The pirate as comedy: Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Major Stede Bonnet

All these years I’d never seen the Disney Peter Pan movie (that I remember). And for that matter, I’d never read Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie’s “novelization” of his own play. Since Captain Hook is one of those iconic pirates, albeit a comic one, I figured it was time to fill up the gaps in my education. So I read the story and watched the film.

Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan, original illustration from "Peter and Wendy"

Captain Hook fighting Peter Pan, original illustration from “Peter and Wendy”

First, let’s disentangle what’s going on here. James Matthew Barrie (1860 – 1937) originally wrote a novel called The Little White Bird (1902) in which Peter Pan figured through several chapters. Then he wrote the play Peter Pan (1904, though he kept revising it until 1928), and finally he wrote the “novelization” of the play under the title Peter and Wendy (1911). The Peter Pan of The Little White Bird differs significantly from the later Peters, and Hook does not appear, so we may ignore it here. What most people are talking about when they refer to “Peter Pan” is some adaptation of the 1928 play text. Peter and Wendy is Barrie telling us adults what to think about the play as he reproduces its action. And Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) is an adaptation of the play. Got it?

Captain Hook from the Disney film (Copyright resides with Disney)

Captain Hook from the Disney film
(Copyright resides with Disney)

With that out of the way, let’s turn to the Disney Peter Pan first. There, Captain Hook, like Mr. Darling (Wendy’s father), is a comic figure, inept, cowardly, and a bit thick. His crew is even thicker, both mentally and in waist measurements. Were it not for his hook, he would be simply a figure of fun. Indeed, the entire pirate ship and crew are a child’s idea of what a pirate is like. The sole exception is that Hook can be treacherous when he uses his hook, which, however, he rarely actually uses for violence in the movie. Barrie’s Captain Jas. Hook in Peter and Wendy is a more complex character. We find out that he was a member of the nobility, attended a notable “public” school (what we’d call a private school in the United States), and is obsessed with “good form” as defined in elite public schools. That said, he’s a more vicious and smarter individual than in the Disney movie. His crew has reason to fear his hook, because he uses it to kill them when angered. And he defeats the Indians by simple cunning. If Disney made the pirates adult children at their most foolish, Barrie made Hook an adult child in that he is haunted by a childhood standard of behavior, good form. Like Peter, he has never grown up, really. Oddly enough, there is a real parallel to Barrie’s Captain Hook: Major Stede Bonnet. To quote from Johnson’s General History,

The major was a gentleman of good reputation in the island of Barbados, was master of a plentiful fortune, and had the advantage of a liberal education. He had the least temptation of any man to follow such a course of life [piracy], from the condition of his circumstances. It was very surprising to every one, to hear of the major’s enterprise, in the island where he lived; and as he was generally esteemed and honored, before he broke out into open acts of piracy, so he was afterward rather pitied than condemned, by those that were acquainted with him, believing that this humor of going a-pirating, proceeded from a disorder in his mind . . .

Major Stede Bonnet (from Johnson's 1724 book)

Major Stede Bonnet (from Johnson’s 1724 book)

Bonnet was unfortunate in his piratical career. It began in 1717 when he bought his own ship, an unusual course for a man about to turn pirate. On some of his early exploits he actually paid for the goods he took! The pirate Blackbeard, a more ferocious character than the gentlemanly Bonnet, took over the Major’s ship at one point in 1717, and then ditched him in 1718, cheating Bonnet and his crew of their share of the loot from past captures. Bonnet was captured later in 1718 by a naval expedition that was actually hunting for a different pirate. He managed to escape, only with his customary luck to be quickly recaptured, tried, and hanged on November 13. Whether Barrie ever knew of Major Stede Bonnet I can’t say. But the resemblance to the Captain Hook of Peter and Wendy is there.

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3 thoughts on “The pirate as comedy: Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Major Stede Bonnet

  1. crimsonprose

    I had not encountered Major Stede Bonnet (not surprising since several years separate us) but I am sure J M Barrie would have, being a writer and writers research (well, most do, at least cursory.) As an amusing postscript, Johnny Depp (Capt Jack Sparrow) played Barrie in Finding Neverland. Recommended, if you’ve not seen it, though by no means a straight biography. Co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie. A little bit of a softie.

    Liked by 1 person

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