Peter Pan is a character created by Scottish novelist and playwright J. M. Barrie. A mischievous boy who can fly and never grows up, Peter Pan spends his never-ending childhood having adventures on the small island of Neverland as the leader of his gang, the Lost Boys, interacting with mermaids, Native Americans, fairies, pirates, and occasionally ordinary children from the world outside Neverland.
Peter is an exaggerated stereotype of a boastful and careless boy. He claims greatness, even when such claims are questionable (such as congratulating himself when Wendy re-attaches his shadow). In the play and book, as in both film adaptations, Peter appears to symbolise or personify the selfishness of childhood. He displays forgetfulness and self-centred behaviour.
Peter has a nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude, and is fearlessly cocky when it comes to putting himself in danger. Barrie writes that when Peter thought he was going to die on Marooners’ Rock, he felt scared, yet he felt only one shudder. With this blithe attitude, he says, “To die will be an awfully big adventure”. In the play, the unseen and unnamed narrator ponders what might have been if Peter had stayed with Wendy, so that his cry might have become, “To live would be an awfully big adventure!”, “but he can never quite get the hang of it”.
Peter’s archetypal quality is his unending youth. In Peter and Wendy, it is explained that Peter must forget his own adventures and what he learns about the world in order to stay childlike. The prequels by Barry and Pearson attribute Peter’s everlasting youth to his exposure to starstuff, a magical substance which has fallen to earth.
Peter’s ability to fly is explained, but inconsistently. In The Little White Bird he is able to fly because he is said to be part bird, like all babies. In the play and novel, he teaches the Darling children to fly using a combination of “lovely wonderful thoughts” and fairy dust. In Barrie’s Dedication to the play Peter Pan, The Boy Wouldn’t Grow up, the author attributes the idea of fairy dust being necessary for flight to practical needs:
…after the first production I had to add something to the play at the request of parents (who thus showed that they thought me the responsible person) about no one being able to fly until the fairy dust had been blown on him; so many children having gone home and tried it from their beds and needed surgical attention. – J.M. Barrie
Peter has an effect on the whole of Neverland and its inhabitants when he is there. Barrie states that although Neverland appears different to every child, the island “wakes up” when Peter returns from his trip to London. In the chapter “The Mermaids’ Lagoon” in the book Peter and Wendy, Barrie writes that there is almost nothing that Peter cannot do. He is a skilled swordsman, rivalling even Captain Hook, whose hand he cut off in a duel. He has remarkably keen vision and hearing. He is skilled in mimicry, copying the voice of Hook, and the tick-tock of the Crocodile.
In both Peter Pan and Wendy and Peter Pan in Scarlet, Peter’s ability to imagine things into existence is noted. This ability is featured more strongly in Peter Pan in Scarlet. He also creates imaginary windows and doors as a kind of physical metaphor for ignoring or shunning his companions. He is said to be able to feel danger when it is near.
In Peter and Wendy, Barrie states that the Peter Pan legend Mrs Darling heard as a child was that when children died, he accompanied them part of the way to their destination so they would not be frightened. This is a role similar to the Greek god Hermes as apsychopomp.
In the original play, Peter states that no one must ever touch him (though he does not know why). The stage directions specify that no one does so throughout the play. Wendy approaches Peter to give him a “thimble” (kiss).