Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part I) 

Brothers Grimm 2

This blog post begins the exploration of Pamela L. Travers’s beliefs about womanhood. According to her biographer, Pamela L. Travers loved the threefold concept of the Mother Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. For that reason, Lawson cleverly organized Pamela L. Travers’s biography in three parts: The Nymph (1899-1934), The Mother (1934-1965), The Crone (1965-1996). 

Although, I doubt that Pamela spent much time pondering on how this progression from one stage to the other occurred in a woman’s life. She wrote in her short essay “Grimm’s Women that the mere fact of having been born on the side of Yin was sufficient. A woman was what you inevitably, and willingly, became as the seed becomes a flower“.  

Well, this assertion clearly implies that Pamela believed in a naturally unfolding process of maturation comparable to the blooming of a flower or the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Human’s growth though is not linear nor smooth. The natural aging of the body does not necessarily equate to a mature mind and heart. Many factors in a woman’s life can prevent a healthy maturation. And it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers’s own maturation process was interrupted by painful childhood experiences such as the early and sudden death of her father and her mother’s suicide attempt

In her essay “Grimm’s Women” Pamela recounts being caught up in the street by a female acquaintance who wanted to learn how to be a woman, so she asked Pamela for advice. After a brief introspection, Pamela responded Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and then, without any further explanation, left her acquaintance standing, flabbergasted, on the corner of the street. 

At first, knowing about Pamela L. Travers’s childhood, this response did not surprise me. Pamela was brought up (or more accurately brought herself up) on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and kept a lifelong love for their collection of folk tales. References of these tales appear time and time again in her essays and interviews.  

However, reading the essay (which is only 3 pages) felt like trying to snorkel in murky waters.  What was Pamela L. Travers trying to communicate to the reader?  I could read the words, and although they read like there was some sense in them, I couldn’t figure out the message. Was she trying to articulate in a poetic fashion that there were many different ways of being a woman? That was not a satisfactory response for me. But then I thought, if this essay was first published in The New York Times then maybe the reason for my incomprehension was  my lack of knowledge of the Grimm’s tales. So, I decided to educate myself and cross over from the Disney Hemisphere of the World into the Old World of the original Fairy Tales.  

Luckily for me there was only one available edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in my local book store. I say luckily because if there was another one with a prettier cover I would have chosen it over the one I ended up buying, and I would have probably ended up with the seventh edition of these tales. It turns out, the Brothers Grimm, mostly one of them, Wilhelm kept adding and modifying the tales that were first published in 1812. So, this is how I accidently bought the first translation in English of the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The collection of folk tales in this edition is probably the truest one to the oral tradition which the Brothers Grimm wanted to preserve, at least at the beginning of their project. (The story of the brothers Grimm is also interesting but that is another subject.)  

This of course means that I did not read the exact versions which Pamela read as a child and reread later on in her life. This first English translation of the first edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales was undertook in 2012, some 16 years after Pamela’s death, but that doesn’t change much for the purposes of this post.  (I know Pamela would have loved to read it.) And besides, even after six more editions the Grimm fairy tales remain renowned for their grimness. 

Most people know the Disney versions of only a hand full of the Grimm’s stories and these new versions are largely sanitized for entertaining purposes. All of the original violence is completely left out. Pamela disliked the inflation of the animal world in the Disney animated cartoons and the corresponding deflation of the human impulses depicted in these stories. 

However,  these tales are not and were not specifically meant for children. The folk tales were something of a house tale, people would recite them in social gatherings.   

The Brothers Grimm relied on many people to bring  these stories to them and the surprising (at least to me) fact is that many of these stories were told to the brothers by women, some from aristocratic families and other simple peasants. Why is it surprising?  

Because in most of these stories the violence is more often than not directed towards women. For the most part the princesses (the maidens) in these fairy tales are passive victims, betrayed by their own parents or by an evil stepmother, waiting to be saved by a valiant prince. Even the ones that have more active roles in the stories somehow end up naked in a forest or a cave and must endure incredible trials in total silence under penalty of death, and for what? For the sake of saving lost brothers or to get back lost lovers. Yes, some of the princes in these stories forget their princesses and get a second bride.  

I know that Pamela preached that fairy tales should be experienced in order to grasp their true meaning but isn’t it a strange advice to tell a woman to model herself on the female heroines of the Grimm’s stories? Either you remain a passive victim and hope for rescue or you chose the evil side and die in dire pain.

I believe these tales to be descriptive of human dynamics and also of hopes for justice in life but they no longer apply to the realities of modern women. This is why there are so many new adaptations of these stories in movies and books.  

There are only 2 stories out of 156 about intelligent women. The story of The Clever Farmer’s Daughter in which an intelligent woman of lower ranking becomes the king’s wife but then almost gets killed by her husband when he realizes that she might be even smarter than him. And then there is the story of the lazy wife, The Lazy Spinner, who dislikes spinning yarn and finally gets her own way by outsmarting her husband.  If I had to model myself to any of the Grimm’s Women these would be my chosen examples. But Pamela never spoke of those.  (Maybe they were not included in the seventh edifion, I will have to verify…) She spoke of other heroines and they will be the subject of the next post on this blog. Hope you stay tuned. 

 

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About the Sleeping Beauty (Part V)

Sleeping Beauty 5

When I wrote the post About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I) I did not expect to have material for more than a couple of posts. Yet, here we are, Part V with the subject still not exhausted… There are simply so many things to be said…about the book and about Pamela L. Travers.

It is of course impossible to get a completely undistorted image of another person, especially when one does not have the opportunity of a direct experience. Fortunately, in the case of writers we have their work to dissect and investigate.  Willingly or not, they always leave something of themselves in their works and Pamela L. Travers was no exception to that rule.

Sleeping Beauty’s inability to cross the threshold in to maidenhood

Pamela L. Travers was not the only one interested in the meaning of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, Joseph Campbell, the renowned American mythologist and writer, was also amongst those who commented on its meaning. Although, his vision, in opposition to Pamela’s, was quite clear and affirmative. He saw in this fairy tale the pattern of a little girl refusing to grow up. (I wonder, did Pamela know of Campbell’s work? What did she think of it? Wish I had the answers…) Anyhow, in my opinion, Campbell’s interpretation is probably closer to the truth of the fairy tale than Pamela’s fabrications, original as they may be.

Yet, can we really talk about a refusal to grow up? Doesn’t the word refusal imply a conscious decision not to do something? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Sleeping Beauty was unable to move on to the next stage in her life? The question then is why? What caused her inability?

Sleeping Beauty is locked into her childhood by the power of the Thirteenth Wise Woman’s spell, but the spell is the consequence of something else. And that something else is directly related to Sleeping Beauty’s inability to grow.

Why didn’t Pamela L. Travers consider these questions in her Afterword? Maybe because she failed to properly identify, both, the nature of the threshold which the princess had to cross, and the identity of the guardians of that threshold. Pamela, in my opinion mistakenly, saw the Thirteen Wise Woman as the guardian of the threshold in Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale:

The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as a guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed.  …. Without the Wicked Fairy, there would have been no story. She, not the heroine, is the goddess in the machine.”

But isn’t the purpose of thresholds and their guardians to test the heroine’s ability to move on to the next stage of her journey. Aren’t they the psychic growing pains of the heroine?  Thresholds and their guardians are intimately linked to the heroine and not to the story. Without the heroine, there is no story. And, if it was for the Thirteenth Wise Woman, there would have been no story, her spell was one of death. It was the Twelfth Wise Woman who modified the spell to a hundred-year sleep.

Who are then the guardians of the threshold in the story? Well, since the princess is arrested in her childhood it is only logical to turn our attention towards her parents and to examine their roles in the story.

The Sultan and the Sultana as the threshold guardians in the story

The true cause of Sleeping Beauty’s stunted growth is caused by her parents’ inadequate nurturing skills. After all, it was her father’s error of judgment, his lack of consideration for the Thirteenth Wise Woman that aroused her vengefulness to which the unfortunate Sleeping Beauty happened to be the recipient?  

And in Pamela L. Travers’s retelling, the Sultan was not quite happy with the birth of the child:

The Sultan received the news with satisfaction tempered with disappointment. “I could have asked for nothing better, except, of course, a son. … we need a successor to the throne and a son would have been very useful.” At that, as though she felt herself to be unwelcomed, the baby set up a doleful weeping…

Now after this, how can one expect the Sultan to be fully involved and interested in his daughter’s growth?

Why did Pamela add this detail to the story? Was that her experience too? It is possible. She was the eldest of three daughters. Maybe her father longed for a son too…Maybe this is why Pamela felt inadequate…

Still, the responsibility of Sleeping Beauty’s fate does not all fall on the Sultan’s shoulders. The Sultana does have a role to play even though Pamela L. Travers does not dwell much on it in her Afterword. But curiously enough, in her retelling, she elaborates on the  Sultana’s longing for a child:

Here,” she (the Sultana) said touching her belly. “And here,” she said, touching her breast. “And here” she said, touching the inner crease of her elbow, “I ache for what I lack”.

And then after the baby is born:

“…the Sultana holding her baby in her arms, was utterly content. She had no ache anywhere and she felt that she lacked nothing.”

Now, if Sleeping Beauty was filling the hole in her mother’s heart how can one expect the Sultana to be willing to let go of Sleeping Beauty and set her free when the time comes? Isn’t the passivity of the Sultana and her unwillingness to contradict her husband in the story just that, the unwillingness to lead her daughter into maidenhood.

Could it be that the story is telling us that Sleeping Beauty’s fate is the consequence of her parents’ mistakes; that no matter how many virtues a child may posses if those virtues are not recognized by the parents, chances are the child will remain unconscious of its intrinsic value, unless brought to its attention by some loving presence, in this case the prince. 

The Sultan’s and Sultana’s absence from the palace on the fatidic day of Sleeping Beauty’s fifteenth birthday is another representation of their inadequate parenting, their inability to lead their child to the next stage of her life.

And by choosing to turn the key on the door leading to the unknown, Sleeping Beauty begins her adventure into the underworld of her unconscious mind. The adventure to which Gurdjieff, Pamela’s guru, called his followers:

The real adventure to which he (Gurdjieff) calls any man courageous enough to attempt it is that of daring to look down into the abyss of his own unconscious. Can we, like Theseus, enter our inner labyrinth, at the risk of never meeting the Minotaur, of never seeing daylight again, deceived by an infernal game of echoes and false exits as in a never-ending course of psychoanalysis.

René Zuber, “Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?

What goes on in Sleeping Beauty’s unconscious mind?  The story doesn’t tell, but the fact that the princess needs the prince’s help suggests that she was lost into her inner labyrinth. Why didn’t Pamela explore that aspect? I wish someone asked her that question?

Another thought comes to mind. I read an excerpt somewhere from one of Gurdjieff’s talks (which unfortunately I cannot trace back now and quote) and which is relevant here because it deals with family history and karmic bonds. The basic idea was that we all, in our lives, pay for our ancestors’ actions. It would have been interesting to ask Pamela about that too…

Now, why was it that Pamela L. Travers did not see the most simple and obvious interpretation of the story? Why was she looking for some other mystical explanation?  Could it be that she was Sleeping Beauty in her own life?