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Essay: Pan as an idealised symbol of Childhood in the Golden Age of Children’s literature

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  • Pan as an idealised symbol of Childhood in the Golden Age of Children's literature
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Pan as an idealised symbol of Childhood in the Golden Age of Children’s literature. Peter Pan, Pantheism and The Muse of Childhood. 3014 Words.

In this essay, I will discuss, with reference to Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows, and C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe. I will explore the influence of Pantheism in The Golden Age of Children’s Literature and why the figure Pan was popularised in, and inspired writing for children in the Victorian and Edwardian Period.


The period , from 1880 to the end of the Edwardian Era and occasionally beyond was known as ‘The Golden Age’ of Children’s Literature and Illustration. Where previously little literature specifically for children existed, other than fairy tales, nursery rhymes and religious writing for children, greater access to education, improved literacy, and wider publication to books through improved printing technology, encouraged authors to write for children specifically. During this time, synergies between social, political, and artistic ideology influenced many aspects of literature.

References Pan and Pantheist adopted by the Romantic writers of the eighteenth were adopted by Victorian and Edwardian writers who explored the idea of an all-encompassing God with deeper connections to nature. Several prominent late Victorian and Edwardian writers, particularly those writing for children, identified with a yearning to connect with the natural world.

Popular illustrators from ‘The Golden Age of Illustration,’ such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, and Heath Robinson, were renowned for illustrating works inspired by fairy-tale, mythology and folk-law. The period also coincides with The Education Act of 1880, which made school attendance from the ages of five to ten years old compulsory.

In the collected essays, ‘Worlds Enough & Time, Childhood in Edwardian Fiction’, within the introduction, the editor argues that it was the Edwardians who made ‘the child central to Childhood’, that children were ‘imaginative, free and distinct from adults. ‘ Suggesting that before this period children were largely represented as ‘little adults’. However, in Secret Gardens, A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, by Humphrey Carpenter, the author asserts that Romantics, including Blake and Wordsworth, (who were both associated with Pantheist ideology,) recognised the child’s view of the world as differing from that of an adult. Carpenter did not believe the view that the child was a lesser version of the adult or a concept that evolved in the Edwardian Era.

The concept of childhood as separate from adulthood is not new. Bruegel’s Renaissance Painting, ‘Children’s Games’, depicting children at play with toys, and games illustrates how child’s play was not a Victorian or Edwardian phenomenon. Religion promised Victorians rewards in the hereafter. The Victorians received instruction on literacy in churches, so would have been aware of scriptures such as Corinthians, 13:11 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things’. The Victorians may have differentiated between childhood and the child being a little adult. However, market forces dictated not all childhood was celebrated or equal for all children. Working-class children still lived and worked in extremes of poverty and oppression. Many prominent writers who associated with Fabianism and Pantheism, knew, and commented on changes within the social and political landscape during the Victorian era. They had seen rural workforces migrate to larger towns and cities, and how the landscape irrevocably changed. Child labour was rife. The Education Acts of 1870 and 80’ did not bring immediate change.

From the mid-nineteenth century, writers such as Charles Dickens and George Elliot documented social change. Later Thomas Hardy lamented the demise of the rural idyll in both his poetry and writing. The Pre-Raphealites and later, Thomas Benjamin Kennington, portrayed poverty in the Victorian era. The suffering of children was not invisible to broader society.

Many writers looked towards an idealised version of nature, seeking spiritual rewards within modern life, rather than rewards in the death. The emergence of authors who specifically wrote for children, included many still revered today. Beatrix Potter, A. A. Milne, E. Nesbit, and Kenneth Grahame rejected conventional ideas surrounding God, often identifying with, or being associated with Pantheistic ideology.

In his essay, ‘An Odd Sort of God for The British: Exploring the Appearance of Pan in Late Victorian and Edwardian Literature’, Richard Stromer, Ph.D., discusses how Pan, and interpretations of Pan, gained further popularity between 1895 and 1918.

The muse of Pan presented reoccurring themes to the Edwardian Reader. In her master’s Paper. ‘Pan and the Edwardians,’ Eleanor Toland, explores the Edwardian fascination with Pan as a figure across Edwardian Literature, the author stated that ‘Pan represented a simultaneous craving in the Edwardian Era to flee the past and embrace the future, an idealism of the primitive coupled with hope for the future.’

The Wind in the Willows, first published in 1908, is still regarded as a children’s classic, featuring anthropomorphic animals, popularised in writing for children, by authors such as Beatrix Potter. Closer reading and discussion suggest the book is not a book for children. References within the text to children are scant. The concerns of the animals are not the concerns of children. The characters represent a male Edwardian Class system. Each animal serves as device: Grahame depicts toad as a likable, possibly childish rogue, though a toad may be considered by some to be repugnant. The call of the home and domesticity is illustrated through rat. Mole’s character centres around the need for adventure. Amicable relationships between the animals, or country gentlemen of ages and stages with Edwardian middle Class are further reflected through characters. Badger is seen as wise and reverent, a friend of Toad’s father and so of the establishment. The threat of ‘the other’ is documented in the form of the weasels, opportunist antagonists.

Themes of greed, silliness and excesses represented by Mr. Toad are intended as salutary lessons to the reader. The symbolic attributes of the characters Suggest the author fears embracing of new trends will end badly, and we should we return to values inspired by nature. Ratty and Mole’s journey sees them experience adventure, only to return to the simplicity of hearth and home.

Grahame dedicates a whole chapter to Pan, within The Wind in The Willows, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ to Pan. Here, the animals encounter Pan the God. The chapter could be seen as an incongruous departure from the tone of the novel, (Several publications omit the chapter from the book.)

The language throughout this chapter differs from the affectionate camaraderie of the rest of the book, it is rich and brims with exaltation. Grahame closes the piece with ‘All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered’.

On first reading, Piper at the Gates of Dawn did not seem part of an arc or connected to the wider plot. Grahame at this time associated with Pantheism though later returned to Christianity. The chapter points the reader who may be the adult reading to a child, to reminders of the importance of connecting with the environment and the reunion with the lost ‘child’ in the form of the otter suggests the author directed his readers to connect with lost joys of childhood. Arguably, the chapter is the crux of the novel. Grahame is directing his reader, to a spiritual journey through connection with the pastoral, through learning, and self-revelation.

Toad’s fascination with new, avarice and consumerism, and his character willing to manipulate with little regard for consequence draws direct parallels with shifts in Edwardian society. The motor car searing through the landscape is symbolic of this disruption. Grahame’s values are ultimately conservative.

In The Pagan Papers, written by Grahame and published in 1898, we see the first seeds of ideas for The Wind in the Willows. The first chapter, named ‘The Romance of the Road’. The author discusses a celebration of journey, nature, travelling and reading and in his April Essay, ‘The Rural Pan,’ equating Pan to quiet moments of introspection when immersed in nature. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ was written towards the end of the Edwardian era when Pan and Pantheism were commonly and overtly associated with writing for children. The anthropomorphic animals are only thinly veiled humans on a journey, exploring friendship, class, aspiration, and spirituality. Readers may wonder if the crux of the book was ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, rather it being an authorial distraction, or tangent. One may ask, was the book ever intended for children?

If The Wind in The Willows was a book intended for adults, then possibly the definitive childhood character from The Golden Age of Children’s Writing’ is Peter Pan. Again, there is a conflict arising from the adult perception of what it means to be a child, or if the subtext of the story is one intended for children as readers. Here, a wilful and spirited boy replaces the image of Pan as a horned, half man, half goat god. Fairies and mermaids replace the Nymphs of mythology, and the shepherds who worshipped Pan are now a tribe of lost boys.

Peter Pan is first introduced when ‘Mrs. Darling is tidying up her children’s minds’ as Barrie describes’ a child’s’ mind, which is not only confused, … it keeps going round all the time’ (Location 84 of 2074, Peter Pan and Wendy, Kindle edition.) Which suggests the author ultimately regards the minds of children and the state of childhood as a separate and unordered state, in need of organisation. Like Mr. Darling, Barrie feels compelled to reinstate order.

We learn Peter Pan comes from Neverland, a place where each child has their version of Neverland, seen in the moments before they go to sleep. Peter lives with the fairies and ‘when Children died he went part of the way with them so that they would not be frightened.’ Within the story, there are fights to the death, and a reference to Peter Pan thinning out the lost boys, though we do not know how this is achieved. The story suggests Peter kills for fun. If a literal interpretation, then he is cruel and controlling. One can also read Peter Pan is a representation of the fleeting dreams children have before deep sleep, imaginings fed by pocket magazines of the day, playing out pirates and Indians? An illustration, At Home in The Nursery, By George Cruickshank, from 1835, depicts children at play with a range of battle inspired toys. War and death are trivialised by play. Even before the story is established, the author makes the distinction that ‘Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them’.

Peter Pan as a free spirit entices the children to a land of play and adventure. The battle between Peter Pan and Captain Hook suggests a battle between childhood and adulthood, personified by the ever-ticking clock. Peter has ‘no sense of time’. On his parting from Wendy, the children grow up, forgetting Peter. When reminded, Peter does not remember his nemesis, Captain Hook or his companion, Tinkerbell. It seems the battle was only a game, soon forgotten. Much like the adopted trope, ‘it was all a dream’. Neverland never was, only Peter Pan remains. The idea of Peter Pan flying reminds the reader of the prevalence of dreams in which we can fly, that seems part of childhood for many, yet diminish in frequency as we reach adulthood. Peter is innocent and heartless and flies away, because ‘It is only the gay, innocent and heartless that can fly’. Adulthood grounds us.

Peter Pan is driven by the notion of self, meeting his own needs and being in the moment, a physical manifestation of freedom, hailing from a none reality of an unobtainable ‘Neverland.’ Ultimately rather than the boy who would not grow up, Peter cannot grow up. When adopted, his lost boys grow into adults, with all the responsibilities of adulthood. Wendy grows up, leaving Peter perpetually locked in childhood. J.M. Barrie created the ultimate child, unable to tame his creation, Barrie sets free the lost boys, bringing them out of Neverland and into the physical world, while locking his wild and free Peter away in eternal childhood.

I argue that Peter Pan is the authors’ personification of childhood but not an idealised child. The child who desires the maternal figure, in Wendy, yearns for the stories, the need for a mother. The boy leader rejecting the patriarchy, is wilful and self-directed, only wanting to fill his days with games of pirates and Indians. Ultimately Peter’s destiny is to remain in the Neverland of childhood, a prisoner, looking through the barred window of the Darling’s home but never being part of it. For that moment, we see the sadness of being an eternal child as we accept that children must grow up, except for one. Were it not for The Lost Boys, stepping out of Neverland into reality, everything about Peter Pan could represent the passing of a dream or Barrie asserting his own patriarchal idea that childhood is only a time for adventure and something to be left behind as we face the responsibilities of adulthood.

Barrie also appears to prepare the child reader to leave the magic of childhood behind. The authorial voice is that of an adult, telling stories to a child. The story is laden with subtext. The reading could suggest Peter Pan is a tragic figure, locked in childhood for perpetuity. Rather than Pan personifying freedom, he becomes the yearning for a childhood lost, which may have alluded to how Barrie’s childhood was lost through the death of his brother, David, who drowned on the eve of his fourteenth birthday and so became the child who did not grow up.


Writers are often at the forefront of debate, known for political commentary beyond the narrative. Those Writing for children during the Edwardian period were often associated with the changing and challenging of ideas. While I have not discussed E. Nesbit, she was a Pantheist, politically motivated more directly than many of her contemporaries. Unlike Barrie or Grahame, Nesbitt experienced poverty and wrote from the viewpoint of children. Pan, as a muse was for some writers a journey, for others, the idea of embracing freedom beyond the constraints of Victorian conservatism. With this, came an era that celebrated the child, or least middle-class childhood. With this enlightenment, possibly benefitting from hindsight, the modern reader may also perceive a warning. The Industrial Revolution pushed society away from connections with the land, with self and spiritual awareness. The momentum of change was mourned in writing which created an idealist version of childhood. Protagonists found redemption by a return to or discovery of nature. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, ‘The Romantics’ revered nature and explored Pantheists ideals, at a time when the world embraced Industrialisation. Victorian and Edwardian Pantheist writers urged the celebration of childhood and spiritual connection. On the eve of a war which created so many lost boys, perhaps the writing was a subconscious warning to the next generation, that without connecting to nature and ourselves, industrialisation would lead to a point of no return.

Post World War One, whilst ideas of connecting with nature and magic still manifest in writing for children, direct references to Pan were fewer. Kenneth Grahame returned to the ideas of Christianity. A notable physical manifestation of a Pan character, beyond the Edwardian period, merits mention. The innocuous Mr. Tumnus, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Closer reading and research show the book is burdened with religious symbolism, the children being the daughter and sons of Eve, Aslan the Lion is readily related to the Christian idea that Jesus was the Lion of Judah, (ignoring the former representation of the lion as Satan in earlier teachings). The White Witch could readily be associated with the Pagan Goddess figure and her servant, or double agent is Mr. Tumnus.

Lewis took the idea of Pan, with the upper body of a man and lower body goat, and created Mr. Tumnus, who bears many similarities to Pan. Mr. Tumnus is not depicted as malevolent, instead as an innocent, led astray by the White Witch. The characters’ befriending of Edmund leads to the betrayal of the children and Aslan. It is easy to see parallels between Judas and the betrayal of Christ or St. Paul, who works for the devil, then finds his way to redemption by returning to God. Where Pan offered an alternative to Victorian ideas of Christianity, just as Grahame celebrated a call to Pan, Lewis used his authorial narrative as a call back to Christianity.

Over the last ten years, writing for older children has leaned towards dystopian literature. Through access to media/social media, children are increasingly aware of the environmental, political, and social threat to their world. Unlike Kenneth Grahame’s affectionate meanderings through a coded rural idyll, modern writers embrace topics and themes when writing for children that directly address dark and challenging subjects.

In researching the concept of Pan, I had little prior knowledge of Pantheism; I saw it connected to spiritual ideals and pastoral yearning. Writers of the Edwardian period looked for an alternative to the strict moral values and hypocrisy associated with Victorian Christianity. Like the Edwardians, we are on the cusp of social and political change. Researching Pantheism in children’s writing led me to discover political, social, and environmental concerns of those who wrote for children. While Pan was a literary device representing the zeitgeist of an age, Pan also represented social and political uncertainty. Writers for children may be seen on the outer edges of opinion, but perhaps, like’ The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, the issues addressed in writing for children are intrinsically linked to the spirit of the age.

Madeleine L’Engle’s quote, ‘You have to write a book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children’, encompasses this.

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