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!

Bad Tuesdays with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday compass.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

“Bad Tuesday” is a story in the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 in which Mary Poppins, with the help of a compass, takes the Banks children on a trip around the world. In a flash, Jane and Michael experience the vastness and variety of our human world. With a shake of the compass, they are transported to the North Pole where they meet with an Eskimo family. Then, to the South where they encounter a family with a skin much darker than their own. In the East the children are greeted by a Chinese Mandarin, and by a tribe of Indians on their last destination in the West. All the characters in this adventure are friends of Mary Poppins. The different attires, manner of speech and greeting customs are not experienced by the children as something threatening, but on the contrary, as something extremely exciting and enjoyable.  

Yet, many years after its first publication the story underwent two alterations for socio-political reasons. The first revision, which left the plot of the story untouched, occurred in 1971. Then, in 1980 the San Francisco Public Library removed Mary Poppins from its shelves because of alleged racist references and derogatory treatment of minorities. Lawson, P.L. Travers’s biographer, reports that P.L. Travers was angry with her publisher at that time for not defending her loudly enough. In fact, P.L. Travers learned about the unfortunate event from her friends.  

After pondering whether she should stick to her artistic expression or risk to see her book banished from more shelves, P.L. Travers  decided to rewrite the story. With a stroke of her pen, she changed the colorful trip around the world into a wildlife nature expedition. In this last version of the story, which is now in print, the Banks children meet a Polar Bear, a Hyacinth Macaw, a Panda and a Dolphin.  

Mary Poppins Bad Tuesday Revised.jpg

Original illustration by Mary Shepard

Now, was the original story racist? This is the question that will be explored in this blogpost.  

The major issue with “Bad Tuesday” was brought to P.L. Travers’s attention in 1971 by her friend Dr. Francelia Butler. She told P.L. Travers how embarrassed she felt when reading the story to the black students in her class. Her embarrassment being caused by the words “Negro lady” and “a picaninny baby” as well as the picaninny language used by the characters.    

Beneath the palm trees sat a man and a woman, both quite black all over and with a  very few clothes on. But to make up for this they wore a great many beads – some hung  round their heads just below great crowns of feathers (….). On the knee of the negro lady  sat a tiny black picaninny with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers 1934 

P.L. Travers decided to alter the descriptions and dialogues in this section of the story because “if even one Black child were troubled, or she (Dr. Francelia Butler) were troubled, I would have to alter it.” 

 So, the description was redrafted and read: 

Under the palm-trees sat a man and a woman as black and shiny and plum as a ripe  plum, and wearing very few clothes. But to make up for this they wore a great many  beads. (…) And on the knee of the dark lady sat a tiny plum-black baby with nothing on at all. It smiled at the children as its Mother  spoke.  

“Bad Tuesday”, Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, redraft published in 1972 

This time around the characters expressed themselves in formal English. 

P.L Travers accepted to be interviewed about this first revision of “Bad Tuesday”. The interview was published in Interracial Books for Children in Vol.3, 1974. She said:  

I have no racism in me. I wasn’t born with it. And it’s never happened inside of me. And therefore, I feel perfectly at ease and at home no matter what color anybody’s skin is. I was brought up in a family and in a world where there was no hint of racism of any kind (…) I was brought up by large minded people who never had any sense of racism at all. 

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

P.L. Travers was just like her Mary Poppins, apolitical, a rebel and a freethinker.  She was completely engulphed in her imagination and her spiritual explorations which had to do with the much larger universal laws of creation. She was not interested in socio-cultural conventions. Hers was the world of myths and fairy tales, and the human experience of life on a larger scale. Not surprisingly, she said so herself. 

Literature and imagination are my world. I don’t like being pulled out from that world and being forced to live in a sociological world of which I am not a native habitant. Imagination is a pure thing. It is envisaging. Imagination does not depend upon the sociology of the time. More functional books do; imagination does not.(…) Mary Poppins is not a contemporary book. It is a timeless book, and probably it goes back a great deal to my own childhood.  

P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Revised: An Interview with P.L. Travers, Interracial Books for Children, Vol. 3, 1974 

This is P.L. Travers in a nutshell. This was not a statement made for the occasion. I have spent years reading her writings and interviews and listening to testimonials from people who knew her. This was truly her stance in life. It does not matter if you agree or not with her assertion about imagination not depending on the sociology of the time. What matters here is her subjective truth. What matters is the fact that she had no intention of being disrespectful towards other ethnic groups.  Her willingness to alter the story not once, but twice, proves just that.  

It is important here to note that the accusations of racism were raised in the socio-cultural context of North America many years after the story was first written. People in North America assumed that the characters in the story were from Africa. However, it is possible that their assumption was wrong. It is possible that these characters were inspired by P.L. Travers’s memories of or ideas about the Australian aboriginal tribes. Maybe this is what she meant when she told the interviewer that the story goes back to her childhood. P.L. Travers was born and raised in the Southern Hemisphere of the Earth. So, when Mary Poppins tells the compass to take her and the children to the South, that probably meant Australia. What’s more, in the early 1900’s, the newspapers in Australia contained Picaninny Pages and “negro” was not considered to be a socially unacceptable word. It was all just part of the reality of her life back then and it was absorbed into her imagination without any negative connotation.  

“Bad Tuesday” reflected P.L. Travers’s childhood fascination with people and stories. Encounters with people who were not part of her family, mostly the help, stimulated her imagination. These outsiders made her realize that she was living in a world much vaster than her household. And, let’s not forget another important aspect of her childhood. She was an avid reader. She loved to read fairy tales, fantasy and adventure novels. Her childhood readings included Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and the adventures of Buffalo Bill. 

The descriptions of the characters in “Bad Tuesday” may not have been accurate, but factual preciseness is beside the point here. Obvisouly, P.L. Travers did not use researched information for the portrayal of her characters. She simply pulled them out of the mixture of her childhood memories, readings and musings. Facts were never of a great concern for P.L. Travers. She was interested in big ideas. And, the original “Bad Tuesday” was a big idea kind of story. It was a story about the variety of human life on this planet and the possibility for all human beings, despite their socio-cultural differences, to be friends. It was a lesson in openness and willingness to take part in other people’s customs.  

Isn’t it a sad paradox that a story about diversity and inclusion was relegated to oblivion by misguided reading and interpretation? The story was not promoting racist ideas or making children believe that other ethnic groups were somehow inferior. It was just a story, an imaginative story, and a humorous one at that.   

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

 

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.

__________________________________________________________________

* 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.

Mary Poppins Returns after Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 movie Mary Poppins will be in movie theaters this Christmas, which makes me think that now is the right time to start the discussion about the film adaptations of Pamela L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. In my opinion, the best way to start this discussion is with a review of Disney’s movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013) starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Pamela L. Travers.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) dramatizes the making of the movie Mary Poppins. The screenplay is based on the tape recordings of the meetings between Walt Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers in 1961, and because we see these tapes and we hear Pamela L. Travers’s voice at the very beginning of the movie, we are led to believe that everything that happens on the screen is factually accurate. However, most of what goes on is fictional. And that, even if Robert Sherman tells us in the official movie interview that everything we see is a replica of what happened in the studio.

What are the fictional elements in this movie and what difference does it make anyway?

Let’s start from the beginning. How did Saving Mr. Banks come to be?

It all began when Australian producer Ian Collie read Valerie Lawson’s biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote. He decided to make a documentary about the life of Pamela L. Travers and, while working on the documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, he realized that there was “a good seed for a feature biopic”. His focus then shifted to the period of Pamela L. Travers’s life during which Walt Disney pursued the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories (which by the way spanned over almost 20 years). The screenplay finally zoomed in on the meeting between Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers which took place in California in 1961. At that time Pamela L. Travers had agreed to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, however her consent was conditional upon her approving the screenplay.

The Shadow of Mary Poppins

When Walt Disney Pictures were approached for the rights to use the tape recordings of these meetings, the negotiations ended up with Walt Disney Pictures purchasing the rights to the screenplay of Saving Mr. Banks and this is how Saving Mr. Banks became a tribute to Walt Disney. Ian Collie concedes that Saving Mr. Banks is not factually correct in all aspects but he believes that there is truth about the essence of Walt Disney and Pamela L. Travers.

It’s about that battle of wills between two polarising, contrasting figures, and that wonderful cultural battle between English literary high art and the king of populism, and her mistrust that he was going to sentimentalise it and make lots of money for his empire.

The cultural clash was real. However, nothing in the movie suggests that Pamela L. Travers’s views had any artistic/literary value. No scene in the movie acquaints the viewers with Pamela L. Travers’s literary background and her connections with literary giants such as George W. Russell, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw just to name a few. The only allusion (although unexplained to the uninformed viewer) to Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, George W. Russell, is in the scene where Pamela L. Travers (Emma Thomson), alone in her hotel room, is talking on the telephone with Mr. Russell. Only at that time Mr. Russell had long been dead. He died in 1935.

Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t explore either Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong love and extensive knowledge of fairy-tales and myths. Moreover, the movie remains silent about her spiritual beliefs, except maybe for the picture of a book on Gurdjieff’s teachings on Pamela L. Travers’s desk at the beginning of the movie, and a little Buddhist statuette that she unpacks in her hotel room in California. However, all these elements are of the utmost importance if one is truly interested in understanding the nature of the conflict between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Sadly, Saving Mr. Banks presents the disagreement between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney in an extremely simplistic way which prompts the viewers to pick a side: Creative Genius Walt Disney versus this delightfully malevolent character loaded with benign kind of vitriol, this nutty old lady who lives down the street, as, to my bitter disappointment, my all-time favorite actor Tom Hanks, described Pamela L. Travers.

But what if both opponents had their justifiable reasons? What if their differences were simply irreconcilable?

conflict

One thing is certain, it was not Walt Disney’s understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psychic pain caused by traumatic childhood experiences that solved the conflict. Nothing was known about her childhood at that time and the idea that Mary Poppins comes to save Mr. Banks, and by that meaning that Mary Poppins comes to save Pamela L. Travers’s father, was not Walt Disney’s either. It was the interpretation of Jenny Koralek, a friend of Pamela L. Travers. According to Jenny Koralek, Pamela L. Travers agreed with that interpretation but even if that was so, the reasons for writing the Mary Poppins stories do not explain the reasons for which Pamela L. Travers finally agreed to approve the screenplay of the Mary Poppins movie.  In any event, Pamela L. Travers’s difficult childhood could explain, at least partially, the creation of the Mary Poppins character but it does not explain the inner conflicts that fueled her resistance to allow Walt Disney to translate the Mary Poppins stories to the screen.  

Saving Mr. Banks does not give a fair rendition of Pamela L. Traver’s inner battle. Viewers needed to understand that Disney’s interpretation of her fictional character shook Pamela L. Travers’s core beliefs about fairy tales and myths which were intertwined with her spiritual beliefs. Fairy tales were an important part of Pamela L. Travers’s inner world; she apprehended life through the metaphors and symbols of the myths and fairytales. Unfortunately, her mythical language was totally foreign to most people and that included Walt Disney and his team. Pamela L. Travers valued fairy-tales for their wisdom, and she simply couldn’t conceive of them as vessels for mere entertainment.

Fairy-tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey. (…) The fairy-tales are like water flowers; they lie so lightly on the surface, but their roots go down deep into a dark and ancient past. They are, in fact, a remnant of that Orphic art whose function it was to instruct the generations in the inner meanings of things. (…) Again, like flowers, the same fairy-tales spring up in different countries, always with the lineaments of first cousins and always alongside the parables of truth that make the religions of man. Like village school masters, they instruct the simple, while the high priests deal with the scholars. But essentially both are concerned with the same teaching. How to live and how to die is the subject of the Orphic art, no matter what guises it wears.

The Fairy-Tale as Teacher, Pamela L. Travers, 1950

Walt Disney had a different approach. He used fairy tales as means to escape reality, to just kick back and relax. But his tendency to remove all darkness from the fairy tales irritated Pamela L. Travers profoundly and that long before he approached her for the movie rights to Mary Poppins. She wrote reviews about his cartoon creations in The New English Weekly in the 1930’s and they were not flattering. Patricia Demers summarizes Pamela L. Travers opinion of Disney’s work in her book P.L. Travers: “At the heart of Disney’s ‘enlargement of the animal world’, Travers discovers a corresponding ‘deflation of all human values’ and ‘a profound cynicism at the root’.”

Pamela L. Travers believed, and with reason, that without darkness the fairy tales are unable to ignite in the child’s mind the questions which can only be answered by truth.

It is worth asking, I think, why we grown-ups have become so timid that we bowdlerize, blot out, retell and gut the real stories for fear that truth, with its terrible beauty, should burst upon the children.

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

It is relevant here to mention that G.W. Russell, Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, taught her about poverty and the artistic integrity of the poets. She herself wrote poems and was convinced that Mary Poppins came out of the same well that poetry comes out of.

Yes he said that one should take the vow of poverty, especially poets. It didn’t mean that if you were offered a 100,000$ you would refuse it. But it meant that you would not be attached to it. You didn’t even need to give it away but you wouldn’t live by it.

Interview with Brian Sibley, The Womand Behind Mary Poppins

When one understands how important fairy tales and their meanings were for Pamela L. Travers and her artistic vow of integrity towards her art, her inner conflict becomes much more interesting and multisided. Only then can one appreciate the greatness of the gap separating Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Why did Pamela L. Travers give up her Mary Poppins? Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Disney’s understanding of her psyche established between them a special connection based on  both their childhood sufferings. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In 1968 British author Brian Sibley, while researching a biography of Walt Disney, reached out to Pamela L. Travers. This is what she wrote back (the quote below is from an essay by Brian Sibley published in A Lively Oracle, a centennial celebration of P.L. Travers Creator of Mary Poppins)

I am afraid there is very little I can say to you about Walt Disney. I did not care very much for the film he made of my books. Generally because, although it was a colorful entertainment, it was not true to their meaning. Nor do I like what he does with Fairy Tales, so I don’t think I am very useful person for your study.

Patricia Feltham, a close friend of Pamela L. Travers, said in an interview that what Pamela L. Travers told her during the filming of Mary Poppins was “almost unprintable”. And still, Pamela L. Travers gave up the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories? Why? Can financial worries be the only reason? Or is there something else? More about this in the next post on this blog. 

P.L Travers and G.I. Gurdjieff or the Masters of Mystification

Pamela L. Travers Gurdjieff

During her lifetime Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was deliberately secretive about her personal affairs. “Although warm and open, in interviews she declined answering any questions relating to her private life, or her age. Her official date of birth was 1906; in fact she was born in 1897” wrote a journalist from The Independent, a British newspaper. But, she was born on August 9, 1899.

And she did not believe in truth based on facts. 

He (Galileo) is famous for – ‘Nevertheless, it moves’. The story is known to everyone; but the recantation of his recantation has nowhere been recorded. How could it have been? The only people near enough to hear it were his inquisitors, and had they heard it, his fat would have been in the fire. He never said it- except of course in his accurate heart. But in his unconscious shaping of the hero, the folk required that it be said, the story required that it be said; the truth had somehow to be told that Galileo was not a liar. So, mythologically, Galileo was required to say it. IT IS A TRUTH, BUT IT IS NOT A FACT…So you see how the mythmaking mind works, balancing, clarifying, adjusting, making events somehow correspond to the inner necessity of things. It is tension, the uncompromising insistence on both ends of the stick – black and white, good and evil, positive and negative, active and passive – that gives the myth their ambivalent power.

The World of the Hero, Parabola, 1976

Not surprisingly then, when it came to questions about her interest in writing an autobiography, Pamela L. Travers held that mere statements of facts prove insufficient for the deeper purpose of understanding the inner development of an individual.

Oh, no. Being born, going to school, having measles or not, being married or not, wouldn’t really be an autobiography for me – it would be more of an inner statement, how one grew within, the hopes, the difficulties, the aim. But as I never do want to write anything about myself, no autobiography.

And to complicate matters further for those who would have been interested in the details of her personal life, she did not hesitate to distort facts. One example is her made-up story about her early childhood in Australia. She repeatedly told interviewers that she had spent the first years of her life playing in the sugar cane fields in her father’s sugar plantation. One example of this distorted childhood memory can be found in Patricia Demers’s book, P.L. Travers, and another one in a recorded conversation with British writer Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers, the Woman Behind Mary Poppins. 

This embellished childhood memory was so well spread by Pamela L. Travers that it appeared at the time of her passing in many obituaries published in various newspapers. Here is what one journalist from the New York Times wrote: “Her father was a sugar planter, and Miss Travers recalled growing up near the Great Barrier Reef in a tropical world of sugar cane, shells and mangoes.” 

The truth was much less luxuriant. Her father, Travers Goff, worked in a bank and struggled with his alcohol addiction which in all probabilities contributed to his early death. Pamela L. Travers was seven years old at the time of his passing.

Why did Pamela L. Travers change the facts of her early childhood? Was she trying to escape from a painful past or was she protecting the memory of her father? Or, could it be that her mind was so imbued with myth and fairy tales that she ended up perceiving her own reality as myth and thus malleable to fit her inner needs? 

It is interesting to note that her spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff also displayed tendencies towards mystification and anyone who has read his book “Meetings with Remarkable Men”, will agree that the adventures recounted in that book are remarkably fairy tale-like and probably not at all factually accurate.

This mythical aspect of Gurdjieff’s personality was described by Pamela L. Travers in her article George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877–1949) 

GEORGE IVANOVITCH GURDJIEFF (1877–1949). These brackets enclose seventy-two years of a life that, in spite of all that has been written about it, is incapable of exact documentation. It is a fact that Gurdjieff died in 1949, but since he gave his age differently at different times, the date of birth given here can only be approximate. This was all part of his enigma, of the sense he gave of deliberately playing a role, or, as P. D. Ouspensky wrote, after their first meeting, of being a man “poorly disguised.” His whole life, for the biographers, has the air of an authentic myth, in the sense of something heroic and significant but not to be apprehended except in so far as he could, by these very disguises, mediate it to the general understanding.”

It is worth asking, although there will be no certain answers, was Pamela L. Travers’s elusiveness a conscious imitation of the ways of her spiritual teacher? Was she attempting to give a heroic and significant overtone to her own life?  Or was she, in part, attracted to Gurdjieff and his teachings precisely because they both shared this tendency for mystification and love of myth?

It is an interestingly paradoxical fact that Pamela L. Travers, although often in the public eye due to the nature of her craft, wished to remain anonymous and “go down in myth”. This wish was stated many times to interviewers at different periods in her life. What is then the truth behind this fact? Was she, by being vague and elusive, hoping to ascertain the meaning and significance of her life? Was she trying to attain some sort of immortality? Or was she simply trying to protect herself from the praying eyes of the outside world. Maybe she craved the freedom to explore life as she intended without risking rejection. Maybe she didn’t believe people could understand her. This seems to be a plausible suggestion. She did not exactly live a conventional life: she never married, she had romantic relationships with both men and women, and her relationship with her adopted son Camillus was in constant turmoil.  But all this will be the subject of future posts.

Gurdjieff and the Symbolism of the Carpet

Mary Poppins Gurdjieff

Lately I have been listening to a recording of a conversation between British author Brian Sibley and Pamela L. Travers, which was recorded in the late 1980: P.L. Travers, The Woman Behind Mary Poppins.  And, conversation is truly the right word to describe this recording because of the fluidity of the exchanges. Brain Sibley successfully follows the rhythm of Pamela L. Traver’s answers and it feels almost like a dance, an exquisite waltz of words swirling into the forms of the memories, personal beliefs, and opinions of Pamela L. Travers.

When I listened to the recording for the first time, I was already aware that Pamela L. Travers believed that one should not force the meaning out of a story; that it is sufficient to ponder on the story, love it for itself, and hold the questions inside and let the story unravel:

The myths never have a single meaning, once and for all and finished. They have something greater; They have meaning itself. If you hang a crystal in the window it will give off light from all parts of itself. That is how the myths are; they have meaning for me, for you and everyone else. A true symbol has always this multisidedness. It has something to say to all who approach it.

Pamela L. Travers, The World of the Hero (1976) 

Knowing that Pamela L. Travers was a true lover and connoisseur of myths and fairy tales, it was interesting to listen to her discussion with Brian Sibley about whether fairy tales could be considered as a form of wishful thinking or not. Not surprisingly, Pamela L. Travers refuses to give a lecture on the subject but advises Brian Sibley to read the stories and to discover for himself the true nature of the wishes made in these stories. And then, she remembers how once she refused to read a typescript of a seminar on the interpretation of fairy tales:

There is a famous Jungian analyst who writes about fairy tales and I imagine very well indeed. But I was shown the typescript of a seminar she gave to her pupils and she said: ‘The first thing you must to with a fairy tale is analyze it.’ and I thought, here I will read no more. Because the first thing you must do with a fairy tale is to love it! And keep it inside yourself as you do what you love, and it will send up its meaning to you eventually. To analyze it seems to me profanity.

Pamela L. Travers was probably referring to Dr. Marie-Louise von Franz who was a student, then colleague and collaborator to C.G. Jung and eventually his successor at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and who was famous for her many books on the psychological interpretation of fairy tales.

Apparently, Pamela L. Travers’s point of view on the hidden meaning in fairy tales was shared by others in the field of mythology, and Dr. von Franz was not ignorant of their criticism:

Again and again investigators and specialists on mythology attack Jungians on the grounds that myth speaks for itself; that you have only to unravel what it says, and you don’t need psychological interpretation; the psychological interpretation is only reading something into it which is not in it; and that the myth with all its details and amplifications is quite clear in itself.

Although an interesting debate, the purpose of this blogpost is not to discuss whether psychological interpretations of fairy tales are relevant or not. The purpose is to discuss an idea that crossed my mind while I was reading Dr. von Franz’s book, The Interpretation of Fairy TalesI came across the symbol of the carpet and Dr. Franz’s exposition about its possible meanings, and a connection to Pamela L. Travers and her spiritual teacher, George I. Gurdjieff formed itself in my mind. Let’s begin with the symbolism of the carpet as explained by Dr. von Franz:

In European civilisation the carpet was not known until we came into contact with the East. The nomadic Arab tribes, who are still famous for their carpet weaving, say that the carpets they use in their tents represent the continuity of earth which they need to prevent them from feeling that they have no soil under their feet. […] It also protects them from the evil influences of foreign soil.  […] The symbol of the carpet with its designs is often used as a symbol for the complex symbolic patterns of life and the secret designs of fate. It represents the greater pattern of our life, which we do not know as long as we live it.  The purposiveness of an individual life pattern, which gives one a feeling of meaningfulness, is very often symbolized in the carpet. Generally, carpets, especially Oriental ones, have those complicated meandering patterns such as you follow up when in a dreamy mood, when you feel that life goes up and down and along and changes around. Only if you look from afar, from a certain objective distance, do you realize that there is a pattern of wholeness in it. The secret design woven into a human life is much more intelligent than human consciousness.

Now, interesting fact, Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher George I. Gurdjieff was also a merchant of carpets. His carpet trade was witnessed by P.D. Ouspensky and described in his book In Search of the Miraculous:

The sale of these carpets was in itself remarkable. G. put an advertisement in the papers and all kinds of people came to buy carpets. […] A Persian used to come to him to mend carpets. One day I noticed that G. was very attentively watching how the Persian was doing his work. […] Next day I came in earlier than usual. G. was sitting on the floor mending a carpet exactly as the Persian had done. Wools of various colors were strewn around him and in his hand was the same kind of hook I had seen with the Persian.

And then, Ouspensky writes about Gurdjieff’s description of the making of carpets in certain parts of Asia where entire villages participated in the weaving process:

… all the work is done to the accompaniment of music and singing. The women spinners with spindles in their hands dance a special dance as they work, and all the movements of all the people engaged in different work are like one movement in one and the same rhythm.

Apparently, inspired by this memory Gurdjieff composed the Carpet Weaving as one of his exercises known as the Movements. You can listen to the music here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kbls2wJEsI

During his lifetime Gurdjieff composed (with the help of Thomas de Hartmann) numerous dance exercises for his pupils, the purpose of which was to work simultaneously with the intellectual, emotional and moving centers in each person and to open up higher parts of these centers. (For a brief summary of Gurdjieff’s system read Pamela L. Travers, Gurdjieff, and the Father Figure Connection). Gurdjieff’s Movements were composed of different groups of exercises with different purposes. Those known as the Occupational Movements such as the Carpet Weaving were mean to reflect the essence of a particular craft or activity and were performed in a group to give the dancers the sense of working as a unified whole.

And, not only did Gurdjieff sell, mend and included carpets in his Movements, but he also incorporated them in his immediate environment (probably with the intent to produce particular effects in the perceptions of his pupils). Here is an account of one of the early pupils who met Gurdjieff in his living quarters outside of Moscow:

There was no area not covered, either by carpets or hangings of some sort. A single enormous rug covered the floor of this spacious room. Even its walls were hung with carpets which also draped the doors and the windows; the ceiling was covered with ancient silk shawls of resplendent colours, astonishingly beautiful in their combination.

Views from the Real World, Glimpses of Truth 

(collection of early meetings with Gurdjieff)

It would have been lovely to have had the opportunity to discuss with Pamela L. Travers the symbolic meaning of Gurdjieff’s carpet business and his metaphysical weaving of the lives of his pupils. It would have been interesting to hear her thoughts on this subject. Or maybe she would have simply told us that there is nothing surprising about that and that we all have these sorts of symbolic patterns in our own lives and the fact that we cannot recognize them does not make their existence less real.