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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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