As The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, Peter Pan is known for his eternal youth. Starting in The Little White Bird (1902), Peter escaped his family so he wouldn’t have to grow up, become an adult and one day die. Living in perpetual youth, Peter is the epitome of brash and insolent youth. Many have asked whether Peter Pan is actually dead in his stories, as if he is form of vampire or other undead being. If you’ve ever asked “is Peter Pan dead?”, the answer is simple.
While death is a common theme in the Peter Pan story, Peter remains a living character in all of the original versions, including most novel and movie derivatives. An immortal boy, Peter magically left the aging process common to mankind and fled to the Never Never Land, which is a place that exists in the minds of children, from which he periodically escapes to gather more children to his island.
Death in the Original Peter Pan
In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which was a collection of chapters from Barrie’s original The Little White Bird, Peter flees his home within a week of his birth to avoid growing up and dying. Barrie waxes poetic throughout his Pan plays and novels, including:
Life and death, the child and the mother, are ever meeting as the one draws into harbour and the other sets sail. They exchange a bright “All’s well” and pass on.
The only ghosts, I believe, who creep into this world, are dead young mothers, returned to see how their children fare.J.M. Barrie, The Little White Bird, Chapter “A Night-Piece”
In Peter and Wendy, Peter denies death by refusing to grow up, ferries the souls of dead children, regularly culls the Lost Boys who begin to age, and fights Captain Hook until the villain is killed by the ticking crocodile.
Does Peter die in the book or movies?
In the original screenplay and book, Peter goes on in perpetuity bringing Wendy’s descendants back to Neverland. Peter takes Wendy’s granddaughter back to Neverland for new adventures and, in various retellings, he continues this tradition in perpetuity.
Disney, Fox and Universal’s retellings see Peter continue Barrie’s original tradition. In Hook starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, Peter Banning goes on to a life as a normal, mortal adult and presumably dies in old age, but that is never explored in the film. Other retellings sometime vary widely in Peter’s purpose and demeanor and finality to his story.
Death In the Davies Family, the Inspiration for Peter Pan
Peter Pan was the result of Barrie’s relationship with the Davies family in London. He first met the first three boys in 1897 in Kensington Gardens and became a close family friend. The five boys inspired Barrie to create Peter Pan; he named the character after the third boy, Peter, and modeled the character mostly after the youngest, Michael.
Tragedy never strayed far from the Davies family. Between 1907 and 1910, both Arthur and Sylvia Davies died from cancer. While Barrie and extended family stepped in as guardians, George would be killed in action during World War I and Michael would die by drowning with a close friend.
As discussed in Which Peter Pan killed himself? The tragic true story of Peter Llewellyn Davies, the inspiration for the name of Peter Pan suffered a life of tragedy that ended in suicide. He came to hate his association as the Pan’s namesake, but also struggled with PTSD from his meritorious service in World War I. He and his family also battled various topical and degenerative diseases, as well as alcoholism. Peter took his own life in 1960 by throwing himself before a London commuter train.
Death as a Theme – The Rejection of Growing Up
Rejecting the aging process is prevalent in many iterations of the Peter Pan story. Remaining a child — or childlike — is lauded as Peter’s highest moral. Barrie contrasts Peter’s refusal to grow up with everyone else’s unstoppable journey into adulthood, ranging from his nemesis adult Captain Hook to Wendy’s progression into womanhood. Peter regularly kills Lost Boys who start to become men. Beginning from the earliest versions of Peter Pan in screenplay and cinematic form, Captain Hook was often played by the same actor to portray Wendy’s father, George.
At a shallow glance, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up appears to be an ideal person and lifestyle — playing all day on Neverland with his lost boys, winning victories and never thinking more than a day away. Peter is actually a tragedy — a child who rejected the initial costs of development now perpetually stuck with an inability to deepen himself or his interactions with the people he encounters. Peter can never accept Wendy as an adult, nor his Lost Boys as men, nor himself in any fashion that doesn’t require a rejection of maturity.
Espoused entirely as a way to avoid death, Peter’s rejection of adulthood is a denial of reality, as death is not only inevitable to all who live, but also an essential part of its appreciation and embrasure. To deny development and aging is to reject the temporary but incredible value of our short lives.
Why Peter ages in Legend of the Pan
Peter ages throughout the Legend of the Pan series because to reject maturity is to misunderstand the relationship between it and aging. I’ve met children more mature and full of life than adults decades their senior. In my own experience, one can grow and develop without losing the childlike heart that preserves the awe of our exploration of this vast and beautiful world.
For the original Peter to reject growing up, LOP’s Peter Baley faces both the costs of avoiding his progress into adulthood and its eventual acceptance. Through his journey, however, he and those watching him learn a grander lesson of how to preserve the heart of a child while developing into whom they were meant to be.