“Don’t you know that everybody’s got a fairyland of their own?”
Mary Poppins, The Day Out
What was Pamela L. Travers’s fairyland? As a child, Pamela was entranced by the fairy-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and in her mid-thirties, George W. Russel rekindled her interest in fairy-tales. Once the flame reignited, it burned until the very end of her life. The following quote from Pamela L. Travers expresses the importance of fairy-tales in her own life.
Later, like streams, they (the fairy-tales) run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting all this is a long process. It may perhaps take half a life-time and the few who come round to the tales again are those who are in luck.
Was she then in luck? Maybe she was, to a certain extend. And even though the fairy tales did not provide her with the answers to her existential questions, at least they provided her with an occupation to sooth her anxieties and fill the lonely hours of her existence. She escaped her ordinary everyday life in fairyland, the same place where she used to escape in her childhood from the coolness of her parents.
Since she had a fertile imagination and a gift for words, the fairy-tales provided her with a creative outlet that eventually won her an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters from the Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The previous year, she also received an OBE from the Queen, however, for the record, it must be told that she was not satisfied by her distinctions – she felt like she deserved more. Pamela wanted to be recognised as a serious scholar and not a writer of children’s literature.
Pamela L. Travers said that each woman can find her role model in the female characters, both good and evil, in the stories collected by the brothers Grimm. Hers, without a doubt, were the characters of Sleeping Beauty and the Wicked Fairy from the fairy-tale of the Sleeping Beauty. Pamela traces her fascination with the Wicked Fairy back to her childhood:
As a child, I had no pity for the jealous queen in ‘Snow White’ or the shifty old witch in ‘Rapunzel’. I could cheerfully consign all the cruel step mothers to their cruel fates. But the ill luck of the Wicked Fairy roused all my child’s compassion. She was in a sense a victim. For her alone there was no gold plate-all she could do was accept the fact.
Doesn’t this identification to a wicked character appear most intriguing? I find that it is. I intuit that maybe the cause for this is that Pamela (or little Helen Lyndon, her real name) felt like the victim in the family, the one always unjustly cast aside, the inadequate one, the one touched by the bad. These inner unprocessed thoughts of inadequacy transformed themselves throughout the years into deep feelings of anxiety and profound identity issues. Her lifelong search for herself explains her later interest in the character of Sleeping Beauty.
What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come at last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves? (…) something that falls asleep after childhood, something that not to waken would make life meaningless?
In 1965, Pamela L. Travers was invited as a writer-in-residence to Radcliff College (part of Harvard University) at Cambridge and it was during her residency there, in the Widener Library, that she started working on her book “About the Sleeping Beauty”. She spent her time poring over books of myth and fairy-tales and making connections. The book was finally published in 1975 and, disappointingly for Pamela, was trashed by the critics. Patricia Demers reports in her book P.L.Travers that some of the reviews were frankly hostile: “repetitious and windy…buried in self-infatuated blah” (“P.L.Travers’s About the Sleeping Beauty” Kirkus Review, 15 October 1975, 1202)
Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, concluded that “this book had been one for the insiders. Or perhaps for Pamela alone, a woman talking to herself.”
And although it is true that Pamela sometimes tended to write her essays in a hermetical manner, she was NOT talking to herself. Maybe the public was simply unable to understand her. Her retelling of Sleeping Beauty is based upon “Briar-Rose” (Dornrpschen) which is the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale. There is also an Afterword in which Pamela writes a comparative study of the Grimm’s version and four other versions from different countries and periods in time, namely: “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood” (La Belle au Bois Dormant), “Sun, Moon and Talia” (Sole, Luna e Talia), “The Queen of Tibber Tintye,” and the “Petrified Mansion.”
Now, back to Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The Grimm’s version is quite short compared to the detailed 45 pages of Pamela’s retelling.
Pamela L. Travers, in her retelling of the story, remains loyal to the original plot. The major differences, the ones that are easily identifiable from the start, are of form and detail around characters. First, the story is located somewhere in Arabia in the Court of the Sultan and Sultana. Pamela explained the reason for that change in the setting:
To begin with, I was at pains to give it a faraway setting – a vaguely Middle-Eastern world – to lift it out of its well worn rut. I needed to separate it from its attic clutter-the spinning wheel, the pointed witch cap and all the pantomime buffoonery – in order to see its meaning clear.
I fail to see how the meaning of the story becomes clearer by changing the setting. I think the reason for her choice has something to do with her guru Gurdjieff who himself came from the Middle-East and articulated his body of esoteric teachings around the theme of the sleeper. It is almost as if she believed that by setting it in a land of eastern wisdom tradition, the tale itself will be imbued with more wisdom.
Second, the Wise Women (the fairies) are depicted as futuristic aliens, at least this is the image I got when I read:
Not a sound did the Wise Women make as their bare feet of gold or silver floated, as is customary in the fairy world, some inches above the floor. The twelves figures seemed to hang in the air, their naked golden and silver heads gleaming above the swirling robes which were every colour of the rainbow.
This modification to the story is also explained by Pamela: “ It was to do away with their pantomime image and give them their proper weight and authority that our version provided the Wise Women with their hairless heads of gold and silver and made gods their golden and silver feet hover a little above the earth as the gods do on the Greek vases.
Ironically, in my opinion, it is her description of the Wise Women that makes them look like a pantomime image. And for me, it just felt discordant.
Why didn’t her editor say something? With these elements removed, maybe the critics would have been slightly gentler with her work. Or maybe not. They blamed her of using Jungian babble …. but I think she was using Gurdjieff language to express her inner state. The book is very interesting if one reads it with the intention of getting a better understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psyche. But if you are not interested in the inner workings of the author, it is not especially entertaining, although the descriptions are beautiful. Pamela L. Travers had a real talent for writing exquisite, lyrical descriptions of places and characters.