Some Thoughts on the Descriptions in the Mary Poppins Books

The Complete Mary Poppins cover page

The world of Mary Poppins is a whimsical place where inanimate objects come alive and animals talk, where stars come down to Earth and children go up in the sky, or deep down in the ocean. A world where Kings climb on rainbows and cows dance to exhaustion, where people laugh so hard that they fly up to the ceiling, and where fictional characters come out of the pages of their books. Everything in this magical universe imagined by P.L. Travers is alive and endowed with consciousness. It is so vivid and vibrant with life that it begs a question. How did she conceive of it?

Of course, P.L. Travers’s spiritual inclinations play an important part in her creative process but there is something else. There is something particular in these stories that resonates with young children (and with our inner child, if we let it). What is it?

P.L. Travers did not keep it a secret. She said that she remembered herself as a child.

To be aware of having been a child – and who I am but the child I was, wounded scared and dirtied but sill essentially that child, for essence cannot change – to be aware of and in touch with this fact is to have the whole long body of one’s life at one’s disposal, complete and unfragmented.

I Never Wrote for Children, P.L. Travers 1978

P.L. Travers remembered how she perceived the world as a young child and how she explained it to herself. In some of her essays written in her old age and compiled in What The Bee Knows, she shared some childhood recollections and revealed, at least in part, young Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L. Travers’s real name); a deeply inquisitive child with great observational skills and adventurous temperament. 

What the bee knows Mary Poppins

As young children we filter the world through our feelings and sensations and then we begin to apprehend it, from what psychologist term, an animistic point of view.  For young children anything that moves is alive and thus capable of thoughts and emotions.  

The first psychologist to come up with the concept of animism as a developmental stage in children’s cognitive development was Jean Piaget. He observed how his own children perceived the world and he remarked that they often attributed human emotions to inanimate objects.  In a book I recently read, On Looking, the author Alexandra Horowitz gives examples of Piaget’s observations. She wrote that one of his daughters told him that “the sky is a man who goes up in a balloon and makes the clouds and everything and that another explained to him that the “sun goes to bed because it is sad” and that boats pulled out of the water are “asleep”.

Piaget believed young children were making an “animistic mistake”. Today psychologists believe that animism is an expression of the young child’s imagination that shows us the child’s understanding of the word. Simply, the child is making analogies with what she has learned so far about the world in order  to elucidate a new experience.

P.L. Travers kept her childlike ability to perceive the surrounding world in animistic terms and that allowed her to create a world relatable for young children. This ability is displayed in some of the descriptions in the Mary Poppins stories. Here are a few examples. 

All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps.

John and Barbara’s Story, Mary Poppins (1934), P.L. Travers

 

Tick-Tack! Tik-tock!

The pendulum of the Nursery clock swung backwards and forwards like an old lady nodding her head.

Tick -Tack! Tik-tock!

Then the clock stopped ticking and began to whir and growl, quietly at first and then more loudly, as though it were in pain. And as it whirred it shook so violently that the whole mantelpiece trembled.

Bad Wednesday, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

The summer day was hot and still. The cherry trees that bordered the Lane could feel their cherries ripening – the green slowly turning to yellow and the yellow blushing red.

The houses dozed in the dusty gardens with their shutters over their eyes. “Do no disturb us!” they seemed to say.

Every Goose a Swan, Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), P.L. Travers

It was a Round-the-Mulberry-Bush sort of morning, cold and rather frosty. The pale grey daylight crept through the Cherry Trees and lapped like water over the houses. A little wind moaned through the gardens. It darted across the Park with a whistle and whined along the lane.

“Brrrrrr!” said Number Seventeen. “What can be that wretched wind be doing -howling and fretting around like a ghost! Hi! Stop that, can’t you? You are making me shiver!”

The Other Door, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), P.L. Travers

The Complete Mary Poppins back cover

The Mary Poppins stories regaled me a great deal as a child. I enjoyed the fantastical aspects precisely because I knew that things did not work quite the way they did in fairy tales. Although, many times I wish they did. Still, I knew, what happened in books remained in books. There was no confusion between the fictional reality and my own reality.

Today, as an adult reader of these stories, I have a quite different understanding. It turns out that the fictional reality of Mary Poppins is connected to our nonfictional everyday reality. What fascinates me now are the hidden meanings of the Mary Poppins adventures and the workings of P.L. Travers’s imagination.

But I still enjoy the descriptions in the books for the same reason I liked them as a child. I like how P.L. Travers creates an atmosphere of aliveness. Anything in the Mary Poppins world has the potential for interaction with its inhabitants. Anything can become a portal to another dimension of time and space.

And, all this thinking about the aliveness of the Mary Poppins world made me think about our own “ordinary” world and how it may appear dull in comparison. Yet, is it really less alive and beguiling than the magical one imagined by P.L. Travers? How much of the aliveness around us do we dismiss each day?

Just because animals and vegetation do not use human language it does not mean they do not communicate. And even if we know that inanimate objects do not have feelings we can still stop and notice what feelings they invoke in us. Could it be that by being oblivious to the aliveness of our surrounding world we become oblivious to our own aliveness?  

It is unfortunate that so many of us lose the ability to wonder as life experience accumulates and familiarity sets in. The child that once was in a state of discovery ends up shut off from the mystery of the world. I recently came upon this quote from Einstein:

 The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all true science. Whoever does not know it, who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.

Albert Einstein

The child you once were will show you marvels hidden in plain sight.

 

Mary Poppins, Rainbows, the Psychology of Hope and the Virtues of Joy and Serenity

Robertson Ay Story Mary Poppins

Drawings of rainbows are popping up, like mushrooms overnight, on many windows in my neighbourhood. As I count them on my walks, I realize that the rainbow has become our modern-day symbol of hope. Our rational minds know that the ultimate salvation from the COVID 19 pandemic will come from a scientific breakthrough in the form of a vaccine, but in the meantime, while science is wanting, our hearts need hope.

According to findings in the field of positive psychology, the emotion of hope is a result of our hopeful thinking. The hopeful thought induces feelings of hopefulness. Then, our hopeful thoughts and emotions transform into a belief in the possibility for our wishes to become a reality. Which in turn makes us resilient in the face of adversity and prompts us to action towards the desired result. But, in the flood of bad news and scary images how are we to think hopeful thoughts? The fear can be so overwhelming that our brains are paralysed like a deer caught in the headlights of an upcoming car.  And if we cannot think hopeful thoughts then there is no hope to feel hopeful. Or is there?

Actually, there is a way of simultaneously nudging our thoughts and emotions into the desired direction. Symbols are the tools used for that purpose since the dawn of humanity.

The rainbow is the perfect illustration of the wordless, yet effective, communication of a symbol. Its message is clear. Be patient and resilient because just like a bad storm this pandemic too shall pass, and something beautiful will come out of it.

A rainbow path appears at the end of Robertson Ay’s Story in Mary Poppins Comes Back (the book, not the movie!) and although its meaning is not one of hope, I believe that the story is interesting to examine in the context of the current pandemic.

Robertson Ay Story

Mary Poppins takes the Banks children to the park where they encounter a peculiar character.

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.

He was whistling loudly and as he drew nearer they saw that the peaks of his tunic, and the brim of his hat, were edged with little bells that jingled musically as he moved. He was the strangest person they had ever seen and yet-there was something about him that seemed familiar.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

This is the Dirty Rascal from the Nursery Rhyme and Robertson Ay from the Banks’ household. The children are intrigued and want to know more about him. So, Mary Poppins tells them the story of the Dirty Rascal’s visit to the King of the Castle. Here it goes.

The King of the Castle has everything in the world except wisdom, and because of his lack of wisdom he is disrespected not only by his people but also by the Queen. Eventually, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor take over rule of the kingdom. In the meantime, professors are summoned to the Castle to teach the King some wisdom. As is the custom in fairy tales, a generous price is allotted to the professor who successfully completes the task. Of course, those who fail will see their heads cut off, and in this particular story, spiked on the Castle gates. Many professors try to teach the King some wisdom but to no avail. They all lose their heads while the King sinks deeper into his depression.  

One day the Dirty Rascal shows up at the castle. He becomes the King’s Fool and only friend. Together they set on fire all of the King’s books and spend their time singing and dancing joyfully around the castle.  Obviously, the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor do not approve of the King’s behaviour, which in their minds only confirms the King’s poor judgement.

When the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor learn that the Chief Professor will be visiting the Kingdom, in one last desperate attempt to reason the King, they invite the Chief Professor to the Castle.

A witty discussion takes place between the King of the Castle and the Chief Professor.

“How deep is the sea?”

“Deep enough to sail a ship on.”

Again, the Chief Professor stared and his long beard quivered. He was smiling.

“What is the difference, Majesty, between a star and a stone, a bird and a man?”

“No difference at all, Professor. The stone is a star that shines not. A man is a bird without wings.”

The Chief Professor drew nearer and gazed wonderingly at the King.

“What is the best thing in the world?” he asked quietly.

“Doing nothing”, answered the King waving his bent sceptre.

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

At the end, the Chief Professor tells the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor that the King does not need his services and that the price goes rightfully to the Fool, who after all, has taught the King how to be wise.

At that moment, a rainbow path appears down from the sky and the King of the Castle follows the Dirty Rascal on it, throwing down his crown and sceptre. The King leaves behind his old identity and all that no longer serves his higher good. Power, prestige and riches are no longer important to him. Nor is the approval of the Queen and the Lord High Chancellor.

Midway through the climb the King decides to sit and rest for a while.

 “You won’t be lonely?” the Fool enquired.

“Oh, dear, no. Why should I be? It is very quiet and pleasant up here. And I can always think – or better still, go to sleep.”

Robertson Ay’s Story, Mary Poppins Comes Back, P.L. Travers

Rainbow me-time.jpg

Whimsical as Robertson Ay’s Story may appear at first, and amusing as it may be to young children, it is in truth an allegory meant for the adult readers.

P.L. Travers tells us, in a nutshell, that books alone cannot bestow wisdom. Accumulation of factual knowledge is not enough to help us live the good life. For that, we must consider the virtues of playfulness and the benefits of spending some alone time. Both, attributes that are currently undervalued in our modern-day societies.  In truth, we can aspire to gain wisdom only if we practice mindful alternation between periods of activity (while adopting a playful attitude) and rest and self-reflection.

P.L. Travers wrote this story in 1935 when she was in her mid-thirties, and today positive psychology confirms that the emotion of joy (playfulness) gives us momentum and optimism, it makes us eager about the world and open to new experiences and opportunities.  Joy allows us psychological flexibility and gives us courage to explore new avenues. By having a playful attitude in life, we are more willing to let go of old preconceived ways of thinking. To be playful is to be fully alive, alert, curious and available for an authentic connection with others.

At the same time, we also need rest to process our experiences internally. We are creatures dwelling simultaneously in two different worlds. That is not, as we all know, an easy task. Often times there is a great gab between our inner world and the outer, visible, collective world. Wisdom is the bridge that can help us unite and harmonise our experiences of these two worlds.    

Maybe the disruption of our habitual ways of living caused by COVID-19, will bring some positive changes. Maybe we will come out of this experience with a better understanding of what really matters to us.  Maybe this forced quiet time at home will allow us to see that there is no need to rush life, it is already short as it is. Maybe we will admit that we need to make more space in our schedules for those we love and for the things that feed our souls even if that does not translate into dollars. Maybe we will come to see that business is a distraction, the greatest waste of our precious time on this planet. Maybe we will truly understand that the pursuit of ever-increasing profit is alienating us from each other and from our planet.

And, maybe it sounds absurd and insensitive to talk about play and rest in a time of great suffering, but for those of us who are privileged with health and sheltered away from the front lines, let us use this time to connect with ourselves and hear the music to which we want to dance. Each individual choice has an effect on the collective.  Because this too shall pass. Then what?

I am willing to be hopeful.

 

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books by Julia Kunz

Intertextuality Mary Poppins

Julia Kunz’s book Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books is a short, scholarly work written in a very straightforward manner. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Mary Poppins books, and like me, in P.L. Travers’s creative process. The pages of this book are filled with accurate observations and I believe that P.L. Travers would have been pleased with Kunz’s analysis of the Mary Poppins’s stories, except maybe for Kunz’s comments about Gurdjieff  (P.L.Travers’s spiritual teacher) in chapter seven.

There are two threads in Kunz’s book as the title itself suggests. One leads towards an explanation of the conceptual interconnections between the Mary Poppins stories and the childhood readings of P.L. Travers, and the second leads the reader towards a short demonstration, in the light of Freud’s concept of the ‘uncanny’, of some psychological aspects in the Mary Poppins stories.

Apparently, the method of connecting psychology and literature in order to extract meaning originates with Freud, and thus Kunz’s psychological analysis points to repressed childhood wishes expressed in the Mary Poppins stories. However, she does not connect the psychological features of the stories with P.L. Travers’s psychological struggles.  But then, there is so much to tell about P.L. Travers and her Mary Poppins, that clearly one book can’t cover it all.

What is intertextuality? It is a concept used in the literary field. Literary scholars view any given text as a network of texts, which implies that authors don’t create independently in a vacuum, but rather link, consciously or not, previously read literary and non-literary texts.  Kunz’s thesis is that some of the Mary Poppins stories (from the first four books of the series) can clearly be linked to Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the works of E. Nesbit, and of course, to fairy tales.

Psychology Mary Poppins

For example, and without any spoilers, Kunz links the story of Halloween* with the shadow of Peter Pan, Alice’s chaotic experiences down the rabbit hole with the strange adventures of Jane and Michael, and the story of the Marble Boy ** with Nesbit’s book The Enchanted Castle.

Kunz also makes extremely interesting, in my opinion,  parallels between Nesbit and P.L. Travers’s life experiences. Apparently, both these authors experienced early childhood trauma; Nesbit just like P.L. Travers lost her father at an early age and had a difficult relationship with her mother. Both had an interest in spirituality and esoteric teachings, and both led quite unconventional lives.

In her work Edith Nesbit then attempts to revive a female mythology, drawing on the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant (cf. Knoepflmacher 1989, 320), just as Travers instils her writings with the esoteric teachings of Gurdjieff, whose cosmogony is in part linked to that of Blavatsky.

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books, Julia Kunz

I was pleased to read Kunz’s assertion of the value of the Mary Poppins books for the adult reader.  Kunz points to one obvious fact, yet one that is still largely disregarded by the public:

P.L. Travers transmits her knowledge to the reader on an unconscious level. The Mary Poppins stories tackle universal problems in symbolical ways but also with the help of parables and fables modeled on the traditional fairy tale structure.

The conclusion of the book is that the Mary Poppins stories offer an endless ground for exploration, and that is something that fills me with joy and encouragement.  This year I am revisiting the Mary Poppins books with the intention of compiling my own ideas and connections and hopefully writing the book I’ve been dreaming to write since I started blogging about P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins.

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* A story in which shadows are having a party on the lawn outside of the Bank’s house.

**A story about a marble statue that comes to live.