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Volume 6 Issue 4

Reclaim the True Neverland

by Marc Porter Zasada

[Reading Classics to Children in the Unabridged, Original Editions]

The Urban Man has just read the original, unexpurgated, obscure and entirely eccentric text of Peter Pan aloud with his four children for the second time. Always, we begin late, and the small crowd of us sprawls across the tiny backyard lawn on sleeping bags, the lights of the city trembling above the nearby rooftops. Being a romantic, I light candles, ranging them around the classic Viking edition, where they flicker above the full-bodied illustrations by Scott Gustafson.

My children, homeschooled and largely strangers to television and Nintendo, rise eagerly to moments like this. My 11-year-old daughter speaks, "Boy, why are you crying?” with heartrending innocence. My 14-year-old strikes a pose and takes particular relish in reading the part of Captain Hook. "Brimstone and Gall," he intones, "what cozening is here?" Taking his turn reading aloud, my seven-year-old trembles at the (in the original) quite bloody deaths of the pirates, who fall "easy prey to the reeking swords of the boys.”
 
I know that somewhere, across the city, a children’s theater is putting on a bright and brassy version of Peter Pan, and no doubt across the nation thousands are watching the sanitized cartoon on video or reading the fable in a tiresome and heavily abridged picture book. At this moment in Anaheim, some dozens are crowded onto the short ride which distills the story to a few moments of dayglo paint.
 
No doubt many feel they know Peter Pan from these experiences, as they have been tricked into thinking they know the Hunchback of Notre Dame from the overblown Disney cartoon, or Through the Looking Glass from the many film reductions. But take a moment to read the very first reference to the Neverland in the original by J.M. Barrie. Yes, it’s long and difficult:
 
"I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of color here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, threepence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.”
 
I’m guessing that paragraph does not appear in many abridged picturebook editions. No modern editor would tolerate such innocent obscurity or such extravagant use of language. It’s purposefully tricky and convoluted, although the purpose is delicious. It takes time to read this paragraph to a child. And Peter Pan himself is not the ever-smiling youth of the cartoons, but instead a selfish, strutting spirit of boyhood who often forgets Wendy’s name, broods darkly, thins out the ranks of the Lost Boys from time to time, and, of course, delights in mayhem:
 
"He often went out alone, and when he came back you were never absolutely certain whether he had had an adventure or not. He might have forgotten it so completely that he said nothing about it; and then when you went out you found the body; and on the other hand, he might say a great deal about it, and yet you could not find the body."
 
Indeed, Peter is a poor role model: he is not just utterly self-involved, but he finds it completely impossible to distinguish reality from fantasy.
 
All of this detail and ambiguity is lost in the Peter Pan most think they know. Like so many other classics, our media companies have simplified the tale so that it can be reduced to co-merchandising. The sugar is drawn to make candy. And often, a shiny overlay of modern cynicism is painted on, like a sickly icing. The average Disney movie, whatever its source material, is now rife with grown-up humor.
 
But it is not so hard to find an original edition, and not so hard to reclaim the true Neverland for your own children. Schedule a couple of nights a week to read a full-length, unabridged classic aloud -- take your time, and do it with feeling. It needn’t be Peter Pan: Dickens, Carroll, Verne, or T.H. White will do just as well.
 
I was once told that a book becomes a classic because 1) it reveals something profound about the human condition, and that 2) it rewards multiple readings. I would add that 3) reading a classic in the original – without interposing footnotes, factoids about the cultural context, expository worksheets, comprehension tests, illustrative videos, thumbnail biographies, animated narrators or "find the central idea" followup essays—somehow rewires the brain. Like playing Mozart to your newborn, there’s an inexplicable but healthy effect. After reading full-length classics aloud to my children, I always find their minds subtly changed for the better – and I submit that a classic in the original is an infectious prion that somehow re-arranges the proteins in the medulla.
 
It’s not the "lesson" or even the "story" that does the trick, but the direct encounter with a great and complex mind – rather than, say, a direct encounter with the mind of a hack scriptwriter living in a West Hollywood walk-up.
 
But I avoid the obvious truth about Peter Pan in particular: you should read the original aloud with your children because it is a profound meditation on the oneway trip from childhood to adulthood, and it will make you cry together. For all his preaching, the Urban Man must admit that he rereads this and other children’s classics by candlelight because he does not want to grow up and be 45 years old – because he wants to keep alive the aching beauty of Neverland. At the end of the novel, Wendy and the lost boys are brought back to London, where they forget how to fly and become "as ordinary as you or I.”
 
"...the years came and went without bringing the careless boy; and when they met again Wendy was a married woman, and Peter was no more to her than a little dust in the box in which she had kept her toys. Wendy was grown up. You need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls."
 
Peter comes for Wendy’s daughter, Jane. And then he comes for Jane’s daughter, Margaret. "...and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless," concludes the novel.
 
In 2002, I think many of us feel that the whole world has grown up a day quicker than it should have. And as a parent in this time, I feel it is my profound duty to slow the process down as much as possible. I do not know if many children today understand the words gay and innocent and heartless in the way they were meant in 1912. The Urban Man withholds television, and rereads his young children the classics partly because he wants them at least to comprehend those words with their original resonance: to savor their complexity and ambiguity – without any jazzing up by that jaded hack from West Hollywood, no matter how clever he or she may be.
 
And of course, I reread the classics because despite the complicated fears and ironies of 21st Century adulthood, I want to remember those words in their original resonance. "All children, except one, grow up," J. M. Barrie tells us about Peter Pan.
 
He is, of course, correct. But how they grow up, how quickly, and with whose words ringing in their ears – that’s up to us.

Marc Porter Zasada is a homeschooling dad of four, and a writer and marketing consultant living in Los Angeles. His collected columns can be viewed at www.TheUrbanMan.com.

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