This blog post begins the exploration of Pamela L. Travers’s beliefs about womanhood. According to her biographer, Pamela L. Travers loved the threefold concept of the Mother Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. For that reason, Lawson cleverly organized Pamela L. Travers’s biography in three parts: The Nymph (1899-1934), The Mother (1934-1965), The Crone (1965-1996).
Although, I doubt that Pamela spent much time pondering on how this progression from one stage to the other occurred in a woman’s life. She wrote in her short essay “Grimm’s Women” “that the mere fact of having been born on the side of Yin was sufficient. A woman was what you inevitably, and willingly, became as the seed becomes a flower“.
Well, this assertion clearly implies that Pamela believed in a naturally unfolding process of maturation comparable to the blooming of a flower or the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Human’s growth though is not linear nor smooth. The natural aging of the body does not necessarily equate to a mature mind and heart. Many factors in a woman’s life can prevent a healthy maturation. And it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers’s own maturation process was interrupted by painful childhood experiences such as the early and sudden death of her father and her mother’s suicide attempt.
In her essay “Grimm’s Women” Pamela recounts being caught up in the street by a female acquaintance who wanted to learn how to be a woman, so she asked Pamela for advice. After a brief introspection, Pamela responded “Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales“ and then, without any further explanation, left her acquaintance standing, flabbergasted, on the corner of the street.
At first, knowing about Pamela L. Travers’s childhood, this response did not surprise me. Pamela was brought up (or more accurately brought herself up) on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and kept a lifelong love for their collection of folk tales. References of these tales appear time and time again in her essays and interviews.
However, reading the essay (which is only 3 pages) felt like trying to snorkel in murky waters. What was Pamela L. Travers trying to communicate to the reader? I could read the words, and although they read like there was some sense in them, I couldn’t figure out the message. Was she trying to articulate in a poetic fashion that there were many different ways of being a woman? That was not a satisfactory response for me. But then I thought, if this essay was first published in The New York Times then maybe the reason for my incomprehension was my lack of knowledge of the Grimm’s tales. So, I decided to educate myself and cross over from the Disney Hemisphere of the World into the Old World of the original Fairy Tales.
Luckily for me there was only one available edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in my local book store. I say luckily because if there was another one with a prettier cover I would have chosen it over the one I ended up buying, and I would have probably ended up with the seventh edition of these tales. It turns out, the Brothers Grimm, mostly one of them, Wilhelm kept adding and modifying the tales that were first published in 1812. So, this is how I accidently bought the first translation in English of the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The collection of folk tales in this edition is probably the truest one to the oral tradition which the Brothers Grimm wanted to preserve, at least at the beginning of their project. (The story of the brothers Grimm is also interesting but that is another subject.)
This of course means that I did not read the exact versions which Pamela read as a child and reread later on in her life. This first English translation of the first edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales was undertook in 2012, some 16 years after Pamela’s death, but that doesn’t change much for the purposes of this post. (I know Pamela would have loved to read it.) And besides, even after six more editions the Grimm fairy tales remain renowned for their grimness.
Most people know the Disney versions of only a hand full of the Grimm’s stories and these new versions are largely sanitized for entertaining purposes. All of the original violence is completely left out. Pamela disliked the inflation of the animal world in the Disney animated cartoons and the corresponding deflation of the human impulses depicted in these stories.
However, these tales are not and were not specifically meant for children. The folk tales were something of a house tale, people would recite them in social gatherings.
The Brothers Grimm relied on many people to bring these stories to them and the surprising (at least to me) fact is that many of these stories were told to the brothers by women, some from aristocratic families and other simple peasants. Why is it surprising?
Because in most of these stories the violence is more often than not directed towards women. For the most part the princesses (the maidens) in these fairy tales are passive victims, betrayed by their own parents or by an evil stepmother, waiting to be saved by a valiant prince. Even the ones that have more active roles in the stories somehow end up naked in a forest or a cave and must endure incredible trials in total silence under penalty of death, and for what? For the sake of saving lost brothers or to get back lost lovers. Yes, some of the princes in these stories forget their princesses and get a second bride.
I know that Pamela preached that fairy tales should be experienced in order to grasp their true meaning but isn’t it a strange advice to tell a woman to model herself on the female heroines of the Grimm’s stories? Either you remain a passive victim and hope for rescue or you chose the evil side and die in dire pain.
I believe these tales to be descriptive of human dynamics and also of hopes for justice in life but they no longer apply to the realities of modern women. This is why there are so many new adaptations of these stories in movies and books.
There are only 2 stories out of 156 about intelligent women. The story of The Clever Farmer’s Daughter in which an intelligent woman of lower ranking becomes the king’s wife but then almost gets killed by her husband when he realizes that she might be even smarter than him. And then there is the story of the lazy wife, The Lazy Spinner, who dislikes spinning yarn and finally gets her own way by outsmarting her husband. If I had to model myself to any of the Grimm’s Women these would be my chosen examples. But Pamela never spoke of those. (Maybe they were not included in the seventh edifion, I will have to verify…) She spoke of other heroines and they will be the subject of the next post on this blog. Hope you stay tuned.