|Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan – Photo by J. M. Barrie|
Peter Pan – immortal, magical, and forever lonely – has his origins in a novella called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906). This little story predates the more famous novel Peter and Wendy by some years (the latter I reviewed in my latest podcast episode “Getting Older with Peter Pan“). Like his fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan was both a real-life figure and a figment of imagination, a character who would haunt his author for decades. There are glimpses of this bittersweet legacy in Kensington Gardens, itself an excerpt of a larger novel, The Little White Bird. Through this iterative story development, one easily senses J. M. Barrie‘s personal connection to the Peter Pan mythos.
The tale begins with an anonymous father-figure and a boy named David who take walks in London’s famous Kensington Gardens. The narrative drifts from a conversational discussion of the Gardens (and how children like to play there) to the two “remembering” the time Peter Pan first came to live there. Like all great oral traditions, “Peter Pan” starts as a story that David and the narrator make-believe, later becoming a fully fledged legend in the vein of Robin Hood – someone you are not quite sure is fictional.
|Kensington Gardens in the winter – Photo by Sandpiper|
Apart from the day he left his mother for life as a bird-child, Peter Pan’s most momentous day is when Maimie Mannering gets stuck in Kensington Gardens after “Lock-Out.” Both somewhere under six years old, Maimie is scarcely older than Peter, but she knows far more about the outside world than he does. Maimie is the prototype for Wendy, and like Wendy she has a great fascination with fairies, who don’t immediately return the courtesy. Peter, in any case, loves Maimie and asks her to stay with him in the Gardens forever.
She had shut her eyes tight and glued them with passionate tears. When she opened them something very cold ran up her legs and up her arms and dropped into her heart. It was the stillness of the Gardens.
Kensington Gardens is a strange medley of themes. On the one hand, the conversational tone takes on the air of folklore and the making of a classic fairytale. On the other, there is all of the poignancy and ghostlike qualities of Peter and Wendy without nearly as much of the humor. Plotwise, the two stories overlap, but they are essentially different, because one shows us Peter in his “prime” – leader of a gang of boys – and the other is Peter in his babyhood, quite literally a young child and therefore needy.
|Peter Pan and the crow – Arthur Rackham|
Of the two stories, I would start with Kensington Gardens if the Victorian Gothic appeals to you (the ending is bizarrely morbid) or if you like the deeper nuances which come with such stories as The Jungle Book. For those who prefer a lighter read, Peter and Wendy balances pathos with a vivid, if somewhat dated, sense of humor and breathtaking adventure.