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The 'Holy Grail' of Never Land

On February 5th, 1953, Walt Disney's fourteenth animated feature film premiered! The movie had taken more than thirteen years of development and three years of active production, but this animated telling brought audiences into a vivid, fairytale world finally explored in the medium it might have been best meant for — animation. 

"We proposed to adhere faithfully to the intent and spirit and story line of the author," Walt noted. "This, I feel, we have accomplished. Our treatment has enabled us to get more of the playwright's original intent of robust fun and adventurous excitement into the Never Land exploits... the cartoon method gave us many advantages over the stagecraft of Barrie's day, which no amount of pixie dust could cure."

James Matthew Barrie   Never Land — born in the mind of author J.M. Barrie, was an elusive, magical place, located "...past the second star to the right and straight on til morning." The possibility of a world filled with adventure and fantasy captivated readers of all ages. Barrie brought this enchanted world to life with a spirited cast of characters trodding-the-boards of the St. James Theater in 1904 with his play Peter Pan. The continued storied adventures of 'the-boy-who-wouldn't-grow-up,' made Peter Pan a treasured classic around the world, but before all of this renown and adulation — which continues today — the adventures of lost boys, swarthy pirates, mermaid-filled lagoons and darting fairies emanated from the pages of a unique, one-of-a-kind volume.... 

Nina Boucicault appeared in the title role in the first production of Peter Pan   In 1897, noted author and playwright James M. Barrie met three young brothers while on his usual walk with his St. Bernard 'Porthos,' in London's Kensington Gardens. George, Jack and Peter Lewellyn Davies were centered and imaginative children who delighted in the adventures that unfolded with Barrie during their daily afternoons together in the park. Barrie's imagination was soon brimming with notions and ideas which he jotted down into small leather-bound notebooks he kept within his coat pocket. Their playtime was inspiring — in addition to weaving tales of far-off lands and fantastic creatures, Barrie often hid treasures for the boys within the roots of trees — small carved figurines complete with notes left from the fairies in a language only Barrie could decipher. 

Jack, George & Peter Lewellyn Davis from their Black Island adventures   Over the years Barrie and the Lewellyn-Davies family grew closer, often traveling and spending vacations together outside of London. In the summer of 1901, Barrie captured their holiday adventures at the Black Lake Cottage in a collection of captioned photos. Barrie had this series of charming remembrances from their summer escapades printed and bound into book form — making only two copies which closely resembled the adventure books Barrie enjoyed as a child. The book was entitled: The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.

Michael Lewellyn Davis    Much of Barrie's beloved Peter Pan emerged from the thirty-five mounted and captioned photographs within the pages of this rare and vital volume: bloodthirsty pirates, a 'swarthy' captain; 'Nana' the dog; and even the enchanted world of fairies. It was a unique documentation of the many rich, yet fleeting moments within the boy's youth. Barrie gifted one of these two treasured volumes to Arthur Lewellyn — their father — as a gesture of kinship, but sadly, Arthur misplaced the book on a train shortly thereafter and it was lost forever.

J.M. Barrie's surviving copy of The Boy Castaways   Whatever the topic I'm researching, there's that one elusive item — a photograph, a document, a person — that 'if' uncovered, could potentially solve the curious mystery which sparked the quest to research in the first place. For me, it quickly becomes the proverbial 'holy grail' for each subject I'm working on. Researching the origins of one of Walt Disney's most iconic characters lead me to J.M. Barrie's work, and launched nearly a seven year adventure filled with magical twists, enchanted places and vibrant characters — the likes of which Barrie could easily have written. But for me, the one elusive 'holy grail' in this entire adventure was to hold the only existing copy of the origins of Peter, Wendy, Hook, The Lost Boys, and yes, Tinker Bell.

Exterior — Beinecke Library, Yale University   Deep within a forbidding fortress on the campus of Yale University, there's an enchanted world filled with magical manuscripts and treasured documents. Carefully held in a collections cabinet — under lock and key — the only copy of The Boy Castaways is safely preserved. Understandably, this priceless record of the genesis of a timeless story to generations is only permitted for viewing through an extensive, select and pre-approved process. 

Interior of the Beinecke Library    Well over a decade ago, while researching the origins of Tinker Bell, one of the key pieces that lead me to the Beinecke Library was this very volume, but as the fates would have it, getting a first hand look at the origins of Never Land eluded me. The special collections manager (with the ONLY 'magic' key to the vault) was called out of town and this landmark treasure was not available for viewing. Digital copies of the book were accessible online, and other extraordinary materials into Barrie's brainchild offered insightful details on my subject matter, but for years, the magic of holding this missing piece to the puzzle, and carefully examining each page of this volume first-hand, was not to be. Imagine my surprise when years later, the opportunity for research into my latest subjects brought me back to the very site of this enchanted place — The Beinecke. With advanced notice, the staff went to extra lengths to ensure — this time — the 'magic' key was available and the library teams eagerly granted access to this elusive piece of the puzzle. To consider the enduring impact of Barrie's boy-who-wouldn't-grow-up, makes the magic of this moment even sweeter... holding the only actual record to the origins of this enchanted story — the 'Holy Grail' of Never land — at last!


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