The Significance of Pan in Children’s Literature

So, today I thought I would upload a different kind of post, now that I’ve finished university, I oddly miss analysing texts and writing detailed and informative essays of them. Now that I have little more free time, I hope to continue to write posts/articles such as this. So if you find this article informative of useful in anyway, or just have some general feedback, let me know in the comments below. (Note: This posts may be a little on the lengthy side). Whilst taking a module focused on Children’s Literature, I became increasingly passionate concerning texts aimed at children. In this article, I will look closely at the Pan figure that appears to have a presence in numerous Children’s Novels.

J.M Barrie’s classical character Peter Pan, for instance has undoubtedly become a part of popular culture. From its first performance as a play in 1904 to its transition into a novel in 1911, to contemporary 21st century, the titular character has continued to be a significant fictional figure and has been the subject of much critical analysis. However, Barrie’s fictional creation is not entirely original and is in fact based on the mythological Greek God, Pan. Pan is an extremely interesting figure that has always had a presence in literature and experienced a revival during the late Victorian period as Patricia Merivale observes that between 1890 and 1926 there was an “astonishing resurgence of interest in the Pan motif”.

This is particularly evident in Arthur Machen’s 1890 horror novella, The Great God Pan in which Pan is a malevolent, sinister and fearful metaphor of the discovery of the world. However, representations of Pan have changed considerably over the course of literature and the Pan figure has somehow transitioned into children’s literature, making an appearance in texts such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden and C.S Lewis’ 1950 novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In order to analyse the significance of the Pan figure in children’s literature, we must first trace the origin of Pan and deconstruct who or what he is.

Front Covers

Pan God

Pan teaching his eromenos, the shepherd Daphnis, to play the pipes, 2nd century AD Roman copy of Greek original ca. 100 BC, found in Pompeii

In Greek mythology, Pan is the God of flocks, heards and wild animals and resides in the utopian setting of Arcadia. He is often depicted as having the hindquarters, legs and horns of a fawn or satyr. Because of this description, his Roman counterpart is often said to be Faunus, who has a similar function within Roman mythology. Whilst there are many characteristics distinct to Pan, there are three that will be discussed in relation to key themes in children’s texts with a particular focus on J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan. These three characteristics are;
1. Pan’s affinity with nature
2. Pan’s sexual powers
3. Pan’s ability to create panic.

It is interesting to note how these characteristics, and the Pan figure as a whole, evolve within children’s literature and how they often convey key themes and anxieties surrounding the growth and development of children.

One of the main characteristics most associated with Pan is his affinity to nature because of his position as God of the wild. This is particularly evident in Barrie’s Peter Pan as Peter (who is obviously the Pan character of Barrie’s fiction), often resides in settings dominated by nature such as Kensington Garden’s and Neverland. In this sense, nature is glorified and often described as a safe haven and therefore a necessity to Peter’s and the other character’s survival. This is perhaps a reference to Pan’s original residence in the utopian-like Arcadia and Peter’s presence within nature creates a utopian society. This is clearly evident in the narrator’s description of Kensington Gardens which is described as “delectable” conveying Kensington Gardens and the nature within it as a safe setting.

Arthur Rackham

Arthur Rackham ~ Peter Pan is the Fairies’ Orchestra ~ 1906 Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J. M. Barrie

The depiction of Kensington Garden’s and Neverland at times almost feels allegorical and we may compare these settings to the Garden of Eden in The Book of Genesis. This is indicated through the presence of the fig trees that appear in both Eden and Kensington Gardens, further highlighting the similarities in both texts, conjuring the image that Kensington Garden’s is in fact Peter’s Eden. However, in both of these cases there is an association with the more primitive aspect of living with nature. Similar to Adam and Eve, Peter is almost always naked in Peter in Kensington Gardens as he disposes of his nightgown early on as Barrie bluntly states “He wore no nightgown now […] though he was quite naked”(Barrie, 18). In the story of Genesis, Adam and Eve’s nudity is symbolic of their uncorrupted souls and their innate primitive state. It is only until they have gained “wisdom” through the biting of the apple of knowledge do they begin to cover their nudity, symbolic of humans transitioning into more civilised beings. Peter too is naked, indicating his innocent, pure yet primitive existence. Evidently, Barrie has not only drawn inspiration from the original Greek Pan figure, but he has also combined this figure with Christian theology, creating a complex amalgamation of figures to convey the significance of nature.

This association and nudity perhaps highlights the more uncivilised, primitive side to children and a variety of illustrations and depictions of Peter Pan demonstrate the relationship between the uncivilised and nature. For example, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations in Barrie’s collectable edition, disturbingly illustrates Peter as a naked baby on the book cover as he gallops around on a goat, again highlighting the primitive nature of Peter. Moreover, this particular edition appears to be a collectable and therefore marketed at an adult audience, not a children’s one. This perhaps then demonstrates the adult perspective of the significance of nature within children’s fiction and how it draws out the more primitive or uncivilised aspects of child characters.

Psychoanalytical critics such as Michael Egan have also often observed the idea of the more primitive aspect of Peter Pan in relation to nature and have identified this as the “id” or instinctive drive of the conscience. In psychoanalytical theory, the id is the part of the conscience that is present from birth and acts according to the “pleasure principal” (i.e seeking instinctual pleasure and avoiding pain). Egan argues that it is Neverland that acts as the embodiment of the id as he states it is “a vast symbolic metaphor […] of the child’s id”. However, perhaps it is not Neverland that is a metaphor of the id, rather Peter himself and his underdeveloped mind acts as a personification of the id. Therefore, Pan’s association with nature in Peter Pan is merely symbolic of this instinctive drive that dominates children.

Moreover, Barrie often uses animalistic language to exemplify the primitive link between Peter and nature such as when he “gnashed” (Barrie, 77) his teeth at Mrs Darling and describes himself as “a little bird that has broken out of the egg” (Barrie, 203). The use of this animal or bird imagery again highlights the, uncontrollable (and perhaps savage) elements within nature whilst also acting as an allusion to Pan’s original form as half-human, half-goat. Additionally, the significance of nature evoking the id in not only Peter, in other characters such as Wendy, is conveyed through the juxtaposition of more natural or pastoral setting of Neverland and the urban, metropolis city of Victorian London. Neverland and nature’s dominance over it, as discussed before, draws out the more savage characteristics of the children. On the other hand, London is the setting in which the children intend to grow up and become more civilised and mature, leaving the savage aspects of their childhood in Neverland. This movement is clearly symbolic of the children developing their id into the ego.

The idea of nature as a safe haven or Arcadia that is seen in Kensington Gardens and Neverland is also evident in Burnett’s The Secret Garden through the Pan figure of the character Dickon who is closely associated through nature. Even in his appearance, he is linked with nature as evident in his description as he looks like “pieces of the moorland sky”. Burnett, like Barrie also combines the mythology of Pan’s arcadia and The Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden however is a place of both sanctuary and danger, of good and evil evident in the description of the tree; “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:9). This is where Burnett’s depiction of nature differs to Barrie’s’; Whilst Barrie’s nature evokes the animalistic savagery in his child characters, Burnett’s appears to be a place of serenity. The tone and the naturalistic imagery throughout the novel imply this. Moreover, the garden, and nature within it, through Dickon’s influence has divine, mystical powers that allow the transformation of both Mary and Colin. In this way we can see already how the nature aspect of the Pan figure has begun to evolve from one of the morally ambiguous to one that is perhaps more safer.

However, the Pan figure returns to that of the more morally ambiguous that was established during the early 20th century from Barrie’s Pan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in which the Pan figure appears in the form of the minor character, Mr Tumnus who appears to have significant connection with nature as he resides in the woods “”. However, nature is personified and has the potential to be a threat as seen with the trees as Mr Beaver states; “There are trees […] They’re always listening. Most of them are on our side, but there are trees that would betray us to her”(Lewis, 75). The Pevensie children must be wary of nature as it acts as both a sanctuary and a threat to their existence. Therefore the nature aspect returns to that of a more sinister and dangerous side that is associated with Pan

Aside from nature, another characteristic that is distinct to the God Pan is his lust and sexual power as evident through a number of artistic representations in which he is often portrayed with a Phallus. Additionally, in Greek mythology, it is said that Pan often attempted to seduce and make love to the nymphs. Barrie and Burnettt have both adapted this trait of the God Pan to highlight the sexual awakening of their characters in their texts. In the Peter Pan stories, Peter is both a sexually lustful character and the subject of sexuality and lust. For example, in Peter in Kensington Gardens, Peter, to an extent begins undergo a development of sexual identity which is seen in his relationship with Mamie whom he childishly attempts to marry. Barrie uses sexually implicit language such as “fondle” (Barrie, 59) to emphasise how Peter is beginning to explore his own sexual identity. However, Peter is also in a static state, on the verge of adolescence and puberty, yet never quite there which is apparent in his ignorance as to the difference between a thimble and a kiss. Whilst his own sexual identity is never able to evolve, it is his presence that awakens Wendy’s sexual identity. Morse argues that the thimble is a vaginal representation of female sexual power that she uses in order to possess Peter. However, her attempt to become Peter’s lover is often rejected because of his lack of understanding as to the meaning of a sexual identity which also results in the lack of his own sexual growth.

However, Peter is unaware of the seductive influence he has over Wendy or any other women as evident in the way in which he speaks this is seen when he is first introduced to Wendy; “‘Wendy,’ he continued in a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist” (Barrie 91) Peter seduction is irresistible to Wendy. Even Mrs Darling experiences a sublime attraction to Peter as evident when she encounters him in the line “The most entrancing thing about him was that he has all his first teeth”. It is his youth and the foreign otherness that this youth brings that the women are attracted to. Blackford compares Peter to Oscar Wilde’s eternally youthful yet degenerated character, Dorian Gray as she asserts “Both Dorian and Peter take vows of eternal youth and attract the longings and projective desires of all who see them; they become seductive forces luring others into their hedonistic worlds”. Blackford’s assertion suggests then that Peter uses his eternal youth in a malicious way, “luring” other children with his eroticism as caused by his eternal youth which again depicts Pan as a more sinister and dangerous figure within children’s literature. The sexual awakening that Peter brings out in female characters is not just limited to Wendy and Mrs Darling, however, as this sexual awakening continues through Wendy’s female offspring that Peter essentially abducts as the narrator describes Jane’s initiation with Peter as a “tragedy” (Barrie, 223) Wendy’s initial reluctance in allowing her child, Jane, to accompany Peter conveys the adult perspective of the unwillingness of allowing a child to experience puberty and develop a sexual identity.

As in Peter Pan, in The Secret Garden, a young a woman is again enticed by the Pan figure. In this instance, it is clear that Mary is attracted to Dickon. His direct link with Pan is evident in his first appearance in the novel as he sits beneath a tree, attracting animals with the tune from his wooden pipes. This image directly echoes that of Pan’s famous musical pipes and directly associates Dickon with Pan. This association with Pan is clear through his affinity with nature. Furthermore, Mary’s perspective of Dickon is sexually implicit as she “lets him inside” the garden, an image which is surprisingly explicit for a narrative aimed at children. In the same way that Wendy and Mrs Darling are attracted to Peter’s otherness, Mary too is attracted to Dickon’s foreign, exotic qualities. For example, she is attracted to his seemingly “foreign” Yorkshire accent and attempts to imitate it in the hope of pleasing him. Thus, this demonstrates how Pan’s sexual powers continue to develop throughout children’s literature.

Mr Tumnus

James McAvoy as Mr Tumunus in the movie adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis

On the other hand, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe this erotic aspect of Pan is almost entirely removed within Mr Tumnus as his relationship with all the characters including Lucy is purely platonic. Nonetheless, there are traces of Pan’s seduction through Mr Tumnus’ musical pipes. Like Dickon, he too uses musical pipes in order to entrance his victim “the tune he played made Lucy want to cry and laugh and dance and go to sleep all at the same time” (Lewis, 23). Clearly, Mr Tumnus’ pipes can manipulate and to an extent, seduce Lucy. The removal of Pan’s erotic aspects is potentially a result of Lewis’ determination for the novel to be primarily a Christian one, emulating Christian, virtuous values which a sexually implicit character could perhaps undermine. Instead, Mr. Tumnus’ potential seduction and betrayal of Lucy is actually portrayed as sin and Tumnus must redeem himself. Again, this is evident of how stereotypical traits of the Pan character have shifted from the traditional ones established in Peter Pan and The Secret Garden.

Whilst Pan is noted for his close relationship with nature and his seductive nature, the most notable aspect is his ability to create panic. In fact, the origin of the word “panic” comes from the God Pan. The ability to create panic within individuals is clear in the texts that have been discussed. However, this Panic is aimed and constructed in a variety of different techniques including creating anxiety within individuals, domestically and socially. Peter Pan is the perfect example in demonstrating how Pan’s actions unleashes chaos, panic and anxiety domestically by essentially, kidnapping the children, causing panic the within the Darling household. Barrie underscores this tension by violating the aesthetic distancing of the novel. This disturbance in the narrative is exemplified by the rhetorical language Barrie uses in the chapter “Come away, Come away!”; “Will they reach the nursery on time? If so, how delightful for them, and we shall all breathe a sigh of relief, but there will be no story” (Barrie, 101). By making us aware of this panic, we too, as the readers feel panicked and exhilarated by the thrill Peter causes. The consequences of taking the children to Neverland are that it results in a broken home. More specifically, Peter creates panic in the adult characters, the first being Mrs Darling. She has lost her children and feels anxious she will never see them again, underscoring the importance of motherhood. Peter also causes an almost irrational panic in his nemesis, Hook, as seen in the line “There was something about Peter which goaded the pirate captain into a frenzy” (Barrie, 176). This frenzy is to an extent that Hook has developed an obsession with killing the boy. For Hook, Peter is a threat to his adult authority and power within Neverland, hence why he causes him so much panic. This is symbolised through Hook decapitation of his hand through Peter. This decapitation has left Hook “impotent”(Barrie, 190), almost as though he has no adult authority and is left humiliated by Peter. Moreover, Hook’s anxiety also derives from Peter’s literal symbolism of eternal youth as Hook desperately asks “Pan who and what art thou” (Barrie,203) as Peter replies “I’m youth, I’m joy” (Barrie, 203). Peter is the literal embodiment of time and immortality that Hook can never be and by conquering Peter, he will have defeated both time and youth. However, Hook fails miserably and this is perhaps a bittersweet reminder to the adult readers, from Barrie, that we can never be eternally youthful and “All children, except one, must grow up” (Barrie, 70).

On the other hand, whilst the Pan figure in Peter Pan may cause panic domestically, the Pan figure in Lewis’ interpretation, the Pan figure causes panic socially. Although Tumnus does not directly alert the queen of the existence of the children, he catapults the entire events of the novel, causing chaos in Narnian society.

To conclude, Pan figures have evolved enormously from perhaps more malevolent characters. That sinister and slightly frightening element still remains within the recurring figure in children’s literature. This is even evident in depictions and translations of Peter onto screen. In the 2003 film adaptation, he is still a reckless, youthful character, not necessarily sinister. On the other hand, a more recent adaptation in the US television series, Once Upon a Time, a television series which incorporates fairy tale stories, Peter is the main antagonist, obsessed with being eternally young. Nonetheless, despite the variety of depictions, it is clear the Pan figure in children’s literature has been essential in highlighting key ideas of child and most importantly, the adult perspective and anxieties of youth, time and sexual identity.


Barrie, J.M, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with drawings by A. Rackham (London, 1906)

Barrie, J.M, Peter in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

Blackford, Holly, “Childhood and Greek Love: Dorian Gray and Peter Pan” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. 38. (2013) pp.177-198

Buchanan, Ian, Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Burnett, F.H, The Secret Garden (Vintage: London, 2012)

Egan, Michael, “The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud” in Children’s Literature. 10 (1982), 37-55

Genesis, chapters 1-32. Bible, Authorised Version, (1611)

Lewis C.S, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (HarperCollins: London, 2001)

Merivale, Patricia Pan the Goat-God: his Myth in Modern Times, (Harvard University Press, 1969)

Morse, MK. “The Kiss: Female Sexuality and Power in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.” In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in and out of Time: a Children’s Classic at 100. (2006), 281-302

“Pan, n.3.” OED Online. Oxford University Press


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s