Since I am currently living with a friend in the Hungarian countryside, and I had to act the part of an undertaker in a comic-horror film being shot near Budapest, I found myself back in Budapest a few nights in early May staying with a hospitable actress and dancer. She had spent most of her life working in stage musicals, five or six years of which she toured in productions of ‘Peter Pan’. I belatedly realised I had somehow never actually seen or read J. M. Barrie’s famous story.
Meanwhile, the friend in the Hungarian countryside who is looking after me is an academic folklorist who researches myths, legends, and fairy tales. Putting the two topics together, I suddenly started to wonder if Peter Pan, a magical escape from adulthood, is a modern myth that explains much of the twentieth century.
There have been plenty of articles since the 1980s about “adult teenagers”, usually men who, in their thirties or forties, still dress in t-shirts, jeans, training shoes as if they were still 13 or 14. There is even a quasi-psychiatric syndrome known as ‘puer aeternus’ (eternal boy), describing a man who refuses to embrace the responsibilities of manhood. Sometimes he also manages to look curiously young for his age, but principally he’s a person whose thinking remains adolescent well into adulthood. The phrase “provisional living” is often used of the puer aeternus. There is a separate description of men suffering from ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’, which is similar to the puer aeternus, but not quite the same.
A good example of one of those, perhaps both, would be an Etonian I shared a flat with for his last two years who, sad to say, hanged himself in the autumn of 2020. He was strikingly boyish in appearance, habitually wore a rugby shirt, baggy shorts, and tennis shoes, and carried his belongings in a plastic shopping bag. Though in his mid-sixties, his thick mop of forward-flopping hair (very similar to Boris Johnson’s) fooled many East European women into judging him twenty or even thirty years younger. The hormone-suppressing drug finasteride he took to stop even the beginnings of a receding hairline worsened his mood swings. Unable to stick to even the simplest of self-help plans for more than a few days, he exemplified the inability to complete a project that marks this type.
I had read the occasional news story mentioning J. M. Barrie’s will leaving copyright earnings from the Peter Pan story to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children for decades after the author’s death. Nonetheless, I vaguely dated Peter Pan in my mind to the sentimental 1920s wave of stories about adorable lisping toddlers. Many critics suggest these stories were a reaction against the grim ordeal of the 1914-1918 Great War. So I was surprised to find Peter Pan was pre-1914. While Winnie the Pooh and Milne’s other books. ( for example, Milne’s collection of poems ‘Now We Are Six’, 1927) idealising the childhood innocence of his son, Christopher Robin, indeed came out of the late 1920s, Peter Pan in contrast is a character who emerges via stories in 1902, 1904, and 1906.
With both boy heroes have come sharp critics. The adult Christopher Robin wrote a bitter autobiography about how exposed he felt by having his father share his childish fantasy world with millions of readers, not even changing any names. Meanwhile, biographers like Piers Dudgeon have chronicled J. M. Barrie’s (to some observers) creepy friendship with the youngsters of the Du Maurier / Davies family, out of which grew his tale of the boy who never grows up. That friendship started in the 1890s with a chance encounter in a park which in fact was planned by the hypnotism-obsessed Barrie – not a chance meeting at all. The back story seems to base the Peter Pan myth in manipulation and sly deception.
In both cases we see an adult man with a probably unhealthy fixation on youthful innocence vicariously living his own fantasies through an enchanted child – both also creating legends of innocence that enchant a wider public.
Other cultures have started to see all of us as an immature civilisation fixated on youth. From the point of view of intelligent East Europeans, it is the entire west which has now retreated into juvenile fantasies like socialism and greenism. The idea it’s appropriate, or even possible, to make the whole world new again has a powerful pull on spoilt adolescents unable to concede they owe anything to the sacrifices of earlier generations. A story about a boy who (1) has overcome ageing and need not die, and (2) has overcome gravity and can fly, is strong stuff for anyone not sure they can meet the challenges of grown-up life. What those who recently emerged from the East Bloc claim they find is an infantile western world which has lost the will to assert itself, or defend its own achievements, and now only wishes to escape pain and blame.
This overlaps with feminism, where we find women (sometimes the same women) criticising men for blocking their economic freedom while also complaining men are unwilling to support them. Accusations of ‘puer aeternus’ or ‘Peter Pan’ syndromes, complaints a man isn’t taking responsibility for himself, frequently come from a woman who expected a man to take responsibility for her and has been disappointed. The complexities are richly entwined. Is the cult of boyishness a kind of revenge on “emancipated women”? Or a defence mechanism? Does the desire to be a child lost in make-believe foreshadow the modern welfare state? Was it entirely coincidence that the late Michael Jackson, an unhappy musician who preferred the company of small boys to that of adults, renamed his home after the children’s heaven of J. M. Barrie’s Edwardian myth?
Today we find ourselves in a bizarre, cultish world of childhood sex-change operations, paedophilia allegations against famous people, and young leftists so deluded prewar fellow-travellers and postwar beatniks would have cringed to be compared to them. When I was small the premise of Peter Pan (boy flies away to a land where infants play for ever) struck me as twee and old-fashioned.
Now it’s starting to look strangely up-to-date.
Mark Griffith is a financial trader whose weblog http://www.otherlanguages.org follows news on artificial intelligence, economics, and other subjects. He is researching a book on whether AI will change the way people live.