Peter Pan

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Peter Pan has been on my mind a lot recently. The continuing popularity of the story reflects that it is, in some ways, an archetypal myth of post-industrial boyhood. But the question it does not answer is, why didn't Peter Pan want to grow up? The assumption seems to be that he was having too much fun being a little boy, fighting off Captain Hook. There may be some truth to that - I have certainly seen examples of men who never seem to grow up, or become truly mature. And why should they? With safe, non challenging jobs, and wives who earn at least what they do, and who are psychological and emotionally independent, what motivation do they have to grow up? But still, most men want to grow up, simply because the challenges and accomplishments of manhood are more exciting than those of boyhood.

So, why didn't Peter Pan want to grow up? The original story also assumes that Captain Hook is not real, merely a childhood fantasy of Peter's, part of his imaginary games. But what if Captain Hook were real? Suppose he was a symbol of a real part of Peter Pan's childhood, some terrifying threat or insecurity? Poverty, racism, alcoholism, emotional, sexual or physical abuse? How would that alter the meaning of the story? It would make Peter's decision far more understandable - he wouldn't return to the safe, secure "Ozzie and Harriet" (or Brady Bunch for the X generation), household of Wendy and (what was his name???), because that wasn't his reality. For him to return, he would have faced the reality that Captain Hook symbolizes, whatever that might be. Instead of refusing to grow up with Wendy and the others, he has been abandoned, as they refused to even recognize the personal and social reality that he must face.

But, why didn't Peter Pan want to grow up in his own way, and confront the real, rather than the symbolic, Captain Hook? Different cultures have different transitions for boys to become men. Wendy's little brother, the one with the teddy bear, I think, probably was destined to go to a good english "public" school, and then perhaps an MBA from the London School of Economics. He probably wound up working for an insurance company, or perhaps became an architect. His transition to manhood would have involved mostly academic and social skills, for his world contained no fearsome Captain Hooks. In other cultures, the training for manhood involves other skills, emphasizing endurance, strength, the ability to withstand pain and hardship. Those are cultures that recognize the reality of Captain Hook, and the need face his threat. For Peter Pan to grow up, to go back and face the real Captain Hook, without being offered the needed training and weapons, would have been suicidal. Psychologically, economical, through drugs, gang wars or actual suicide, Captain Hook would have destroyed a grown up Peter Pan.

Or, perhaps, did Peter simply not want to grow up? Was Peter Pan's identity, like that of Ishmael and Moby Dick, so intertwined with that of his adversary, that he could not conceive of a normal life, even if it really offered safety from the dangers represented by Captain Hook. Was the life offered by Wendy, of suburban London and an MBA future, all that appealing? Perhaps he was so addicted to the adrenhelin rush of the conflict, The Cause, whatever that cause might have been, that he couldn't break free, even when he had the chance. By tackling a symbolic enemy, by saving dolphins or recycling cans, Peter may have been enjoying the sense of purpose and identity, without making the sacrifices and commitment that would have been required if he had truly tackled the serious social and environmental issues of the world. But that's just the opinion of one cynic.

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