ElAnt v3n5 - Flights of Fancy in Nonnus and J.M. Barrie

Volume 3, Number 5
October 1996


Department of Classics, 
University of Adelaide, 
SA 5005, 
e-mail: rnewbold@arts.adelaide.edu.au

Dionysus and Peter Pan

It might seem odd to compare such disparate authors as the Fifth Century Nonnus and Sir James Barrie (1860-1937). Stylistically and generically they could hardly be more diverse. Nonnus wrote a sprawling epic on Dionysus and Dionysian excess. Barrie, in a variety of genres, epitomised Victorian gentility. But in both cases their work is driven by the same bundle of psychological imperatives, a complex known as Icarianism, which is elucidated below. Their differences and similarities can provide a mutually illuminating comparison. Nonnus lies somewhat off the beaten track for most students of literature and next to nothing is known of his life. Barrie was a hugely successful literary figure in his day and a great deal is known about his life and personality. As befitted a tertiary-educated Victorian Scot, Barrie, if not familiar with Nonnus, was familiar with such kindred spirits as Dionysus and the amoral Pan (kindred to each other) and would have sensed their affinity. The figure of Peter Pan is distinctive yet typical in the considerable bulk of Barrie's work and his procreation and nurturance in the author's imagination can be clearly linked to events in Barrie's life at the time and to what we know of his personality. Barrie recognised how his creation, Peter Pan, encapsulated many of his life's problems. Peter Pan typified his fantasy solutions to those problems, in particular the problem of coping with and disentangling from a problematic relationship with his mother, and becoming a mature adult. And while the Dionysiaca is very much an adult work in its explicit illustration of a range of sexual fantasies and behaviour, it operates much of the time from a primitive, infantile, regressed level of thought that has much in common with the kind of imagination and psychology that generated Peter Pan, a creation which in turn dealt with issues of maturation in such a direct and primitive way that its appeal to children was immense. Associated with the central figures of Nonnus' and Barrie's works, Dionysus and Peter Pan, are such themes of infantile psychology as the omnipotent child warrior, the narcissistic, self-preoccupied exploiter of others, and gender ambiguity. Common to the works as a whole are similarly archaic features and emotions such as the spontaneous generation of life, fantasies of flight, ambivalence towards the mother, denial of or ignorance of sex, and a craving for immortality. These features, together with urethral eroticism, which often manifests as bedwetting, and a preoccupation with fire and water comprise the syndrome known as Icarianism, named after Icarus, the high-flying son of Daedalus. Icarianism can operate at different levels, in a primitive, egocentric, child-like way, through to a sublimated, spiritual and creative display that inspires and uplifts others.

Creators can be quite conscious and explicit about the relationship between flight and their creative endeavours. <1> Barrie saw his creative spirit in Icarian terms. His `other half', which he called M'connachie, was 'the fanciful one', a bird-like being free to defy, time, space, gravity and death without fear. Both authors illustrate the workings of the child's id or infantile unconscious, Nonnus by a free-floating stream of exuberant fantasy, and Barrie by a symbolic Neverland inhabited by archetypal figures that reflects a struggle to come to terms with adulthood. <2> Both Nonnus and Barrie were concerned with the theatre. Barrie was most famous as a playwright, Nonnus dealt with the god of the theatre, and events which are theatrical (expressed through mime, dance, loud noises, masks, disguises or the exotically amazing) and which explore the boundaries of reality and illusion (a major theme of Barrie's plays, too). Of both authors it could be said that their works reflect `the bubbling turmoil of (their) own half-formulated wishes and ambitions'. <3> , though in view of our ignorance of Nonnus the man it cannot be ruled out that he consciously reproduced the contents of the infantile unconscious by an act of empathy and imagination. We turn now to several other themes in Nonnus and Barrie where comparison is illuminating.

The flight theme in Nonnus and Barrie

In Book 38 of Nonnus' epic on Dionysus, the Dionysiaca there is a prolonged description of the drive of Phaethon (105-434). The son of Helios begs his father for a chance to drive the chariot of the Sun. Helios reluctantly agrees and the drive ends in disaster, but not before Nonnus has described at length the out-of-control career across the sky. The tale is told by Hermes to Dionysus and has no particular relevance to the central theme of the poem, the earthly career of Dionysus and his eventual elevation to Olympus. Dionysus, it is predicted before his birth,`will be received by the light upper air to shine beside Zeus and to share the courses of the stars'. <4> Presumably Nonnus found the Phaethon story congenial. It gives him a chance to twice imagine and trace a path through the zodiac since Helios outlines the daily beaten track before his son begins his drive. Nonnus describes the tumult caused by Phaethon's ineptitude from the perspective of the dislodged and trembling heavenly bodies as the cosmic axis is unbalanced. Eventually Zeus strikes Phaethon down with a thunderbolt, sends him tumbling into the river Eridanus and then resurrects him into the sky.

Flight is the key to the notion of the Icarian personality. True, in a work so embedded in the traditions of classical epic and mythology, references to scenes on Olympus, to flying deities such as the heavenly messengers Iris and Hermes and to winged beings such as Pegasus and Perseus are to be expected. However, in Nonnus there are some elaborate and fondly described flights and sunrises, and references to leaping, such as those by spring-heeled Dionysus and that by Silenus, who fixes his gaze upon the sky as he leaps (19.265). When the gods leave Olympus as the monstrous Typhoeus batters on the gates, they `took wing above the rainless Nile, like a flight of birds far out of reach, oaring their strange track in the winds of heaven' (1.142-144). After his victory over Typhoeus Zeus turned in a chariot `toward the round of ethereal stars, while Victory at this side drove her father's team with heavenly whip' (2.701-702). A Hamadryad, fearing attack by Typhoeus, exclaims: `O that I had wings to fly! I will traverse the heights, and take the road which the winds of the air do travel! But perhaps racing wings are useless: Typhoeus reaches the clouds with high climbing hands...I will mingle with the birds, flitting as Philomela (the nightingale), I will be the swallow dear to Zephyros in spring-time...prattling bird that sings sweet song...dashing about her nest with dancing wings' (2.126-135: cf.22.114-117, where a Hamadryad assumes the shape of a bird and speeds through a wood). After consulting Astraius, spirit of prophecy, Demeter drove her dragon-powered chariot through the air: `Boreas roared like thunder against the passage of the wagon but...she (guided) the light wings of the quick dragons, through the sky and round the back-reaching cape of the Libyan Ocean' (6.115-119). There is a brief description of Erinys the Avenger seeing Semele bathing as she flies through the air (6.181) and then a fuller description of how `from the heights (Zeus) turned the infinite circle of his vision upon the girl', turned into an eagle and flew above the river where Semele was bathing,...`as an eagle with eye sharp-shining like the bird',...fastened his eye upon her, `such an eye! ranging to infinity all round about, surveying all theuniverse' (7.219-221). Ate, attempting to delude Ampelus, speaks of the delights of aerial travel and the gifts he should expect from Dionysus, such as driving a chariot through the air or riding an arrow or eagle (11.130-135). An enduring rescue fantasy is a deity swooping down from heaven and saving, even carrying one off (24.73-74, 119-122). Ascension to heaven often means catasterism, eternal life as a heavenly body (e.g.33.370-378). High flight can be an impressiveway of aggrandising the self and asserting superiority, as Dionysus'winged rival Perseus discovered when `Iobacchos lifted his body and rose weightless on high near to the heavens with eager limbs over flying Perseus, and brought his hand near the sunning sky, and touched Olympus and crushed the clouds. Perseus quivered with fear as he saw the right hand of Dionysus out of reach and touching the sun, catching hold of the moon' (47.555-563). Even less lofty movements offer Nonnus scope to describe them in ways that suggest his fondness for the theme of elevation. When the peeping Pentheus is shaken from a tree by the frenzied Agave, he `shot through the air with a dancing leap, rolling and tumbling like a diver' (46.187-188). Earlier, Dionysus had aided his elevation by pulling a tree top to the ground and let it go as Pentheus `clung to the tree that carried him on high...whirling his legs this way and that restlessly, moving lightly like a dancer' (46.152-157).

The work known as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was some chapters that James Barrie excerpted from a largerwork, the significantly titled The Little White Bird (1902), and then published separately. Peter Pan and Wendy (1911) was the novel elaborated from the highly successful stage play Peter Pan (1904). <5> In The Little White Bird , the bird-like, kite-loving, nest-building Peter explicated and demonstrated the glories of flight. The Neverland, where much of the events of Peter and Wendy take place, `second on the right, and straight on till morning' (p.102), is a fantasy land where each dreaming child can fly. Peter takes obvious pleasure in flight and aerial acrobatics, and easily enthuses Wendy with the idea of flight. `I'll teach you to jump on the wind's back, and then away we go.' `Oo! she exclaimed rapturously' (p.97). In Neverland Peter declares: `I am a little bird that has broken out of the egg' (p.203). For Peter, (as for Daedalus and Icarus), aerial passage is a flight/escape from confinement, an element less important in Nonnus' more varied flight fantasies. His flights are also higher, more astronomical and cosmic than those in Barrie, such as when he describes movement through the heavens of the sun everyday (40.370-391).

Craving for immortality

As suggested already, a craving for immortality can be connected with fantasies of flight, not only because through autonomous flight one becomes or achieves something that will live long in human memory (as the mythical Icarus did), but because by becoming a heavenly body one gains immortality, as Semele, Ariadne, Chalcomede, Phaethon, Icarius and Erigone do in Nonnus. Fantasies of flight, being associated with visions of cosmic reunion and heavenly bliss, may mitigate the fear of death. The Dionysiaca is a cosmic tale wherein immortal beings abound and heroic deeds confer fame and even immortality. By his exploits in bringing wine and autistic, orgiastic dance to humanity, the semi- divine Dionysus achieved full immortality and a place in Olympus, as promised by Zeus if he carried out his tasks. Characters in extremis hope that their memory will endure and be preserved in script. The Dionysiaca has a definite soteriological aspect. A preoccupation with the eternal and a challenge to the ravages of time emerge in the sense of timelessness in the work and in the vast vistas of time that are conjured up, partly conveyed by the frequent use of words denoting eternal, aeons, timeless, continual. There is an indifference to marking short chronological periods except in references to sunrises noon and sunset. Scenes with the Ancient of Days (7.1-109) and description of a calendar of universal history convey a sense of limitless time that some entities are living through (12.30-116).

One tablet of the calendar was as `old as the infinite past, containing all things in one' (12.43-44). <6> The arrested development of the psyches of Nonnus' characters, halted, it seems, at a fairly infantile stage, is the idea taken up by Peter Pan in his challenge to death. He refuses to grow up and he remains the puer aeternus . In this he echoed Barrie's own fear of death and wish to remain a boy forever. 'Nothing much important happens to a person after twelve', he once said. Barrie recognised Peter's refusal to grow up as self-revelation on the author's part. Neverland is not only a place of eternal youth, where age and growth can be transcended and Peter can keep his milk teeth, it is where Wendy and Tinker Bell can `die' and overcome death. The only source of time on the island is the clock ticking away inside the crocodile who is Captain Hook's nemesis. Peter kept maturation at bay by refusing to have birthdays. His escape from his mother and the family environment at seven days was in fact a regression to a bird-like, embryonic state that defies gravity, time and growth. David Daiches has spoken of Peter Pan as `a revenge on life daring to pose adult problems'. <7> The childishness of the main characters spreads to the adults such as Mr.Darling and Hook, who wants Wendy as a mother for himself. But Hook is nevertheless a representative adult and Peter's triumph over him extends to usurping his prerogatives, like smoking his cigars and captaining the Jolly Roger . He thus vindicates perpetual youthfulness. You don't have to be an adult to be successful.

Spontaneous generation and blurring of gender differences

One of the characteristics of infantile beliefs about procreation and sexuality is the fantasy of spontaneous generation, the capacity of males or females, without the other, to bring forth life. Or else the earth alone or a mingling of the elements produces human or animal life. Sexuality can play a part when ejaculated sperm is reported to combine with earth or water to produce life in the case of centaurs, Erechtheus and Aphrodite (5.611-615, 7.226, 13.177-179), but 42 instances of spontaneous generation suggest the power of this fantasy in Nonnus. <8> Whole races can be produced either spontaneously from the earth or from an admixture of earth and ichor, teeth, bloodor sperm. Men sow fields other than women (12.45-47). An oxhide impregnated with urine from three gods produces Orion (13.99-103). Linked with this phenomenon is Hera's capacity to produce Hephaestus parthenogenitically, Zeus' incubation and parturition of Athene and Dionysus, Cronos disgorging his children in a manner akin to giving birth, and a blurring of gender differences whereby males suckle infants (Athamas, the Graioi) and females appear to have penises (15.75- 86, 35.304-322). Sexuality is heavily focussed on the primary libidinal object, the breast, and the world appears as it might to an infant, multinippled. Evident here is something more than Nonnus simply repeating elements of traditional mythology. Almost any object in the poem can be spoken of as metaphorically pregnant with something else, like sails with the wind and vats with wine. Explosive terms such as `shoot forth' often describe parturition, suggesting a common infantile belief that parturition is akin to defecation. The blurring of gender difference is further exemplified by the effeminate speech, costume and appearance of Dionysus (14.160-167, 16.172, 20.209, 228-232), and the martial behaviour of the Bacchants, who can slay men with their bare hands. Nymphs such as Nicaea and Aura are mighty hunters and women disguise themselves as men on eight occasions. Apart from its infantility, a fantasy of spontaneous or non-coital generation denies the importance of gender difference and the special qualities of each gender. As if not really wanting confirmation of the gender differences, the 23 episodes of voyeurism have the spying gaze avoid the genital region and `the mysteries of the lap'. The general impression is one of pregenital orality, infantile fear and curiosity, and residues of misunderstanding about birth, coitus and sexual identity. <9> In Barrie's voluminous output there is no overt mention of sex and its role in generation. Even allowing for the standards of the age and that Peter Pan was directed at that age's children, it is clear from evidence such as semi-autobiographical novels like Tommy and Grizel that Barrie preferred not to know about such things. (There is speculation that his marriage was not consummated).

Instead he preferred to generate ideas, which he did in superabundance from his fertile imagination. In The Little White Bird , birds simply become motherless babies, as if nests were wombs. The narrator of that work, a thinly veiled Barrie figure called the Captain, tries to have a child without a woman, creating a fantasy child to console himself with since he is unable to dispossess the mother he meets in Kensington Gardens of the boy he lavishes his affections upon. Peter and Wendy in Neverland behave as a married couple and celibately perform the distinctive roles of father and mother, such as warring and darning. `Their' children, the Lost Boys who had no mother and welcomed Wendy, had no need of parents to be born however. They were not delivered by a stork or found under a gooseberry bush but, like all children, once were birds. Prepubertal Peter never could be a father, and in the theatre his part is usually played by a grown woman masquerading as a boy. <10>

Ambivalence towards parents

The kind of breast fixation evident in the Dionysiaca suggests an unconscious oral attachment to the mother. The Great Mother archetype can be not only nurturant and fruitful but oppressive and cruel. Individuation and separation from the mother breed anxiety and guilt feelings that are projected onto the mother and experienced as hostility.

The infant's relationship with the breast is an equivocal one since it is not always there on demand and an early intimation is born that the breast and the wider environment can be frustrating and even hostile. Rather than cope with the idea that its own mother (the `good breast') could be malevolent , the infant prefers to conjure up the wicked, persecuting stepmother or non-genuine mother onto whom paranoid fantasies can be projected (the `bad, poisonous breast'). The clearest example of this idea in Nonnus is at 35.221 where a serpent spits poison from the breast of a Bacchant against her male attacker. The duration and vehemence of Hera's stepmotherly persecution of Dionysus in Greek mythology and in Nonnus (until the last, 48th Book) is striking. It is the fullest expression of the murderous parental figure but in Nonnus it is accompanied by several instances of actual filicide and infanticide, by Agave, Athamas, the Nysian women and oxherds, the Argive women, Aura and Themisto. There are four references to Cronos swallowing his children, and references to Procne, Lycaon and Tantalus killing their children. In addition, Harpalyce is raped by her father and there are three references to Zeus trying to rape his daughter Aphrodite. Threats from parents, particularly the mother, also appear in symbolic manner in the form of terrifying, incorporating, engulging serpents and floods. <11> Part of Dionysus' solution to the threat from Hera was to take on feminine characteristics, an identification with the aggressor designed to reduce his offensiveness. <12> Hera offering her breast to cure Dionysus of the madness she inflicted upon him sums up the unpredictable nature of the maternal relationship from the infant's perspective. Cronos' castration of Uranus and Zeus' overthrow of Cronos are mentioned as adult counters to parental threat. But young children have reason to fear their parents in Nonnus, however nurturant they and surrogate parents can be. In contrast to the Dionysiaca , the most dangerous and violent figure in Peter Pan's world (apart from the crocodile), is male, the pirate captain and rival for Wendy's affections, Hook. Hook is defeated - generally to acclaim by young sons in the theatre audiences - in an Oedipal struggle by the son who must fight alone and who hadbecome the Great White Father in Neverland. It was above all Peter's `cockiness' that enraged Hook. Peter both wanted and feared to become a father, and is relieved at Wendy's assurance that he is not really the father of the Lost Boys. (How could he be?). Motherhood in Barrie is generally worshipped uncritically but there are signs of ambivalence. The Lost Boys shoot at their mother-to be, the flying Wendy. Wendy and her two brothers escape from the nursery as a form of revenge, to make their parents suffer. Mrs Darling emerges as a somewhat oppressive, controlling figure, less than ideal, and Wendy outperforms her as a mother. Mr Darling is an even less ideal parent and is, revealingly, always played by the same actor who plays Hook. Peter abandoned his own mother because he felt she had abandoned him and demonstrated unreliability when she had another child ( p.40). He professed to despise all mothers (except Wendy) and not to miss his own mother - if he ever had one. When Wendy returned, grew up and became a mother and grandmother, Peter had to take her daughter and then granddaughter back to Neverland for a while to mother him. <13> Peter's is a story of mutual betrayal. He had, as he saw it, been rejected by his mother, and he responded in kind. But the yearning remained.

The omnipotent child warrior

To fly and beat adults or indeed anyone are common infantile fantasies. The childhood of Dionysus included feats of hunting that made proud his grandmother and foster-mother Rheia and his father Zeus. He could kill stags and overcome and harness lions. About to lead his forces into India, he is depicted as unarmed yet magically invulnerable (14.229-246). Thereafter Dionysus is supported in his campaign against the Indians and in his triumphal progress through Greece by maenads who, in battle and particularly in his clash with Lycurgus act as his nursemaids and protectors. Routed by Lycurgus, Dionysus temporarily seems anything but omnipotent, but his nursemaids come to his rescue and inflict condign punishment upon the brutal persecutor while Dionysus imbibes comfort and new strength from submarine Thetis, Nereids and his former nurse Ino (20.325 - 21.146; cf.18.169-190). Zeus too intervenes to save Dionysus from Hera on two occasions and forces Hera to cure his madness with her milk. When the child warrior cannot achieve alone, therefore, powerful assistants are at hand to ensure success,a success that in Dionysus' case was destined. Peter Pan's deeds as victor over Hook and other pirates exemplify the successful child warrior who also saves the mother-figure Wendy from Hook. In this case the child warrior prevails without powerful assistants. The other children in Neverland can also kill bloodthirsty pirates and survive the attacks of wild beasts and savage Indians.


The term narcissism can be used in several ways. In what folllows it is mainly used as a mark of early egoic development and a way of relating to others that is self-centred and preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power and popularity. Feelings of entitlement to special consideration, interpersonal exploitativeness, and the expectation of unwavering positive regard from others are typically present in narcissism. Narcissism can be a mark of arrested development in that it is a strategy employed by the infantile ego to deal with frustration and insult. Such challenges to self-esteem are countered by a fantasy of superiority or omnipotence. This grandiosity however is supported by a fragile ego that is acutely sensitive to shame and mockery. Nonnus' characters display abundant signs of narcissism. Narcissism is a major theme of the poem. Although the characters can show concern and compassion for others at times, their predominant characteristic is self- absorption and exhibitionism. Pan appeals to Dionysus' narcissism when he says, `To get love your own handsome shape is enough - to touch your beautiful body is what women want, not gold '(42.241-242; cf.29.29-30). The Aura episode in Book 48 illustrates with chilling brutality what happens when fragile egos clash and grandiosity gets out of hand. Aura typifies the self- absorbed, grandiose egotist. Her unwise mocking of Artemis' breasts and vaunting of her own unleashes a trail of vengeance from that affronted deity that ends with Aura's suicide in shame and despair. Throughout the poem are instances of extreme sensitivity to shame <14> , self-inflation and grandiosity. Typhoeus fantasizes about what he will do when he overthrows Zeus and installs a new regime (1.444-180, 2.258-355). A central theme of the Dionysiaca is the worship of Dionysus and his progress though lands, surrounded by worshippers and spreading his worship to new areas, a delicious fulfilment of the desire for unwavering positive regard, a fulfilment earned by effort but also by natural endowments deriving from divine descent. He is largely unconcerned by the tragedies and disasters that accompany his triumphal return from India in the last seven books and is insecure enough to exact a terrible revenge from the contumacious Pentheus. Apparent invulnerability and self-absorbed narcissism can lend charisma to a leader, since he or she becomes a suitable focus for narcissistic worshippers to identify with and draw strength from. Grandiose leader and idolatrous follower reinforce the narcissism of the other. Dionysus had a childhood that was both overloved (a succession of doting nurses) and underloved (one parent lost, the other distant, and a malignant stepmother), a situation that favours repairing narcissistic injury with an over-idealised image of the self. Barrie emphasises the selfish amorality of children, their weak consciences and lack of proneness to guilt, `innocent and gay and heartless' (p.226). `Off we skip like the most heartless beings in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive, and we have an entirely selfish time'. <15> Children's unthinking narcissism is part of the reason for their appeal because it recalls the usually more latent narcissism of adults. It is this narcissistic heartlessness that makes it possible for Wendy, Michael and John to flit off to Neverland and abandon their parents, and to encounter the narcissistic, happy-go lucky pirates who have no conscience or fixed home. Peter Pan's cockiness, conceit, overweening vanity and boasting in Neverland are prefigured by the thirst for praise he manifests when in Kensington Gardens. No-one matters to Peter except to meet his needs. He is largely indifferent to others, forgets his loyal friends, but his lot is not, ultimately, a happy one. <16>

Some differences

Nonnus and Barrie tapped similar primitive fears and fantasies but expressed and elaborated them differently. Some differences have already been noted.

Barrie's plays and novels were vastly popular in a way that, as faras we can tell, Nonnus' 21,000 line epic was not. The resolution in Barrie's work of some of the conflicts that beset the immature psyche have an immediate appeal that Nonnus' does not. Nonnus does offer valuable insights into the human condition but not in a way that appeals to the simpler understanding of the child. His world is composed of a somewhat more complete mosaic of infantile elements and concerns, and it has more adult themes. Bizarre fantasies and a more overt interest in sexuality mingle with rhetorical conventions, the realities of adult experience and ascensionist scenes. In many ways the Dionysiaca is less explicitly concerned with issues of immortality and eternal youth, although populated by deities and demigods, and although Dionysus and others earn or are given immortality. It is mainly about the establishment of a new dispensation in which drinking wine and autistic dancing play important roles. But in the unfolding of that story a range of behaviours are displayed, such as voyeurism, quasi-necrophilia, breast-fixation, hysteria, madness, drunkenness, rape, infanticide, metamorphosis, disguise and battles with monsters. Barries's focus is more upon the issue of whether or not to grow up. <17> Fancies about flight and not needing biological parents stem from that concern. The full significance of Peter Pan for Barrie's inner struggles was gradually acknowledged by the author. In 1922 he wrote: `It is as if long after writing Peter Pan its true meaning came to me - Desperate attempt to grow up but can't. <18>

In his life Barrie sought motherly women by remaining a boy in disguise. When the life of Barrie's mother was irrevocably traumatised by the accidental death of a 13 year old elder son, David, the younger Barrie sought to repair her inconsolability and his own narcissistic injury at her clear favouritism for another by remaining a perpetually youthful substitute and rival, and by creating one, Peter Pan. <19> Sibling rivalry is not a prominent manifest or latent theme in Nonnus. Nor are Nonnus' characters memorable. They all have much the same psychological characteristics. They are like puppets, weary instruments of superior force, pawns of destiny. <20> The Dionysiaca is a poem of theme rather than of character. Barrie on the other hand, created truly memorable and individual characters in Peter Pan, Wendy (which now became a popular forename), Tinker Bell, Hook and the Darling parents, not to mention Nana the dog, who made beds and ran bathwater.


It is hard to think of another ancientauthor who presents so many Icarian features as strongly as Nonnus. The full blown flight to creativity is clearly not one that every author needs to take. But where it is strongly evident a distinctive character is given to the content of a work. On the evidence of the Dionysiaca and the Peter Pan works, both Nonnus and Barrie could be described as Icarian personalities. Their fantasy life is replete with images of flight, concern with immortality, narcissism, immature theories of generation, gender ambiguity and marked ambivalence towards parental figures. Their imaginations are typically Icarian, that is, `multiple, fluent, diffuse, unconventional, extravagant', more than usually `original, child-like, farfetched, expansive, exaggerated or bizarre'. <21>


<1> For a recent example, see S.Chick, Searching for Charmian (Sydney 1995) where the author constantly likens her artistic strivings, and those of her novelist mother, to the urge to fly. Marc Chagall and Sidney Nolan are two painters strongly attracted to the theme of flight. Albert Camus illuminates the psychodynamics of Icarianism in his novel La Chute (Paris 1956). Arthur Koestler's autobiographical Arrow in the Blue (London 1952) suggests a highly Icarian personality. For a discussion of the syndrome, see N.Wiklund, The Icarus Complex (Lund 1978). D.McClelland, Power: the Inner Experience (New York 1975) pp.194ff. discusses the relationship between Icarianism and creativity.

<2> For monographs on Barrie see A.Birkin, J.M.Barrie and The Lost Boys (London 1970); J.Dunbar, J.M.Barrie. The Man Behind the Image (London 1970); H.Geduld, James Barrie (New York 1971); J.Rose, The Case of Peter Pan (London 1984). On the psychology of the Dionysiaca , see J.J. Winkler, In Pursuit of the Nymphs. Comedy and Sex in Nonnos'Tales of Dionysos (U.Texas Diss. 1974); R.F.Newbold, 'Discipline, Bondage and the Serpent in Nonnus' Dionysiaca', Classical World 78 (1984), pp.89-98.

<3> M.Egan, 'The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan and Freud', Children's Literature 10 (1982), pp.37-55, at p.40.

<4> 7.98-99. Translation here and below by H.D.Rouse, Dionysiaca (London 1940). Some other notable references to flight which are not illustrated below include 1.355-362, 28.166- 167, 31.75-76, 31.124, 32.37, 33. 58-59, 41. 275-277, 42.1-12, 48.471-473.

<5> See P.Hollindale's recent edition in the World's Classics series, entitled Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Peter and Wendy (Oxford 1991). Page references to Barrie's work are to this edition.

<6> On immortality and soteriology in the Dionysiaca , see G.Braden,'Nonnos' Typhoon:Dionysiaca Books I and II', Texas Studies in Language and Literature 15 (1974), pp.851-879. On flying and immortality, see B.C.Meyer, ‘Notes on Flying and Dying', Psychoanalytic Quarterly 52 (1983), pp.327-352. On sunrises and the sense of timelessness in the work, see A.W.James, `Night and Day in the Epic Narratives of Nonnos and Others', Museum Philologum Londiniense 4 (1981), pp.115- 142.

<7> `The Sexless Sentimentalist', The Listener (May 12 1963), pp.841-843.

<8> For discussion of this feature in Nonnus and the auto- compounds that designate it, see J.Lindsay, Life and Pleasure in Ancient Egypt (London 1965) pp.370-372.

<9> For fuller discussion and abundant references, see Winkler (at n.2 ) pp.79-129. Also, R.F.Newbold, `Some Problems of Creativity in Nonnus' Dionysiaca', Classical Antiquity 12 (1993), pp.89-110, esp. pp.102-104.

<10> See Egan (at n.3) pp.49-50; F.L.Meisel `The Myth of Peter Pan', The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 32 (1977), pp.45- 63; E.F.Alston, `James Barrie's M'connachie', American Imago 9 (1952), pp.257-277.

<11> I am working on a fuller study of narcissism in Nonnus.

<12> See P.Slater, The Glory of Hera (Boston 1968) cc.7-9.

<13> See N.Tucker `Peter Pan and Captain Hook. A Study in Oedipal Rivalry' The Annual of Psychoanalysis 10 (1980), p. 355-367; J.Skinner, `James M.Barrie or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up', American Imago 14 (1957), pp.111-141.

<14> See R.F.Newbold `Sensitivity to Shame in Greek and Roman Epic, with Particular Reference to Claudian and Nonnus' Ramus 14 (1985), pp.30-45, esp. pp.41-43.

<15> Cited by Hollindale (at n.5), p.xxi, from a later work, Wendy's Story .

<16> H.Kingsmill, `J.M.Barrie' Horizon 4 (19 July 1941), pp.43-49, who finds much of Barrie's narcissism reflected in Peter Pan, says that the Peter Pan works were written about and by a spoilt child. See too D.Kiley, The Peter Pan Syndrome. Men Who Never Grow Up (New York 1983) and L.Ormond, J.M.Barrie (Edinburgh 1987), pp.101 ff. (`Peter's characteristic behaviour to others is a blend of masterfulness, conceit and cruelty' p.109).

<17> Though Alston (at n.10), p.257, sees some of the behaviour of the narrator in The Little White Bird as voyeuristic.

<18> See Hollindale (at n.5), p. xxvii.

<19> Preserving and surpassing the memory of The Boy David (the title of his last play, 1937) was a lifelong preoccupation. Barrie also felt betrayed by the birth of a younger sister, as the scene of Peter seeing his mother in bed with a new baby and leaving her forever makes clear (p.40).

<20> G.D'Ippolito Studi Nonniani (Palermo 1964), p.52.

<21> H.A.Murray, `Notes on the Icarus Syndrome', Folia Psychiatrica, Neurologica et Neurochirurgica 61 (1958), p.140- 144, at p.141.

R.F. Newbold

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 3 Issue 5 - October 1996
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606