As a young child, Pamela L. Travres believed in magic; as an adult, she wrote about it.
As a young child, she believed that everything was possible; as an adult, she deemed nothing was to be expected from life.
As a young child, she believed in God; as an adult, she practiced a more impersonal cosmic oriented spirituality.
The reasons for theses drastic changes in her outlook on life will be explored in future posts. For now, let’s concentrate on her childhood experience of magic.
Pamela L.Travers was the oldest of three children. Her younger siblings occupied most of her mother’s time while Pamela was dispatched to her great aunt Ellie (the inspiration of the Mary Poppins character) and to other friends and relatives. As for her father, he struggled with his alcohol addiction, a battle which cost him his life.
Pamela was a lonely child, misunderstood, and often cast aside by her parents. She always knew her mother favoured her sister Biddy, the prettiest one, and she secretly hoped to be her father’s favourite.
Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that Pamela found solace in books. Stories stirred her soul, and the first stories she heard came from the washerwoman of the household, Matilda, who was notorious for telling the “Grims.”
As soon as Pamela learned to read (at the early age of three or four), she discovered that “Grims” was not a generic word for narrative but a collection of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. And were a collection of two volumes, “squat, red, sturdy volumes, coarse of paper, close of print, discovered in my father’s bookcase.”
Now, I don’t know if you are familiar with the folk stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, I am only discovering them now, and let me tell you, they are grim and sometimes downright bizarre: a nightmare kind of bizarre or subconscious waters bizarre.
Children cannot easily grasp the meaning of these folk stories. And, even as adults, we can find the task difficult. To understand folk stories and myths, one needs to have accumulated at least some life experience.
Pamela held that: “Fairy -tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey.”
That might be so; however, young children are incapable of understanding patterns of human behaviour, even less so when they are expressed in metaphors. Pamela admitted that she was left to deal with the “Grims” as well as she could:
“…I seem to remember that I was grateful for books that did not speak to my childishness, books that treated me with respect, that spread out the story just as it was – Grimm’s fairy-tales for instance- and left me to deal with the matter as well as I could.”
Pamela fancied the idea that “children have strong stomachs” and that they can handle “the unbowdlerized truth of the fairy tales” . I lovingly disagree with her. Young children are not equipped to understand metaphors and allegories. Thus, when she read the Brothers Grimm, she wasn’t equipped either.
It is quite possible that her knowledge of fairy-tales and myth, acquired later in her life, influenced her recollection of her early reading experience. Scientific research indicates that memories are not stored somewhere in our brain but reconstructed each time, and that with each reconstruction we alter the structure of the memory. How exactly we reconstruct the memories is still a mystery, but it appears that our knowledge influences our recollection. We alter memories to reflect our current understanding of the recollected circumstances.
Nevertheless, these folk-tales had a strong imprint on Pamela’s fertile imagination and it is probably because of this early experience that later in her life she wrote:
Those who have heard the fairy-tales have a very different understanding of what they hear from those who have only read them. As a child listens, the story goes in simply as a story. But there is an ear behind the ear which conserves meaning and gives it out much later. It is then that the listener, if he is lucky, understands the nature of the dragon, the necessity of the hero’s labors and who it is that lives happily ever after.
She admits that the meaning of these stories was revealed to her many years later, under the mentorship of George Russel (AE). And, what is notable is that after his death, she spent the rest of her life studying myths and fairy tales.
Luckily for us, when Pamela, in her later writings, slightly opened the door to her childhood, she allowed us a few glimpses of the inner workings of her imaginative little head; glimpses that appear to have remained authentic and unaltered by her life experience. And what’s more: these recollections prove exactly my point! Back then she was not equipped to interpret the information she was ingurgitating so avidly through her reading. Everything was taken literally on its first level of meaning, which is quite charming and endearing.
This is how Pamela described the dynamics of her inner child: “By putting two and two together – fragments of talk and his own logic -he (the child) will fashion the themes for himself.” And this is how she solved this mathematical equation:
Go and play, children” Grown-up talk was not for our ears. Therefore, since like all children we were natively scandalmongers, we lusted eagerly after it. So, we crept back, whenever we could, to hear how they lived in that other world – how for instance Major “Bingo” Battle had a habit of lifting his elbow, which mysteriously was why he was so often seen holding on to tree or fence as he staggered along the road; how Mrs. Scott-Campbell’s baby not being wanted by Mrs. Scott-Campbell – the nods and becks made it clear to us- was not allowed to be born; we thought of that infant with commiseration, sitting forever in its cramped dark place, no exit allowed to it through Mrs. Scott-Campbell’s navel; how Mr. Farquhar “wasted his substance away”, and yet, to our eyes, grew not thinner but fatter. And how Mrs. Quigley’s broken heart had to do with a fair-haired soldier whose portrait hung on her drawing room wall. Crack! Like a Dresden cup it fell; we could almost hear it shattering against the wall of her bosom.
One of them (talking about one of her great aunts), it was said – or rather, it was whispered, the rumour being so hideous – one of them lived on her capital. What was capital, I wondered, wild with conjecture, full of concern. And the dreadful answer came bubbling up – it was herself, her substance. Each day she disappeared to her room, it was not to rest, like anyone else, but secretly to live on her person, to gnaw, perhaps a toe or a finger or to wolf down some inner organ.
Well, believing that a baby is trapped in a dark whole without any hope of ever seeing the light, or imagining her aunt eating her bodily parts must have been a profoundly terrifying experience. And reading the “Grims” and other apparently dark writings (Twelve Deathbed Scenes and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwepeter) only increased her fears. At night, Pamela watched the shadows climb up the walls and slip along the ceiling and listened to the old house’s noises. She imagined that a cruel army captain was hidden behind the bedroom door, scraping the wall with a pencil. Her mother’s reassurances were lost on her. Pamela’s mind was filled with the most frightening monsters and creatures.
Pamela wrote once that she might have taken away her anxiety by taking the questions to her parents. They could have explained things as they are but she didn’t. She seems to imply that it was by choice; she didn’t want a rational explanation because she liked her own world, “this world is infinite, the sun shines up from the abyss as well as down from the sky, the time is always now and endless and the only way to explain a thing is to say that it cannot be explained.”
And then she goes on and adds:
“I am glad, therefore, to have kept my terror whole and thus retained a strong link with the child’s things-as-they-are, where all things relate to one another and all are congruous.”