Tarot and Mary Poppins   

I read Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers as a child in the early 1980’s in Bulgaria, but when I reread the stories in their original versions a few years ago, and discovered the other books in the series, I was amazed by P.L.Travers’s imagination. As a child I enjoyed the magic in the stories, but I did not give much thought to the author, although the name was on the cover of my book.  

As an adult, however, I wondered where P.L. Travers got her whimsical ideas from. When asked about the origin of her magical nanny, she never gave a straight answer. This may be partially explained by her desire to keep people away from her private life. Afterall, she did say in one interview that Mary Poppins was the story of her life, and that she had taken every precaution to cover her tracks. But then in other interviews she said that no one really knows where ideas come from. Her statement about the mystery of the creative writing process is echoed by other contemporary writers such as Philip Pullman and Elizabeth Guilbert. 

In Creativity, the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi brings light to some interesting facts about our human creativity, such as the existence of certain commonalities in the personality traits of creatives.  

Csikszentmihalyi explains in his book that the creative process does not occur in a vacuum. Most of the time we build on old ideas by combining and reorganizing them in new ways, or by applying ideas from one domain to another. However, the mystery of creation remains. How exactly we combine ideas and morph them into new ones in our minds and why they take the forms they take is still a conundrum. 

All P.L. Travers’s writings are sprinkled with esoteric, mythological and fairy tales’ references, as these were her literary and spiritual pursuits. I love dwelling in the world of Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers, and I find the process of uncovering these references in the stories most enjoyable. Yet, I am fully aware that I can only uncover some of the components of the stories and link them to her personal beliefs and interests, without ever being able to explain how she incorporated and organized them into the whimsical Mary Poppins adventures.  

I believe that she herself was not entirely conscious of the creative process. Her writing was, at its core, unconscious writing. Her ideas sprang from deep within and then she polished the form. This is at least how I understand her statement about writing Mary Poppins because she was there to be written about. Besides, the adventures in the books all have a dreamlike quality to them, and I doubt this can be achieved to such an extraordinary level of artistry only by rational thinking. 

 This blog post is about an esoteric reference in Robertson Ay’s Story, a story from Mary Poppins Comes Back, the second book in the series published in 1935. This esoteric reference is the Tarot card of the Fool. I found a few more Tarot references in the Mary Poppins stories but they will be the subject of other blogposts.  

As a young writer P.L. Travers gravitated towards the renowned Irish poet and occultist W.B. Yeats, and her literary mentor, the mystic writer, poet, and painter George W. Russel (AE) who was also one of Yeats’s closest friends. Both men knew Pamela Coleman Smith, the illustrator of the most popular Tarot deck today, the Waite/ Ryder deck which was first published in London in 1909. It is also said that W.B. Yeats was an advisor to Pamela Coleman Smith on the mystic symbolism to be incorporated into Waite’s new deck. 

Pamela Coleman Smith was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the secret magical society to which W.B. Yeats also belonged. Between 1903 and 1904 she published, edited, and illustrated the magazine The Green Sheaf which focused on Irish Celtic folklore and mysticism. Both Yeats and AE, who were leading figures of the Celtic Revival, were literary contributors to her magazine. 

W.B. Yeats and AE also called Pamela Coleman Smith “Pixie”; a name first given to her by the Victorian actress Ellen Terry. Then some twenty years later, AE began to call P.L. Travers “Pixie” probably because he noticed certain similarities in their personalities and interests. Both women were orphaned at an early age, both loved fairy tales and magic and were interested in theatre, and both displayed a mischievous streak. 

The two Pixies were thus connected, although I suspect they never met in person because by the time P.L. Travers entered the artistic/occult scene, Pamela Coleman Smith had abandoned it and converted to Roman Catholicism.  

 Because of her connections to W.B. Yeats and AE, and her regular attendance at their literary salons, P.L. Travers was familiar with the archetypes of the Tarot. This is what she said about the Tarot card of the Fool to Jonathan Cott during an interview at her house in Chelsea, London. 

Who is Robertson Ay? What is he paid for? He does nothing but sleep? He turns out to be the Fool. Yes, he does, but I didn’t know he was going to turn that way when he cropped up in my mind. 

Not unnumbered, but Zero, which is all numbers and no numbers. The Fool is omnipresent, serenely passing through the world – as I said in “The Youngest Brother”- here and there are alike to him.” 

The Wisdom of Mary Poppins: Afternoon Tea with P.L. Travers, in Pipers at the Gate of Dawn, The Wisdom of Children’s Literature, Jonathan Cott, 1981 

The Tarot is composed of seventy-eight cards, twenty-two Major Arcana cards and fifty-six Minor Arcana cards. The Minor Arcana cards are divided into four suits, each associated with one of the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. The suit of Pentacles is associated with the earth, the suit of Cups with water, the suit of Wands with fire and the Suit of Swords with air. 

The twenty-two Major Arcana cards (meaning Big Secrets) are considered to represent cosmic, energetic patterns that manifest in our human world as opportunities or obstacles to our personal growth, and the Minor Arcana cards (Little Secrets) relate to our individual struggles and challenges in our daily lives. All Major Arcana cards are numbered except for the Fool. The number of the Fool is zero, signifying nothingness, the void from which all things proceed, the field of pure potentiality.  

The archetype of the Fool represents pure potential. He lives in the here and now without placing judgments and looks at the world with a childlike innocence and wonder. The Fool in his positive aspect, is the playful, joyful child within us all. When The Fool appears in a reading, he heralds a clearing of the senses and announces a brand-new beginning. His advice is to go with the flow, just go with what is happening and learn from experience.  

In the Wait/Ryder deck The Fool is depicted standing on the edge of a precipice or a cliff suggesting that the path regenerates itself with each step; he encourages us to take a leap of faith and trust in life and in ourselves. Notice that the Fool carries a small bundle on a stick as he only takes with him what he needs and nothing more. His advice to us is one of release; to release what no longer serves us. He tells us to keep only the habits and lessons that will help us along our journey.  

Mary Poppins tells three fairy tales to the Banks children during her stay with the family. I find it interesting that she does not tell these fairy tales at bedtime as most people do. She only tells a story when the occasion calls for it and as it happens, she tells the story of Robertson Ay in the park during one of their outings.  

It is a sunny day in the park and Mary Poppins is sitting on a bench knitting, Anabel and the twins are in the perambulator and Jane and Michael are busy enacting the nursery rhyme I am the King of the Castle and You Are the Dirty Rascal, when out of nowhere a strange figure appears on the path at the edge of the Lake and catches their attention. 

“Along the path at the edge of the Lake came a tall, slim figure, curiously dressed. He wore stockings of red striped with yellow, a red-and-yellow tunic scalloped at the edges and on his head was a large-brimmed red-and-yellow hat with a high peaked crown.” 

Robertson’s Ay Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935) 

The man stops by the bench to greet Mary Poppins, and the children learn that this is the Dirty Rascal, and Robertson Ay, but that is revealed to them only at the end. The children are mystified by the stranger whose face is hidden underneath the large-brimmed hat. When he leaves their company, and to the greatest delight of Jane and Michael, Mary Poppins offers to tell them the story of the Dirty Rascal.  

The story is in fact the story of a King who is extremely stupid and uncapable of fulfilling his royal duties. It is the Queen, and the Lord High Chancellor who must step in and do the work. However, they spare no amount of effort to impart some wisdom to the King, alas to no avail. As a last resort, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor offer a generous reward to whomever succeeds in teaching the King some wisdom.  

As is the custom in fairy tales, the reward comes with a steep price for those who fail at the task. The professors who fail to teach the King wisdom are all doomed to have their heads cut off and spiked on the Castle Gates.  

All the teachers who come to test their luck lose their heads. The King is crushed by the events and his inability to learn. Then an unexpected visitor arrives, pushes past the sentry at the gate and walks up to the King. The King presents himself as the King of the Castle and the visitor as the Dirty Rascal. They immediately form a strong bond as the Fool shows the King that he does not have to conform to other people’s expectations nor to their understanding of what it means to be intelligent. 

 In Robertson’s Ay Story, the Fool appears in its positive aspect, a carefree, playful, childlike creature capable of imparting wisdom to the hopelessly stupid King. But he does not teach him in the way all the other teachers tried to. Instead, the Fool incites the King to burn all his books and simply enjoy life. They sing and dance, and laugh to the horror of the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor who see their behavior as being completely foolish and crazy. This highlights another aspect of the Fool archetype. The Fool is the outsider, the one that does not conform to pre-established norms.  

At the end of the story, the King is tested by the Chief of all the Professors, the wisest man in the kingdom. The questions asked by the Chief Professor are met with unexpected, but practical answers and the Chief Professor has no other choice but to declare the King to be wise. Wisdom, as P.L. Travers believed, cannot be taught, it can only be acquired through lived experience; a dance through life. To understand something, she said one must stand under it. Factual knowledge can only get us so far, something else is required of us to live an authentic life.  

When the Fool appears in a Tarot reading, it often signifies a new journey, a new beginning and this is exactly how the story of Robertson’s Ay ends with the beginning of a new journey for the King. Once the King realizes that what others think about him has no importance whatsoever, he realizes that he has no desire to be King. Together with the Dirty Rascal, the King climbs on a rainbow that has suddenly appeared in the sky and throws down his crown and scepter, thus shedding his old identity.  

Interestingly, the rainbow appears on another Tarot Card, the 10 of Cups, and I am thinking that I will have to explore this element of the story in a future blog post. For now, I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post as much as I enjoyed writing it.  

Shadow Play

I used to play with my shadow as a kid. I tried to run away from it, but no matter how fast I ran, I could never outrun it. Every time I looked down there it was, glued to my feet, sometimes in front of me, sometimes behind, sometimes on my left side and sometimes on my right. I was never certain of its position, but I was certain of its presence, even on rainy days. I knew that it was there, only, it was invisible for the time being.  

Occasionally, my shadow games involved other children in the neighbourhood. We chased after each other’s shadows and screeched with delight as we stepped on them, something that Mrs. Corry teaches the Banks children in Hallowe’en, a story from Mary Poppins in the Park (1952), is not a wise thing to do. I did not know that back then. I had read Mary Poppins (1934), the first book in the series in the early 1980’s in Bulgaria and I did not know about the other books until I read P.L. Travers’s biography in 2015.  

 I enjoyed my shadow’s shape-shifting tricks, how it changed its size, and how sometimes it climbed on walls and ceilings. One evening, to my enchantment, shadows of animals and birds appeared on the walls in the living room of my grandparents’ apartment.  Amazed, I kept shifting my eyes from the lively images on the walls to my mother’s and grandfather’s strangely positioned hands. They looked nothing like the shadows on the wall and I marvelled at this mysterious transformation; it was pure magic.  

However, despite my enjoyment of shadow games I doubt that I would have been as courageous as Jane and Michael Banks in Hallowe’en and followed my shadow out in the night should I have seen it run out of the door. Certainly not, if this had happened after I read Andersen’s fairy tale The Shadow and learned that a shadow without a body is the most dangerous thing of all. Suffice it to say that Andersen’s fairy tale put an end to my shadow games.   

The shadows in Hallowe’en are friendly. I wrote about P.L. Travers’s concept of the shadow in a previous blog post. If you are interested, you can read it here. In this blog post I want to spend some time exploring a contradiction in the story.

Yes, this is what happens when you read the same story repeatedly; you see things you did not see the first time, or even the second time around.  

It is the night of Hallowe’en, and everybody is fast asleep when Jane and Michael Banks wake up and find mysterious messages written on leaves left on their pillows. These are the leaves that the wind blew into their hands on their way back home from a stroll in the park. Mary Poppins had taken the leaves away before they could see the words written on them, but now they can read the messages. One leaf reads “Come” and the other “Tonight.” The children accept the invitation and follow their shadows to the park where other shadows are having a party.  

At first, Jane and Michael are a little scared, but the Bird Woman’s shadow reassures them. There is no need to be afraid, a shadow never did any harm to anyone. Then, after Jane and Michael Banks accidentally step on Mrs. Corry’s shadow, she tells them to pay attention, because shadows are extremely sensitive.

Mrs. Corry, an ancient crone and a friend of Mary Poppins, and Mary Poppins herself are the only people at the party with their shadows firmly attached to their feet.  

Mrs. Corry advises the children to take good care of their shadows or else their shadows will not take good care of them. This to me sounds much like a warning and reminds me of the perfect example of what happens to someone who does not take care of his shadow. 

The Shadow by Hans Christian Andersen begins in a hot country where the sun is very strong. A learned man from the cold regions is trying to acclimate to the heat but it is difficult. He loses weight, and his shadow shrivels to nothing. It is only in the evenings that it comes to life on the walls of the learned man’s room and stretches itself to regain its former strength.  

The learned man spends his evenings sitting on his balcony where he can observe the hustle and bustle of the city below, but he is mostly curious about the house across the street. Nobody ever comes out on its balcony, yet it has beautiful flowers that could not survive unless someone waters them regularly. 

One night, the learned man awakes and sees a light coming from the mysterious balcony. A beautiful maiden, all aglow, is standing amidst the flowers. The learned man jumps out of bed and creeps behind the curtain to get a better look, but it is too late, the maiden is already gone. 

One evening, not long after this brief vision, the learned man notices that his shadow is cast on the maiden’s balcony. Jokingly, he suggests to his shadow to slide through the half-opened door and have a look around and come back to tell him who lives there.  The shadow accepts the learned man’s proposal and disappears into the confines of the house but then, it does not return. 

Many years pass, the learned man is back to his cold country where he spends his time writing books about what is true, good and beautiful in life. Only, no one cares about such things and the learned man is deeply grieved. Then one evening his shadow, now with a fleshed-out body and wearing lavish clothes, shows up at his door. From this moment on, the story takes a dark turn. The learned man gradually becomes the shadow of his own shadow and then dies by its hand.  

However, before this tragic end, the shadow reveals all about his solo journey. The learned man discovers that Poetry lived in the house opposite theirs.  It is there that the shadow learns all that there was to be learned, although it had to stay in the twilight of the antechambers, or it would have been consumed by the light. 

Despite its human body, the shadow retains its ability to change its shape and size and that is what allows him to peak into other people’s homes and discover their darkest secrets. The knowledge of people’s dirty deeds allows the shadow to manipulate them to give him all he wants in exchange for his silence.  Andersen’s story is clearly a metaphor for the dark side of the learned man’s psyche and his refusal to acquaint himself with his own darkness.

I do not know if the contradiction between the words of the Bird’s Woman shadow and Mrs. Corry’s advice in Hallowe’en was intentional on P.L. Travers’s part, but it is possible, she liked indirection and Andersen’s fairy tales were part of her childhood readings. The idea of free roaming shadows, I believe, was inspired, consciously or not, by Andersen’s fairy tale.  

I wish I could ask P.L. Travers about all this and more. Are our shadows good or are they bad? 

I will never know what P.L. Travers’s answer would have been, but I found mine most unexpectedly one evening after work, as I was walking in the parking lot towards my car. The light from the lamp posts hit my body at a fortuitous angle, and I saw three shadows stretching at my feet in three different directions. I had never noticed this phenomenon before, and I was awestruck by its revelation.  

We have more than one shadow! We have them all, the good, the bad and the ugly. Both P.L. Travers and Andersen are right, we better pay attention to them or else…  

Happy Halloween! 

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!

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. 

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

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

Abu Kassem Slippers 1

Illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers is mostly known for her Mary Poppins books but her literary contributions unfold beyond the fantastical world of her magical nanny. She was an explorer of a variety of spiritual esoteric traditions, more interested in experiencing life and extracting the truth as one extracts gold from the earth, than following the prescribed dogmas of organised religions. She weaved her spiritual notions into a spiderlike web of stories and musings about the mysteries of life.

In her seventies P.L. Travers was very much involved within the Gurdjieff Society and the study of the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Here is what is written in the Gurdjieff Review  about P.L. Travers:

It was her special skill in connecting or linking the pearls of spiritual tradition which was undoubtedly her greatest and perhaps her unique contribution to the activities of the [Gurdjieff] Society. She helped to set up and index the Society’s library to include not only all Gurdjieff’s books and those of Ouspensky, Nicoll, Walker and others pertaining to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also a comprehensive collection of major texts and works on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and so on.

While studying Sufism in the early 1970s, Pamela and her study group presented a dramatized reading of The Conference of the Birds, but only when she was satisfied that enough years had been given to a shared study of The Koran, the Hadith, the historical life of the Prophet, as well as the works of al-Ghazzali, Rumi, ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj, the question of al-Khidr (the Islamic green man) and dul-Quarnein (Alexander the Great).

Thus, P.L. Travers familiar with Middle Eastern tales, wrote her own retellings of two ancient stories for the first issue of Parabola in 1976 (a magazine she helped co-found) on the theme of Initiation: Abu Kassem’s Slippers and The Sandals of Ayaz. These two stories reappeared in 1980 as an illustrated story book under the title “Two Pairs of Shoes” and then in 1990 in the compilation of her essays “What the Bee Knows”.

In this post I want to entertain you with P.L. Travers’s retelling of Abu Kassem’s Slippers*.

Abu Kassem Slippers 2

Abu Kassem is a prosperous merchant who shamelessly displays his miserliness by walking around town with a pair of shabby slippers. One day, as he roams the bazaar for bargains, he successfully acquires a few beautiful crystal bottles and some attar of roses for a fraction of their value. On his way home he decides to celebrate his good fortune by stopping at the public hot baths for a soak. There he meets an acquaintance who tries to convince him to get new slippers. But, Abu Kassem disregards his friend’s suggestion because he lives by the adage: Want not, waste not.

When Abu Kassem comes out of the bath, he finds a pair of beautiful slippers instead of his own tattered ones, and without a shadow of a doubt, he assumes that it must have been his friend who has decided to gift him with these glittering new slippers. So, he happily puts them on and goes back home. Unfortunately for Abu Kassem, from the moment his feet enter the foreign slippers his life is turned upside down.

Abu Kassem Slippers 3

The new slippers were not a gift from his friend, but the slippers of the Cadi (judge) of Baghdad, who of course was not happy to find his slippers missing. Abu Kassem is found by the Cadi’s servants and is fined an enormous sum of money for the offense caused to the Cadi. Abu Kassem is outraged and tries to get rid of his slippers but at every attempt he makes to destroy them,  the wretched slippers come back and cause some sort of disaster for which Abu Kassem is blamed and must pay an onerous fine. At last, Abu Kassem begs the Cadi to free him from his slippers for they have completely ruined his fortune.

Abu Kassem Slippers 7

Why did P.L. Travers choose this story for the theme of initiation?

Because the story of Abu Kassem is one of failed initiation. Deep inside Abu Kassem resists to change his identity of a poor man for a new identity of a prosperous one and thus, fails to reach the next stage of his life. Abu Kassem’s survival fear of not having enough is a self-fulfilled prophecy that takes him right back to the starting point of his journey.

Abu Kassem Slippers 8

His frugality and shrewdness, once helpful to him, have turned into vices holding a powerful grip on his psyche, forbidding him to embrace his new identity. The inner world of Abu Kassem did not reflect the outer conditions of his life, and that conflict had to be resolved either by a conscious choice on his part, or by fate.  

The process of recognising that his values are no longer serving him, and that he is controlled by fear, is a long one for Abu Kassem.  When he tries to get rid of the slippers they just keep coming back. Even the elements of water, earth, fire, and air could not destroy them. Abu Kassem had to realize that the only way to throw them out of his life is through his personal transformation. And the first step of that transformation requires him to consciously integrate his survival fear of not having enough. It is this fear that compels him to hoard material goods and to alienate himself from others.

Abu Kassem Slipeprs 6

Abu Kassem’s story shows us the pattern of resistance and the consequences that ensue when we choose to cling to an out-worn identity. Life is everchanging, and we as part of life are everchanging too, even when we desperately cling to identities that no longer serve us. We have a choice, the story tells us, we either shed our old self to allow the new one to emerge, or like Abu Kassem, we arrest our inner growth and regress in life. There is no middle ground.

Change will occur anyhow, and we must pay attention to the warnings life sends us if we are to avoid disaster. Abu Kassem is advised by his friend that it is time to change his slippers. But he refuses to listen. How familiar is this to you? How many times have you refused to listen to life’s signs and warnings?  Can we all learn from the mistakes of Abu Kassem just in time before our own out-worn slippers teach us the hard way? Surely, P.L. Travers believed that stories could teach us the ways of life. And, maybe it is time to believe her and stop looking at myths, folk tales and fairy tales as means for entertainment.

* retold from the Thamarat Ul-Awark (Fruit of Leaves) of Ibn Hijjat Al-Hamawi

Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

The Little Prince Mary Poppins

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry masterfully shaped his story The Little Prince into a fairy tale, illustrated with his naïve, childlike drawings. However, despite the child-friendly appearances of the story, Saint-Exupéry did not, just as Pamela L. Travers, intend to write a children’s book. And, even if The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are enjoyed by children, both characters communicate the life experiences of their authors, and their hard-learned life lessons; they speak to the child within the grown-up reader, they talk about what these authors believed to be true in life.   

Nonetheless, The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are still, more often than not, perceived by many as whimsical stories unrelated to life as we know it, only meant to amuse children. And that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate that today we have no time to ponder on the real meaning of the fairy tales; as the fox in the The Little Prince remarks:

People never have the time to understand anything that is worthwhile. They buy everything ready made in the shops. That’s why people don’t have friends, because they can’t buy friends in the shops.

Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince during his exile in the United States in 1943. The story contains some biographical elements and we can interpret The Little Prince as the expression of the author’s feelings of loneliness and isolation in a world torn by war, a world populated by:

one hundred and eleven kings (including the African kings), seven thousand geographers, nine-hundred thousand businessmen, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million egoists; in other words, about two billion grown-ups.

And of course, needless to say, these numbers have largely increased since 1943.

But beyond the personal, the journey of the Little Prince can be viewed as an allegory of the death of the inner child; the loss of connection with one’s own heart and with that, the loss of the ability to truly connect with other human beings. All the grown-up characters in the story live alone on their separate planets, unconscious of their pathetic predicament, unconscious of their inability to fully embrace their aliveness and the vastness of the world beyond their limited conceptions.

The Little Prince had to leave the Earth because it was a strange place to live, “It’s dry and sharp and hard. And people have no imagination. They repeat whatever you say to them.

And that is a sad moral, unless of course one succeeds in transcending the death of innocence by keeping an eye on the stars…

Pamela L. Travers was also in the United States at the time when The Little Prince was published in April 1943, and it happened so that she reviewed it in an article that was published in The New York Herald.

Since Pamela L. Travers was a dweller of the fairy tales world, she knew that fairy tales are allegories of our human experiences and that their morals can be applied in our own existence. She wrote in her review:

The Little Prince certainly has the three essentials required by children’s books. It is true in the most inward sense, it offers no explanations and it has a moral. But this particular moral attaches the book to the grown-up world rather than the nursery. To be understood it needs a heart stretched to the utmost suffering and love, the kind of heart luckily is not often found in children.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

Pamela L. Travers also knew that precisely because of its allegorical style the story of The Little Prince had a chance to penetrate deeper into the inner world of the reader, beyond the confines of the mind, and reach the reader’s inner child homeland, the reader’s heart.

We can not go back to the world of childhood. We are too tall now and must stay with our own kind. But perhaps there is a way of going forward to it. Or better still, of bearing it along with us; carrying the lost child in our arms so that we may measure all things in terms of that innocence. Everything Saint-Exupéry writes has that sense of heightened life that can be achieved only when the child is still held by the hand.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

During the Second World War Pamela L. Travers was drawn into the national and international propaganda coordination effort between the Office of War Information Department of the Roosevelt administration and the British Ministry of Information. The network that formed between these two establishments reached out to contributors from the literary and journalist communities. And this is how Pamela L. Travers was asked to do some radio broad casting to all the occupied countries. Interestingly, she used in her radio programs the same communication tactics as the one employed by Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince:

How could I speak to anyone except speaking to their child? And so to every country I did broadcast on their fairy tales, their legends, their folklore.

Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valery Lawson

The Little Prince never explained anything, nor did Mary Poppins, nor Pamela L. Travers for that matter. But truth does not need explaining, what it needs is a childlike-heart because as the fox in the story tells us “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

What had been here – some stately office? A bank? A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remain forever, as they say, invulnerable and invisible – surely these children were dancing now through forgotten board-meetings, and shades of accountants. lawyers, clerks. Or, if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire of London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontosaurs; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble, start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet? And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three little boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know. And neither do we.

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests no man has seen- do they not still go on growing? Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

_____________________________

*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”

Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

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During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

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I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

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So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.