J. M. Barrie

Sir J. M. Barrie

J.M. Barrie by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1892
Born James Matthew Barrie
(1860-05-09)9 May 1860
Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland, UK
Died 19 June 1937(1937-06-19) (aged 77)
London, England, UK
Resting place Kirriemuir Cemetery, Angus, Scotland
Occupation Novelist, playwright
Nationality Scottish
Citizenship British
Education Glasgow Academy
Forfar Academy
Dumfries Academy
Edinburgh University
Period Victorian, Edwardian
Genre Children's literature, drama, fantasy
Literary movement Kailyard school
Notable works The Little White Bird
Peter Pan
The Admirable Crichton
Spouse Mary Ansell (m. 1894–1909)
Children Guardian of the Llewelyn Davies boys


Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, OM (9 May 1860  19 June 1937) was a Scottish novelist and playwright, best remembered today as the creator of Peter Pan. He was born and educated in Scotland but moved to London, where he wrote a number of successful novels and plays. There he met the Llewelyn Davies boys, who inspired him to write about a baby boy who has magical adventures in Kensington Gardens (included in The Little White Bird), then to write Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, a "fairy play" about an ageless boy and an ordinary girl named Wendy who have adventures in the fantasy setting of Neverland.

Although he continued to write successfully, Peter Pan overshadowed his other work, and is credited with popularising the then-uncommon name Wendy.[1] Barrie unofficially adopted the Davies boys following the deaths of their parents.

Barrie was made a baronet by George V on 14 June 1913,[2] and a member of the Order of Merit in the 1922 New Year Honours.[3] Before his death, he gave the rights to the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, which continues to benefit from them.

Childhood and adolescence

James Matthew Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Angus to a conservative Calvinist family. His father David Barrie was a modestly successful weaver. His mother Margaret Ogilvy had assumed her deceased mother's household responsibilities at the age of eight. Barrie was the ninth child of ten (two of whom died before he was born), all of whom were schooled in at least the three Rs in preparation for possible professional careers. His siblings were: Alexander (1842 – 16 July 1914), Mary Ann (1845–1918), Jane (14 March 1847 – 31 August 1895), Elizabeth (12 March 1849 – 1 April 1851), Agnes (23 Dec 1850–1851), David Ogilvy (30 January 1853 – 29 January 1867), Sarah (3 June 1855 – 1 November 1913), Isabella (4 January 1858 – 1902), and Margaret (9 July 1863 – 1936). He was a small child and drew attention to himself with storytelling.[4] He only grew to 5 ft 312 in. (161 cm) according to his 1934 passport.[5]

When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time, Barrie entered her room and heard her say, "Is that you?" "I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to", wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother Margaret Ogilvy (1896), "and I said in a little lonely voice, 'No, it's no' him, it's just me.'" Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her.[6] Eventually, Barrie and his mother entertained each other with stories of her brief childhood and books such as Robinson Crusoe, works by fellow Scotsman Walter Scott, and The Pilgrim's Progress.[7]

At the age of 8, Barrie was sent to The Glasgow Academy in the care of his eldest siblings Alexander and Mary Ann, who taught at the school. When he was 10, he returned home and continued his education at the Forfar Academy. At 14, he left home for Dumfries Academy, again under the watch of Alexander and Mary Ann. He became a voracious reader, and was fond of Penny Dreadfuls and the works of Robert Michael Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper. At Dumfries, he and his friends spent time in the garden of Moat Brae house, playing pirates "in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan".[8][9] They formed a drama club, producing his first play Bandelero the Bandit, which provoked a minor controversy following a scathing moral denunciation from a clergyman on the school's governing board.[7]

Literary career

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, London

Barrie knew that he wished to follow a career as an author. However, his family attempted to persuade him to choose a profession such as the ministry. With advice from Alexander, he was able to work out a compromise: he would attend a university, but would study literature.[10] Barrie enrolled at the University of Edinburgh where he wrote drama reviews for the Edinburgh Evening Courant. He graduated and obtained an M.A. on 21 April 1882.[10]

Following a job advertisement found by his sister in The Scotsman, he worked for a year and a half as a staff journalist on the Nottingham Journal.[10] He then returned to Kirriemuir. He submitted a piece to the St. James's Gazette, a London newspaper, using his mother's stories about the town where she grew up (renamed "Thrums"). The editor "liked that Scotch thing" so well that Barrie ended up writing a series of these stories.[7] They served as the basis for his first novels: Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890),[11] and The Little Minister (1891).

The stories depicted the "Auld Lichts", a strict religious sect to which his grandfather had once belonged.[10] Modern literary criticism of these early works has been unfavourable, tending to disparage them as sentimental and nostalgic depictions of a parochial Scotland, far from the realities of the industrialised nineteenth century, but they were popular enough at the time to establish Barrie as a successful writer. Following that success, he published Better Dead (1888) privately and at his own expense, but it failed to sell.[10] His two "Tommy" novels, Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1900), were about a boy and young man who clings to childish fantasy, with an unhappy ending.

Meanwhile, Barrie's attention turned increasingly to works for the theatre, beginning with a biography of Richard Savage, written by Barrie and H.B. Marriott Watson; unfortunately, it was performed only once and critically panned.[10] He immediately followed this with Ibsen's Ghost (or Toole Up-to-Date)(1891),[10] a parody of Henrik Ibsen's dramas Hedda Gabler and Ghosts. Ghosts had been unlicensed in the UK until 1914,[12] but had created a sensation at the time from a single "club" performance.

The production of Ibsen's Ghost at Toole's Theatre in London was seen by William Archer, the translator of Ibsen's works into English. Apparently comfortable with the parody, he enjoyed the humour of the play and recommended it to others. Barrie's third play Walker, London (1892) resulted in him being introduced to a young actress named Mary Ansell. He proposed to her and they were married on 9 July 1894. Barrie bought her a Saint Bernard puppy, who played a part in the novel The Little White Bird. He used Ansell's given name for many characters in his novels.[10] Barrie also authored Jane Annie, a comic opera for Richard D'Oyly Carte (1893), which unfortunately failed. He begged his friend Arthur Conan Doyle to revise and finish it for him.

In 1901 and 1902, he had back-to-back successes; Quality Street was about a respectable, responsible old maid who poses as her own flirtatious niece to try to win the attention of a former suitor returned from the war. Following that, The Admirable Crichton was a critically acclaimed social commentary with elaborate staging, about an aristocratic family and their household servants shipwrecked on a desert island. Under these difficult circumstances, a male household member seems better suited to taking on the responsibilities of leadership than the lord of the manor.

The character of "Peter Pan" first appeared in The Little White Bird. The novel was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in 1902, and serialised in the US in the same year in Scribner's Magazine.[13] Barrie's more famous and enduring work Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up had its first stage performance on 27 December 1904. This play introduced audiences to the name Wendy; it was inspired by a young girl named Margaret Henley who called Barrie "Friendy", but could not pronounce her Rs very well. The Bloomsbury scenes show the societal constraints of late Victorian and Edwardian middle-class domestic reality, contrasted with Neverland, a world where morality is ambivalent. George Bernard Shaw described the play as "ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people", suggesting deeper social metaphors at work in Peter Pan.

Barrie had a long string of successes on the stage after Peter Pan, many of which discuss social concerns, as Barrie continued to integrate his work and his beliefs. The Twelve Pound Look (1921) concerns a wife divorcing a peer and gaining an independent income. Other plays, such as Mary Rose (1920) and Dear Brutus (1917), revisit the idea of the ageless child and parallel worlds.

Barrie was involved in the 1909 and 1911 attempts to challenge the censorship of the theatre by the Lord Chamberlain, along with a number of other playwrights.[14]

In 1911, Barrie developed the Peter Pan play into the novel Peter and Wendy. In April 1929, Barrie gave the copyright of the Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital, a leading children's hospital in London. The current status of the copyright is somewhat complex.

His final play was The Boy David (1936), which dramatised the Biblical story of King Saul and the young David. Like the role of Peter Pan, that of David was played by a woman, Elisabeth Bergner, for whom Barrie wrote the play.[15]

Social connections

Sir James Barrie, around 1895.

Barrie moved in literary circles and had many famous friends in addition to his professional collaborators. Novelist George Meredith was an early social patron. He had a long correspondence with fellow Scot Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived in Samoa at the time, but the two never met in person. George Bernard Shaw was his neighbour in London for several years, and once participated in a Western that Barrie scripted and filmed. H. G. Wells was a friend of many years, and tried to intervene when Barrie's marriage fell apart. Barrie met Thomas Hardy through Hugh Clifford while he was staying in London.

After the First World War, Barrie sometimes stayed at Stanway House near the village of Stanway in the English county of Gloucestershire. He paid for the pavilion at Stanway cricket ground. Barrie also founded an amateur cricket team for his friends. The people who played on the team at various times included such luminaries as H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, Jerome K. Jerome, G. K. Chesterton, A. A. Milne, E. W. Hornung, A. E. W. Mason, Walter Raleigh, E. V. Lucas, Maurice Hewlett, Owen Seaman, Bernard Partridge, Augustine Birrell, Paul Du Chaillu, Henry Herbert La Thangue, George Cecil Ives, George Llewelyn Davies (see below), and the son of Alfred Tennyson. The team was called the Allahakbarries, under the mistaken belief that "Allah akbar" meant "Heaven help us" in Arabic (rather than "God is great").[7]

Barrie befriended Africa explorer Joseph Thomson and Antarctica explorer Robert Falcon Scott.[16] He was godfather to Scott's son Peter,[7] and was one of the seven people to whom Scott wrote letters in the final hours of his life during his expedition to the South Pole, asking Barrie to take care of his wife Kathleen and son Peter. Barrie was so proud of the letter that he carried it around for the rest of his life.[10]

In 1896, his agent Addison Bright persuaded him to meet with Broadway producer Charles Frohman, who became his financial backer and a close friend, as well.[10] Frohman was responsible for producing the debut of Peter Pan in both England and the US, as well as other productions of Barrie's plays. He famously declined a lifeboat seat when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Actress Rita Jolivet stood with Frohman, George Vernon, and Captain Alick Scott at the end of Lusitania's sinking, but she survived the sinking and recalled Frohman paraphrasing Peter Pan: 'Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us.'[17]

His secretary from 1917, Cynthia Asquith, was the daughter-in-law of Herbert Asquith, British Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916.[18] In the 1930s, Barrie met and told stories to the young daughters of the Duke of York, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret.[18]


Barrie became acquainted with actress Mary Ansell in 1891 when he asked his friend Jerome K. Jerome for a pretty actress to play a role in his play Walker, London. The two became friends, and she helped his family to care for him when he fell very ill in 1893 and 1894.[7] They married in Kirriemuir on 9 July 1894,[19] shortly after Barrie recovered, and Mary retired from the stage; but the relationship was reportedly unconsummated[20] and the couple had no children. The wedding was a small ceremony in his parents' home, in the Scottish tradition.

In 1895, the Barries bought a house on Gloucester Road, in South Kensington.[21] Barrie would take long walks in nearby Kensington Gardens, and in 1900 the couple moved into a house directly overlooking the gardens at 100 Bayswater Road. Mary had a flair for interior design and set about transforming the downstairs, creating two large reception rooms with painted panelling and adding fashionable features, such as a conservatory.[22] In the same year, Mary found Black Lake Cottage, at Farnham, Surrey, which became the couple's "bolt hole" where Barrie could entertain his cricketing friends and the Llewelyn Davies family.[23]

Beginning in mid-1908, Mary had an affair with Gilbert Cannan (who was twenty years younger than she[24] and an associate of Barrie's in his anti-censorship activities), including a visit together to Black Lake Cottage, known only to the house staff. When Barrie learned of the affair in July 1909, he demanded that she end it, but she refused. To avoid the scandal of divorce, he offered a legal separation if she would agree not to see Cannan any more, but she still refused. Barrie sued for divorce on the grounds of infidelity – the divorce was granted in October 1909.[6][25] Knowing how painful the divorce was for him, some of Barrie's friends wrote to a number of newspaper editors asking them not to publish the story. In the event, only three newspapers did.[10] Barrie continued to support Mary financially even after she married Cannan, by giving her an annual allowance which was handed over at a private dinner held on her and Barrie's wedding anniversary.[24]

Llewelyn Davies family

J. M. Barrie by George Charles Beresford, 1902

The Llewelyn Davies family played an important part in Barrie's literary and personal life, consisting of Arthur (1863–1907), Sylvia (1866–1910) (daughter of George du Maurier),[26] and their five sons: George (1893–1915), John (Jack) (1894–1959), Peter (1897–1960), Michael (1900–1921), and Nicholas (Nico) (1903–1980).

Barrie became acquainted with the family in 1897, meeting George and Jack (and baby Peter) with their nurse (nanny) Mary Hodgson in London's Kensington Gardens. He lived nearby and often walked his Saint Bernard dog Porthos[27] in the park. He entertained the boys regularly with his ability to wiggle his ears and eyebrows, and with his stories. He did not meet Sylvia until a chance encounter at a dinner party in December. She told Barrie that Peter had been named after the title character in her father's play, Peter Ibbetson.[10]

Barrie became a regular visitor at the Davies household and a common companion to Sylvia and her boys, despite the fact that both he and she were married to other people.[6] In 1901, he invited the Davies family to Black Lake Cottage, where he produced an album of captioned photographs of the boys acting out a pirate adventure, entitled The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Barrie had two copies made, one of which he gave to Arthur, who misplaced it on a train.[28] The only surviving copy is held at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.[29]

The character of Peter Pan was invented to entertain George and Jack. Barrie would say, to amuse them, that their little brother Peter could fly. He claimed that babies were birds before they were born; parents put bars on nursery windows to keep the little ones from flying away. This grew into a tale of a baby boy who did fly away.[10]

Arthur Llewelyn Davies died in 1907, and "Uncle Jim" became even more involved with the Davies family, providing financial support to them. (His income from Peter Pan and other works was easily adequate to provide for their living expenses and education.) Following Sylvia's death in 1910, Barrie claimed that they had recently been engaged to be married.[6] Her will indicated nothing to that effect, but specified her wish for "J. M. B." to be trustee and guardian to the boys, along with her mother Emma, her brother Guy du Maurier, and Arthur's brother Compton. It expressed her confidence in Barrie as the boys' caretaker and her wish for "the boys to treat him (& their uncles) with absolute confidence & straightforwardness & to talk to him about everything." When copying the will informally for Sylvia's family a few months later, Barrie inserted himself elsewhere: Sylvia had written that she would like Mary Hodgson, the boys' nurse, to continue taking care of them, and for "Jenny" (referring to Hodgson's sister) to come and help her; Barrie instead wrote "Jimmy" (Sylvia's nickname for him). Barrie and Hodgson did not get along well, but served together as surrogate parents until the boys were grown.[6]

Barrie also had friendships with other children, both before he met the Davies boys and after they had grown up, and there has since been speculation that Barrie was a paedophile.[30][31] One source for the speculation is a scene in the novel The Little White Bird, in which the protagonist helps a small boy undress for bed, and at the boy's request they sleep in the same bed.[10] However, there is no evidence that Barrie had sexual contact with children, nor that he was suspected of it at the time. Nico, the youngest of the brothers, flatly denied as an adult that Barrie ever behaved inappropriately.[6] "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone—man, woman, or child", he stated. "He was an innocent—which is why he could write Peter Pan."[32] His relationships with the surviving Davies boys continued well beyond their childhood and adolescence.

The statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, erected secretly overnight for May Morning in 1912, was supposed to be modelled upon old photographs of Michael dressed as the character. However, the sculptor, Sir George Frampton, used a different child as a model, leaving Barrie disappointed with the result. "It doesn't show the devil in Peter", he said.[6]

Barrie suffered bereavements with the boys, losing the two to whom he was closest in their early twenties. George was killed in action in 1915, in World War I.[33] Michael, with whom Barrie corresponded daily while at boarding school and university, drowned in 1921, with his friend and possible lover,[34] Rupert Buxton,[35] at a known danger spot at Sandford Lock near Oxford, one month short of his 21st birthday. Some years after Barrie's death, Peter compiled his Morgue from family letters and papers, interpolated with his own informed comments on his family and their relationship with Barrie. Peter died by throwing himself in front of a train shortly after completing the work.


Barrie died of pneumonia on 19 June 1937 and was buried at Kirriemuir next to his parents and two of his siblings. His birthplace at 4 Brechin Road is maintained as a museum by the National Trust for Scotland.

He left the bulk of his estate to his secretary Cynthia Asquith, but excluding the rights to all Peter Pan works (which included The Little White Bird, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up and the novel Peter and Wendy), whose copyright he had previously given to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.[36]




Film, television and stage


Barrie was made a baronet by King George V in 1913; his baronetcy was not inherited. He was made a member of the Order of Merit in 1922. In 1919 he was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews for a three-year term. In 1922 he delivered his celebrated Rectorial Address on Courage at St Andrews, and visited University College Dundee with Earl Haig to open its new playing fields, with Barrie bowling a few balls to Haig.[37] He later served as Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh from 1930 to 1937.


Works (by year)

Production of the The Twelve Pound Look at Shimer College.


  1. "History of the name Wendy". Wendy.com. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  2. The London Gazette: no. 28733. p. 4638. 1 July 1913.
  3. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32563. p. 10713. 31 December 1921.
  4. Alistair Moffat (2012). "Britain's Last Frontier: A Journey Along the Highland Line". Chapter 9. p. 1. Birlinn
  5. Birkin, Andrew: J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2003
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Birkin, Andrew: J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2003
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Chaney, Lisa. Hide-and-Seek with Angels  A Life of J. M. Barrie, London: Arrow Books, 2005
  8. McConnachie and J. M. B.: Speeches of J. M. Barrie, Peter Davies, 1938
  9. "Peter Pan project off the ground". BBC News Scotland. 6 August 2009. Retrieved 8 August 2009.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 White, Donna R. S. (1994). British Children's Writers, 1880–1914. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. ISBN 978-0-8103-5555-2.
  11. J. M. Barrie. "A Window in Thrums". Project Gutenberg.
  12. Dominic Shellard, et al. The Lord Chamberlain Regrets, 2004, British Library, p77-79.
  13. Cox, Michael (2005). The Concise Oxford Chronology of English Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 428. ISBN 9780198610540.
  14. Postlewait, Thomas (2004). "The London Stage, 1895–1918". The Cambridge History of British Theatre. p. 38. ISBN 9780521651325.
  15. Jonathan Law, ed. (2013). The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre. pp. 44–45. ISBN 9781408131480.
  16. Smith, Mark (2 September 2010). "Two friends who took the world by storm". The Scotsman. Retrieved 2 September 2010.
  17. Ellis, Frederick D., The Tragedy of the Lusitania (National Publishing Company, 1915), pp. 38–39; Preston, Diana, Lusitania, An Epic Tragedy (Walker & Company, 2002), p. 204; New York Tribune, "Frohman Calm; Not Concerned About Death, Welcomed It as Beautiful Adventure, He Told Friends at End", 11 May 1915, p. 3; Marcosson, Isaac Frederick, & Daniel Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man (John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1916), p. 387; Frohman, Charles, The Lusitania Resource
  18. 1 2 "Captain Scott and J M Barrie: an unlikely friendship". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  19. "General Register Office for Scotland". Gro-scotland.gov.uk. Archived from the original on 7 March 2009. Retrieved 22 July 2009. Retrieved from Internet Archive 27 December 2013.
  20. Birkin, Andrew: J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2003
  21. Stogdon, Catalina (17 May 2006). "Round the houses: Peter Pan". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 14 May 2015.
  22. Law, Cally (10 May 2015). "Return to Neverland". The Sunday Times. Times Newspapers Limited. Retrieved 14 May 2015. (subscription required (help)).
  23. "JM Barrie". Surrey Monocle. 10 January 2007. Archived from the original on 7 March 2009. Retrieved 22 July 2009. Retrieved from Internet Archive 27 December 2013.
  24. 1 2 Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, p. 287
  25. "J. M. Barrie Seeks Divorce from Wife". New York Times. 7 October 1909. Retrieved 17 April 2010. The name of James M. Barrie, the playwright, figures as a petitioner in the list of divorce cases set down for trial at the next session of the law courts here.
  26. married the 3Q of 1892 in Hampstead, London: GROMI: vol. 1a, p. 1331
  27. Neverpedia article about Porthos
  28. "Andrew Birkin on J. M. Barrie". Jmbarrie.co.uk. 5 April 1960. Archived from the original on 22 July 2011. Retrieved 8 May 2010. Retrieved from Internet Archive 27 December 2013.
  29. J. M. Barrie's Boy Castaways at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
  30. Justine Picardie Published: 12:01 am BST 13 July 2008 (13 July 2008). "How bad was J. M. Barrie?". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  31. Parker, James (22 February 2004). "The real Peter Pan – The Boston Globe". Boston.com. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  32. "J. M. Barrie and Peter Pan – Winter 2005 Issue – Endicott Studio: Peter Pan 2". Endicott-studio.com. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
  33. "Casualty Details: Davies, George Llewelyn". Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
  34. "Audio". Jmbarrie.co.uk. Retrieved 8 May 2010.
  35. "Rupert Buxton". Neverpedia.com. Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  36. Birkin, Andrew: J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2004)
  37. Baxter, Kenneth. "J M Barrie and Rudyard Kipling". Archives Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. University of Dundee. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  38. Carnival PR and Design. "The Barrie School". Barrie.org. Retrieved 22 July 2009.
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J. M. Barrie
Academic offices
Preceded by
The Earl Haig
Rector of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
Rudyard Kipling
Preceded by
The Earl of Balfour
Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
The Lord Tweedsmuir
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New title Baronet
(of Adelphi Terrace)
1st creation
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