Peter Pan made his first appearance in Scottish novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie's 1902 book "The Little White Bird", which was shortly thereafter adapted to a stage play and later expanded to the 1911 book "Peter And Wendy". Peter's adventures in Neverland have been translated to the silver screen in everything from a 1924 silent film to the 1953 animated Disney picture to Steven Spielberg's 1991 film "Hook". This autumn, Warner Brothers will release "Pan", yet another interpretation of the classic story sure to capture the imaginations of young and young at heart alike.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that the character of Peter Pan was largely based on a skater. You read that right. That skater was in fact J.M. Barrie's own brother David. When J.M. Barrie was a boy of six, he and his brother David went skating outdoors two days before David's fourteenth birthday. Much like in the Regent's Park Skating Tragedy (another UK skating tragedy) the omnipresent dangers of skating on frozen water prevailed and David was killed when 'a friend' knocked him onto the ice while they skated and he fractured his skull on the ice.
The death of David Barrie left his mother Margaret Ogilvy completely despondent. Of her children, she'd been particularly attached to David and to try to help his mother cope in her despair, J.M. (Jamie) Barrie would wear his deceased brother's clothing and even whistle like David. In an 1896 biographical account of his mother, Jamie recounted "She was always delicate from that hour, and for many months she was very ill. I peeped in many times at the door and then went to the stair and sat on it and sobbed." He remembered entering the room and hearing his mother say "is that you?" to which he responded "No, it's no' him, it's just me. Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I knew that she was holding out her arms." Ogilvy apparently found great comfort in the fact that as David had died at thirteen, he would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her.
Piers Dudgeon, the author of the book "Captivated" speculated in the 2008 Herald Scotland article "Tragedy behind Neverland: did JM Barrie cause brother's death?" that J.M. Barrie may have been that 'friend' that knocked his brother down to the ice, which might explain some reason to his despondent mother's distance and rejection of him. Dudgeon said, "I was looking all the time for motivation. I found that in Barrie's childhood he had had this rejection from his mother due to the death of David. Everything seemed to come back to that skating accident. It is speculative. But it does add to the emotional picture of Barrie. A terrible guilt, associated with an accident in which your brother died, is something you would carry with you for the rest of your life. It would, perhaps, cut deep enough to unsettle someone." Dudgeon hypothesizes that if this were true, the experience would have shaped David Barrie as the model for the character Peter Pan, a boy who never grew old and for whom as J.M. Barrie wrote in his famous story "to die will be an awfully big adventure".
A biography of J.M. Barrie written by The Peter Pan Moat Brae Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving his childhood home, states that "James tried very hard to replace his brother in his mother's affections, so much so that some people say he almost tried to become David. By a strange coincidence, at fourteen (the same age that David died) James stopped growing – and remained at a height of five feet for the rest of his life. There is much debate about parallels of stunted growth and stunted emotional development (most ably dealt with in Andrew Birkin’s biography, J M Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter Pan)." How's that for life imitating life?
However sad the stories of the survivors are in the case of the tragic death of David Barrie, it's incredible to think that his tragic death inspired the character of Peter Pan and has inspired generations of people around the world to dream big, live large and never grow old... and I think we can all agree that Barrie's words "Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it" speak an important truth.
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