The Adventures of a Witch

AE Exhibition 4

This month’s blogpost is a guest post by Brian McKernan who has a specialist knowledge of George (AE) Russell – the literary mentor of P.L. Travers.

Brian says that although he had heard of AE since the days of his undergraduate Irish history tutorials, no-one seemed to be properly aware AE’s significance during the ‘birth of modern Ireland’ period. Within thirty years of AE’s passing, and across the following half century, AE became largely overlooked and regarded as a minor peripheral figure. Over the last four years Brian has played a central role in creating and developing an AE Group and the ‘AE Festival’ in Lurgan (Northern Ireland) where AE was born. Following the work of McKernan and his associates, the truth of this forgotten genius is once again beginning to be heard.

The group, known as The Lurgan & North Armagh George Russell Festival Society hold their festival in Lurgan each April to mark AE’s birth. The festival, which includes talks, walks, tours, creative workshops, exhibitions, school events and live music, has been developing at pace and aims to place AE back alongside some of the more readily recalled names in Irish history. The AE group have published articles and books on AE, created an active Facebook presence (AE Russell Appreciation Society – Lurgan), and have various local authorities now interested in supporting AE heritage. Plans for the creation of a large ‘AE Centre’ are currently at an early stage.

Brian McKernan’s post:

AE was a great believer in reincarnation and held that the ultimate purpose in life is perfection of the soul. Accordingly, he devoted himself to others, to society, to making the world a better place for everyone. He sought no fame, wealth or recognition for his brilliant talents and constant outpouring of good deeds.

My interest in Pamela Travers resulted from my research on AE. She made barely an appearance in my early studies – the chief AE biographer only giving her a passing mention at the end of his book, as a ‘young poetess who appointed herself his devoted nurse‘ when AE was dying. In hindsight, it is a wonder that I ever discovered the truth that Pamela and AE were immense friends from the time they met, up to his death, and for Pamela – across the following sixty years of her life. I have no doubt that both benefitted greatly from their mutual companionship, and now I sense that their bond is eternal.  As Pamela, a girl from so far away, became AE’s close friend in life, Lina (author of ‘The Mary Poppins Effect’) and I have reunited them in memory through our cross-Atlantic connection.

George William Russell, known simply as AE, was a benevolent genius who dedicated his life and energies to advancing a number of causes, in the main, related to the well-being of the people of Ireland. He did this through the Arts, Politics/Economics, the Co-operative movement, Social Reform, journalism, and his deep beliefs in the connectivity between the inner and outer worlds. And into this mix, in 1925, came a bright and lively young woman, who had more questions than answers, in her search for purpose, identity, love, home and success. AE loved unearthing, promoting and supporting new energetic and vibrant talent. Pamela was right up his street!

She was soon embraced by the Dublin literary scene,  where AE opened doors of opportunity for her both in London and America.  In the words of Pamela, “AE fished up friends for me from his inexhaustible cauldron.” AE understood that Pamela had an interest in mysticism and fairy tales long before she left Australia, so he helped her along the spirtual path and introduced her to the study of the spirit world, theosophy, mythology and Eastern Religions – all of which fascinated Pamela for the rest of her life.

AE liked her poetry and her Irish connection which was not just some romantic childhood fantasy. Her father’s parents were Irish, and he had been schooled in Ireland before eventually going to Australia. Pamela had relatives in Ireland, and she became acquainted with them when she visited AE in Dublin. After AE’s death, Pamela’s associations with Gurdjieff  and his followers can be seen as the continuum of the mystic elements she first explored with AE. 

Pamela was an exceptional person, determined and forthright, creative and intelligent, yet also delicate, unable to heal her childhood wounds, and searching for meaning in her life. AE was greatly impressed by her imagination and her fiercely rebellious nature. She was by no means an empty vessel into which he poured his ideas, but he had answers and directions which from the start helped her to explore and crystallise her core.

She was never his trainee or follower. He helped her. He connected with her. He raised her spirits and she raised his. Pamela admired AE, loved his company, and valued being educated by him. Such a warm and loyal mutuality grew between them that she became AE’s closest companion and comfort during his final days, taking charge of his personal affairs and final letters. She later wrote a beautiful piece about his passing, in ‘The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic’

Pamela  accompanied AE’s remains from England back to Ireland, and was at his side as the mile long procession of mourners walked from AE’s famous office in the heart of Dublin, to his burial place close to 17 Rathgar Avenue where he had lived for thirty years. A little later, grieving deeply, she went back to Ireland and spent six weeks in Donegal, staying where she and AE had holidayed, to absorb what lingered of his spirit there. This was a special coastal place, complete with a fairytale cottage, hidden in a deep wood which overlooked the scenic Marble Hill Strand, where AE loved to paint and write poetry, and where they had been able to be alone together. In ‘The Death of AE: Irish Hero and Mystic’ Pamela offers glimpses of this holiday:

I stayed with him often in his beloved Donegal, at Janie’s-on-the-Hill above Dunfanaghy – a white washed cottage where at night one would hear the cows moving about in their stalls below the attic bedroom and in the daytime Janie churning butter or clanging the lid of the iron cauldron that swung on a chain above the peat fire and in which everything was cooked: bread, meat, cake, soup. … From Janie’s, he would take me with him on his excursions to friends in the neighbourhood or to those parts of woodland or strand that set up in him the strongest vibrations. Was he intentionally educating me, I wondered! No matter: it was being done, with or without intent.

Ninety years later, I went in search of these places, no doubt drawn there by AE’s spiritual gravitation. I found Janie’s farmhouse, fully matching Pamela’s description. I walked through the bog looking for the boots  she had left behind after getting stuck in the mud on a walk with AE, and I climbed up the trees overlooking the strand. I asked at Janie’s for directions to the fairy house but was told that it had been removed after it had fallen into disrepair, and the stone reused elsewhere. Despite this setback, I wanted at least to stand at the site of this sacred oasis where Pamela had soaked up AE’s strongest vibrations following his death. I made my way into the woods to the general area and walked in every direction, stopping and stirring – searching for any clue to its original location. I was drawn to a clearing in the woods with fairytale trees – magically shaped, like no trees I had ever seen before.

Tree near the Fairy House

However far I went, in any direction, I kept returning to this spot, as a fixed point to guide me safely back out of the woods. After a most unsuccessful and tiring hour, I decided to take one last look from where I now stood. I would turn round, one full circle on this spot, and then give up my quest. Halfway round, and looking as carefully and intently as possible, I saw something that seemed to be out of place. It was something ‘blue’. AE’s favourite colour was blue, and this looked like his favourite shade of blue.

As I tried to focus on this through the wiry tangled thicket, what I saw began to resemble a post, perhaps an old direction sign. I pressed slowly forward trying to get closer to the sign, one difficult step after another, trying not to get too badly scraped by thorns. My eyes scanned the tangled mass of branches and briars to the left of the post, and as I neared, things suddenly began to appear which I had not seen from further back. Right in front of me was a metre high wall. I clambered around the post and recognised (from my memory of an old photograph) that the post and the wall were parts of the porch of the Fairy House. I had found  it, on my very last attempt, and as I forced my way closer so much more became clear. The roof had collapsed in on the building and some parts of the walls were missing. Although the forest had worked hard to gobble up this magical abode, I was able to clamber into the large room, examine the crumbling fireplace and peer out through a side window. I was completely alone, but bursting to share my discovery. I thought of AE and Pamela being here and wondered if they had somehow played a part in my finding – could this have been spiritual gravitation at play?

Fairy House

I took photographs of these places and sent some to Lina along with a brief account of my Donegal adventure. We exchanged a series of emails, back and forth between Canada and Ireland, in which we shared our knowledge of Pamela, the Mary Poppins books and AE . I found myself seeing more and more of AE and his connection with Pamela in the Mary Poppins books.

Although AE spent much of his time writing thousands of serious journalistic articles about society, political turmoil and economic issues, it is practically impossible to find one complete piece which is not warmly wrapped in a blanket of spiritual wonder and mystical magic. He was tremendously imaginative and creative, and whimsical beyond compare, and exceptionally witty.

Myriad hidden spiritual thoughts, talking objects, life within pictures and a oneness with nature, flowed effortlessly and constantly from his mind. AE helped Pamela to explore unknown possibilities and imaginations primarily in conversation across the ten years friendship which saw her become a highly respected writer. They also wrote numerous letters back and forth across the Irish Sea when they were not together.

In early 1932 AE suggested in a letter that she should write a fantastic tale about a young witch.

When you go to your Cottage drop me a postcard with the address of that abode of the vulture witch with her broomstick. It would be rather a nice subject for a fantastic tale of a young witch who found that by white magic the broomstick would fly as well as by the black art & she went here and there doing good deeds or looking at loveliness & wonders. So think over a tale which would use all your powers of fantasy ‘The Adventures of a Witch’ and it may be the idea for letting you say all you want to say.

I see so much of AE and Pamela in the characters of Bert and Mary Poppins. From their first outing in a short 1926 story, in which Mary is a young and inexperienced nanny and where the magic emanates from Bert the Matchman, to the end of the second Mary Poppins book, when Mary has transformed into an older, wiser, and self-assured magical figure, I see how Pamela herself had grown aided by her great friend AE. At the close of Mary Poppins Comes Back, completed shortly after AE’s death, Pamela creates a personal element of closure between herself and AE. In 1926, in the story Mary Poppins and the Match-Man and then in 1934 in the story The Day Out, they rode the Merry-go round together, she on a black horse and AE on a white one, but then in 1935, with him gone, Pamela (Mary Poppins)  rides alone on a dappled horse, possibly symbolising a shared spiritual unity. The text includes utterances denoting finality – ‘Never again! Never again!’ .. ‘If only we could have gone on forever!‘ .. Mary gazes down at the children – ‘Her eyes were strangely soft and gentle in the gathering dusk‘ (AE’s favourite time of day) and says for the second time that day ‘All good things come to an end.

Mary Poppins chooses a return ticket (which is a strange option for such a ride, but may well relate to AE’s deep belief in reincarnation) thoughtfully saying ‘You never know’. The Merry-go-round spins and rises up beyond the trees and soon a new star appears in the night sky. Could this new star be her AE? On the final page Pamela writes –‘And high above them the great shape circled and wheeled through the darkening sky, shining and keeping its secret for ever and ever and ever…

On one occasion, Lina asked me if I had any thoughts on who Pamela could have been referring to when she dedicated Mary Poppins Comes Back ‘To PIP This Keepsake’. I immediately swung into action, thinking this would be a nice puzzle to try solving. I noticed that Pamela had also written ‘P-p! P-p!‘ to describe the sound  made by  Mr Bank’s pipe and I was drawn to the similarity between ‘PIP’, pipe, and P-p. As AE was very much on Pamela’s mind during the writing and completion of the book I wondered if this could all relate to AE. I factored in my belief that Pamela used to refer to AE as ‘the matchman’ due to him constantly leaving a trail or puddle of spent matchsticks wherever he went or sat. This messy habit was common knowledge to all who knew him, and he even had to have a special supply of matches arranged in advance of going on holiday to an isolated location. AE was never without his pipe, and I suppose his two most noticeable features were always his marvellous beard and the pipe. Then I remembered how Pamela had been the one who had sorted through AE’s belongings after he died, and thought that the best keepsake she could possibly have would be his pipe, as I believe he had taken his beard with him to the grave. I think the answer lies within these thoughts and would love to ask Pamela if that is correct. Of course, I could not ask her, so instead I asked Lina, who appreciated my imaginative proposition.

Perhaps a light sprinkle of AE  and Pamela’s magical stardust helped me to discover the connection between them, and find my way to Lina’s blog. But if so, it may not be the first time this magic has come my way. Considering how I only really came across Pamela Travers through my uncommonly rigorous approach to studying AE’s life, I have recently discovered my own personal connection with her, which also links to AE. Remembering how  says, ‘Your own will come to you‘, I must tell you – the first poem AE published by Pamela was titled Christopher, and my son, named Christopher, was born on the very day  Pamela died – 23rd April 1996.

Midsummer’s Eve with Mary Poppins

Bulgarian Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

Cover illustration by Piers Stanford, 1994

Yesterday, as a celebration of the summer solstice, I read the Bulgarian translation of the fifth Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. The Bulgarian edition in my possession was published in 2004 and is translated by Anelia Ianeva.

It is Midsummer’s Eve and Mary Poppins takes the Banks children for an evening picnic in the park.

Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane

Illustration by Mary Shepard

There, in the furthest corner of the park, in the herb garden, they feast and dance with celestial constellations who have taken the shape of their appellations:  Orion, Castor and Pollux, the Bear, the Fox (or Vulpecula in Latin) named in the late 17th century by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, and the Rabbit (or Lepus in Latin), a constellation that was listed in the 2nd century by Ptolemy. PL Travers was interested in astrology and like a pastry chef fond of sugar, she sprinkled her Mary Poppins books with stars and constellations.

Mary Poppins celebration Midsummers Eve

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Down a lane in the park comes Ellen, the maid, strolling backwards with her eyes closed. She had put herbs under her pillow the night before and now is on her way to meet her true love.

Ellen the maid Mary Poppins

Illustration by Mary Shepard

The lonely Park Keeper decides, rather uncharacteristically, to try his luck. He follows suit only to bump into Mary Poppins. Afterall, opposites attract. What better match for a rigid man overly concerned with rules.

Mary Poppins and the Park Keeper

Illustration by Mary Shepard

The Bulgarian translation of the story, just like the translation of Mary Poppins, is loyal to the original text, but there is one interesting modification. Midsummer’s Eve is translated for the corresponding Bulgarian folk holiday Eniovden.

On Eniovden, according to old Bulgarian beliefs the celestial lights “go crazy”. At midnight, the sky opens and miracles happen. The stars descend on Earth and bathe in the cold waves of the sea. People gather herbs because on this day the herbs’ healing powers are at their peak. Young women perform divination rituals and put herbs under their pillows in the hope that their dreams will reveal their husbands-to-be. On Eniovden there is also a custom of making offerings of fresh cherries to the deceased. 

Surprisingly, these old Bulgarian customs are reflected in Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane, first published in 1982. Aren’t these similarities of beliefs between two different cultures fascinating? I am certain P.L. Travers would have been interested to hear about Eniovden. Then, maybe she did.

I have two editions of Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane but none of them contain any illustrations. The Bulgarian one does! What a nice surprise for a Mary Poppins nerd like myself.

Happy Summer Solstice!

Mary Poppins Translated

Mary Poppins Translated

Mary Poppins is translated in twenty languages and Bulgarian, my mother tongue, is one of these languages. I was seven or eight years old when I first read Mary Poppins, and it was still some time before my parents decided to leave the country and start a new life here in Canada. It was before I learned English and before I discovered Walt Disney’s adaptations of the fairy tales of my childhood.

One would expect that I would be curious and eager to compare my childhood reading of Mary Poppins with the original text at the very beginning of this blog project. Strangely enough, the idea never crossed my mind until recently, and only after I read an academic paper about the Polish translation of Mary Poppins*.

I was amazed to learn that the changes in the Polish translation exceeded the understandable modifications caused by the difficulty of translating certain idioms, proverbs, and other fixed expressions. Professional translators, I learned, must make a choice of either remaining loyal to the original text (adopt the method of foreignization) or adapt the text to the cultural context of the target audience (adopt the method of domestication.)

Mary Poppins was first translated in Polish in 1938 by Irena Tuwim and then, published in 1957 under the title Agnieszka. Other characters in the stories shared the same fate, the translator choosing to rename them with popular Polish names. Even some of the dialogues between Mary Poppins and the Banks children were modified to make Mary Poppins less frightening to the young readers. Names of streets and locations also changed, and in some instances for completely unconnected Polish words. The newest Polish translation of Mary Poppins was published in 2008. Although it is still Irena Tuwim’s translation, it contains few modifications made by Julian Tuwim and Irena Tuwim’s Foundation. The good news is that in the 2008 version Mary Poppins recovered her real name.

Reading about the Polish translation, I realised that Mary Poppins was altered not only for the movie screen and the stage, but in all probabilities in all its translated versions. Of course, it is more than obvious that any text translated in another language would undergo certain inevitable modifications. I just never thought about it before. However, once I became aware of this reality, I was left with no choice but to order Mary Poppins from a Bulgarian bookstore and begin my comparative reading.

I am currently halfway through the first Mary Poppins book, comparing the Bulgarian translation with the original text is a time-consuming exercise, considering I am comparing both versions sentence by sentence. Anyhow, I am happy to report that overall, the Bulgarian version as translated by Svetlana Stefanova is loyal to P.L. Travers’s original text. 

The names of the characters remain unchanged, save for the Match Man and the Bird Woman whose names are translated in their Bulgarian equivalent, and for Willoughby, Andrew’s friend in the story Miss Lark’s Andrew. Willoughby, for some mysterious reason, is given a new name which can be translated in English by “wished-for” or “treasured”.  It is interesting to note that in the Bulgarian translation the forms of address are translated phonetically. The words Mr. and Mrs. not being translated in their Bulgarian equivalent. Another interesting example where the original name of a character remains unchanged can be found in The Laughing Gas.  In this instance the translator communicates the humour around Mr. Wig’s name, by indicating its translated meaning in a footnote. Children certainly appreciate the humour in the situation of a bald man with a name such as Mr. Wig.

Most importantly, in the Bulgarian translation the essence of Mary Poppins remains intact.  Her exchanges with the Banks children keep all their harshness and coldness.

As for the idioms and fixed expressions in the original text, most of the time these are successfully translated by expressions having similar meanings.

The most notable changes I have noticed so far, deal with the translation of terminology connected with food. However, and despite the cultural differences, the translator tried to stay as close to the original food as possible. Here are some examples.

  • Lime-juice cordial becomes Lemon juice with sugar.
  • Crumpets become croissants.
  • Raspberry jam cakes become pastries with raspberry jelly.
  • Coconut cakes become cakes made out of coconut flour.
  • Plum cake with pink icing becomes plum tart.
  • Whelks are translated for mussels and pins for needles.

The dialogues in the Bulgarian version also contain some modifications, although they are subtle and do not change the meaning of the stories. When P.L. Travers wrote the dialogues she simply finished with “said Mary Poppins”, “said Michael”, “said Jane”.  In the Bulgarian version however, the translator chose to describe the tone in which the words are spoken. For example, in the very first story East Wind, when Mary Poppins looks at the children and evaluates if she wants to accept the position of nanny or not, Michael asks her boldly, “Will we do?” prompting his mother to say, “Michael don’t be naughty” after which P.L. Travers wrote, “said his Mother.” In the Bulgarian version it reads “his Mother scolded him.

The translator occasionally altered some descriptions of characters and places. Again, these changes do not affect the structure of the stories. Here is one example from the story The Laughing Gaz.

At that moment the door flew open, and a thin watery-looking lady appeared.”  “Watery-looking lady” became “a thin lady with watery bleu eyes”. I believe the reason for this modification to be the difficulty in translating “watery-looking lady” in Bulgarian. Using “watery-looking” in a description of a person does not make any sense in Bulgarian. Yet, in my opinion, using the word “pale” would have been a better choice.

In conclusion, the Bulgarian readers have a better chance than their Polish counterparts of getting to know Mary Poppins as she was imagined by P.L. Travers.

*Cultural Adaptation in Translation of English Children’s Literature into Polish: The Case of Mary Poppins, by Paulina Bialy, University of Silesia.

 

A Rose for Mary Poppins and P.L.Travers (Part II)

Mary Poppins rose 3

In my previous blog post I told the story of how P.L. Travers wished into physical reality three new varieties of roses. As it happened, she shared one of her personal wishes during an interview, and that interview set into motion a series of serendipitous events, which coalesced into three hybrid tea roses: one named after Pamela Travers, one after Mary Poppins, and a third one after Sleeping Beauty (P.L. Travers’s favourite fairy tale).

I have been poking around the Internet for years trying to find pictures of these roses only to find some technical notes describing their appearance. Until my own serendipitous experience last month. Just as I was about to post A Rose for Mary Poppins and P.L.Travers (on Valentine’s Day, wink, wink), I decided to double check the spelling of Dr. Dennison Morey’s name. I got it right, but my extra precaution paid off. The first reference that appeared in my Google search was Dr. Dennison Morey’s Country Garden Roses pamphlet for 1969 on eBay!

Cover Pamphlet

Picture of the cover of Dr. Dennison Morey’s Country Garden Roses pamphlet for 1969

I got goosebumps and then I hurriedly pulled out my credit card. What if some other Mary Poppins and P.L Travers fan found this and beat me to checkout?  Then, the frequent trips to the mailbox began and that was not because I did not know about the system of notifications of the status of my order. Only people with nerdy obsessions can understand this anxious anticipation.  I mean, there was no certainty that the pictures of the roses would be in the pamphlet. All I knew was that Pamela Travers was created in 1966, Mary Poppins and Sleeping Beauty in 1967. I had to wait.

A couple of weeks later, like fireworks, my heart burst with joy as I flipped through the pages of the pamphlet.

Dr. Dennison Morey

Not only did I get to see the pictures of Pamela Travers and Mary Poppins*, but I also read fragments from P.L. Travers’s correspondence with Dr. Morey.  Now I want to share it all with you, my mysterious readers.  

Pamela Travers rose

PAMELA TRAVERS PRR P HT (Morey 1966) 36’’-42’’. 30-35 petals. The gracious author of the treasured “Mary Poppins” stories and other lessons for young and old certainly deserves the honor of a rose. Pamela Travers asked only that her rose be pink, fragrant, healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, happy, pleasant, easy to live with, adaptable, always in bloom, readily and willingly cut for the home, long lasting in the vase, prolific, long seasoned, bright, cheerful, and if possible, gentle, wise, and completely honest.

Undoubtedly this description echoes snippets from P.L. Travers and Dr. Morey’s correspondence, and it definitely feels like P.L Travers played the role of the Fairy Godmother bestowing praiseworthy virtues upon her rose. Could it be that she wished to embody these qualities herself (save of course from being “readily and willingly cut for the home” and “long lasting in the vase”). Possible, but not certain.

What is unequivocal though is that P.L. Travers gave a tall order to Dr. Morey. The words “Pamela Travers asked only that her rose be …”  followed by an extensive list of attributes suggests that Dr. Morey had a good sense of humour, and that P.L Travers was just maybe a little too demanding. She surely knew what she wanted. Regardless, Dr. Morey filled the order.

P.L. Travers’s request for her rose to be honest and cheerful took me by surprise. She associated these qualities with the daisy, which by the way she judged to be a child’s flower, precisely because of its openness and honesty.  Thinking about this apparent contradiction between her request and what she said about the allure and mystery of the rose in her interview with Frankel, I remembered another occasion on which she wrote about an open rose. It was in The Children in the Story in Mary Poppins in the Park, the fourth of the Mary Poppins books published in 1952. I will tell you more about this other rose in a future post.

How did Dr. Morey translate the attribute of honesty in rose language? I believe the answer is in the number of petals. Honest Pamela Travers has only 35 petals compared to mysterious Mary Poppins who has 157 petals.

Mary Poppins rose 1

PRR R HT (Morey 1967) 40’’ – 48’’, 150-157 petals. This remarkable new rose is a shell pink sport of the fabulous “Hallmark”, the first modern mildew resistant, fragrant red hybrid tea. Mary Poppins has all the robust stamina so characteristic of the “Hallmark” combined with a rich but delicate color.

The plant is strong vigorous and of upright habit. The stems are strong and straight, proudly holding the radiant blooms on high for all to admire. New growth starts before the flowers are finished, rapidly pushing a new crown of green and pink glory above the earlier growth.

The foliage is leathery, essentially immune to mildew and highly resistant to rust and blackspots, large and a rich apple green.

The flowers are double, full, high centered, long lasting and, considering the delicacy of the color, notably weather resistant.

The fragrance is of cedar and quite pronounced under favorable conditions. This is an unusually fine garden plant as well as an outstanding rose.

Mary Poppins (the fictional character) conceals a great deal about herself. She never tells where she comes from, nor what she thinks and who she truly is. It is logical then that her rose would conceal its essence in the depths of its petals.

The description is definitely reminiscent of Mary Poppins herself, and I am certain it was P.L. Travers who suggested the attributes of “robust stamina”, “strong vigorous and of upright habit”, “proudly holding the radian blooms for all to admire”. Even Mary Poppins herself could not disagree with this description. Afterall she was, or appeared at least to be, somewhat vain.

On page 4 of Dr. Dennison Morey’s Country Garden Roses pamphlet there is a section titled The Country Garden Gift Calendar. For 1969 the “Mary Poppins” hybrid tea  rose is suggested as the perfect gift for the young gardener.

All floribundaces are good choices for children’s gifts… with a minimum of care the young the junior gardener will receive bountiful blooms for many months each year from his own rosebush. And a rose such as the new pink “Mary Poppins” hybrid tea could bring special joy to a youngster, encouraging the love of growing things.

We can safely assume that the choice to offer this particular rose to budding gardeners had little to do with the actual attributes of the flower. The choice was obviously motivated by the popularity at that time of Disney’s Mary Poppins.

Both roses are pink and although I do not have proof for what I am about to assert, I have the feeling that pink was P.L. Travers’s favourite colour. Or why did she paint her front door at 29 Shawfield Street, London lolly pink?

Now a few words about the nature of P.L. Travers’s wish for a namesake rose. It is a charming wish and one that does not appear to have any useful purpose.  Most of our wishes are materialistic. We wish to obtain or to achieve something that has some functionality, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there is also much joy to be found in whimsical wishes. They can bring new tonalities in our lives, a new tune to dance to. These kinds of wishes have deep symbolic meanings, they speak the language of our souls. So, do you know what is your heart’s whimsical wish?

One of mine is to find the living and breathing roses named after Pamela Travers and Mary Poppins!

* Sleeping Beauty remains to be found.

A Rose for Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins Rose

The rose was P.L. Travers’s favourite flower. For her it was “the flower of all flowers, furled and curled, never giving anything away.

A daisy is the child’s favourite. It’s so open. The daisy and the rose are the two ends of the stick. The rose is never, until the last moment unfolded.

P.L. Travers, Saturday Review, November 7, 1964

This is what P.L. Travers told Haskel Frankel on a gray November day, sitting in “a darkish corner” of a New York restaurant.

If Frankel knew about P.L. Travers’s spiritual life, her comment about “the two ends of the stick” would have, undoubtedly, prompted him to ask different questions, but Frankel was unaware of P.L. Travers’s allegiance to G.I. Gurdjieff and his spiritual teachings.

Two ends of the stick” was an expression used by Gurdjieff to illustrate the polarities of life. P.L. Travers used it often in her interviews, and in her writings.  In this instance, she uses the differences in the physical attributes of the daisy and the rose as an illustration of two radically different attitudes towards life: that of the child, and the other of the adult. On one end there is innocence and trust, and on the other, vulnerability and the need for self-protection. However, if we choose to look at this metaphor not as a fixed image but as a flowing movement from the daisy towards the rose, we can understand something about the way P.L. Travers might have experienced her own process of maturation. It would have been interesting to discuss with her the possibility to use both ends of the stick, just like a funambulist.

Before the interview P.L. Travers’s publisher Harcourt, Brace & World sent Frankel a copy of the then newly issued, one-volume edition of Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back. He found a note in the book with P.L. Travers’s conditions on interviews. He had to read her books and he was not allowed to ask personal questions.

P.L. Travers explained to Frankel that she does not want any personal questions because “they take away from the feeling of anonymity which I need for my writing.”  And, at the end of their meeting, she left the restaurant leaving behind the following statement: “Intimate life is the only life I can bear. I’m not interested in the passing scene because it passes.” She knew how to exit a scene on a dramatic note.

Despite her refusal to talk about her private life, P.L. Travers revealed one of her intimate wishes. She told Frankel that her greatest joy would be to have a rose named after her. “A Pamela Travers rose. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or even better, a Mary Poppins rose.

P.L.Travers Rose

A beautiful wish that came true. Dr. Dennison Morey, a rose grower from California, happened to read P.L. Travers’s interview in the Saturday Review,  and he wrote to her. A correspondence ensued, and two years later, he bred two roses: one named Pamela Travers and the other named Sleeping Beauty. Why Sleeping Beauty? Because Sleeping Beauty was P.L. Travers’s favourite fairy tale, and because in some versions of the story Sleeping Beauty is called Briar Rose. And let’s not forget that her sleep in the castle is guarded by a thick hedge of thorny roses.

A year later, in 1967, Dr. Morey bred a third rose. This time he named it Mary Poppins. 

This occurrence in P.L. Travers’s life is pure magic at work. The fulfillment of her whimsical wish is just so serendipitous. It makes me wonder, is it just a question of luck, or is there some secret process to manifestation that cannot be set into motion without a sincere, heartfelt wish? There is also something else, something that deserves to be pondered on, something about the necessity of making the wish known to the world.

May all our heartfelt wishes come true. Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

 

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Categorized as Biography

Bad Tuesdays with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday compass.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

“Bad Tuesday” is a story in the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 in which Mary Poppins, with the help of a compass, takes the Banks children on a trip around the world. In a flash, Jane and Michael experience the vastness and variety of our human world. With a shake of the compass, they are transported to the North Pole where they meet with an Eskimo family. Then, to the South where they encounter a family with a skin much darker than their own. In the East the children are greeted by a Chinese Mandarin, and by a tribe of Indians on their last destination in the West. All the characters in this adventure are friends of Mary Poppins. The different attires, manner of speech and greeting customs are not experienced by the children as something threatening, but on the contrary, as something extremely exciting and enjoyable.  

Yet, many years after its first publication the story underwent two alterations for socio-political reasons. The first revision, which left the plot of the story untouched, occurred in 1971. Then, in 1980 the San Francisco Public Library removed Mary Poppins from its shelves because of alleged racist references and derogatory treatment of minorities. Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, reports that P.L. Travers was angry with her publisher at that time for not defending her loudly enough. In fact, P.L. Travers learned about the unfortunate event from her friends.  

After pondering whether she should stick to her artistic expression or risk to see her book banished from more shelves, P.L. Travers  decided to rewrite the story. With a stroke of her pen, she changed the colorful trip around the world into a wildlife nature expedition. In this last version of the story, which is now in print, the Banks children meet a Polar Bear, a Hyacinth Macaw, a Panda and a Dolphin.  

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday Revised.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

Now, was the original story racist? This is the question that will be explored in this blogpost.  

The major issue with “Bad Tuesday” was brought to P.L. Travers’s attention in 1971 by her friend Dr. Francelia Butler. She told P.L. Travers how embarrassed she felt when reading the story to the black students in her class. Her embarrassment being caused by the words “Negro lady” and “a picaninny baby” as well as the picaninny language used by the characters.    

Beneath the palm trees sat a man and a woman, both quite black all over and with a  very few clothes on. But to make up for this they wore a great many beads – some hung  round their heads just below great crowns of feathers (….). On the knee of the negro lady  sat a tiny black picaninny with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers 1934 

P.L. Travers decided to alter the descriptions and dialogues in this section of the story because “if even one Black child were troubled, or she (Dr. Francelia Butler) were troubled, I would have to alter it.” 

 So, the description was redrafted and read: 

Under the palm-trees sat a man and a woman as black and shiny and plum as a ripe  plum, and wearing very few clothes. But to make up for this they wore a great many  beads. (…) And on the knee of the dark lady sat a tiny plum-black baby with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, redraft published in 1972 

This time around the characters expressed themselves in formal English. 

P.L Travers accepted to be interviewed about this first revision of “Bad Tuesday”. The interview was published in Interracial Books for Children in Vol.3, 1974. She said:  

I have no racism in me. I wasn’t born with it. And it’s never happened inside of me. And therefore, I feel perfectly at ease and at home no matter what color anybody’s skin is. I was brought up in a family and in a world where there was no hint of racism of any kind (…) I was brought up by large minded people who never had any sense of racism at all. 

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

P.L. Travers was just like her Mary Poppins, apolitical, a rebel and a freethinker.  She was completely engulphed in her imagination and her spiritual explorations which had to do with the much larger universal laws of creation. She was not interested in socio-cultural conventions. Hers was the world of myths and fairy tales, and the human experience of life on a larger scale. Not surprisingly, she said so herself. 

Literature and imagination are my world. I don’t like being pulled out from that world and being forced to live in a sociological world of which I am not a native habitant. Imagination is a pure thing. It is envisaging. Imagination does not depend upon the sociology of the time. More functional books do; imagination does not.(…) Mary Poppins is not a contemporary book. It is a timeless book, and probably it goes back a great deal to my own childhood.  

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

This is P.L. Travers in a nutshell. This was not a statement made for the occasion. I have spent years reading her writings and interviews and listening to testimonials from people who knew her. This was truly her stance in life. It does not matter if you agree or not with her assertion about imagination not depending on the sociology of the time. What matters here is her subjective truth. What matters is the fact that she had no intention of being disrespectful towards other ethnic groups.  Her willingness to alter the story not once, but twice, proves just that.  

It is important here to note that the accusations of racism were raised in the socio-cultural context of North America many years after the story was first written. People in North America assumed that the characters in the story were from Africa. However, it is possible that their assumption was wrong. It is possible that these characters were inspired by P.L. Travers’s memories of or ideas about the Australian aboriginal tribes. Maybe this is what she meant when she told the interviewer that the story goes back to her childhood. P.L. Travers was born and raised in the Southern Hemisphere of the Earth. So, when Mary Poppins tells the compass to take her and the children to the South, that probably meant Australia. What’s more, in the early 1900’s, the newspapers in Australia contained Picaninny Pages and “negro” was not considered to be a socially unacceptable word. It was all just part of the reality of her life back then and it was absorbed into her imagination without any negative connotation.  

“Bad Tuesday” reflected P.L. Travers’s childhood fascination with people and stories. Encounters with people who were not part of her family, mostly the help, stimulated her imagination. These outsiders made her realize that she was living in a world much vaster than her household. And, let’s not forget another important aspect of her childhood. She was an avid reader. She loved to read fairy tales, fantasy and adventure novels. Her childhood readings included Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the adventures of Buffalo Bill. 

The descriptions of the characters in “Bad Tuesday” may not have been accurate, but factual preciseness is beside the point here. Obvisouly, P.L. Travers did not use researched information for the portrayal of her characters. She simply pulled them out of the mixture of her childhood memories, readings and musings. Facts were never of a great concern for P.L. Travers. She was interested in big ideas. And, the original “Bad Tuesday” was a big idea kind of story. It was a story about the variety of human life on this planet and the possibility for all human beings, despite their socio-cultural differences, to be friends. It was a lesson in openness and willingness to take part in other people’s customs.  

Isn’t it a sad paradox that a story about diversity and inclusion was relegated to oblivion by misguided reading and interpretation? The story was not promoting racist ideas or making children believe that other ethnic groups were somehow inferior. It was just a story, an imaginative story, and a humorous one at that.   

The Nativity Reimagined by the Author of Mary Poppins

The Fox at the Manger

The Fox at the Manger is a short Christmas story by P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It was written on demand, as a service to her publisher.  However, despite its small size and the fact that it was commissioned, this tiny booklet is packed with big questions and pays tribute to P.L. Travers’s ability to say more with less.  

The Fox at the Manger was discussed previously on this blog.  In Pamela L. Travers and the Fox at the Manger (Part I) the story was examined as a possible expression of P.L Travers’s disappointment with the God she believed in as a child.  

In the second post Pamela L. Travers and the Fox at the Manger (Part II) the character of the fox was examined from three different perspectives: the fox as the embodiment of P.L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness and alienation from others, the fox as the personification of P. L. Travers’s spiritual teacher, G.I. Gurdjieff, and the fox as the expression of P.L. Travers’s unsatisfied childhood needs for unconditional love and acceptance. 

In A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers I tried to understand the nature of the fox’s gift to baby Jesus. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the fox offers its cunning to Jesus on the night of his birth. Isn’t this mystifying?  Cunning is not a personality trait one usually attributes to Jesus. What can he use it for? In the story this same question is raised by the ass: 

“But what will you do with such a gift?” cried the ass, in bewilderment. “I’m puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” 

The answer however is far from satisfying. 

“It is not necessary to understand,” said the Child, gently. “It is only necessary to let it be. Love and let it be.” 

No explanations, only indirection. This is the style of P.L. Travers.  The reader, if willing, is offered a chance to ponder the question for however long, and maybe one day find the answer.  Well, I gave it a try. And then, I took a shortcut. Since the question appeared to be of a theological nature, I reached out to Tobias Churton, a writer and theologian, expert in esoteric mysteries, spiritual history and philosophy.  He offered an interesting theological perspective which I shared in A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers.   

So, what is left to say about The Fox at the Manger? Actually, there is still a lot that can be inferred from this story.  For instance, it can tell us something about the workings of P.L. Travers’s creative mind.  

In The Fox at the Manger, we are confronted with the duality of Jesus’s fate. His birth is presented in the context of his tragic death. Time in the story is not linear. It wraps around itself like an ouroboros.  Past, present and future all happen at once. The result is a holistic view of Jesus’s life and a meditation on the nature of good and evil, or more accurately, about our dual human nature.   

But where did P.L. Travers get the idea for her Christmas story? She was often asked about the origins of her ideas, and her interviewers were regularly made aware of her irritation at the question. No one can tell where ideas come from, that was in short, her position on the matter.  

Well, that is not entirely true. In the case of The Fox at the Manger it is possible to trace back the origins of her ideas. Things I’ve read, like pieces of a puzzle, interconnected to form an interesting picture.  

Apparently P.L. Travers explored the idea of Jesus’s dual fate some thirty years or so before she sat down to write  The Fox at the Manger. It was in her poem Noel written in her twenties (or early thirties) and published by her literary mentor A.E.: 

Noel 

Child of the bright head 

Take now your myrrh 

and gold 

and incense as we 

kneel 

With the three 

Child of the gentle heart 

Do you guess that we mean 

To crucify you 

When the leaves are green. 

But what inspired both the poem and The Fox at the Manger? To answer this question we must go back in time and space to one hot, Australian Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Goff, P.L. Travers’s, mother was lying in the bed, reading the Bible aloud. It was the story of Jesus’s Crucifixion and it caused young P.L. Travers great distress.  Grief-stricken, she could not contain her sorrow.  It was her first experience of empathy.  She wrote about this childhood memory when she was in her eighties. Undoubtedly, the story of Jesus’s sad fate left a lifelong impression. And, here we are, the basis of her idea to tell the story of the Nativity within the context of the Crucifixion is rooted in this early childhood experience.  

Now, let’s turn our attention to the character of the wild fox in The Fox at the Manger.

Fox at the Manger engraving 2

Engraving by Thomas Bewick 

P.L. Travers’s friend and collaborator Brian Sibley expressed the shocking originality of the idea to introduce the fox in the story of Jesus’s birth: 

The Fox at the Manger. What a bizzare, almost blasphemous idea: the wild rough, read-haired chicken thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.  

Brian Sibley, A Good Gift, A Lively Oracle 

The question again is: What inspired P.L. Travers? Why did she bring the fox at the manger?  I found a clue dated May 1943.  P.L. Travers wrote an intriguing diary entry. She mentioned her fascination with the element of the fox. For a long-time, she wrote in that entry, she had a strong connection to hens but now, she was tired of the hen*.  Reading these words led me to the next logical question: Why was she interested in the element of the fox at that moment in time?   

In 1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, at that time exiled in the United-States, published The Little Prince.  P.L. Travers read the story and in April 1943 she wrote a delightfully insightful review of The Little Prince in The New York Herald. You can read about it in Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

Clearly the idea of an untamed fox offering a gift to an innocent child was inspired by another famous allegory. The wild fox who befriends the Little Prince stayed with P.L. Travers. It appears that the idea about the wild and untamed fox becoming tamed of its own free will fascinated P.L. Travers.  

Fox in the little prince

Illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Of course, the differences between these two stories outweigh the similarities. The gifts offered to each child are of a different nature.  The fox in The Little Prince gifts the child with a secret that teaches him to seek guidance from his own heart.   

The fox’s gift in The Fox at the Manger is of a quite different nature. The Child in this story  already knows how to listen with his heart. He needs something else to help him carry the burden of his fate. And, what better gift to offer than cunning to one who is setting out on a perilous journey. Jesus may be the symbol of selfless love, but heart alone is not enough to get us through the uncertainties of life. The gift of the fox is the gift of the mind.      

____________________________________ 

*P.L. Travers associated the hen’s habit of silent brooding with writers’ predisposition for pondering ideas. 

Halloween With Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Halloween

At this time of the year, here in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn is in full swing. Winds are rising, trees are gradually shedding their colorful leaves and nights are getting longer. Symbolically, we are beginning our descent into darkness, and holidays like the approaching Halloween invite us to honour this shadowy season. So, this is an appropriate moment to write a blogpost about Hallowe’en, a story from Mary Poppins in the Park, the fourth Mary Poppins book published in 1952.  

It is Halloween night and Jane and Michael see their shadows outside in the garden “floating down the front path and through the garden railings”. Encouraged by the sounds of music coming from the Park and the messages left on their pillows – two maple leaves on which are inscribed the words “Come” and “Tonight”- Jane and Michael leave the warmth and safety of their nursery and follow their shadows into the night.

In the Park, under the light of the Full Moon, they attend a strange party crowded with shadows of people they know, and fictional characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales.  Of course, the children are amazed to see  something unreal, that just goes through things and has no substance, to suddenly have an existence of its own.

But then, The Bird Woman’s shadow explains to Jane and Michael that shadows are more than real. In truth, she tells them, they are the outside of our inside, and they know important things.

And that’s what they are made for – to go through things. Through and out on the other side – it’s the way they get to be wise. You – take my words for it, my loves, when you know what your shadow knows – then you know a lot.  

Mrs. Corry, a close friend of Mary Poppins is also at the party, but just like Mary Poppins her shadow is firmly attached to her feet. She warns the children that shadows have feelings.

They feel twice as much as you do. I warn you, children, take care of your or shadows or your shadows won’t take care of you.

Then Mary Poppins arrives, and Jane and Michael learn that it is not only Halloween, but also the eve of Mary Poppins’s birthday. The celebration begins. However, soon after the dancing starts, the owners of the merry shadows show up in the Park looking for them. Things get even more interesting for Jane and Michael.

The Park Keeper.jpg

The Park Keeper is a character that appears in many of the Mary Poppins adventures. He is always fretting and admonishing people to follow the rules, while living in constant fear of punishment for the irregularities that inevitably occur each time Mary Poppins comes to the park.  On this Halloween night the Park Keeper is particularly frightened. Spooky things come out in the night, and he decides to abandon the Park for just this one time.

Understandably, when Jane and Michael see his shadow at the party, they are quite surprised, but the shadow explains:

Oh. I am not frightened, Miss – it’s ‘im. My body, so to speak. A very nervous chap’e is – afraid of ‘is own shadow.

The Park Keeper, who ignores that he has lost his shadow, but can not bring himself to ignore his duty, returns to the Park. When he sees his shadow dancing, which by the way is against the rules, he orders it to behave like a human being. His shadow replies with a giggle: “But shadows are so much nicer!” Then, the Park Keeper is forced by some mysterious powers to dance with his shadow, but even this shocking experience does not succeed in changing the Park Keeper’s rigid mind. At the end, he gets a firm hold of his shadow, and it is clear that the Park Keeper will remain just as he was before this uncanny incident. Apparently being forced to face one’s shadow is not enough. One has to willingly enter the dance for change to occur.   

Mrs. Boom

Admiral Boom, another frequently encountered character in the Mary Poppins adventures, is aware that his shadow is missing, but he is unwilling to face it. Instead, when he realises that his shadow has gone missing, he sends his wife out in the dark to look for it. Now, this is a rather cowardly act, and one that contradicts his usual authoritative behavior during the day. But Admiral Boom’s shadow knows better. It knows that behind the Admiral Boom’s imposing façade hides an entitled, spoiled child who wants everything on a plate. When things get tough, Admiral Boom gets tough on people. Someone else needs to fixit the situation for him.

I leave him for one night in the year – and he threatens to sink the ship! Now, that’s a thing I’d never do. He is nothing but a spoiled child – no sense of responsibility.

Obviously, the Admiral will remain locked in his anger and his experience of life will remain unchanged.

Mrs. Lark

What about snobbish Mrs. Lark?  She too braves the darkness and shows up in the Park looking for her shadow.  When confronted with it, she is horrified by its behaviour. In her opinion, it is totally unacceptable for the shadow of a woman of her social standing to be dancing around the Park with total strangers. But this is not how her shadow sees the situation:

I’m gayer than you think, Lucinda. And so are you, if you knew it. Why are you always fussing and fretting instead of enjoying yourself? If you stood on your head occasionally, I’d never run away.

Surprisingly, Mrs. Lark does not need a lot of convincing, although she does not quite know how to go about this standing on your head business. Anyhow, she is going to practice on the hearthrug in her drawing-room.

The Professor, Mrs. Lark’s companion, follows in her footsteps. He walks in the Park knowing that he is looking for something, only he does not remember what that something is.  This is much in line with the Professor’s usual absentmindedness. Funny enough, his shadow is just as forgetful as he is.

‘Lost and found!’ He (The Professor) embraced his shadow. ‘How beautiful are those two words when one hears them both together! Oh, never let us part again! You will remember what I forget – ‘

‘And vice versa!’ his shadow cried.

This happy reunion suggests that the Professor is not at odds with his shadow like the rest of the characters in the story. The Professor’s wholeness and alignment with his true nature is illustrated by the affectionate hug he shares with his shadow.

Mr. Banks Sleepwalking.jpg

Mr. Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, comes sleepwalking across the Park with his arms stretched out before him. He talks in his sleep about feeling that there is something missing, although he cannot figure it out. In his dream, he has his bag and morning paper, so what could possibly be missing? His shadow gently comes forward and takes him back to his bed.

                                                ‘There, old chap! I’ll do the counting. Come along back to bed.

Obviously, Mr. Banks is unconscious of his soul searching. Sadly, he is hopelessly trapped in the rat race of his existence, and his role as the provider of his large family. There is no revelation for him on this Halloween night. 

Knowing about P.L. Travers’s spiritual allegiance to Gurdjieff and his teachings, it is easy to make the link between Mr. Banks’s sleepwalking and the functioning, according to Gurdjieff, of the average person. Gurdjieff believed that, for the most part, we are asleep and unconscious of the forces that control our lives. He compared the human being to a machine with three commanding, so to speak, centers: the physical center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center, which act independently from one another. Meaning that Gurdjieff viewed human beings as fractured beings who need to integrate their split off parts.

In interpreting this story, it is tempting to make a parallel between P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow and Jung’s concept of the shadow. In Jungian terms the shadow is the dark part of the human psyche. It contains our unconscious motivations, unfulfilled desires, needs and complexes. Simply put, if completely split off from our consciousness, our shadow gathers up destructive powers which can be harmful both to us and to others.  According to Jung, the only way of becoming mentally and emotionally healthy is by integrating our shadow, by acknowledging its existence and examining its needs.  In this sense, stories about adventures in the underworld can be understood as reminders that we can go into darkness in our lives and emerge on the other side better for it.

However, P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow in this story is one paradoxically full of light. In this story the shadows are aware of the problems and complexes of their owners. However, they are not the embodiment of these forces. The shadows appear to be the repressed inner essence of the characters, their soul, the inner voice of truth. Or why would the Bird Woman’s shadow tell the Banks children that shadows never hurt anybody? “A “shadder” never did anyone harm-at least, not as I know of.”

P.L. Travers’s allegorical tale teaches an important lesson.  Blindly following social rules and norms will never make us happy. Assuming roles imposed from the world outside of us will never allow us to live a life of fulfillment. To experience life fully, we must focus on our inner world, and recognise our true nature, or else, we are setting ourselves up for an unhappy, unfulfilling, small lives. And, now is as good a time as any to bring a little light into the dark corners of our inner worlds.  Will you take on P.L. Travers’s invitation and party with your shadow?  

Happy Halloween to all!

Mary Poppins Meets Pinocchio

Pinocchio

Illustrated by Gioia Fiammenghi

Today P.L. Travers is mostly remembered for her Mary Poppins books and for the clash between her vision of Mary Poppins and the one that Walt Disney had in mind for his film adaptation. Regrettably, the general public is mostly unaware of P.L. Travers’s extensive writings on the subject of myths and fairy tales.

Recently, I had the chance to read her lovely essay The Footfall of a Cat* and I was reminded of P.L. Travers’s fluency in symbolic language and her ability to discern alternative meanings within a single story. The ideas expressed  in The Footfall of a Cat are all interesting and could be the subject of many blogposts, but for the purposes of this particular one, I chose to explore the connection she makes between the theme of the spiritual nature of all craft and The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi.

Her comments about Pinocchio’s story are rather brief but, once pointed out, the connection appears evident. This is what I love about P.L. Travers, the originality of her ideas and the assertive ways in which she articulates them.

Unwittingly, seeking only to amuse, Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, happened upon a theme that he did not clearly understand and one that was older than he knew.

P.L. Travers, The Footfall of a Cat, 1976

She tells us that to see the connection between the theme of the spiritual nature of craft, and the relationship between the craftsman and the material, one must read the story of Pinocchio “on a level other than that on which it is written”.

I have always understood Pinocchio’s story as an allegory of the process of ego-maturation and the relationship between a father and his prodigal son. So, of course, this alternative interpretation tickled my curiosity, and I decided to follow the thread. I reread The Adventures of Pinocchio as the adventures of Geppetto.  And, since in this blog post we will examine the story from Geppetto’s standpoint, the focus here will be on his interaction with Pinocchio at the beginning and ending of the story.

The story begins with old Mr. Cherry busying himself in his carpentry workshop. He is making a new table and he finds, among the material lying around in his workshop, what he believes to be the perfect piece of wood for the leg of his table. But when he approaches it with his axe, the piece of wood begins to talk. It beseeches Mr. Cherry not to strike him too hard. The old man, deaf to the call of the material, gives it a blow anyhow. A cry of pain comes out of the piece of wood and frightens Mr. Cherry out of his wits.  Just as he is composing himself, old Geppetto knocks on the door of the woodshop.

Mr. Cherry in Workshop.jpg

Geppetto has an ambitious idea of making a fine wooden puppet that would dance, fence, and turn somersaults in the air, and with which he wants to travel the world to win his bread and wine.  For that purpose, and because he is extremely poor, he needs to ask Mr. Cherry for a favour. He needs a piece of wood.  

When the talking piece of wood hears about Geppetto’s plan, it enthusiastically approves of the project but, and here is the first sign of the misadventures to come, it addresses Geppetto in a very irreverent manner. It calls him by Geppetto’s despised nickname, Polendina, given to him by the boys in the neighbourhood. And, since Geppetto is short-tempered and does not understand that the voice comes out of the piece of wood, a ferocious fight begins between him and Mr. Cherry. In the end the two old men make amends, and Geppetto leaves the workshop with the mischievous piece of wood.

Geppetto.jpg

Back in his derelict room, Geppetto begins to shape the piece of wood into a puppet. But to his surprise the crafting process does not go smoothly. The piece of wood is acting out. As soon as Geppetto makes the eyes of the puppet, they start staring at him. Then, after he shapes the nose it begins to grow exponentially no matter how much Geppetto tries to shorten it. After the nose, Geppetto forms the mouth only to hear it laugh and poke fun at him. Then, immediately after Pinocchio’s hands are carved out, Geppetto’s wig is snatched out of his head. At this point of the shaping process, Geppetto is deeply disappointed by his creation. So much, that he blames himself for not knowing better earlier. However, he needs to finish what he has started. 

Pinocchio kicks Geppetto.jpg

Right after the puppet gains control of its newly carved legs, Geppetto receives a kick on the nose. The troubles officially begin. Pinocchio runs out in the street where a policeman catches him by his long nose just as Pinocchio tries to slide between his legs. Geppetto is angry and talks about punishment but then he finds himself arrested for mistreating Pinocchio, and sent to jail for the night. Pinocchio, cold and hungry, falls asleep with his feet on the brazier of  burning coal in Geppetto’s room.  The next day, when he wakes up, he finds out that he no longer has legs. However, his distress does not last long. Geppetto returns back home and repairs Pinocchio’s legs.  

Pinocchio caught by the policeman.jpg

Pinocchio wanting to show his gratitude decides that he wants to go to school. The trip around the world is postponed, and Geppetto sells his coat in order to buy Pinocchio a primer. Of course, Pinocchio never makes it to the classroom.  On his way to school he hears music, and he is compelled to go to The Great Puppet Show. From that point on in the story, propelled by a series of bad decisions, Pinocchio goes on a long journey away form home.  A little later in the story, we encounter Geppetto from afar. We find him in a small boat struggling against the waves of a stormy ocean, and then, we hear no more until the very end of the story. All we know is that Geppetto too has embarked on a journey of his own.

Both Geppetto’s and Pinocchio’s journeys unfold separately, but they both end up at the same place, in the belly of a giant dogfish. The story line is clear, both characters have lost their way in life.  And both of them experience a descent into the dark night of the soul. It is their unexpected reunion and the love they have for each other that saves them from annihilation. 

Pinocchio escape.jpg

The giant dogfish is sound asleep with its mouth ajar, and Pinocchio seizes the opportunity. With his father on his back he jumps out into the ocean and swims to the shore. Though, the journey back to safety requires an extreme effort on Pinocchio’s part. At the end, he is rewarded for his bravery by the blue-haired fairy, and transformed into a real boy.

Pinocchio transformation.jpg

P.L. Travers understood that talent and skill, although important components of the creative process, are not sufficient. Real craft, she tells us, calls for something more, something mysterious. To manifest an idea from the realm of the invisible into our physical world one needs not only to have an idea, the right material and the skill to execute, but one also needs to listen to what the material has to say.

P.L. Travers understood the role of the craftsman as one who humbly acts as a bridge between the immaterial world of ideas and their physical embodiment in our world. The real craftsman puts his skills at the service of the creative process.

Evidently, from what the story tells us, Geppetto does not have a clear understanding of his role as a craftsman. He may be channeling an idea and he may be shaping skillfully the right material, but he is not possessed by the right attitude, and that is because he is not consciously aware of the deeper meaning and purpose of his idea.

Geppetto does not consciously answer the call of the material and this is the interesting nuance in this story; the craftsman who possesses the necessary skill does not hear the call of the material. He is handed the right material by someone who hears the call but is not up for the task.

The story of Pinocchio is a warning. There is an element of surprise in the creative process. Each creation has a life energy of its own, and if misunderstood, it can disrupt the craftsman’s life. The disturbances that Pinocchio causes in Geppetto’s life are all necessary for Geppetto to understand that what his soul really wants is not a puppet to help him make a living. Geppetto is lonely and longing for a family of his own. This is why he is visited by the idea of a lively puppet. The existence of this unconscious need is hinted at the beginning of the story, when Geppetto chooses Pinocchio’s name. He names him after a loving family of poor but happy Pinocchios. In this light, the transformation of Pinocchio into a real boy at the end of the story can also be seen as Geppetto’s reward for his courage to face the darkness of his unconscious. 

And this is what I believe P.L. Travers meant when she wrote:

Geppetto answers the call of the wood and presently there is a puppet. And ultimately, through his own suffering and self-searching – he too goes on a night journey in the belly of the dogfish – his puppet becomes a real boy.

P.L. Travers, The Footfall of a Cat, 1976

I think she meant that Geppetto unconsciously answers the call of the wood. Or else, why would he go on a self-searching journey? I wish I could discuss this further with P.L. Travers.  People really did not ask her the right questions. Of course, she was not known for giving straight answers either. Those who knew her sometimes compare her to Mary Poppins, who never ever gives any explanations. But this is not completely accurate. P.L. Travers did not give lengthy explanations but she gave hints. And this can be enough  for those who want to find the answers.

__________

* published in 1976 in The Way of Working, The Spiritual Dimension of Craft

 

Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part II)

Sandals of Ayaz 1

Illustrated by Leo and  Diane Dillon

The Sandals of Ayaz is a retelling of a Middle Eastern tale by P.L. Travers. As mentioned in my previous post, this story and the story Abu Kassem’s Slippers first appeared in Parabola (a magazine P.L. Travers helped co-found in 1976) under the theme of initiation, and then, in 1980 in the illustrated book Two Pairs of Shoes.

P.L. Travers saw a connection between these two stories, but she only gave a hint of it and left it to the readers to find the meaning by themselves. A firm believer in the virtues of teaching and learning by indirection she wrote:

These two stories have been lying around for hundreds of years in the minds of men, yet no one has thought of linking them and showing how each reflects the other. Fate left it for me to do. What a piece of luck.

P.L. Travers, 1980

Before I tell you what possible link P.L. Travers might have made between these two stories, let me tell you the story of The Sandals of Ayaz.

Ayaz was King Mahmoud’s Treasurer and most trusted man. One day the King decided to test the honesty and loyalty of his courtiers. He offered to each one in turn a beautiful pearl and then ordered them to break it. To the King’s surprise, the courtiers could not bring themselves to destroy such a beautiful and valuable object. Only Ayaz, without any hesitation, obeyed the King’s order and crushed the pearl between two stones.  The King praised Ayaz’s loyalty and the courtiers frightened for their lives, as they realized they were put on trial, began to lament themselves.

Sandals of Ayaz 3

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King’s anger was mighty.  He signaled the Executioner and if Ayaz did not intervene on the courtiers’ behalf their lives would have been lost. But, instead of gratitude the hearts of the greedy courtiers were filled with jealousy. And as jealous people often do, they scrutinized Ayaz’s every action in the hope of finding something to destroy him with.

Thus, they noticed how every day Ayaz spent time alone in his room, and how each time he came out of it, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. To add to this suspicious behaviour, no one was ever invited in Ayaz’s room.  

The courtiers suspected Ayaz of stealing from the King’s treasure and without wasting much time they sowed a seed of doubt in the King’s mind. But, after a thorough search of Ayaz’s room the courtiers could not find any stolen treasure. What they found instead were the remnants of Ayaz’s humble beginnings as a shepherd boy: a “dusty sheepskin jacket and a pair of tattered sandals”. The evil men had to admit to the King that their suspicions were unfounded.

Sandals of Asyaz 4

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King wanted to know why Ayaz was so attached to his sandals and sheepskin jacket. Ayaz explained. These objects helped him remember where he came from. He knew that the prosperity he was enjoying was a gift from the King, and he kept asking himself the question: “Without this gift, what am I?” The humble sheepskin jacket and tattered sandals helped Ayaz to know himself. And, as all spiritual teachings attempt to impart, he who knows himself knows God.

By reminding himself his lowly birth Ayaz avoided the trap of attaching himself to his new identity as the King’s treasurer clad in costly robes. Although he enjoyed his new position, he did not identify with it and he did not fear losing it.  All identities, teaches us the story of Ayaz, are but costumes we change in the course of our lives. And if we are to flow with life and keep growing, we better not attach to our costumes but remember our true essence.

Sandals of Ayaz 5

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers was a follower of the spiritual teachings of Gurdjieff and his influence on her writings can be traced even in her retelling of this Middle Eastern tale. Gurdjieff taught his pupils self-awareness. He aimed to wake them up from their state of self-ignorance which enslaved them to their passions and impulses. He talked about self-remembrance and self-observation. Without knowledge of oneself, Gurdjieff believed man to be living his life in an automatic machinelike manner, a creature under hypnotic sleep.

I believe that P.L. Travers’s study of Gurdjieff’s teachings helped her to make the connection between these two stories which mirror Gurdjieff’s metaphor of the “two ends of the same stick”: one story illustrating a successful pattern of embracing a new identity without unnecessary attachment, and the other showing us a pattern of a failed initiation.

Abu Kassem was someone who was unsatisfied with  his condition in life and who did all that he could do to improve it. But his shrewdness and cunning overpowered him and caused his ruin. Ayaz was luckier than Abu Kassem. He lived without any ambition and was lifted up to a prosperous position by virtue of his good reputation.  The differences in the personality traits of these two fictional characters make me wonder. Does ambition always lead to a downfall and does integrity always leads to success? In a spiritual sense I do believe that to be the case, but since we  also live on the physical plane, we must find the balance between the inner and outer worlds.

Gurdjieff himself was a self-made man and one that did his best to direct his life in the desired by him direction. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not. Moreover, Gurdjieff was cunning, and he defined his teaching as “the way of the sly man”. And if we are to apply his philosophy of cunning and canning (meaning ability) the right way of being in the world  would be a combination of Abu Kassem’s cunning and frugality, and Ayaz’s purity of heart. A fine balance between two seemingly opposite positions: personal interest versus humility and service to others; between outer success and inner growth. Now, how is one to achieve this balance?

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff cover page

According to P.L. Travers, and echoing Gurdjieff, we can achieve it through sustained attention. However, sustained simultaneous focus on our outer world and our inner world is an extremely difficult task.  P.L. Travers suggests that the first step towards the attainment of this sort of all-encompassing attention is our intention to be attentive.

Many are those down the ages who, sorrowing for their own lack of watchfulness, have too late learned what it means to pay attention, that it is not something that simply happens, nor to be had by chance…

 If man has within him the potential, if only as a germ, to share in the consciousness of the universe, even to glimpse at moments certain aspects of the Unknown (behold, I show you a mystery!) above all, to learn to know himself, can this be done without attention?

 And what of that word “pay”? First of all the whole person, all the functions closely cohering—thought, feeling, bodily sensation—must be ready, vigilant, alert; and to preface this ingathering there must be present in us—one can sum it up in one single word: attention’s closest kin, intention.

P.L. Travers, Sunflower, Parabola Magazine, Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer 1990

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