Before writing my book, The Island of Lost Children, several times I read the book that inspired it, Peter Pan. One of the sections in J.M. Barrie’s book that intrigued me most was Peter’s explanation of how the lost boys came to be:
“They are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses.”
I’m not a scholar who has examined the work in the context of its times. Still, I have a theory that Peter’s explanation is in response to conditions during a period when infant mortality was still quite high. This was a time when children died of all sorts of illnesses like influenza and diseases prevented by vaccinations which didn’t exist at the time. Barrie’s explanation of lost boys disappearing and being spirited to a magical land might have been a comfort as well as a simple explanation for curious children.
I wondered about how stories from folklore in other times and settings might have served the same function. In the folktales of many cultures, mythical creatures steal babies or young children and leave a sometimes deformed creature in its place. In Irish mythology, for example, faeries substitute a child with a changeling, a less than perfect version of the baby it replaces or even an old faery brought from the Otherworld of the sidhe to die on the human side.
After recently writing about the myths of Chiloe, a group of islands off the coast of Chile, I encountered the story of the invunche. The invunche is a first-born son fewer than nine days old who has been kidnapped or sold by his parents and who eventually ends up in the hands of witches or warlocks and guards their caves. The story is quite gruesome: one leg is broken and his foot attached to the back of his neck, and he’s fed on black cat’s milk, goats, and even human flesh. You know, what every parent wants for his or her son.
As disturbing as these stories are, I’m always fascinated about how the human mind conjures up explanations in the most creative ways. These tales in the oral traditions of the past, or in a popular book like Peter Pan, are testaments to our eternal search to try to understand. To convince ourselves that there’s some way to make sense of what may be incredibly difficult to accept.