Independent Growth Through Gendered Alternate Universes: Peter and Wendy and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
A common theme in children’s literature is the presence of a strange, mysterious, alternate universe only accessible and comprehensible to children. This theme is often used to encourage young readers, especially those of twenty-first century society, to use their imagination and explore the world around them rather than engage in electronic devices. Two popular pieces of children’s literature, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy portray the emotional, behavioral, and social growth in which children experience when they independently enter alternate universes. Child characters in both texts confront new societies that are heavily associated with gender roles and moral codes, which initially intimidate and startle them. However, once accustomed to such principles, the children portray significant growth as they successfully display behaviors and actions of older, more emotionally developed children without the presence or guidance of their parents.
Child characters quickly familiarize themselves with gendered landscapes and settings of alternate universes. The interior sectors of such universes often include domestic enclosed settings, which portray a sense of feminine warmth, safety, and containment, while the exterior sectors may include expansive, uncovered, and often hazardous settings, which portray a sense of danger, vulnerability, but also primitive, masculine intrigue: “There have always been separate spheres of gender power… the opposition between the two spaces (exterior – masculine, interior – feminine)” (Georgakis 10). There are distinct differences between interior and exterior spaces, like females and males; therefore the binaries must associate with each other. The stark contrast between the interior and exterior sectors of children’s literature also have deeper psychological ties, as Anne Lundin, author of Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature explains, “landscapes are always dual… the external is the one we see— the topology of the land as well as its inhabitants, the weather, seasons… the second landscape is interior—a projection of a part of the exterior landscape… “The heart’s field.”” Lundin’s naming of the interior sector as the “heart’s field” ties into the sensitive, nurturing, and motherly expectations of female characters within children’s literature as the name itself translates to an emotionally protective hub for all members of the alternate universe.
In J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, central female character Wendy Darling finds comfort within her own domestic setting in London, which causes her to associate herself with domestic settings in the alternate universe of Neverland. Along with the lost boys, Peter, and her two brothers, Michael and John, Wendy creates a warm and comforting underground atmosphere where they all shelter themselves at night. Wendy portrays her close relations to domesticity and nurture as she expresses to her youngest brother, Michael, “I must have somebody in a cradle… and you are the littlest. A cradle is such a nice homely thing to have about a house,” and how the interior of the underground home “had become a very familiar scene” to her (Barrie 160). In children’s literature it is quite common for female characters to provide a nurturing domestic space and to maintain some form of order in a universe where disorder is strongly present. Wendy exemplifies this trait as she makes sense of the disorderly and chaotic nature of Neverland by finding and creating comfort within the lost boys’ underground home.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Lucy, initially the only child granted access to the alternate universe of Narnia, physically enters through an old wardrobe: “She [Lucy] looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark-tree trunks, she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room which she had set out” (8). The wardrobe is an enclosed, interior “hub of the house” where “there exists a center of order that protects the entire house against uncurbed disorder” (Bachelard 79). Entities of nature also appeal to female characters as Lucy is immersed with nature the instant she enters Narnia. She establishes a heartfelt relationship with Mr. Tumnus, a hybrid between a faun and a man: “Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm with this strange creature as if they had known one another all their lives” (Lewis 14). Lucy is later befriended and aided by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, whom are both civilized and materialized yet still animals and parts of nature. At the time of entering Narnia, Lucy finds comfort in her surroundings as she encounters objects and creatures of nature. Female characters in Peter and Wendy and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe therefore find solace in spaces of domestic enclosure and natural purity due to the binding of innocence and safety with femininity. As stated above, the exterior sectors of alternate universes in children’s literature are often associated with masculinity.
In J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Peter, John, and Michael share similar affinity with adventure and the outdoors. When Peter appears at the Darling household and persuades the children to go to Neverland with him, John and Michael express interest despite Wendy’s hesitation: “‘I say,” cried John, ‘why shouldn’t we all go out!’ Of course it was to this that Peter was luring them. Michael was ready: he wanted to see how long it took him to do a billion miles. But Wendy hesitated” (100). The Darling boys’ excitement towards escape from domestic confinement and venturing to the mysterious, unpredictable landscape of Neverland demonstrates the strong affiliation between males and the exterior world.
In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Aslan portrays pride, strength, and confidence through his exterior presence, most notably his mane. When the White Witch temporarily triumphs Aslan, she commands her servants to shave off his mane: “Watching from their hiding-place, [Susan and Lucy] could see the face of Aslan looking all small and different without his mane. The enemies also saw the difference” (Lewis 153). By stripping Aslan’s mane, Aslan is temporarily stripped of his pride and dominance, which further symbolizes an act of emasculation. Therefore, the concept of the exterior is strongly associated with the male gender in children’s literature. Landscapes and settings act as a catalyst for child characters when they are placed into unfamiliar situations in alternate universes. Female characters are often dominant over males when placed in an interior setting.
In Peter and Wendy, Wendy obtains the role of the mother in the lost boys’ house underground. The lost boys cry out to Wendy, “O Wendy lady, be our mother” (Barrie 131), and later provide complete, undivided attention to Wendy as she tells them a bedtime story: “‘Listen then,’ said Wendy, settling down to her story, with Michael at her feet and seven boys in the bed. ‘There once was a gentleman…” (Barrie 164). The male characters in this story, most notably the lost boys and the Darling boys, naturally treat Wendy as their own mother, which ultimately grants Wendy a significant amount of authority over them. Wendy’s motherly status within the lost boys’ household demonstrates her ability to dominate over male characters within a feminized setting.
On the other hand, male characters receive moral righteousness and authority when they triumph over evil figures and forces in exterior spaces. In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Aslan defeats the White Witch in a vast exterior battleground setting. Narnia’s cold winter landscape created by the White Witch’s curse is diminished, allowing the warmth of spring to finally appear: “they saw the winter vanishing and the whole wood passing in a few hours or so from January to May. They hadn’t even known for certain (as the Witch did) that this was what would happen when Aslan came to Narnia” (Lewis 123-124). Aslan’s domination over the White Witch portrays a message that morally righteous male characters triumph over evil female characters when placed in an exterior masculine setting. Characters in secondary worlds therefore display particular behaviors due to the settings in which they are placed. Child characters experience social and emotional growth in alternate universes when they innately apply particular behaviors and actions based on their physical setting. In other words, they experience a slight coming of age, which often includes sexual advancement as well.
In Peter and Wendy, Wendy portrays a sense of female sexuality during a conversation with Peter in the underground house as she asks him, “What are your exact feelings for me?” This question indicates a sense of sexual maturity as she develops genuine feelings for Peter, who is clearly less developed and rather intimidated by her question as he responds “looking a little scared,” “It is only make-believe, isn’t it, that I am [the lost boys’] father?” (Barrie 161). Peter’s hesitation and anxiety suggests that he has not yet accomplished the sexual maturity that Wendy has. Therefore Wendy is able to demonstrate a form of female sexuality within a domestic setting in which she is the dominant mother figure. Social and emotional maturity is also gained when child characters triumph over evil beings in exterior settings.
Peter Pevensie exhibits such development in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe when he kills the White Witch’s wolf during his first battle in Narnia. Aslan congratulates Peter on his victory as he states, “Rise up, Sir Peter Wolf’s-Bane. And, whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword” (Lewis 133). Peter is praised with honor and righteousness by killing the evil Wolf in a setting occupied by other evil creatures, which therefore demonstrates psychological growth through recognition of moral codes in the alternate universe. Children experience emotional, behavioral, and social growth in alternate universes through familiarization of gendered settings and moral codes.
In the children’s literary texts, Peter and Wendy and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, child characters enter alternate universes that are considerably different from their primary worlds in terms of appearance, logic, and rules. When children are placed in such universes, they quickly attach themselves to an aspect that they can relate to, which in both texts are interior and exterior settings and landscapes. By relating to the settings they encounter, children establish gender roles and adhere to moral codes. Both texts encourage child readers to independently explore the unfamiliar, adapt to proper conducts and achieve comfort and stability in their own society: “adults do not make the world better or safer for children; children themselves shoulder the responsibility for learning how the world works” (Murray 191). Through Peter and Wendy and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, child characters demonstrate such abilities through association and recognition of gendered settings and moral codes. This process is not easy or enjoyable at times, which only strengthens and deepens the emotional, behavioral and social abilities of the children, ultimately benefiting them for the adventures of adolescence and adulthood that lie ahead.
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