The world of Mary Poppins is a whimsical place where inanimate objects come alive and animals talk, where stars come down to Earth and children go up in the sky, or deep down in the ocean. A world where Kings climb on rainbows and cows dance to exhaustion, where people laugh so hard that they fly up to the ceiling, and where fictional characters come out of the pages of their books. Everything in this magical universe imagined by P.L. Travers is alive and endowed with consciousness. It is so vivid and vibrant with life that it begs a question. How did she conceive of it?
Of course, P.L. Travers’s spiritual inclinations play an important part in her creative process but there is something else. There is something particular in these stories that resonates with young children (and with our inner child, if we let it). What is it?
P.L. Travers did not keep it a secret. She said that she remembered herself as a child.
To be aware of having been a child – and who I am but the child I was, wounded scared and dirtied but sill essentially that child, for essence cannot change – to be aware of and in touch with this fact is to have the whole long body of one’s life at one’s disposal, complete and unfragmented.
I Never Wrote for Children, P.L. Travers 1978
P.L. Travers remembered how she perceived the world as a young child and how she explained it to herself. In some of her essays written in her old age and compiled in What The Bee Knows, she shared some childhood recollections and revealed, at least in part, young Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L. Travers’s real name); a deeply inquisitive child with great observational skills and adventurous temperament.
As young children we filter the world through our feelings and sensations and then we begin to apprehend it, from what psychologist term, an animistic point of view. For young children anything that moves is alive and thus capable of thoughts and emotions.
The first psychologist to come up with the concept of animism as a developmental stage in children’s cognitive development was Jean Piaget. He observed how his own children perceived the world and he remarked that they often attributed human emotions to inanimate objects. In a book I recently read, On Looking, the author Alexandra Horowitz gives examples of Piaget’s observations. She wrote that one of his daughters told him that “the sky is a man who goes up in a balloon and makes the clouds and everything and that another explained to him that the “sun goes to bed because it is sad” and that boats pulled out of the water are “asleep”.
Piaget believed young children were making an “animistic mistake”. Today psychologists believe that animism is an expression of the young child’s imagination that shows us the child’s understanding of the word. Simply, the child is making analogies with what she has learned so far about the world in order to elucidate a new experience.
P.L. Travers kept her childlike ability to perceive the surrounding world in animistic terms and that allowed her to create a world relatable for young children. This ability is displayed in some of the descriptions in the Mary Poppins stories. Here are a few examples.
All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps.
John and Barbara’s Story, Mary Poppins (1934), P.L. Travers
The pendulum of the Nursery clock swung backwards and forwards like an old lady nodding her head.
Tick -Tack! Tik-tock!
Then the clock stopped ticking and began to whir and growl, quietly at first and then more loudly, as though it were in pain. And as it whirred it shook so violently that the whole mantelpiece trembled.
Bad Wednesday, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers
The summer day was hot and still. The cherry trees that bordered the Lane could feel their cherries ripening – the green slowly turning to yellow and the yellow blushing red.
The houses dozed in the dusty gardens with their shutters over their eyes. “Do no disturb us!” they seemed to say.
Every Goose a Swan, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers
It was a Round-the-Mulberry-Bush sort of morning, cold and rather frosty. The pale grey daylight crept through the Cherry Trees and lapped like water over the houses. A little wind moaned through the gardens. It darted across the Park with a whistle and whined along the lane.
“Brrrrrr!” said Number Seventeen. “What can be that wretched wind be doing -howling and fretting around like a ghost! Hi! Stop that, can’t you? You are making me shiver!”
The Other Door, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), P.L. Travers
The Mary Poppins stories regaled me a great deal as a child. I enjoyed the fantastical aspects precisely because I knew that things did not work quite the way they did in fairy tales. Although, many times I wish they did. Still, I knew, what happened in books remained in books. There was no confusion between the fictional reality and my own reality.
Today, as an adult reader of these stories, I have a quite different understanding. It turns out that the fictional reality of Mary Poppins is connected to our nonfictional everyday reality. What fascinates me now are the hidden meanings of the Mary Poppins adventures and the workings of P.L. Travers’s imagination.
But I still enjoy the descriptions in the books for the same reason I liked them as a child. I like how P.L. Travers creates an atmosphere of aliveness. Anything in the Mary Poppins world has the potential for interaction with its inhabitants. Anything can become a portal to another dimension of time and space.
And, all this thinking about the aliveness of the Mary Poppins world made me think about our own “ordinary” world and how it may appear dull in comparison. Yet, is it really less alive and beguiling than the magical one imagined by P.L. Travers? How much of the aliveness around us do we dismiss each day?
Just because animals and vegetation do not use human language it does not mean they do not communicate. And even if we know that inanimate objects do not have feelings we can still stop and notice what feelings they invoke in us. Could it be that by being oblivious to the aliveness of our surrounding world we become oblivious to our own aliveness?
It is unfortunate that so many of us lose the ability to wonder as life experience accumulates and familiarity sets in. The child that once was in a state of discovery ends up shut off from the mystery of the world. I recently came upon this quote from Einstein:
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all true science. Whoever does not know it, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.
The child you once were will show you marvels hidden in plain sight.