Somehow, in a childhood rife with reading, and a family of readers, I missed Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz. I saw the movies, but never read the originals. A few years ago, when I was on my way to Kansas for a writing workshop, I decided to read the Wizard of Oz, partly because a story idea had popped into my head and I needed to know what the original tale was really about.
The first two things I learned was that the original title was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and that Dorothy’s shoes had not been ruby red. They turned that color when MGM made the film because they needed something that drew the eye better and of course, it was those magical shoes that transported Dorothy home. It was a cyclone that took her away but she returned on her own two feet (more or less). From that discovery, my story “Shoes” was born and explored what happened to Dorothy after she had returned from Oz to the mundane farmlands of Kansas.
So, reading Oz as an adult perhaps gave me more depth than it would have otherwise. There were definitely political statements within Baum’s story, as well as aspects of self and what happens when you go from doubt to believing in yourself. In fact, it is Dorothy’s belief that she can return home which helps transport her there. Dorothy’s adventures take place in a world that is strangely different from a Kansas farm community. Indeed, this is a common tool in children’s stories, and some adult ones as well. While J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books use this, she has it that the world exists in the same place alongside the regular world but it is hidden from muggle eyes. Oz was elsewhere.
Now I’m reading Peter Pan because I’m trying to come up with a green man story. And Peter Pan‘s original title is Peter and Wendy, or Peter Pan: the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. J.M. Barrie wrote it first as a play in 1904 and the Wizard of Oz came out in 1900. Peter Pan has a lot to do with the green man. He lives in a wild land, dresses in green or in skeleton leaves and plays pan pipes. And yes, Peter Pan’s land is Neverland. It is the stuff of dreams and the sugar thread fantasies of children. But whereas Oz seems a fantasy from which Dorothy awakes, Wendy, Michael and John, and the other Lost Boys who return, did in fact leave to another land and their parents missed them.
These two stories are part of our modern fairytales. Along with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and
The Secret Garden, they do not have the generational mythos of fairytales handed down over centuries. Yet they are enduring and endearing and each deals with a child going to a place that is other. What is even more interesting with Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz is that while these stories were written a little over a century ago, they both have major female protagonists. Since I’m not doing a full essay here I’m curious if there were many tales of quests or journeys that took place before Alice in Wonderland. Of course, such journeys go back to the early myths of Gilgamesh and Herakles and Odysseus, so travels to mythical lands is not a new concept. But when did the children take over?
Dorothy is swept along on her travails, and while she observes and experiences growth through her trials, she makes very few decisions on her own until later in the book. Yet her main adversary is the Wicked Witch, a strong if megalomaniacal female figure, and of course there is Glinda as well. Wendy is the first one wooed by Peter’s pan pipes and while she goes with her brothers, she wishes for nothing but romance and to be a mother, and in fact plays mother to all the lost boys of Neverland. The boys kill and get in skirmishes because “children are gay and innocent and heartless,” and Wendy keeps them in order. She is also the damsel taken captive. Tinker Bell and the redskin Tiger Lily vie for Peter’s attention but he is oblivious to all. Like many age-old myths of gods Peter is the eternal youth and Wendy is the mother/love figure that is part of the tale of the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. For stories that are a century old I think it’s interesting that the male writers gave the females fairly major roles, even if they were still carried along on the action of the males.
Peter Pan actually hearkens back to a far older myth. It is the tale of the grain goddess Demeter, loved by all of humanity, and her daughter the Kore. The Kore is seduced by a narcissus planted in the field. When she plucks it Hades, lord of the underworld, abducts her to his realm. Demeter blights the earth until Kore, now Persephone, is returned, but Persephone’s eaten the fruit of the underworld (the pomegranate). She is only allowed to return for part of the year because she only ate a partial meal in the underworld, and hence we have the seasons. When Peter guides Wendy and the lost boys home, he asks if she’ll come every year for spring cleaning, and her mother (who is loved by all) grants this, though Peter in his eternal youth, forgets some years to come by. It’s a simplified Greek myth but the seeds are still there, as they are in the fairytale Beauty and the Beast.
Both the Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan involve many adventures with different characters, just as Hercules/Herakles had twelve labors or Odysseus encountered sirens and cyclops. The language of Peter Pan is beautiful and evocative, yet compared with the sterilized Disnefication of tales today or even the movie versions of these stories, the children are savage and thoughtless. There is an inherent violence, which like nature, is part of a pattern and lacking morals. It just is.
I could go on but if you have not read these more modern fairy tales, consider that they are of a natural evolution that began with gods long ago, metamorphosed into magical beings and objects, took a trip to the land of Faery and never quite left.