Puer Aeternus: The Eternal Orphan

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“All children, except one, grow up.”

J. M. Barrie

Peter Pan

Orphans do eventually grow up and the phrase ‘I am an orphan’ is usually replaced by ‘I was an orphan’. Being an orphan, after all, is closely associated with childhood. But there was – is – a famous child who chose not to grow up. And his name? Well, I think perhaps you know that already: Peter Pan. The ultimate Puer Aeternus or Eternal Boy.

According to psychologists, a child’s development comes in a series of stages and each stage must be gone through in order to grow up into an adult. If, however, a child experiences a trauma of some kind at a particular stage, this could arrest the child’s development and the result could be that the child’s psychology and emotional being simply gets stuck at that age. So, is there a clue as to Peter Pan’s trauma?

In the play Peter Pan, Wendy says that mothers will leave the window open for the return of runaway and flyaway children:

WENDY: But our heroine knew that her mother would always leave the window open for her progeny to fly back by; so they stayed away from years and had a lovely time.

(PETER is interested at last.)

FIRST TWIN: Did they ever go back?

WENDY: (comfortably) Let us now take a peep into the future. Years have rolled by, and who is this elegant lady of uncertain age alighting at a London station?

(The tension is unbearable.)

NIBBS: Oh, Wendy, who is she?

WENDY: (swelling) Can it be – yes – no – yes, it is the fair Wendy!

TOOTLES: I am glad.

WENDY: Who are the two noble portly figures accompanying her? Can they be John and Michael? They are. (Pride of MICHAEL.) ‘See, dear brothers,’ say Wendy, pointing upward, ‘there is the window standing open’. So up they flew their loving parents, and pen cannot inscribe the happy scene over which we shall draw a veil. (Her triumph is spoilt by a grown from PETER and she hurries to him.) Peter, what is it? (Thinking he is ill, and look and looking lower than his chest) Where is it?

PETER: It isn’t that kind of pain. Wendy, you are wrong about mothers. I thought like you about the window, so I stayed away for moons and moons, and then I flew back, but the window was barred, for my mother had forgotten all about me and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.

(There is a general damper.)

JOHN: Wendy, let us go back!

WENDY: Are you sure mothers are like that?



This scene is not in the Disney movie, nor will you find it in the various Peter Pan musicals, and certainly not in any of the pantomime versions at Christmas, yet this exchange between Peter and Wendy is crucial in understanding who and what Peter Pan is.

Bruno Bettelheim’s seminal study The Uses of Enchantment is a book that looks at fairy stories at a psychological level and the importance of them in a child’s development. Bettelheim’s basic argument goes like this. Children between three and thirteen are constantly coping with various conflicts, conflicts with their mother, their father, their siblings, their environment and even their own body. Children are children and so are unable to use adult rationality to deal with these often complex emotional issues, so instead our various cultures came up with fantastical and magic stories instead and these exist, at least in part, to help a growing child deal with these fundamental life conflicts. In stories, the conflict is no longer with Mummy or Daddy but instead it becomes a giant or a witch, a dragon or a sorceress.

Bettelheim was essentially a Freudian and his argument uses, to some degree, Freudian language and theory. There is a needful/wanting/demanding part of the unconscious mind which Freud called the ‘Id’. But the mind and body can’t always have what it desires and as adult we can rationalise and control these, and in simple terms this is what Freud called the ‘Superego’. But a child is almost pure Id and is unable to be rational, yet the unconscious mind, according to Freud and Bettelheim, is able to resolve conflicts of the real world through fantasies and myths. And there are some case studies which show that simple fairy stories can work wonders.

There was a little girl who was confused about her mother.  Or mothers. “There are two mummies, a nice Mummy, who smiles and gives me treats, but when she goes away there’s another Mummy who is always cross and unkind. I think she must be a monster or an alien.” The mother tried to explain there was just one mummy and it wasn’t possible that there could be two but the daughter refused to believe her. The mother didn’t know what to do so she went to a psychologist who suggested that the mother should read to her little girl only stories which featured a good fairy or a wicked witch. And it was through such stories that the child of her own accord realised that the two mothers were the same mother, it was just that sometimes nice Mummy got angry and upset. And this story is a perfect example of Bettelheim’s thesis in action.

Childhood conflicts then are simply better dealt with at the unconscious level and indeed the irrational level. And of course irrationality is essential to developing the part of our nature that leads to imagination. And without the possibility of imagination the mind is useless. You could argue that Alice needed that trip down the rabbit hole to Wonderland because when she asks, ‘What is the use of a book without pictures?’ what Alice is saying is that she lacks the imagination to create the images from the book in her mind. A creative imagination is simply the most important part of a child’s intellectual development. Another Victorian, Albert Einstein, understood this perfectly, which is why he said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy stories.”

Irrationality is an essential factor in a child’s mental growth. In fact, there is an argument that goes even further and suggests that rationality is dangerous to the child. The stork is better than sex. The tooth fairy is better than explaining why bits of our bodies drop off. And Cinderella is better than reasoning in establishing mummies sometimes get angry. The irony is that it is the children who are brought up exclusively in the rational world, where there was never gift-giving Santa Claus or a naughty magical pixie to explain why things sometimes went missing, who are the most susceptible to religious cults. When sons and daughters join religious cults, parents often become confused and say things like, “But our Jimmy was brought up not to believe in all that nonsense.” Perhaps. But that means the child never passed through the ‘all that nonsense’ phase of development and so it is that aspect of Jimmy’s human makeup that is being exploited by the religious cult now he is an adult. Too much reality when a child is very young can be harmful to children who naturally live in, at least in part, a fantasy world.

But what about the adult and the fantasy world? Well, play, pretend and imagination develop into novels, dramas and movies. That unconscious mind becomes more knowingly conscious. In other words, we become more aware of what a drama is and what a story is and what it is that both are doing. You see a play or film and you consciously recognise a character similar to yourself.  You recognise the ‘Other’ in you. And you in the ‘Other’. In the theatre, a great deal of importance is placed upon the concept of catharsis, the emotional outpouring experienced during the drama. Less emphasis is placed, however, on the mind’s ability to think about it afterwards or what Steven Spielberg refers to as the ‘processing’ that can go on long after the movie has ended. Certain ideas, images, themes stay with you and days, weeks or even years later you’re still thinking about them.  And thoughts are as important in this sense as emotions.

Another important element in story is repeated listening or viewing. How many times do children say, ‘Tell it to me again!’ or ‘I want to watch it again!’ THE LITTLE MERMAID. THE LION KING. How many times have parents had to sit through those, cursing the invention of DVDs and online watching and longing for those bygone days when VHSs used to actually wear out. But repeated viewing is important because psychologists argue that in each telling the child relates to a different aspect or character in the story. A young girl watching THEWIZARD OF OZ, for example, will obviously relate to Dorothy, but with repeated viewings, her empathy will move to the Scarecrow, The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and even the Wicked Witch. Gregory Maguire, the author of WICKED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST that has gone on to become the international theatre musical hit WICKED, has said that the idea for the show at least in part came from his realisation that the Wicked Witch is the only character who Dorothy encounters who is entirely honest.

And while we’re on the subject of THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s worth mentioning the importance of rites of passage. Certain types of stories are needed at certain stages of a child’s development. At around about twelve or thirteen children tend to read story where the lead character leaves home, has some sort of adventure and then returns home but then realises that home isn’t quite the same as it was before because of what they have learnt on their journey. Essentially these types of stories psychologically prepare a child for the real leaving home when they enter early adulthood. STAND BY ME is a perfect example of this.

Now then, that was an awful lot story psychology, but, as interesting as it may be, what on earth has it got to do with Peter Pan? Well, that question can be answered very easily by asking why does Peter Pan come to visit Wendy? To find his shadow? you might reply. Yes, it is true that Peter left his shadow behind but that is not the reason he returns, as J. M. Barrie makes clear in this exchange:

WENDY: Peter, why did you come to our nursery window? PETER: To try to hear stories. None of us knows any stories.

WENDY: How perfectly awful!

PETER: Do you know why swallows build in the eaves of houses? It is to listen to stories. Wendy, your mother was telling you such a lovely story.

WENDY: Which story was it?

PETER: About a prince, and he couldn’t find the lady who wore the glass slipper

WENDY: That was Cinderella. Peter, he found her and they were happy ever after.

PETER: I am glad. (They have worked their way along the floor to be close to each other, but he now jumps up.)

WENDY: Where are you going?

PETER: (already at the window) To tell the other boys.

WENDY: Don’t go, Peter. I know lots of stories. I could tell the other boys!

PETER: (gleaming) Come on. We’ll fly.


Could it not be argued that, unconsciously at least, Peter knows that he’s stuck in a world that still needs stories? And it’s a world he chose himself.

  1. M. Barrie in A Dedication To The Five says he cannot remember actually writing PETER PAN. He then goes on to talk about the nature of development in our life and rejects the idea that we are different people at different stages:

Some say that we are different people at different periods of our lives, changing not through effort of will, which is a brave affair, but in the easy course of nature every ten years or so. I suppose this theory might explain my present trouble [meaning not being able to remember having written PETER PAN], but I don’t hold with it; I think one remains the same person throughout, merely passing, as it were, in these lapses of time from one room to another, but all in the same house. If we unlock the rooms of the far past we can’t hear in and see ourselves, busily occupied in beginning to become you and me. Thus, if I am the author in question the way he is to go should already be showing in the occupant of my first compartment, at whom I now take the liberty to peep.

Barrie goes on to talk about dressing up and putting on his first play and it’s all very charming. But there’s no mention of David. When Jamie was six, his brother David died in a skating accident and their mother has a nervous breakdown. For the next twenty years she fell asleep talking to her dead son. In order to comfort his mother, Jamie dressed in David’s clothes and even learnt David’s way of whistling. As J. M. Barrie said later, “When I became a man, he was still a boy of thirteen.” But isn’t the truth he was a still a boy of thirteen? In his notebooks from his university days, Jamie acknowledges the fear of adulthood when he writes lines such as “Grown up and have to give up marbles – awful thought.” And this idea is there in the opening paragraph of the book PETER PAN:

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this forever!’ This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

The full title of the play and book is PETER PAN, OR THE BOY WHO WOULD NOT GROW UP. Originally J. M. Barrie used a different phrase, it was the boy who could not grow up but someone suggested that if he changed that to would not then that would turn the play into a tragedy. Had Peter knocked very hard at that barred window where he saw his mother inside nursing a new baby she might have heard and let him in. But it is it was his choice not to knock. Peter is also given the opportunity to become part of the Darling family when the mother says “Let me adopt you” but again Peter chooses not to. “No one is going to make me a man,” he says, “I want always to be a little boy and have fun.” Stage directions by J. M. Barrie are wonderful to read and here he adds So perhaps he thinks, but it is only his greatest pretend. PETER PAN is not only the tragedy of boy who would not grow up, but also the tragedy of self-delusion.

Stories exist at least in apart in order to aid the development of self and help with conflicts and rites of passage. They also function to connect the individual to society. In-built into stories is the need to adapt and the importance of change. The character arc of story theory. All children grow up and all adults grow up too. But one didn’t and never will.

“Stars are beautiful, but they may not take part in anything, they must just look on forever.”

J. M. Barrie

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granny and william

Young Adult Reader Reviews

"One of the things that makes the book so original is the mixture of fantasy, sci-fi, adventure and comedy, so you never know what to expect next… I found the book exciting, entertaining and very, very funny and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my friends." Year 10

"I loved reading the story. It was creative and different from any other books I’ve read… I could picture the events so clear. It was like I was watching a movie." Year 8

"I think that the storyline of the book was great and that there were some great characters… A brilliant book… I really enjoyed the book and would definitely read the rest in the series." Year 7

"I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book due to the amazing storyline, character, humour and general style of writing." Year 10

"I’d recommend it to my friends as I think they’d like the mystery and adventure but also find it funny." Year 9

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