While staged versions of Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet pretty much dominate the more secular side of the holiday season, it’s good to remember that there are plenty of other wonderful stories and theatrical events for this happy time of the year. Sherlock Holmes fans reread “The Blue Carbuncle,” described by Christopher Morley as “a Christmas story without slush.” O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is a classic, and Damon Runyon’s “The Three Wise Guys” should be. My own favorite uletide book has long been John Masefield’s magical and spooky “The Box of Delights,” which climaxes at midnight during a great cathedral’s Christmas Eve service.
And then there’s “Peter Pan.” We sometimes forget that its opening action occurs just about now; after all, the maid of the Darling family is making Christmas pudding on the night the children fly off to Neverland. In England, of course, going to see “Peter Pan” onstage is a longstanding holiday tradition, while in the United States baby boomers cherish their memories of the annual December TV broadcast of the Mary Martin/Cyril Ritchard musical. To this day, “Peter Pan,” which was first presented in 1904 in London, remains the greatest play for children ever written.
But its 1911 novelization — titled “Peter and Wendy” — is another matter. As Maria Tatar’s sumptuous, annotated centennial edition reminds us, J.M. Barrie’s book defies numerous boundaries. It opens with the famous sentence, “All children, except one, grow up,” which already hints at the narrative’s pervasive melancholy. After all, the story offers more than just a celebration of play, of childhood, of the imagination’s power; it is also a troubling meditation on the passage of time and the darkness that awaits us all. “To die,” says Peter, “will be an awfully big adventure.”
Is there, in fact, any children’s classic more death-haunted than “Peter Pan”? Or one more rife with strangeness? Mrs. Darling can rummage around in the minds of her children, Wendy, John and Michael. The nanny in an otherwise conventional middle-class household is a lumbering and preternaturally sensitive Newfoundland dog who, at one point, seems to speak English. Neverland itself exists first as a shared dream, long before the three siblings learn how to reach the tropical island. Whoever forgets Peter’s directions: Just follow the second star to the right and fly straight on till morning.
While from the air, Neverland may seem quite small, it manages to be populated by Lost Boys, pirates, Indians, mermaids and wild beasts, including a pack of wolves and one particularly notable and determined crocodile. The gentleman-buccaneer Capt. James Hook — said to be the only man to strike fear into the heart of Long John Silver — actually attended Eton (in the play his last words are “Floreat Etona” — May Eton Flourish). Throughout the story, Hook and Peter are disturbingly twinned, each regularly mistaken for the other, as if the boy and the pirate were secret sharers of a single identity. The tiny fairy Tinker Bell and the Indian princess Tiger Lily bristle with the jealousy and sexual desire of grown women.
On the whole, the storytelling is full of verbal humor, parody and wonderful slapstick, yet its final chapter — when Peter returns to London at spring-cleaning time and discovers that Wendy has grown up — can still bring tears to adult eyes. As Tatar stresses, “Peter and Wendy” is constantly shifting registers, being at once a children’s tale of thrilling adventure and derring-do; a multilayered text with a slippery, self-conscious narrator; and, not least, a work about what we lose by accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. But then being a grown-up inevitably means feeling regret and loss, emotions alien to Peter, who lives only in the moment and for whom “make-believe and true were exactly the same thing.”
Tatar’s “The Annotated Peter Pan” offers far more than just explanatory marginal notes and illustrations from earlier editions. Fully half her volume contains supplementary material of the highest interest. She provides an introductory essay, a biographical precis of Barrie’s life, and the entire suite of photographs that make up “The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island,” an album created to memorialize a holiday that Barrie spent with three, of the eventually five, Llewelyn Davies boys, the true begetters of “Peter Pan.”
Along the way, Tatar addresses our contemporary uneasiness about Barrie’s apparent obsession with these children (and their mother) but comes down firmly against the view that he was some sort of pedophile. While Tatar doesn’t reprint “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” — the chapters from “The Little White Bird” that first introduced Peter Pan to the world — she does reproduce all that volume’s superb illustrations by Arthur Rackham.
Not least, Tatar offers Barrie’s proposal for a screen treatment of “Peter Pan,” followed by a survey, with stills, of the various cinematic versions of the story, including such associated films as “Hook” and “Finding Neverland.” Twenty pages are devoted to critical or interpretative passages from the writings of critics and the memoirs of actors. A last essay, by Christine De Poortere, reminds us that Barrie’s will left the profits from “Peter Pan” to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
Every year brings one or two “annotated” editions of various out-of-copyright classics. I’ve read a good many of them, and all have their merits. While Martin Gardner’s groundbreaking “The Annotated Alice: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ ” remains the nonpareil of the genre, I would place Tatar’s “The Annotated Peter Pan” a close second. But bear in mind that its commentary is geared to adults: A child should first encounter the story straight on.
For that story remains magical, in all its important elements: Lost shadows; fairy dust; “You just think lovely wonderful thoughts”; the deliciously campy Captain Hook and his toadying bosun, Smee; that poisoned cake with green icing; Peter’s famous plea: “If you believe, clap your hands; don’t let Tink die”; and, of course, that best of all piratical threats: “There’s none can save you now, missy.”
The last chapter — when Peter finally returns for Wendy and instead flies away with her daughter Jane — is beyond praise:
“ ‘He does so need a mother,’ Jane said.
“ ‘Yes, I know,’ Wendy admitted rather forlornly; ‘no one knows it so well as I.’ ”
Yet the book doesn’t end there. One day, Barrie tells us, Jane will have a daughter, Margaret, who will eventually have a daughter, and each in her turn will be Peter’s mother, “and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”
That last word is the final proof of Barrie’s genius.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.
THE ANNOTATED PETER PAN
By J.M. Barrie
Edited by Maria Tatar.
Norton. 393 pp. $39.95