospital Children’s Charity. To this day, the hospital has a right to royalty in perpetuity in the UK, which means they receive royalties on stage productions, broadcasting and publication of a whole or substantial part of the work, and on adaptations. Their royalty deal doesn’t apply to derivative works such as sequels, prequels or spin-offs and the copyright has expired everywhere except for play in the US and Spain. Still, over the years the hospital says it has amounted to a considerable amount of money. Just how much? As Barrie requested, the hospital has never disclosed the exact amount they have received from his works.


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His Story Is a Favorite for Retellings
While they won’t benefit the Orman Street Hospital, we’re in the golden age of fairy tale retellings and Peter Pan seems to be one of the favorites. Over the years there have been countless films, books, plays and cartoons based on the original. For me, none will come before the incredible Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman duo in Hook, even if it is 25 years old. Want to decide your favorite version for yourself? Check out this list of adaptations of the original and tell us which ones are your favorites in the comments!

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One Response to Twelve Facts You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Origins of Peter Pan


  1. Tara Grieco says:

    Great, fascinating article! Hook will always be one of my fave movies 🙂

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