When Peter is away from Neverland, everything becomes quite peaceful and lazy, and nobody fights very much. But now that Peter has returned, the island has become lively. Everyone is hunting someone else: the pirates hunt the lost boys, the indians hunt the pirates, and the wild animals hunt the indians. “They were going round and round the island, but they did not meet because all were going at the same rate.”
Without Peter, the island is peaceful. If the island is a composite of children’s imaginations, then the island in Peter’s absence is representative of children on average. We can say, then, that even in comparison to other children, Peter is very warlike and violent.
The lost boys, walking quietly in single file, are looking for Peter Pan. There are currently six boys on the island, but the number varies, because every once in a while they die in battle or “Peter thins them out.” The first in line is Tootles, who often accidentally misses out on the best adventures. The next in line is Nibs, a carefree boy, and then Slightly, who loves to dance and to reminisce about earthly life, though he doesn’t remember any more than the others. The next in line is Curly, who tends to get in trouble, and finally the Twins, who confuse Peter, who doesn’t understand why they look exactly the same, and they are therefore always a little embarrassed.
The word “Neverland” has in modern culture come to mean something like a children’s paradise. But the Neverland of J. M. Barrie's novel is not paradise at all. For one thing, children are killed there, and sometimes, it seems, Peter himself kills them, just to “thin them out.” Or perhaps he simply sends them back to the real world – it is ambiguous. It is a world both more free and more dangerous than an ordinary child's world because it is a pure child's world, unaffected by the moderation of adults.
Next come the pirates, ugly, tattooed, and murderous, and the bo’sun Smee, who is oddly mild and loveable (a bo’sun is a sort of servant). Captain Hook is awful and handsome, with black hair, blue eyes, and a terrible scowl. He wears somewhat refined clothes, which suit his aristocratic features, smokes two cigars at the same time, and fears nothing except his own blood, “which was thick and of an unusual colour.” He kills easily and often. Right then, he kills one of his crew with his hook – just for bumping against him.
It is often said that childhood was invented in the 18th and 19th centuries, because in earlier periods of human history almost all children had to work just as hard as adults. But when middle-class parents could afford to let their children play and be leisurely, childhood became a more distinct period of life, and children became a topic of discussion. Many people believed that children were sweet, innocent angels.
Next come “redskins” of the Piccaninny tribe, carrying many scalps. Their leader is Princess Tiger Lily, a very beautiful girl. All sorts of hungry wild animals follow in their tracks, and the last of them is a huge crocodile. Then everything has come full circle, and the lost boys appear again. They talk about Peter, wonder about the ending of Cinderella, and try to remember their mothers – they can’t talk about mothers in front of Peter, “the subject being forbidden by him as silly.”
The Neverland in Barrie’s book is a real children’s world. It is not a paradise for angels, nor a playroom full of silliness and laughter. It is a thrilling, dark place. If there is one thing that characterizes Neverland, it is intensity. The children don’t merely walk, they fly; they don’t “play rough,” they kill; the pirates are as horrible as can be, and the princess as beautiful as can be.
Just then the boys hear the pirates singing and quickly disappear into their underground house, which they enter through trees with holes in the trunks. Each boy has a tree of his own – seven in all. The pirates have often tried to discover this house, and this time one pirate sees Nibs disappearing into the woods (Nibs is going out to investigate). Hook is determined to find the entrance this time and he tells all the pirates to scour the area.
Yet the violence of the children’s world is distinct from the violence of the adult world. Violence in the adult world is most often arbitrary, senseless, and unfair. The Neverland children believe in fairness, and their violence is subject to a code of honor. That’s why the pirates don’t simply slaughter the children when they see them: they must first outwit them.
Hook is left alone with Smee, the bo’sun, and he tells Smee obliquely and sentimentally about his life. Hook wants badly to kill Peter, who cut off his arm and fed it to a crocodile. To this day, the crocodile is trying to finish the meal. Hook has been able to avoid the crocodile till now, because it has a ticking clock in its stomach that he can hear and therefore avoid, but he states that he will be in trouble once the clock stops ticking.
Though we have already said that Neverland is not a toy-room, the real crocodile with real bloodlust is wonderfully toy-like: its ticking is a fair warning to Hook, a delightful structural fairness. Death is simply a part of the game in Neverland – not, as in life, an incomprehensible end to it.
Suddenly Smee jumps up: he has been sitting on a mushroom that has grown unusually hot. When the pirates uproot the mushroom, they see smoke and hear children’s voices. The boys use the mushroom to plug their chimney when strangers are around. The pirates also notice the seven holes in the trees, and they hear the boys talking about Peter’s absence. Captain Hook decides to get them by leaving a very rich and delicious cake on the shore of a lagoon where they like to play; since they don’t have a mother to tell them to eat in moderation, they will eat too much and get very sick and die. The pirates break into celebratory song, but then Hook hears the ticking of the hungry crocodile and they all run off.
The story won’t allow us to forget that Hook, like the rest of the island, is a child’s invention. There is some very large adult evil missing from a pirate who plans to kill children with delicious cake. Hook’s origin in children’s imaginations is significant both with respect to his relative innocence and his capacity for horrific violence, which likewise is children’s handiwork. Hook also reflects the children’s anxieties about mothers: it is fair, to them, that Hook plans to kill them with cake, because they believe their motherlessness to be their weakness.
Nibs runs out of the woods. He is being chased by wolves, and the other boys run out to help him. They chase off the wolves by bending over and looking at them through their legs, because that is what Peter would do in the situation, and the wolves retreat in confusion.
The island’s wolves are also children’s inventions. In the children’s world, confusing behavior is just as effective a weapon as a dagger. A dagger is more innocent there, and strangeness is more potent.
When they are safe, Nibs tells the other boys that he saw a large white bird flying through the sky and calling “Poor Wendy.” Soon they see the bird flying toward them, and they see Tinker Bell scolding and pinching it. Tink tells the boys that Peter wants them to shoot the bird, and Tootles obediently shoots Wendy with an arrow. She falls to the ground, an arrow in her chest.
The boys obey Peter Pan just as blindly and fearfully and admiringly as the pirates obey Hook. It is interesting to note that, in the beginning of the 20th century, J.M. Barrie seemed to believe that hierarchical structures and absolute authority were a natural part of children’s imaginations.