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.:
Child of the bright head
Take now your myrrh
and incense as we
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.
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.
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.