38

Here is the passage I am referring to.

All wanted blood except the boys, who liked it as a rule, but to-night were out to greet their captain. 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; but at this time there were six of them, counting the twins as two.

Did I misunderstand the meaning here?

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  • 7
    Surely that's two unrelated clauses? "as they get killed" [in the course of fighting Hook etc] and "as Peter thins them out" [in some unspecified way, eg returning them to the mainland]? Mar 28 at 11:19
  • 8
    @DanielRoseman I think you've hit on the core of the question.
    – Spencer
    Mar 28 at 11:31
  • 6
    Even if you ignore the "they get killed", it says "Peter thins them out" — so what does he do to thin them out?
    – shim
    Mar 28 at 14:10
  • 3
    @Clockwork The first sentence explains how the boys would normally be out for blood with everyone else. But on this particular night they felt it more important to celebrate Peter's return. Rephrased: "we'll help you get revenge tomorrow, but tonight's a party". Mar 28 at 20:37
  • 2
    It was always my understanding that the Lost Boys were boys who had already died, and that other than Wendy's group the way you got to Neverland was by dying young. That might make the clause "according as they get killed" refer to the method by which their numbers grow, and not the method by which they decrease; new Lost Boys arrive as new young boys die, somewhere in the real world.
    – tbrookside
    Mar 29 at 16:04

4 Answers 4

12

It is clear as day,

Yes. Either killed or in some way "eliminated".

The sentence (sentences are delimited by semi-colons) is:

"; and when they seem to be growing up [] Peter thins them out;

"thins them out" means and can only mean and has only ever meant "cull".

The clear and obvious meaning (kill) is the only meaning I have ever seen "thins them out" used by for example farmers or hunters - kill a few of 'em.

But sure, it could be a (dark!) humorous way of referring to, say, "exiled" or "sent to some other realm".

(a) The structure of the sentence is crystal-clear. The other two sentences, before and after the matching pair of semi-colons, have nothing to do with the issue.

(b) The meaning of that idiom is very well established and usage of the idiom is common and ubiquitous

The specific question:

Did I misunderstand the meaning here?

No.

Like any ribald and fantastical period children's story, it is packed with slaughter, typically horrific, from beginning to end.

Just as in classic-era "cowboys and indians" movies, and indeed small-children's movies like say Star Wars, minor characters get killed left right and center, usually brutally. (They thrown their hands up dramatically and drop down dead, like in any traditional western or war movie.)

Pan's body count of disposable "pirates" etc in the story is Terminator-like.

(In the Disney classic film, they (of course, obviously) did not indicate the incomprehensibly gruesome end of Hook, they just have him run off.)

Leaving aside answering the question, general thematic chat ...

Don't forget it's a dream-like fantasy, rather like an author toying with characters in a book.

If Pan "kills" one or two of them (or indeed when Pan gaily slaughters pirates), it makes me think of an author "killing off" characters, or little boys playing "war" and falling down "dead"; the whole thing is a fantastical nonsense, like say Alice in Wonderland.

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  • 4
    This doesn't seem to answer the question, it just repeats it in the form of a statement.
    – Valorum
    Mar 30 at 1:21
  • 6
    cheers @Valorum - how do you mean? The question is answered simply: (Issue 1) there seems to be some misunderstanding about the nearby sentences being related to the sentence with the phrase in question. I fully clarified this. (Issue 2) There seems to be some confusion about what the idiom "thins them out" means. I fully clarified that. The OP was clearly asking an, lets put it this way, "English language and meaning question, which I answered. The text is the text and the Q is about the text. There was a lot of confusion so I explained it.
    – Fattie
    Mar 30 at 13:10
  • 4
    @Valorum I am sorry to disagree, but killing is completely commonplace in children's storytelling, particularly anything fantastical (which is .. most children's storytelling). Off with his head. Grimm. Potter. Etc. Note that (of course, and obviously) ANY utterance in English can be sarcastic or humorous even darkly humorous: you can imagine a parent of 7 or 8 kids saying (very darkly!) "So many kids in this house, I have to thin them out!!" and then when everyone goes "DAAAD!!!!" adding "err, by marrying them off!".
    – Fattie
    Mar 30 at 13:56
  • 3
    “Thin out” doesn’t translate directly to “kill” though, it just means to decrease in size. Why would Peter kill his friends rather than send them back to the regular world?
    – fez
    Mar 30 at 17:28
  • 4
    @Valorum A well-argued interpretation makes for a much stronger answer than a M&TV-style Wiki copy-paste that says nothing definitive about Barrie's original work.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Mar 31 at 9:02
25

Barrie doesn't explain what's meant by this. The implication is that they were killed or banished, but the text doesn't dwell on the matter or offer any further explanation.

Wikipedia offer some thoughts on the matter, referencing the Stage Play and the 'officially authorised' sequel. Canonically, we learn, Peter banishes them when they get too old.

Peter is the leader of the Lost Boys, which include Tootles, Nibs, Slightly, Curly, and The Twins. The Lost Boys is a band of boys who were lost by their parents after they "fall out of their perambulators" and came to live in Neverland. In Barrie's novel Peter and Wendy (but not the original play Peter Pan), it is stated that Peter "thins them out" when they start to grow up. This is never fully explained, but it is implied that he either kills them or banishes them.

In the song "I Won't Grow Up" from the 1954 musical, the boys sing "I will stay a boy forever", to which Peter replies "And be banished if I don't".

In Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006), the official sequel to Barrie's Peter and Wendy, what happens to the Lost Boys when they begin to grow up is revealed when Slightly starts to grow older, as Peter banishes him to Nowhereland (which means that he and all his allies will ignore the banished person's existence), the home of all the Long Lost Boys whom Peter has banished in times past.

The valet’s voice was not quarrelsome. It remained as gentle and springy as a lamb. ‘Why would any sweetness linger, miss? Consider. Neglected and mislaid by their mothers, they are posted away to Neverland, their hearts in their boots. But—oh! the blessed relief!—they find themselves welcomed into the cosiness of den and tree house, into a world of friends and fun. They belong again! Life is perfect! Then one day their wrist-bones poke out below their cuffs; their trousers are too short. And for this sin they lose their place in Paradise. They are banished—put out-of-doors like an empty milk-bottle—despised and rejected—and this time by their very best friend.’

Peter Pan in Scarlet

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  • 12
    Obviously both of these sources post-date Barrie's death and he had no direct hand in them.
    – Valorum
    Mar 28 at 18:48
  • 2
    With banishing them, would this be where all the adult pirates originate from? So they get banished, start growing older, forget their lost boys days, and turn to piracy as the way to live? Mar 29 at 16:39
  • 11
    @TimBJames or remember them perfectly well and that's why they are out to kill the heartless and ruthless Peter who kicked them out of the only home they ever knew?
    – terdon
    Mar 29 at 17:29
  • 1
    @Valorum True, but the 1954 lyrics are evidence of how the matter was perceived 70 years ago. It also is what makes most sense. The whole idea of the story is that Neverland is the fantasies of small children to which adults cannot return.
    – David42
    Mar 31 at 22:04
  • It's not even "evidence of how the matter was perceived 70 years ago." It's evidence of how the matter was portrayed, limited by the mores and audiences of the time, in a 1950s Broadway production, 1 year after the famous Disney movie came out. If people did honestly interpret Barrie otherwise, it probably wouldn't make it into the musical.
    – user10063
    Apr 1 at 1:54
5

To put it bluntly, yes

The meaning of "thins them out" is just what it looks like, it's simply funnier to just mention it in passing like that and not dwell on it too long. The narrator doesn't take it too seriously and the reader isn't expected to take it any more seriously than Peter does, but it definitely happens. Denial of this aspect of the Lost Boys seems more rooted in a cope about what Peter should be than in how he's actually, unapologetically characterized as in the book.

Peter's emotions, loyalties, and even enmities are keenly felt but fleeting and fickle. By the end of the story, he's forgotten Tinker Bell and Captain Hook ever existed at all.

Peter routinely strikes fairies, creatures no taller than a young child's still growing hand.

Fairies indeed are strange, and Peter, who understood them best, often cuffed them.

The Darlings have reason to think that Peter might stop rescuing them from certain doom if it ever starts to get too repetitive and boring for him.

Certainly they did not pretend to be sleepy, they were sleepy; and that was a danger, for the moment they popped off, down they fell. The awful thing was that Peter thought this funny.

“There he goes again!” he would cry gleefully, as Michael suddenly dropped like a stone.

“Save him, save him!” cried Wendy, looking with horror at the cruel sea far below. Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that engrossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next time you fell he would let you go.

Peter lets the Lost Boys starve eating imaginary dinner that only Peter is sated by, and he has a 19th century schoolteacher's method of keeping them in line playing his game.

The difference between him and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make-believe that they had had their dinners.

If they broke down in their make-believe he rapped them on the knuckles.

To have an adventure, Peter proposes waking up a pirate just so they can kill him.

“What kind of adventure?” he asked cautiously.

“There’s a pirate asleep in the pampas just beneath us,” Peter told him. “If you like, we’ll go down and kill him.”

“I don’t see him,” John said after a long pause.

“I do.”

“Suppose,” John said, a little huskily, “he were to wake up.”’

Peter spoke indignantly. “You don’t think I would kill him while he was sleeping! I would wake him first, and then kill him. That’s the way I always do.”

“I say! Do you kill many?”

“Tons.”

John said “how ripping,” but decided to have tea first.

But most relevantly,

Peter nearly kills a Lost Boy in Chapter VI

“She is dead,” he said uncomfortably. “Perhaps she is frightened at being dead.”

He thought of hopping off in a comic sort of way till he was out of sight of her, and then never going near the spot any more. They would all have been glad to follow if he had done this.

But there was the arrow. He took it from her heart and faced his band.

“Whose arrow?” he demanded sternly.

“Mine, Peter,” said Tootles on his knees.

“Oh, dastard hand,” Peter said, and he raised the arrow to use it as a dagger.

Tootles did not flinch. He bared his breast. “Strike, Peter,” he said firmly, “strike true.”

Twice did Peter raise the arrow, and twice did his hand fall. “I cannot strike,“ he said with awe, “there is something stays my hand.”

All looked at him in wonder, save Nibs, who fortunately looked at Wendy.

First, Peter is shown as not really fully grasping any difference between make-believe-dead and real-dead, and wishing to pretend it never happened rather than deal with reality.

Second, the Lost Boys all fear Peter's wrath and fully expected him to want to kill whoever did this, none of them dare to raise any objection or openly oppose him when he prepares to strike Toodles.

Third, this is probably a rare and surprising situation, odds are that most people Peter tries to kill aren't also begging him for death, which might be why Peter finds himself surprised and struggling for a few moments to follow through. Righteous vengeance is much less satisfying when the target is contrite and seeking atonement.

Fourth, the narrator specifically points out that "fortunately," one Lost Boy looked at Wendy. It's fortunate that happened, implying that in the counter-factual where nobody swiftly informs Peter that he doesn't have to avenge Wendy because she's not actually dead, something very unfortunate would have happened.

Finally, this incident of Peter showing a restraint on his righteous anger is very surprising to the other Lost Boys, which implies this is definitely unusual for how Peter handles people who anger him. Everyone who knows Peter best fully expect him to be as merciless to a Lost Boy who's earned Peter's ire as he is to a pirate.

And growing up into a man definitely earns his ire; like it says right there in the passage, it's against the rules! Why would you go and break the rules like that? The concept that growing up is an involuntary process is beyond him, he's Peter.

But this is all badly overthinking this

Dissecting humor is like dissecting a live frog: at the end of the process, you've killed it.

The narrator said it happens, therefore it happens. You're really just supposed to laugh a little and quickly keep on reading. Dwelling on it and whether or not Peter would do that is like fretting about how irresponsible it is to leave babies in the supervision of a dog. You're not really supposed to start trying to apply grown-up logic and morality to Peter Pan of all characters.

2
  • The fact that he shows callous indifference to the wellbeing of the Boys is dramatically different from him actually killing them.
    – Valorum
    Apr 2 at 17:06
  • In fact, the more I think about it, your examples strongly indicate that he would not kill them. He saved them at every turn, even if he enjoys tormenting then and scaring them.
    – Valorum
    Apr 2 at 17:06
4

Never-Never land is a playground for young children. When they grow up, they move on to other playgrounds.

When your children die young, as J M Barries brother did, a part of you remembers then "as they were"

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
"For the Fallen," Laurence Binyon

But a part of you also follows them as they "grow up" in your imagination.

“When someone loses a spouse, they lose not just the person they spend every day with, but the person they’re planning on spending the next 40 years or more with. So they’re losing all those events they imagined in their future — the birth of their first grandchild, the day they celebrate their retirement together, or their 50th wedding anniversary,” Robinaugh said.

“Our sense is that people with complicated grief continue to imagine those events. They continue to picture what their life would have been, and they deeply yearn for that counterfactual future,” he said. “It’s a future that’s no longer possible. But it’s one they still strongly, strongly desire, so when we ask them to imagine these events, they are readily able to do so.” (Richard McNally)

Peter Pan "thins out" the children as they age out, because he's in charge of the playschool. They move on to sports and theatre, and the dreams of school-age tweeners.

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    Is there a source from the author or canon for this claim, or are you simply making things up? I could not find a source for your claims when I went poking around. Mar 29 at 10:45

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