The Miraculous in Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Miraculous

As children, we readily believe in magic without any need for explanations. Then, as we grow older, we begin to question the world around us, and no matter how vast and mysterious this world may be, most of us fall into the trap of labeling, categorising, defining, and shrinking the infinite to our human and limited capacity of understanding. In a way, we can’t help it. The fact is that the day comes, for all of us, when we realize that wishful thinking does not solve our problems. Some of us lose the connection to the miraculous gradually, walking down the stairs of life’s small disappointments. For others, the loss is sudden and traumatic. 

Then, there are the few, who even after losing their childish understanding of magic, and despite all the surrounding madness, remain connected by some invisible thread to an inner belief; a particular combination of knowing and feeling all at once, that despite all the chaos of our outer world there still remains the possibility of encountering  the “miraculous.” Somehow, they can embrace the elusive, unpredictable and unexplainable phenomena that links us to a larger reality, to an expansive consciousness, which if we could connect to it, has the capacity to enhance our experience of life and maybe give it meaning. The question then becomes, what is this unknown reality and how can one find the miraculous in everyday life?  In which direction should one go? What path should one take? Or perhaps any road can lead to the miraculous? P.D. Ouspensky offered a beautiful definition of the miraculous:

The ‘miraculous’ is very difficult to define. But for me this word had a quite definite meaning. I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us. But where this new or forgotten road began I was unable to say. I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality. (1)

However, beautiful as this definition may be, it remains a subjective attempt to define the indefinable. How can one define the unknown and inexplicable? Yet, if experienced, it needs to be shared with the rest of humanity.

Our ancestors realized the imperfections and the limitations of our ordinary language to convey inner insights. So, they demised a way in which to use language for the purposes of transmitting experientially acquired inner knowledge. Essentially, they found the language of the heart. They began to tell stories. They gave us myths and fairy tales.

Pamela L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, although she did not like being called her creator nor assuming that role, (she felt, very much as C. S. Lewis, that she was merely mixing the elements she was given by the one true creator from which we all emanate (2) )  walked on the road of myths and fairy tales. She lived and breathed myth. As Staffan Bergsten, who knew her personally and studied her work said, she experienced reality as a mixture of everyday realism and a form of mythical stylisation where the everyday occurrences blend with mythical allusions (3).   And this is probably why Pamela L. Travers succeeded in conjuring for us Mary Poppins, a fictional character who embodies the essence of the “miraculous,” and of its manifestation in our ordinary life. At the same time, the Mary Poppins stories illustrate our innate capacity as children to both rejoice in and accept the miraculous without the need for any logical explanations. 

Mary Poppins arrives unexpectedly into the Banks family at the exact moment when she is most needed. No one knows where she comes from although it is clear that she existed before the beginning of the adventures in the books. Her ways of being in the world defy all known natural laws: she slides up banisters, speaks with animals, dances with the Sun, glues stars with a brush on the night sky, is able to shrink her size at will and go into plasticine parks and pictures drawn with chalk, just to name a few of her magical abilities.

The strength of her magic resides precisely in the mysteriousness of these faculties. Truth is, if Mary Poppins explained, all magic would have disappeared. Once explained, the miraculous becomes mundane and mechanical. Its power to expand our consciousness consists in its mysterious nature and in its hints of infinite possibilities. Let’s hope that there is no other way, no end to expansion, no end to growth, no end to the mystery. One uncovered secret shows us the infinite vastness of what remains to be explored; it gives us breath and spaciousness.

When Walt Disney decided to make the Mary Poppins books into a movie, he entrusted the project into the hands of the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) who were confronted with the contemplative, dreamlike states of the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. They saw the books as “an incredible treasure trove of delightful characters and wonderful incidents” (4) that somehow needed to be weaved into a story line, which of course from a movie making perspective makes sense, but by doing so the power and meaning of these stories were reduced to mere entertainment. Mary Poppins was scaled down to fit the American pop-culture understanding of magic: entertainment and a temporary escape from mundane realities.

The movie industry is dabbling now more than ever in the making of modern myths, exploring a mixture of science and magic, and using today’s technologies for visual feasts.  Sadly, our modern myths appear to be quite one dimensional. Maybe that is because few of us today are interested in symbols, paradoxes, and multiple layers of meaning. Who has time for contemplation? Serious matters need to be attended to, but what are these matters that we chose to label as “serious?”

Endnotes:

  1. P.D. Ouspensky. In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Inc., 2001, p.3
  2. Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins, a recoding of P.L. Travers in conversation with Brian Sibley.
  3. Staffan Bergsten. Mary Poppins and Myth. Almqvist & Wiksell International Stockholm – Sweden, 1978, p.32.
  4. Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell, Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. Disney Editions, New York, 2007, First Edition, p.33

 

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Reviewing Mary Poppins and Myth by Staffan Bergsten

Mary Poppins and Myth 1Mary Poppins and Myth was written some forty years ago by Staffan Bergsten, a Swedish scholar who after reading the Mary Poppins books* to his young daughter became aware of certain connections which appeared to him to be pointing in the direction of the possible inspirational sources for the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. Bergsten decided to explore these connections. With that purpose in mind, he initiated a correspondence with Pamela L. Travers which lasted for a period of three years until the publication of his thesis in 1978 by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.  Bergsten tells the reader right from the start that his book is a comparative and analytical study and that some of his ideas “were knocked on the head by Pamela Travers, but others were confirmed”.

So, where did Pamela L. Travers find the material for her stories? Bergsten did not provide a definite answer to the question.  He concluded that it was:

highly doubtful that she had any clear conception of what sources she was drawing upon. Her comprehensive reading had sunk into the depths of her mind and the ideas, forms and happenings rose into her consciousness in the shape of spontaneous imaginative creations.  

This reminded me of a comment made by Pamela L. Travers herself in a recorded conversation with British author Brian Sibley that took place many years later. In that recording Brian Sibley commented that in the Mary Poppins stories “there is also a number of very serious adult concepts and thoughts” to which Pamela L. Travers responded:

They are underlined, I find those afterwards. I don’t put them in. Not long ago I was reading for the first time since it was published Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and I was overcome, how did this writer know my inmost thoughts, they are not said, they are not spoken, but they underlie the texts. And then with surprise I realised it was me. Well, I suppose it was me.

                                                                           P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

I enjoyed reading Mary Poppins and Myth, the writing style is fluid and without any scholarly stuffiness. Bergsten had a genuine interest in the subject of his thesis and he wished to share his understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s literary work. He examined the Mary Poppins stories from three different perspectives: psychobiographical, literary and mythological.

Psychobiographical perspective

Bergsten perceived Pamela L. Travers as someone who looked at everyday life in the light of myths and fairy tales, a habit he speculated, she acquired early in childhood through her extensive reading of fairy tales.

So, in Pamela Travers’s childhood memories we find everyday figures and objects together with literary and mythical allusions, and this is the blend we find in all her books. Everyday realism and mythical stylization infuse each other not according to some worked out scheme but simply because this is the author’s own way of experiencing reality.

The accuracy of Bergsten’s remark is confirmed by Pamela L. Travers’s childhood recollections written in some of her essays published in Parabola years after the publication of Bergsten’s Mary Poppins and Myth. The descriptions of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood experiences are original and appear to have happened in some borderline reality between the world as we know it and the world of the fairy tales. Now, of course one can question the authenticity of theses memories and argue that Pamela L. Travers romanticized the facts and retold them many years later, after she had acquired vast knowledge about myths and fairy tales.  That may be, but the sensitivity and love for the fairy tales was in her blood and that explains the longevity of her Mary Poppins.

Staffan Bergsten also sensed that Mary Poppins encapsulated a “whole series of projections of more or less unconscious, sometimes contradictory, tendencies and ideals in the author herself.” But then he admitted that to speculate in that direction it will “lead into psychological and biographical questions and in the meantime at least there is not enough material of the kind that would let us discuss them further.” Pamela L. Travers was notoriously secretive, and the personal details of her life became public only after her death with the publication of her first biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Consequently, the psychobiographical examination is quite brief in Bergsten’s book. However, it is clear that Bergsten regretted the lack of available biographical material.

Literary perspective

Bergsten classified the Mary Poppins books in the category of the fantastic tale because the adventures take place in the everyday reality which exists alongside a supernatural reality. And, although the natural laws do not apply in this parallel reality, logic remains present in all the adventures.  Bergsten also explored the possible links between other children’s books which were popular during Pamela L. Travers’s childhood such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan but the connections, he concluded, were quite thin.

Bergsten also noticed the poetic influences of Yeats, Blake and Wordsworth (Pamela L. Travers’s favourite poets) in the Mary Poppins stories in the themes of the “the glorification of the child” and its “innocence and imaginative power”. This probably motivated his interpretation of the main purpose of Pamela L. Travers as a writer, namely, to awaken and stimulate the inner child of the reader. Now I wonder if this was one of his ideas that was knocked on the head by Pamela L. Travers. 

Mythological perspective

Bergsten underlied the fact that Mary Poppins was articulated clearly around mythical elements. She comes down from the heavens and then at the end of each book she ascends up into the upper realms. She is eternal, her home is everywhere and nowhere. She can fly and be free from any confinements. Her magic is inexplicable, and above all, intrinsic. Mary Poppins doesn’t need a wand to perform her magic. The adventures also have mythical notes expressed in cosmic dances and celebrations of the whole of creation. Bergsten linked these to Pamela L. Travers’s Christian sympathies, to Gnostic traditions and to theosophical teachings and Hinduism. This mixture of inspirational sources explains Bergsten’s description of Pamela L. Travers as “a genuine and convinced syncretist who enthusiastically borrows from the most disparate cultures, religions and mythologies”.

In my opinion, Mary Poppins and Myth should be reprinted and made available to the public. It is of course possible for the fans of Pamela L. Travers and the Mary Poppins stories to find this book in a library or to purchase an old copy online.

* Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

Hamlet 2

During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

Hamlet 3

I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

Hamlet 4

So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part II)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers Moscow

Lenin discovered that bears dance naturally and Stalin knew well how to put rings in their noses and lead them through the streets. But somewhere behind all the cunning exploitation, is there not the bear’s own desire to be so led? Haven’t the people themselves chosen the tyranny that flatters their deepest instincts and relives them of the necessity of thinking for themselves?” 

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion 

Pamela L. Travers’s travelogue, Moscow Excursion, is a written record of the author’s astute observational insights into the soul of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Unfortunately, Pamela L. Travers’s observations, despite their accuracy, might not have been well received by the critics of her time. Here is one extremely negative review of her book which appeared in The Saturday Review on August 17, 1935. 

Pamela L. Travers Book Reveiw

Not long after its publication, the book fell into the abyss of collective oblivion.  It was briefly mentioned by Valerie Lawson in her biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote, but its importance was, regrettably, downplayed.   

Anyhow, a Russian librarian and translator, Olga Maeots, resuscitated Pamela L. Travers’s book for the Russian readership in 2016. Not only did Olga Maeots translate Pamela L. Travers’s book but she truly infused it with a fresh breath of life by uncovering the undisclosed identities of the people Pamela L. Travers met during her visit.   

During the Holidays I read this Russian edition of Moscow Excursion and learned some fascinating facts. I truly hope that one day soon Maeots’s discoveries will be translated in English for the benefit of a larger audience. 

Now back to Pamela L. Travers and her Moscow Excursion. The book reveals Pamela L. Travers’s depth of perception and her capacity to think for herself. This is not surprising though, for Pamela L. Travers was an authentic rebel, never allowing the opinions of the majority to influence her own take on things.  

The trip to Russia was organized by Intourist, an organization created by the Soviet State in 1929 for the purpose of hosting organized and controlled visits by foreign tourists. I don’t know if Pamela L. Travers was aware of that fact, but it is obvious that she sensed the controlling grip of this organization right from the start: 

It seems that everybody goes to Russia in a Tour – it is against Soviet principles, if not Soviet laws, to travel about alone. (…) A sheaf of questionnaires, all identical, were handed to me. (…) I am no longer the cheerful tourist but somebody who has asked for a job and is waiting for his references to be taken up. Not a human being, as I had mistakenly thought until now, but an entry in a “T” file. 

It did not take long either for Pamela L. Travers to realize that what the tourist guides were showing her had nothing to do with the real life in Russia.  

“Properly to see Russia one must not be a tourist. One must know the language, move about alone and dispense with the questionable blessing of the State guides. With these the traveler with any sense of history finds himself often at variance, for few historical events are recognizable once they have been doctored with Marxism and Expediency.” 

During her trip Pamela L. Travers visited Leningrad, Moscow and almost Nizhny-Novgorod, but the visit to the latter was cancelled at the last minute. Intourist explained that all the boats were broken down. The real reason was probably the desire of the authorities to hide the rampant famine in the city from the tourists’ eyes.  The cancelled trip to Nizhny-Novgorod was replaced by a visit to a Collective Farm and a ballet: The Swan Lake. 

In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers visited the House of Culture, the Winter Palace, the Smolny Institute, the Summer Palace, Alexander Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter and Paul Forteresse and the Hermitage. And in Moscow, the Kremlin Tomb, a Creche, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow Prison, a Courthouse, the House of Prostitutes (a rehabilitation center of a sort to which Pamela L. Travers resolutely refused to go), the National Gallery, the Moscow Aerodrome, the Stadium and a theater.   

Although under surveillance (all foreigners were closely watched) Pamela L. Travers managed to escape the tourist guides and to make a few independent visits. (In England, prior to her trip, a friend provided her with letters of introduction).  In Leningrad Pamela L. Travers spent an evening in the company of T, Z and a Young Poet, on another day she visited the Nevsky Cemetery with T, the Young Poet and a man from the Cheka (the first secret police of the Soviet State). She even succeeded in having brief conversations with two local women, one in a store and another one during a secret church service. She also met a movie director in a cinema studio and went to see a member of the communist party and his wife at their apartment. 

Moscow Excursion reveals young Pamela L. Travers as a free thinker, a rebellious and independent spirit with a great sense of humor and a taste for Vodka. Bored by the visit at the Collective Farm and of all the insipid statistics about lettuce production, she decides to go back to the coach and wait until the rest of the group returns. This is what happened next:  

As I got in he (the driver of the coach) coughed gently, struck his chest and flung out his hand questioningly. I took this to mean that he saw I had a cough and wanted to know was it very bad. (Pamela L. Travers was recuperating from TB right before she left for Russia.) I nodded, smiling. With that he dived into some recess under his seat and brought out a grimy bottle and a cup. Beaming he held them up before me. ‘Vodka?’ he enquired. I became a mandarin. I could hardly stop nodding and smiling and bowing my appreciation and acceptance. (…) We sat there gleaming at each other, utterly happy, the horizon gradually becoming blurred, the trees doubling themselves and dancing, and somehow there seemed to be four mules instead of one on the green, moving rather unevenly in a row. The cottages were going up and down the sky like swings at a fair. It was lovely.” 

It surely does sound lovely. Pamela L. Travers was really talented for descriptions. All the descriptions in all her writings are simply exquisite. Never too long and always giving rise to vivid images in the reader’s mind’s eye. Here is Pamela L. Travers’s elegant description of Leningrad: 

Leningrad came towards us, swimming like a faintly colored water-bird over the flat swampy sea. It was a solemn moment when we drew into the quayside flanked by beautiful eighteenth-century chrome-colored buildings.” 

(In this post I am using more quotes from Pamela L. Travers than usual because I really want you to hear her voice!) 

Pamela L. Travers saw the communist regime for what it was, a new (for the time) fanatical religion. 

One sees at once that the Soviet is not concerned with atheism, but with throwing over one god to deify another –  Man perhaps with the ultimate ideal Paradise, here and now, Heaven on Earth, the symbol Lenin, and the choir of angels the Communist Party. ” 

The rebel in her immediately realized that the State did not encourage individualism but aimed to control people; and that control was achieved by the use of brainwashing propaganda and the exercise of tight surveillance. 

We are beginning to merge. The drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people is having its effect on us.” 

Grey, grey, grey – nothing but grey on the faces of the people and in the whole width of the sky.  

I met a woman in the Torgsin stores yesterday. She was gray and pinched, but there shone in her eyes that curious fanatical gleam I am beginning to know so well. She had been to America, she told me, and had returned to Russia after the Revolution. Her faith in the Soviet Regime was supreme. ‘We can endure the present’, she said proudly, ‘for the time that is to come’ (…) She talked gently, in a series of slogans.” 

That’s what one misses in Russia-the person in the eyes. The faces are so still and blank and the eyes glazed and empty. And dangerous, too, for one feels that any mood, cruel or fanatical, might blow in upon them and take up residence. One wants persons, not reiterated Soviet States.” 

And what did Pamela L. Travers think of Lenin, the great revolutionary? The visit to Smolny Institue, Lenin’s residence during the October Revolution of 1917, gave rise to this intuitive observation: 

Such an emptiness was there, an emptiness that was not merely the lack of the room’s inhabitant.  Could it be that even when he lived something was missing, some warmth, some central sun? Genius is light and heat. Had Lenin really that rare and twofold fire? Was it not rather a fierce and single light in which he burned? Consumed by mind – that is the impression one has when one looks at portraits and photographs of him. The only purely human quality in them seems to be a certain self-satisfaction, and amid such inhuman intensity one welcomes that with relief.”  

And then, at the Kremlin Tomb, where Lenin’s preserved body was (and still is apparently) exposed for public display 

But the nothingness of that figure was pitiful, a statue of pure flesh, preserved against its own will and against all law. It wasn’t death, which is dynamic and immediate. It was nothing. The resolute materialism of the Soviet State finds its end in this. This emptiness could not move one except to anger, perhaps, against those who defrauded a great man of his body’s disintegration and made it a thing for tourists to gape at and peasants to pray to.” 

In Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers called things by their names, told it as she saw it, for those who wanted to see and hear. 

My favorite book from Pamela L. Travers is truly Moscow Excursion (along of course with the Mary Poppins books.)  Her voice sounds so authentic and young and rebellious and feisty. In her later writings that voice morphs into one of resilience and endurance in the face of life. And that makes me sad… 

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part I)

Mary Poppins in Moscow

Few people know that the first book ever written by Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was not Mary Poppins but Moscow Excursion. And it was not a story about magic but a travelogue about her not so magical discoveries of Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932 (at that time Pamela was in her early thirties).  

The book is composed of letters addressed to some unknown friend whom I personally suspect to have been her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE).  Extracts from these letters were published in The New English Weekly in 1933 and the book was published in 1934 by the Soho publisher Gerard Howe 

At the very beginning of Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers confides that her entourage was quite flabbergasted by her decision to travel to Russia.

My forthcoming trip seems to be either the Chance of a Lifetime or a Piece of Utter Recklessness.” And she adds: “Nobody, it appears, can conceive that a person who is admittedly neither for nor against the Soviet regime should want to go there. And it is an acid comment upon the Communist State that both sides are at one in their conviction that it is impossible for anyone to go to Russia for purposes of enjoyment.  

So, was it for her personal enjoyment or was there some other reason for her trip to Russia? This she does not discuss in Moscow Excursion. But, if one carefully reads the facts chronicled in her biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote, it appears, somewhere in between the lines, that at that particular time in her life she was trying to establish herself as a serious writer (or what she believed a serious writer should be). Until then Pamela L. Travers was publishing the occasional poem in the Irish Statesman (whose editor was her beloved mentor George W. Russell) and she was a contributing drama critic for the Australian magazine The Triad. Her initial aspirations of becoming a great poet were withering with time. The romantic/erotic poems of her twenties were not infused with the timeless sensibility expressed by the great poets she admired  

Her biographer Valerie Lawson reports that in the late 1931 Pamela L. Travers sent two poems to George W. Russell only to receive a polite rejection. He wrote to her that the poems were “well phrased but a little artificial in comparison with others of yours. You say they are simple. Yes, simple in expression but I feel they are artificial beneath that. You seem to have a hankering for Biblical symbolism which I doubt is natural. Quality is the thing my dear, not quantity. This must have been disappointing… 

(By the way, Biblical references find their way in Moscow Excursion but that will be explored in the following posts on this blog.) 

The political atmosphere in Europe in the early thirties of the last century was disrupted by the rise of the fascist and communist regimes, as described in Pamela L. Travers’s own words: 

In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer (herself) prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made. But it is a desolate alternative, for Communism in Russia is for one class of the community only and thus is hardly on bowing terms with Communism as defined in the dictionaries. 

Significantly interesting fact, visits to Russia appear to have been somewhat of a trend among the constellation of renowned intellectuals Pamela L. Travers orbited around. The writer/poet Hubert Buttler, a friend of George W. Russell went to Russia in 1931. Another influential intellectual of that time who was also a contributing writer to The Irish Statesman, George Bernard Shaw, traveled to Russia where he personally met with Stalin. Shaw wrote about his observations of the Soviet State in a most positive light and it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers had read his praise for the communist regime before undertaking her own trip to Russia. 

The idea of writing political articles with the intent of establishing herself as a serious journalist could very well have been the major motivation for her visit to Russia. According to her biographer a year after her visit to Russia Pamela approached Russel for “names and phone numbers of contacts for a series of articles on Irish politics which she planned to sell to Australian magazines. Pamela was unhappy with the result.”  Even Russell told her that writing political articles was a complicated matter. I believe that she would have been a great political reporter judging by what she wrote in Moscow Excursion. I can’t help but think that the real reason for her not succeeding in the endeavor was because she was a woman, although she had said in interviews to have never felt cast aside because of her gender. But then again, she published under the name P. L. Travers….  It was also in the autumn of 1933 that Pamela L. Travers asked Russell to introduce her to his friend Alfred Richard Orage the editor of The New English Weekly where the extracts from her letters were first published. Her contribution to The New English Weekly span from 1933 to 1949, but she mainly wrote about theater, books and films.   

Pamela L. Travers was apparently so eager to find her place as a writer that even her serious health issues could not stop her. In the early 1932, the same year of her Russian trip, she had to stay in a sanatorium because of a tuberculosis infection, a condition that without any doubt must have caused her deep feelings of anxiety. Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that starting in her late twenties Pamela began to experience serious bouts of anxiety which escaladed to sheer feelings of dread. Going through serious health issues must have only exacerbated her mental condition.  

In the light of these circumstances her decision to undertake a long trip to a controversial country can be viewed as a personal affirmation of her determination and zest both for life and writing A young woman travelling alone in a dangerous foreign country, the idea must have appealed to her romantic, adventurous mind.     

But was it that dangerous to travel to Russia in 1932? According to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, it was not: “The journey was in fact a carefully packaged experience with little risk. Pamela traveled with a party of English tourists herded about in boats, trains and museums by a guide following a strict schedule. This organized tour was to take Pamela L. Travers to Leningrad-Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  

The trip might not have been extremely perilous but it was definitely not devoid of risks. Pamela L. Travers strayed away a few times from her appointed group of tourists and the tourist guide to go and explore Russia on her own. She wrote: 

I never go out by myself without being told by a guide where I have been. How is it done? Have I a special bit of the Cheka to myself. And which is he –or she? The woman in the tram yesterday carrying one of those eiderdown bags which (judging from the faint muffled protests one hears coming from within) contain slowly suffocating babies? Or the man who was knocked down by an ambulance and left on the road to die or recover as he wished? It is no good explaining to Intourist that I have friends here and letters of introduction and that anyway even if I hadn’t I should want to be alone sometimes. That to them is the worst of evils. A good Bolshevik never wants to be alone. 

However, before I tell more about her Russian adventures I must share a most interesting and contemporary piece of information.  While I was trying to find a copy of Moscow Excursion (which was not easy but proved to be possible) I stumbled on a YouTube video posted by Pushkin House in 2017, The Russian Travels of Pamela Travers: A Talk by Olga Maeots. The video is a recording of a conference given by Olga Maeots , a Russian librarian and translator, who  in 2016 published a Russian annotated translation of Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion.  I was amazed! Olga Maeots performed an incredible investigative feat and succeeded in identifying the people whose identity Pamela L. Travers willingly disguised in her book by only identifying them by single letters: T, Z, V.   

It is perhaps necessary to stress the fact that the characters in the book are all synthesized personages and that I have studiously given fictitious initials for names throughout. So that should anyone, slipping among the paragraphs, imagine that he has come face to face with himself, I take this opportunity of courteously assuring him that he is mistaken. It is always someone else.   

Was this a safety precaution on Pamela L. Travers’s part? Maybe, some of the characters she met in her book were persecuted shortly after. And maybe her reasons for mystifying the identity of the characters were of a totally different nature. Regardless, I believe that Pamela L. Travers, wherever she might be in the beyond, is pleased with Olga Maeots‘s work. I will tell you more about Maeots’s discoveries and about Pamela L. Travers’s adventures in Russia in the following post on this blog.  

Hope you stay tuned!

Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part III)

Grimm Fairy Tales

Pamela L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins for those who are not familiar with this blog) believed that all female archetypes were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales and that any woman in need of a female role model could find hers in these tales.  

Today we’ll explore the fairy tales of The Goose Girl and All Fur (Allerleirauh) along with Pamela L. Travers’s interpretations of these stories.  

Again, just like in the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, the major theme in The Goose Girl and All Fur is the process of maturation of the main characters from helpless little girls into fully blossomed maidens. However, each story describes a distinctive pattern of psychological development with its corresponding stumbling blocks depending on the particular family circumstances of each of the female characters.  

The Goose Girl 

The story tells us, right from the start, that the Queen is old and her husband dead for many years, suggesting that the young princess is fulfilling the role of the companion in the Queen’s life 

The time comes when the young princess must leave her mother and travel to a distant kingdom to marry her fiancé. Before she leaves, the Queen provides her with a chambermaid, a horse that can speak and a handkerchief with three drops of the Queen’s own blood. The princess puts the handkerchief into her bosom, a gesture symbolizing her need for protection and also, a clear indication for those who listen to the story, that the princess is not ready to face the outside world on her own.  

Unfortunately, the princess loses the handkerchief on the way to her fiancé’s kingdom, and when she arrives at destination, her identity is already stolen by the evil chambermaid who marries the prince. The true princess is given the task of tending the royal geese by the old king who notices her beauty and takes pity on her. 

Falada, the talking horse is killed because the evil chambermaid is afraid that the truth might come out. The head of the horse is nailed on the wall of the gateway through which the princess, now Goose Girl, passes every day with her geese; and every time she passes through the gate the dead horse laments itself: Dear princess, is that you really there? Oh, if your mother knew, her heart would break in two! 

One day, the boy who tends the geese with Goose Girl, complains to the old King about the strange lamentations of the dead horse. The old King takes the matter in his hands and reestablishes justice: Goose Girl‘s true identity is revealed and she marries the prince. 

According to Pamela L. Travers, Goose Girl is “a passive heroine to whom good fortune seems to happen through no connivance of their own“. (She included Cinderella in that category too.) But their passivity is only apparent. ” Goose Girlwould still be tending geese if it were not that she could understand the prescient lamentations of her dead horse Falada.”  

In my view, Pamela L. Travers‘s interpretation is only partially accurate. I wish it was possible for me to discuss this with her but then maybe she would not have been pleased to be contradicted… 

The horse’s lamentations, I agree with Pamela, are the embodiment of the lesson Goose Girl needs to learn in order to become a fully-grown woman However, Pamela L. Travers’s conclusion about Goose Girl’s ability to understand Falada’s message is wrong 

Goose Girl remains a passive victim until the very end of the story, unable to cross the threshold into womanhood, precisely because she is unable to understand Falada’s message. In order to uncover the essence of this story, I believe one must ponder on the cause of this inability. 

In my opinion, The Goose Girl is an allegory of a co-dependent relationship between a mother and her daughter. The story vividly illustrates the inability of the enmeshed daughter to grow and lead an independent life of her own.  The mother’s love in this case is disempowering and causes the daughter’s misfortunes.  

All Fur (Allerleirauh) 

This is a story about incest and its devastating effects on a young girl’s psyche.  

The Queen dies and the King decides to marry his own daughter who reminds him of his lost wife. The night before the wedding, the princess Allerleirauh puts on a fur coat made from the skins of many different animals, covers her face and hands with dirt and runs away from her father’s kingdom. She brings with her, folded in a nut, three beautiful dresses: one that shines like the sun, one silvery as the moon, and one that sparkles as bright as the stars. She also takes the three gifts she has received from her fiancé, the king of the neighboring kingdom: a golden ring, a little golden spinning wheel, and a little golden reel. 

The princess falls asleep in the forest where her fiancé happens to be out hunting. His huntsmen find her and take her to the castle where she is ordered to work in the kitchen.  At night, before the king goes to bed, she must go upstairs and pull off his boots. The king, of course does not recognize his bride and amuses himself by throwing his boots at her head. And so, she leads a miserable life for a long time.   

Eventually a ball is held in the castle and the princess dresses in her beautiful gowns and goes off to dance with the king. After the dance she must go back to the kitchen and prepare the soup for the king’s supper. Then, she intentionally drops one of his gifts into the soup. So, it goes for three nights, a dance and a bowl of soup where the king finds the gifts he has given to his destined bride. As expected, the king summons Allerleirauh and asks her “Who are you and what are you doing in my castle? Where did you get the ring (the wheel and the reel) that was in the soup?” To which she responds: “I’m nothing but a poor child whose mother and father are dead. I am nothing and no good for nothing except for having boots thrown at my head. I also know nothing about the ring (the wheel).” The third night of the ball the king slips a ring on Allerleirauhs finger without her noticing it. Once more, at the end of the dance, Allerleiraugh  runs away  and changes back into her dirty attire and prepares the kings meal in which she drops the golden reel. This time the king is convinced that the person who put the reel in his soup is his bride. He summons Allerleirauh who tries to run off but the king sees the ring on her finger and tares off the ugly fur coat and the true identity of Allerleirauh is discovered.  

Reading the story, I wondered why didn’t Allerleirauh look for shelter in the arms of her fiancé right from the start? Why didn’t she abandon her disguise once she was out of her father’s kingdom? Why didn’t she tell her fiancé what happened?  

The answer is given by Allerleirauh herself: I am nothing and no good for nothing except for having boots thrown at my head.”  

And why would she feel so unworthy of love and respect? The story suggests that she felt responsible for her father’s actions, she felt dirty and deserving of severe punishment. To heal her wounded soul, she needed her fiancé to recognize her worth underneath all that animal disguise. 

Pamela put Allerleirauh in the category of the heroic roles. ” …and Allerleirauh, who to escape the concupiscent advances of her father put of her regal habiliments and became – until her true condition was discovered – a lowly kitchen maid.  

Allerleiraugh’s fate is indeed tragic and her escape as well as her desire to be rescued heroic.  However, there is more about this story than what Pamela L. Travers wrote

Her interpretations of The Goose Girl and All Fur lack depth. Clearly, she did not realize that both Goose Girl and All Fur are two girls who undergo major identity crises caused by the poor parenting skills of their caregivers How could have she missed this aspect in the stories?  

For me, the fact that Pamela L. Travers interpreted stories which so obviously deal with the passage from childhood to womanhood without ever mentioning it and without seeing that the condition of the heroines was caused by the actions of their parents is conclusive of her own misunderstanding of her personal story.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers was unable to consciously make the link between her inner torments and her childhood experiences. I also believe that however traumatic and sad her experience of losing her father might have been, it was the unresolved conflict with her mother that was at the root of all her sufferings. 

Sadly, Pamela L. Travers never understood the nature of her inner torments. Just like Goose Girl and Allerleiraugh,  she needed help, but receiving the right help is never guaranteed in life as it is in the fairy tales.

Also, another very important detail that deserves to be mentioned here, the heroines in these fairy tales show signs that they are ready to receive the help, something I am not sure Pamela L. Travers was ready to do. (To be explored in future posts.) 

Maybe Pamela L. Travers’s advice to her friend (see Part I) could have been more accurate if she formulated it this way: Read the Grimm’s fairy tales in search of a pattern that corresponds to your childhood experience of your parents. Maybe the fairy tales can help you uncover the causes of your inner blocks. Maybe Pamela L. Travers needed to follow this advice too…

 

  

Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part II)

Grimm's Women II

 

Pamela L. Travers believed that all prototypes of womanhood were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or at least, that is what she wrote in her essay “Grimm’s Women”.   

To persuade her readers to accept her point of view she presents in her essay, albeit briefly, her interpretation of the meanings of a few of their stories. Like a dexterous magician, she masterfully shuffles the meanings of these stories to the point of presenting a seemingly knowledgeable standpoint.  But did she see that clearly into the meanings of these stories?  

In order to answer this question a careful examination of Pamela L. Travers’s understanding of the meanings of the fates of the female characters in these fairy tales is required. I believe that Pamela’s appreciation of these stories can give us an indication about how she might have experienced her own womanliness.   

It is true that the Grimm’s fairy tales date back to a time when the roles of women and their living conditions were much different from our current ways of living. And yet, despite our technological and scientific discoveries and social advancements, the human dynamics depicted in these stories not only remain the same but they underlie all aspects of our modern lives.   

Now, I must admit (and I wrote about it in my last post) that I thought that Pamela’s advise to her friend to model herself on the Grimm’s women seemed quite peculiar. The Grimm’s princesses appear, for the most part, to be passive victims and what woman in her right mind would want to be a victim? But then I realized that the problem with these old fairy tales is that we all get side tracked by their most obvious interpretation. Yes, back then women were powerless and their survival depended greatly on men (and in many parts of the world today this is still true.) So, of course the fairy tales reflect the social reality of their times. However, if you peel off that first layer of meaning another one appears. The Grimm’s stories which Pamela examined in her essay can be separated into different categories depending on their major themes. There is the theme of the passage from childhood to maidenhood and theme of the passage from maidenhood to motherhood.   

From child to maiden  

The narrative in all of these fairy tales is about a female character in a psychologically dire situation. The obstacles that must be surmounted could potentially prevent the heroine’s passage from one stage of her life into the next. Another common element in these stories is the role played by the parental authority figures as the threshold guardians to the passage leading to maidenhood.   

I do agree with Pamela, now that I have read the Grimm’s fairy tales, that the Disney versions of these tales are quite superficial and do not take into account the psychological dynamics in play.   

Now let’s revisit the original versions of two of these stories:  Cinderella and Snow White, and ponder on Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of their meanings.  

Cinderella  

When I read the first English translation of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales I was amazed at how different the original Cinderella story was from the story most people know today. Surprisingly what is left out from the story is what I believe to be its most significant element, the key that allows to unlock its meaning.    

Just before she dies Cinderella’s mother makes a promise and a request. She promises Cinderella that she will look after her from heaven and then asks Cinderella to plant a tree. The tree, her mother tells her will give Cinderella everything she wishes for, all she has to do is to shake it. After her mother dies, Cinderella plants a tree on her grave and waters it with her tears. Then, eventually, her father remarries and from that point on in the story he disappears from the narrative.   

As we all know, Cinderella is forced by her stepmother and stepsisters to do the heavy chores around the house, which she accepts without complaining (and without shaking the tree). Then, the time comes in the fairy tale when the prince must find a bride. A ball, which is to last three nights is organized for that purpose and Cinderella’s sisters are attending. Not only is Cinderella left behind, but before the stepsisters leave, they throw lentils in the hearth and order Cinderella to separate them from the ashes. Unexpected help comes in the form of white pigeons who also encourage Cinderella to go to the tree and ask to go to the ball.   

Cinderella follows their advice and shakes the tree making her plea: “Shake and wobble little tree! Let beautiful clothes fall down to me“.  Beautiful clothes and a carriage appear and Cinderella goes to the ball and dances all night with the prince.  The third night of the ball the prince wants to make sure Cinderella does not escape him when midnight strikes, so he paints the stairs of the castle with black pitch and posts guards on the road. But again, Cinderella runs away, only this time one of her golden shoes (not glass!) remains stuck on the stairs of the castle.  The prince announces that he will marry the maiden who fits the shoe. The two evil sisters try to force their feet into the small shoe by following their mother’s advise. One sister cuts off a piece from her heel, the other cuts of her toes and each time the prince brings them back because their bloody deceit is uncovered. Then Cinderella must try the shoe… well we all know how that ends.  

Now, what did Pamela write in her essay about Cinderella? She wrote: “Cinderella, in Grimm’s at least is wise enough to know that nothing is to be got by wishing. It is only by performing the necessary rites at her mother’s grave that she goes to the Prince’s ball.”  

What?   

What is, according to Pamela the feminine prototype embodied by Cinderella? What should a woman who wants to model herself to Cinderella do? What proper rites must she perform?   For one thing Pamela was right though, nothing can be achieved simply by wishing.   

Clearly Pamela’s convoluted interpretation does not unveil the meaning of the story but it is articulated around its key element: the relationship between Cinderella and her mother.  

Cinderella’s story is a story about the blooming of an orphan child into a beautiful confident woman. I believe that Cinderella’s story teaches us that the successful transition from childhood to womanhood is closely linked to the quality of the nurturing a little girl receives from her mother at the very early stages of her life.  

In this story both the mother’s promise and the tree symbolize the healthy bond between a mother and her daughter and the life-giving force of the mother even from the beyond. The story is truly about the most important gift a mother can give to her daughter: a strong sense of self-worth.  

It is this early imprint of self-worth that allows the young Cinderella to outstand the attacks of the outside world. Her mother’s love taught her that she deserves to be loved regardless of her condition. Cinderella is resilient and patient but when the opportunity knocks on her door she rises up to cease it and all this is possible because of the love she received from her mother. She doesn’t tell herself things like:  I am not worth it! It is impossible, so why even bother? My stepsisters are right I am ugly and dirty!  The Prince will never pay any attention to me, why would he?

Judging by what she wrote about Cinderella, it is obvious that Pamela did not fully understand the meaning of the story. This fact is not the least surprising. Pamela’s bond to her mother was severed early in her life (See blog post Pamela L. Travers’s  First Gods (Part II)) and this may have been the cause of the inner torments and physical ailments she experienced until the very end of her log life.

Snow White 

Another surprise here too. The original story is about a narcistic Queen and her beautiful little daughter. It is not the stepmother who wants to kill Snow White but her real mother. When Snow White turns seven years old, her mother orders a huntsman to kill her. 

The huntsman takes pity on the little girl and leaves her in the forest where he believes she will be devoured by the wild animals. Instead, Snow White finds her way to the house of the seven dwarfs who offer her shelter in exchange for her help around the house. Eventually the Queen finds out that Snow White is living with the seven dwarfs in the seven mountains and decides to go there and kill her herself. She makes three attempts on Snow White’s life and each time her disguises allow her to deceive Snow White.

The first time she pretends to sell laces and laces Snow White’s dress so tight that Show White loses consciousness. In the evening when the dwarfs return home they untie the lace and Snow White recovers her breath. The second time the evil Queen combs Snow White’s hair with a poisonous comb but again, the dwarfs find it and remove it and Snow White is safe one more time. The third time the Queen makes a poisonous apple. This time Snow White cannot be helped. The dwarfs build a glass coffin and write Snow White’s name on it in golden letters. Time passes but unexplainably Snow White remains fresh and beautiful in her glass coffin. One day a prince comes into the dwarfs’ house and falls in love with dead Show White. The dwarfs let the prince carry her to his castle. The prince, infatuated with Show White, orders his servants to carry her everywhere he goes. One time, one of the servants gets really upset with the absurdity of the situation, opens the coffin and shakes Show White. The poisonous piece of the apple pops out of her mouth and Snow White becomes the prince’s bride.   

What did Pamela L. Travers have to say about this female heroine?  Not much: “...before becoming a candidate for Happy Ever After  (she) had to surmount inordinate obstacles.” Fine, but what are the obstacles Pamela?  

In this story the mother hates her daughter and does all she can to destroy her. Snow White in her child’s innocence cannot protect herself even if the dwarfs warn her about the evil ways of her mother. The child is prevented from maturing and crossing over the threshold to maidenhood because she is unable to truly recognize the meanness of her mother. Snow White is not awaken from her unconscious state by the prince’s love but by the servant’s anger. The prince’s love was not enough to heal the damage caused by the evil Queen. Snow White needed to be shaken in order to awaken. It comes a time in everyone’s life when one must see people (including and especially family members) for what they are and not what they look like they are, or what one wants them to be, this is the adult way. To disengage from an unhealthy relationship, one must first be able to see it for what it is.   

What fascinates me personnaly is the fact that despite all the life shaking events in Pamela L. Travers’s life nothing seems to have succeeded in totally awakening her to life. It is significant that the fairy tale that appealed the most to her was the tale of Sleeping Beauty.  Another story of girl stuck at the threshold to maidenhood and unconscious of all the gifts bestowed upon her by the good fairies at her christening. Pamela  even wrote her own retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty which I examined in detail on this blog see: About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, II, III, IV, V and VI.  

In conclusion to this post, I must point out that to a certain extend Pamela L. Travers was right, the fairy tales can teach us about womanhood however, it is not a question of modelling oneself to the characters as she believed, as it is a question of understanding the patterns of human emotion and behaviour in play in these tales and use them as road maps.  

In my next post I will continue exploring Pamela L. Travers’s analysis of the Grimm’s tales: Goose Girl, All Fur, The Twelve Princesses and Rapunzel. Hope you stay tuned.