Never Grow Up

Reflections on childhood and losing your way and then remembering again, inspired by Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie.

An Illustration from the original Peter Pan by James Barrie
“All children grow up, except one.”

Peter Pan, the boy who would never grow up, even as children around him are taken by the malady.

“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.”

Yet, the forthright words of the author, J.M. Barrie reveal that Peter is older already than he behaves; taller and larger than the other children, though still with each of his baby teeth, which he gnashes wildly when he is excited or in the grip of battle. The author’s words ring truer still when, after the quote above, he notes:

“So perhaps he thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend.”

Peter Pan is a boy who make-believes and wills things into reality, though to him alone are they real. He may yet be able to eat his fill of food from imaginary saucers and tea cups, but the other lost boys simply go hungry as they go along with the game. All the while the other children can observe that to Peter the same rules do not apply. Peter can fly, and “become rounder” as he “stodges” imaginary food. But what most defines Peter is the very thing he cannot do, grow old and remember significant events just moments after they have happened. Peter even forgets his friends just upon seeing them, just as he has forgotten his family. Barrie notes about Peter’s memories of his mother:

“I’m not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true.”

Perhaps, Peter Pan’s forgetfulness is the secret to his agelessness.

Soon after Wendy and the boys return to England, Peter leaves and agrees to return each year to see Wendy and to take her away to Neverland during the spring. Wendy observes that what was a year to her seemed only as yesterday to Peter, and soon Peter forgets to come and retrieve her altogether. As Wendy sits somberly, she ponders why he may not have come:

“Perhaps he is ill,” Michael said.
“You know he never gets ill.”
Michael came near to her and whispered, with a shriver, “Perhaps there is no such person, Wendy!”, and then Wendy would have cried if Michael had not been crying himself.

Time passes on with no sight of Peter and Wendy grows old and seems to believe the words that Michael had whispered to her. Wendy marries and has a little daughter named, Jane, to whom she tells stories of her exploits with Peter and the Lost Boys.

We are told not to pity Wendy as she has grown old, because she is “one of the kind that likes to grow up…she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls.” One fateful night, the night when Peter finally returns, Jane and her mother have this exchange:

“Ah, me how times flies.” says Wendy
“Does it fly,” asks the artful child, “the way you flew when you were a little girl?”
“The way I flew! Do you know, Jane, I sometimes wonder whether I ever did really fly.”
“Yes, you did.”
“The dear old days when I could fly!”
“Why can’t you fly now mother?”
“Because I am grown up dearest. When people grow up they forget the way.”

And so John did forget his way. After he is grown up like the other children, the description ascribed to him is simply: “The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children [who] was once, John.” But though children forget their way when they grow up, Wendy seems to show that they can find it again. The Wendy who, for Peter’s sake, “tried a little longer not to have growing pains”, whom did have stories to fill her children with awe, who “no longer believed” along with the other children, but never forgot.

We may all yet forget our way, but we can always remember. We can always find the way back, with arms outstretched and groping along the wall in the dark. We may yet cease to believe and wonder as a child but perhaps this too can be redeemed.

Perhaps this is why Peter was so afraid of becoming old, losing his way and no longer believing. Terrified that going to school and getting a job in an office would shortly transform him into a man, and so repulsing at Wendy’s mother who would adopt him and subject him to such things.

I too have felt the same revulsion, and fear. The fear of one day selling out for a big house rather than a heart full of wide-eyed wonder and hope. One day settling into the ordinary so comfortably that I cease to dream of extraordinary things. Only believing in the natural and the possible and no longer believing in what could be. Only perceiving what can be seen and so ceasing to see the Unseen. I’m afraid of growing up and losing my way.

Yet, I have hope that I can always return; that I may yet, never forget, and that the memory of Neverland and my childhood will haunt me like Peter Pan’s shadow. Perhaps, it to could be sewn to me as it was to Peter; the memory of it following me and so I too might walk in the shadow of Neverland one day.

No matter how far, you can always return home.

You need never forget the way; it is written on your heart.

“Second to the right, and straight on till morning.”