J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan: From Fantasy to Dark Realities

The author behind one of the most beloved childhood fairytale characters of all time was known for his joyful embrace of youth and creativity, but there were dark elements surrounding his life that remain mysteries.
JM Barrie

J.M. Barrie (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

With the creation of Peter Pan, author and playwright J.M. Barrie came up with a character who would go on to delight audiences for more than a century. Over the years, Peter Pan has appeared on stage, television and in the movies, in iterations that include Disney’s beloved 1953 animated film and now today, NBC’s live broadcast of Peter Pan on December 4th. But no matter how much of an icon Peter Pan is today, there are things you may not know about him and his creator. Fortunately, these seven fascinating facts will tell you more!

Peter Pan’s Beginning

Peter Pan first appeared as part of a story within a story in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. However, there were a few differences that make this version of Peter hard to recognize. Instead of living in Neverland, Peter had flown from his nursery to London’s Kensington Gardens, where he spent time with fairies and birds. In fact, he was described as being “Betwixt-and-Between” a boy and a bird. And while there were no pirate ships, Peter had another means of transport: a goat.

All in all, we should be glad that Barrie chose to revisit Peter Pan. With a few changes (such as ditching the goat), Peter transformed into “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” that the world loves today.

The Genesis of Captain Hook

It was in Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, that Peter Pan lived with the Lost Boys, met the Darling family and had a friend named Tinker Bell. However, the first draft of the play was missing an important person: Captain Hook.

Peter Pan Book Cover 1911 Photo

Peter Pan cover, 1911. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barrie’s notes show that he saw no need for a villain like Hook—he felt Peter was a “demon boy” who could create his own havoc. And the reason the story changed was an unromantic one: To give stagehands more time to switch scenery, Barrie needed a scene that could be performed at the front of the stage. He ended up writing one that featured a pirate ship; with this, Captain Hook came to life. The role soon expanded into a full-fledged nemesis for Peter.

Let’s be thankful those stagehands couldn’t switch sets faster! Otherwise the world might’ve missed out on both the colorful pirate and the ticking crocodile who loved to pursue him.

The Spark Behind Peter Pan

Michael Llewelyn Davies Photo

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan, 1906. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Barrie was the author of Peter Pan, but he credited five boys with inspiring the tale: George, John (Jack), Peter, Michael and Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies.

Barrie first met young George and Jack while walking in Kensington Gardens in 1898. Charmed by the boys, he also grew close to their mother, Sylvia (their father, Arthur, was less impressed by Barrie). Barrie began to invite the family to vacation at his estate, where the time he spent playing with the children gave him the idea for Peter Pan’s adventures.

Though Barrie’s famous creation shared a name with the middle Llewelyn Davies boy, the writer was actually closest with George and Michael. And he gave all of the boys credit; in 1928, his preface to the play read: "I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together….That is all he is, the spark I got from you.”

Real-life Lost Boys

The Llewelyn Davies boys lost their father in 1907, and their mother developed cancer soon afterward. In her will, Sylvia named Barrie as one of four guardians she wanted to look after her sons.

After Sylvia’s 1910 death, Barrie copied her handwritten will and sent it to Sylvia’s mother. His version contained the line: “What I would like would be if Jimmy would come to Mary, and that the two together would be looking after the boys…” (Barrie, whose first name was James, was also known as Jimmy; Mary was the boys’ nanny.) Following these instructions, Barrie took primary responsibility for the children.

Sylvia Davies Photo

J.M. Barrie took this photo of Sylvia Davies, 1898. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Years later, Barrie biographer Andrew Birkin looked at the original document and discovered that Sylvia had actually written: “What I wd like wd be if Jenny wd come to Mary & that the two together wd be looking after the boys…” (Jenny was Mary’s sister.)

J.M. Barrie Michael Llewelyn Davies Photo

J.M. Barrie playing with Michael Llewelyn Davies, 1906. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s impossible to say whether Barrie made a simple mistake, or if he deliberately altered the name in order to avoid sharing guardianship. The mystery is something Peter Pan himself might have enjoyed.

Barrie’s “Fatal Touch”

Was it bad luck for the Llewellyn Davies boys to have Barrie as a guardian? As D.H. Lawrence noted in 1921, “J.M. [Barrie] has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die.”

Barrie’s personal losses began when he was a child: His older brother, David, died in a skating accident at the age of 13. In 1915, George Llewelyn Davies was fighting in World War I when he was killed. Six years later, Michael Llewelyn Davies drowned along with a friend (some speculated that the two young men were lovers who had participated in a suicide pact).

Though Peter Llewelyn Davies—who grew up being teased for sharing a name with Peter Pan—outlived Barrie, he committed suicide by jumping in front of a Tube train in 1960, just a few weeks before the 100th anniversary of Barrie’s birth.

J.M. Barrie Peter Pan Book Photo

A book illustration of Peter and Wendy in Peter and Wendy, pg. 245. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As Popular as Peter Pan

As is fitting for the man behind Peter Pan, Barrie was especially well-liked by children. Even a three-year-old Princess Margaret (the sister of Queen Elizabeth II) fell under Barrie’s spell. After the two met, she declared, "He is my greatest friend and I am his greatest friend.”

Barrie also had many adult friends, including Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson and the explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott. In 1912, at the end of his fatal Antarctic expedition, Scott wrote a letter to Barrie, saying, “I never met a man in my life whom I admired and loved more than you, but I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me.”

The Gift of Peter Pan

Barrie produced numerous works featuring Peter Pan: The Peter Pan chapters from The Little White Bird were re-released as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906. Peter and Wendy, a book based on the 1904 play, saw the light in 1911. The play itself was published in 1928.

Great Ormond Street Hospital Photo

Great Ormond Street Hospital today. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1929, Barrie generously allocated the rights to Peter Pan to Britain’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, a bequest that was confirmed after his death in 1937. For years, every Peter Pan-related production—whether a book, movie, musical or TV show—earned money for the children’s hospital (thanks to legislation, the hospital will always receive royalties for productions in the United Kingdom, but Peter Pan’s copyright has expired or is going to expire soon in other parts of the world).

It’s unknown how much money the hospital received over the years, but given Peter Pan’s popularity it’s safe to say numerous children benefited from Barrie’s gift.