Framing Magic Through Paradox in Peter Pan and Tuck Everlasting, by Eden Daniels

Framing Magic Through Paradox in Peter Pan and Tuck Everlasting, by Eden Daniels

About Eden Daniels: Hi, I’m Eden, a second year Literature student. This essay was written in Andrew Katz’s 102 English class with New School. It was a special course, not only because it was taught by Andrew, but because it was my last class with New School, a place where I was given the opportunity to become a leader and cultivate a community. This essay is a perfect example of what my alternative schooling looked like; we weaved the personal with the educational. I was able to take a nostalgic text from my childhood, Peter Pan, and connect it to our studied text, Tuck Everlasting. Hope you like it.  



Children’s literature is often undervalued, despite the fact that it is, for most, our first introduction to complex concepts and philosophies. Peter Pan, written in 1911 by J. M. Barrie, and Tuck Everlasting, written by Natalie Babbitt in 1975, are two such children’s books that act as introductions to nuance. Peter Pan is a coming-of-age novel about a girl named Wendy, who goes on an adventure with the magical Peter Pan, a flying boy who never grows up. Over the course of the story, Wendy comes to terms with letting go of her childhood in favor of adulthood. Meanwhile, Tuck Everlasting tells the story of Winnie, a young girl who befriends the Tucks, a family who became immortal by drinking from a magical stream. Together, they succeed in keeping immortality a secret from the rest of the world. In both texts, the two paradoxically glamorize and deglamorize eternal youth and eternal life respectively, presenting them simultaneously as a gift and a cruelty that both causes and prevents danger.

Eternal youth in Peter Pan and immortality in Tuck Everlasting are glamorized because they are perceived as mystical gifts. Peter Pan is a very nostalgic novel that idolizes youth and childhood. It is only at that age that one has the power to fly since solely then is one “gay and innocent and heartless” (Barrie 207). When Wendy grows up and finds Peter taking her daughter away with him to his home in Neverland, she exclaims “If only I could go with you” (206). Peter’s eternal youth is a gift because it means he will never have to grieve his own childhood as Wendy must. His ability to stay “gay and innocent and heartless” (207) is thus depicted as the ultimate dream. Furthermore, Peter is never fully conscious of the tragedies and deaths surrounding him because his stagnated brain isn’t developed enough to understand them. When confronted with the threat of drowning, Peter goes from feeling a “tremor” of fear to gaining a smile on his face, contemplating how “To die will be an awfully big adventure” (110). His mind’s capacity to easily forget means that he can never truly suffer and grieve. When Wendy asks Peter about his fairy friend Tinker Bell a year after their adventure together, he does not remember Tinker Bell and concludes, unmoved, that she must have died: “‘There are such a lot of them [fairies],’ he said. ‘I expect [Tinker Bell] is no more.'” (198). Tuck Everlasting does not glamorize immortality nearly as much, but it is nonetheless present since the family itself is glamorized. The Tucks stand in stark contrast with Winnie’s family and are seen through a more sympathetic lens. They are eccentric, knowledgeable, kind, and fun, while the Fosters are controlling and constraining. During her time with them, Winnie feels the happiness and freedom she has always wanted. When she and the reader are faced with the Tucks, they associate their qualities with the concept of immortality itself:

[The Tucks] were friends, her friends. [Winnie] was running away after all, but she was not alone. Closing the gate on her oldest fears as she had closed the gate of her own fenced yard, she discovered the wings she’d always wished she had. And all at once she was elated … Why, she, too, might live forever in this remarkable world she was only just discovering! The story of the spring—it might be true! (Babbitt 15)

The Tucks’ arrival in Winnie’s life seems like a gift because of all the joy they give her. To stay with them means to adopt their immortal lifestyle, a lifestyle characterized by joy and independence. So, both novels present suspended aging as a glamorized gift, Peter Pan through Peter’s youth, forgetfulness and lack of sorrow and Tuck Everlasting through the Tuck family’s wonderful immortal lifestyle. 

Paradoxically, just as both stories uplift immortality and eternal youth respectively, they also deglamorize them by characterizing these powers as cruel. Since Peter’s mental age is stunted, he has the mind of a child and, consequently, is as cruel as one.  He can kill mercilessly, as seen when he pushes his nemesis Captain Hook into the jaws of a crocodile. However, more disturbingly, it is hinted that Peter will go so far as to kill his friends in the name of his childish beliefs: “the boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out” (Barrie 59). Constance Grady, culture writer at Vox Media, connects Peter’s horrific cruelty to his permanent boyhood best: “The ability to think of other people as people, and not just as objects in the game of your life, is a characteristic of adulthood” (“How the Fantasy”). Peter is unable to do this because of his power to never grow up, thus his power being characterized as cruel. While forgetting has been addressed before as a positive trait because it prevents Peter’s suffering, for the people around him, the opposite is observed. Due to his forgetfulness, a symptom of his undeveloped brain, Peter doesn’t see Wendy again for years after promising to visit her annually for spring cleaning. This leaves both Wendy and her brother devastated: “Wendy would have cried if Michael had not been crying” (Barrie 198). Much like Dementia, a disease commonly characterized as cruel, the characters around Peter suffer because of his lack of memory. Consequently, the reader is as devastated as the other characters and, through empathy for them, becomes disillusioned with the wish to never grow up. In Tuck Everlasting, immortality is so deglamorized that it is presented as practically curse-like. The Tucks earn their immortality by drinking from a fountain of youth, not because of karma or fate but instead out of sheer randomness:

When [the Tucks] came to the part that was now the wood, and turned from the trail to   find a camping place, they happened on the spring. “It was real nice,” said           Jesse with a  sigh. “It looked just the way it does now. A clearing, lots of sunshine, that         big tree with all those knobby roots. We stopped and everyone took a drink. (Babbitt 12)

They didn’t drink from the stream to earn immortality, all they wanted was water and it proceeded to control the rest of their lives. This betrayal and the lack of moral reasoning behind such a punishment characterizes immortality as cruel and unglamorous. The Tucks suffer tremendously because of their newfound power and had no say in their gaining it. They are forced to live in isolation because no one can know who they are and thus uncover their immortality. Furthermore, in an effort to hide their immortal condition from society, and to not feel the grief of outliving others, the Tucks must reject a normal lifestyle and cruelly isolate themselves. Unlike Peter, the Tucks’ stunted aging didn’t occur in the early stages of their development, so their memory allows them to grieve their tremendous losses. The reader sees this firsthand in the epilogue when the Tuck parents go back to Treegap and find that Winnie has died. Another example comes from Miles Tuck, whose wife leaves him because of his immortality: “I [Miles] was married. I had two children. But, from the look of me, I was still twenty-two. My wife, she finally made up her mind I’d sold my soul to the Devil. She left me. She went away and she took the children with her” (Babbitt 13). Everyone the Tucks meet will die before them and they understand that, suffering loss in return. It’s safe to say Peter Pan and Tuck Everlasting both deglamorize their novel’s mystical abilities, the former by demonstrating the effect Peter’s cruelty and forgetfulness has on others and the latter by highlighting the cruelty involved in the innocent Tuck’s obtainment of immortality, which is also responsible for their suffering and isolation.

The powers harnessed in each respective work of children’s fiction paradoxically cause and create danger, allowing for the works to continue the balancing act of glamorizing and deglamorizing age-related magic. As noted above, Peter Pan’s carefree childish attitude means he’s cavalier about other people’s lives, creating real danger to anyone around him and disparaging his mystical abilities in the eyes of the reader. However, the ultimate danger and conflict of the story is that Wendy must grow up, killing the part of her that plays with and mothers Peter. The depiction of growing up as a sort of death is present even in the most subtle connotation: “All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them” (Barrie 199).  This categorization of ageing as deadly, as well as heightening its association with danger, glamorizes Peter’s eternal youth since his soul will never die through such a process. In both children’s stories, the danger of the mystical powers becoming corrupted is also presented. Tinker Bell goes to great lengths in the novel to keep Peter protected from sexual concepts. When Wendy tries to get Peter to kiss her, Tinker Bell prevents it by pulling her hair and states she will continue preventing such behavior: “[Tinker Bell] will do that to you, Wendy, every time I [Peter] give you a [kiss]” (Barrie 36). The logic behind this being that the fairy must preserve Peter’s youthful condition by not allowing him the dangerous opportunity to become corrupted by sexuality. The Tucks similarly need to protect the magical stream responsible for their immortality from becoming exposed and exploited. When the villain of the story explains to the Tucks his dangerous plan to sell the water to the wealthy, he ends up getting shot in the head by Mae Tuck, whose last words before shooting him are: “you ain’t going to give out the secret” (Babbitt 33). In both cases, there is a need to keep the eternal power safe and unthreatened, which demonstrates that it is valuable and therefore glamorized. Immortality is also glamorized because it is presented as a means to be protected from physical harm. When Winnie’s favorite toad becomes involved in a confrontation with a dog, she is horrified that the creature will be harmed and immediately gives him some of the magical water before saying: “You’re safe, forever” (Babbitt 44). Danger is a theme used in Peter Pan and Tuck Everlasting to paradoxically romanticize and deglamorize eternal youth and immortality. Peter Pan achieves this by highlighting the dangers of growing up, corrupting childhood, and being around youthful carelessness; Tuck Everlasting uses danger for the same means by accentuating the threat of the stream’s discovery and the security of immortality.

In conclusion, both texts romanticize and deglamorize their mystical powers by presenting them as gift-like and cruel, as well as by exploring how they are related to danger.  Thanks to the digital age, an age that has become significantly more extreme and binary, paradox and nuance are vital. These two noncontemporary texts continue to strike a nerve with younger and older readers alike because they challenge us to think critically. They give us the tools to examine actions and ideologies from all angles. After that, it is up to the Wendys and Winnies of the world to decide how to proceed.



Works Cited

Babbitt, Natalie. Tuck Everlasting. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. 

Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. Hodder & Stoughton, 1911.

Grady, Constance. “How the fantasy of Peter Pan turned sinister.” Vox Media, 27th July   2017. Accessed 22nd May 2022.

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