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The Filaments of Fiction: Nisi Shawl on ‘Peter Pan’

The Filaments of Fiction: Nisi Shawl on ‘Peter Pan’

Written By: Nisi Shawl for Unbound Worlds.

I started young. The sylph song of the fantastic filled the long days of my childhood, sunny or stormy, and I’ve never stopped my ears to its harmonies as I’ve aged. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror have provided me with what I read for, then, and ever since.

Out of the many books I came across during that time in my life, the most influential is J.M. Barrie’s, Peter Pan. But was it a book I first encountered?

After its initial incarnation as a play in 1904, Peter Pan has been transformed into a novel, multiple movies, TV specials, picture books, cartoons, comics, games, and a ballet, to name a few art forms. It has inspired numerous sequels, prequels, and retellings. It has inspired me. It’s a jumping-off point for my unpublished novel The Blazing World and my forthcoming short story She Tore. Everfair, published by Tor in September 2016, contains several references to Peter Pan and Utopian colonist Sir Matthew B. Jamison is modeled in part on its author.

I can summarize Peter Pan’s plot in two sentences: children of a lower-middle-class British family fly off with a mischievous, eternally young boy named Peter to his home on the magical island of Neverland. There they have lots of adventures with mermaids, fairies, pirates, and American Indians (sans cowboys) until worried that their mother will have forgotten them, they leave Peter behind, return home, and proceed to grow up.

So what did I see in that? What’s so compelling about a bunch of white kids playing at savages? About a chronically immature alpha male and a gender role-chained female? What about the blatantly racialized others? This includes not just the fierce “redskins,” but fairy, Tinker Bell, who is “quite a common” mender of pots and pans–a swearing, hot-tempered stereotype of one of the Irish Travellers, the ethnic group is known by the epithet used as her first name?

As a child, I owned a picture book depicting a red-haired boy clothed in improbable green. As a child, I resisted the soporific effects of holiday suppers to see a televised black-and-white-and-grey-all-over Mary Martin sing of a land where dreams are born. My current theory, though, is that it wasn’t these early encounters that led to my love for this story. Instead, I trace the effect from a matinee performance I attended in my twenties.

January 1976. A high school auditorium. On the grey marble floor of the lobby, wafers of trampled snow turned translucent in the heat of hissing radiators. Behind dark, swinging doors, on a black-painted stage hung with musty velvet, teenagers enacted the story of a lost god and a broken boy doomed to never do what boys are born to do: grow.

Somehow his flights, which we, his audience, knew to be faked, were meant to make up for this. Somehow those playing along with him showed us the saving nature of play: the ephemeral rendered immortal. These were games memorialized, the ever-fraying fabric of make-believe fashioned into a glancing semblance of the mundane and worn with pride. As when I had menaced grade school bullies with spears of goldenrod, and with my sisters climbed the bluffs north of our historically Black neighborhood in search of dragon’s gold.

I felt this truth in my humming marrow. I knew it in my clear, dissolving heart. Maybe because of the LSD I’d taken that afternoon? Probably.

But acknowledging drug usage doesn’t invalidate what I learned under the influence. Research into Barrie’s life supports my thesis. According to the bios I’ve read, he spent long weeks playing with children: earnestly, loyally, seriously. And then he wrote about those experiences. The author of Peter Pan came as close as any adult can to capturing on the page the magic of pretend, the magic so many of us leave behind us as the years pass.

To read the complete essay by Nisi Shawl visit Unbound Worlds

Visit the Filaments of Fiction series on Unbound Worlds to read more essays from authors who discuss the science fiction and fantasy novels that were formative to them.

Nisi Shawl is a James Tiptree, Jr. Award-winner whose works have been featured in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and numerous other publications and anthologies. Her most recent novel, Everfair, imagines what might have happened with Belgium’s colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned steam technology a little earlier.

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