Reviewing Mary Poppins and Myth by Staffan Bergsten

Mary Poppins and Myth 1Mary Poppins and Myth was written some forty years ago by Staffan Bergsten, a Swedish scholar who after reading the Mary Poppins books* to his young daughter became aware of certain connections which appeared to him to be pointing in the direction of the possible inspirational sources for the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. Bergsten decided to explore these connections. With that purpose in mind, he initiated a correspondence with Pamela L. Travers which lasted for a period of three years until the publication of his thesis in 1978 by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.  Bergsten tells the reader right from the start that his book is a comparative and analytical study and that some of his ideas “were knocked on the head by Pamela Travers, but others were confirmed”.

So, where did Pamela L. Travers find the material for her stories? Bergsten did not provide a definite answer to the question.  He concluded that it was:

highly doubtful that she had any clear conception of what sources she was drawing upon. Her comprehensive reading had sunk into the depths of her mind and the ideas, forms and happenings rose into her consciousness in the shape of spontaneous imaginative creations.  

This reminded me of a comment made by Pamela L. Travers herself in a recorded conversation with British author Brian Sibley that took place many years later. In that recording Brian Sibley commented that in the Mary Poppins stories “there is also a number of very serious adult concepts and thoughts” to which Pamela L. Travers responded:

They are underlined, I find those afterwards. I don’t put them in. Not long ago I was reading for the first time since it was published Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and I was overcome, how did this writer know my inmost thoughts, they are not said, they are not spoken, but they underlie the texts. And then with surprise I realised it was me. Well, I suppose it was me.

                                                                           P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

I enjoyed reading Mary Poppins and Myth, the writing style is fluid and without any scholarly stuffiness. Bergsten had a genuine interest in the subject of his thesis and he wished to share his understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s literary work. He examined the Mary Poppins stories from three different perspectives: psychobiographical, literary and mythological.

Psychobiographical perspective

Bergsten perceived Pamela L. Travers as someone who looked at everyday life in the light of myths and fairy tales, a habit he speculated, she acquired early in childhood through her extensive reading of fairy tales.

So, in Pamela Travers’s childhood memories we find everyday figures and objects together with literary and mythical allusions, and this is the blend we find in all her books. Everyday realism and mythical stylization infuse each other not according to some worked out scheme but simply because this is the author’s own way of experiencing reality.

The accuracy of Bergsten’s remark is confirmed by Pamela L. Travers’s childhood recollections written in some of her essays published in Parabola years after the publication of Bergsten’s Mary Poppins and Myth. The descriptions of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood experiences are original and appear to have happened in some borderline reality between the world as we know it and the world of the fairy tales. Now, of course one can question the authenticity of theses memories and argue that Pamela L. Travers romanticized the facts and retold them many years later, after she had acquired vast knowledge about myths and fairy tales.  That may be, but the sensitivity and love for the fairy tales was in her blood and that explains the longevity of her Mary Poppins.

Staffan Bergsten also sensed that Mary Poppins encapsulated a “whole series of projections of more or less unconscious, sometimes contradictory, tendencies and ideals in the author herself.” But then he admitted that to speculate in that direction it will “lead into psychological and biographical questions and in the meantime at least there is not enough material of the kind that would let us discuss them further.” Pamela L. Travers was notoriously secretive, and the personal details of her life became public only after her death with the publication of her first biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Consequently, the psychobiographical examination is quite brief in Bergsten’s book. However, it is clear that Bergsten regretted the lack of available biographical material.

Literary perspective

Bergsten classified the Mary Poppins books in the category of the fantastic tale because the adventures take place in the everyday reality which exists alongside a supernatural reality. And, although the natural laws do not apply in this parallel reality, logic remains present in all the adventures.  Bergsten also explored the possible links between other children’s books which were popular during Pamela L. Travers’s childhood such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan but the connections, he concluded, were quite thin.

Bergsten also noticed the poetic influences of Yeats, Blake and Wordsworth (Pamela L. Travers’s favourite poets) in the Mary Poppins stories in the themes of the “the glorification of the child” and its “innocence and imaginative power”. This probably motivated his interpretation of the main purpose of Pamela L. Travers as a writer, namely, to awaken and stimulate the inner child of the reader. Now I wonder if this was one of his ideas that was knocked on the head by Pamela L. Travers. 

Mythological perspective

Bergsten underlied the fact that Mary Poppins was articulated clearly around mythical elements. She comes down from the heavens and then at the end of each book she ascends up into the upper realms. She is eternal, her home is everywhere and nowhere. She can fly and be free from any confinements. Her magic is inexplicable, and above all, intrinsic. Mary Poppins doesn’t need a wand to perform her magic. The adventures also have mythical notes expressed in cosmic dances and celebrations of the whole of creation. Bergsten linked these to Pamela L. Travers’s Christian sympathies, to Gnostic traditions and to theosophical teachings and Hinduism. This mixture of inspirational sources explains Bergsten’s description of Pamela L. Travers as “a genuine and convinced syncretist who enthusiastically borrows from the most disparate cultures, religions and mythologies”.

In my opinion, Mary Poppins and Myth should be reprinted and made available to the public. It is of course possible for the fans of Pamela L. Travers and the Mary Poppins stories to find this book in a library or to purchase an old copy online.

* Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)

 

 

Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion (Part I)

Mary Poppins in Moscow

Few people know that the first book ever written by Pamela L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was not Mary Poppins but Moscow Excursion. And it was not a story about magic but a travelogue about her not so magical discoveries of Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932 (at that time Pamela was in her early thirties).  

The book is composed of letters addressed to some unknown friend whom I personally suspect to have been her literary mentor George W. Russell (AE).  Extracts from these letters were published in The New English Weekly in 1933 and the book was published in 1934 by the Soho publisher Gerard Howe 

At the very beginning of Moscow Excursion, Pamela L. Travers confides that her entourage was quite flabbergasted by her decision to travel to Russia.

My forthcoming trip seems to be either the Chance of a Lifetime or a Piece of Utter Recklessness.” And she adds: “Nobody, it appears, can conceive that a person who is admittedly neither for nor against the Soviet regime should want to go there. And it is an acid comment upon the Communist State that both sides are at one in their conviction that it is impossible for anyone to go to Russia for purposes of enjoyment.  

So, was it for her personal enjoyment or was there some other reason for her trip to Russia? This she does not discuss in Moscow Excursion. But, if one carefully reads the facts chronicled in her biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote, it appears, somewhere in between the lines, that at that particular time in her life she was trying to establish herself as a serious writer (or what she believed a serious writer should be). Until then Pamela L. Travers was publishing the occasional poem in the Irish Statesman (whose editor was her beloved mentor George W. Russell) and she was a contributing drama critic for the Australian magazine The Triad. Her initial aspirations of becoming a great poet were withering with time. The romantic/erotic poems of her twenties were not infused with the timeless sensibility expressed by the great poets she admired  

Her biographer Valerie Lawson reports that in the late 1931 Pamela L. Travers sent two poems to George W. Russell only to receive a polite rejection. He wrote to her that the poems were “well phrased but a little artificial in comparison with others of yours. You say they are simple. Yes, simple in expression but I feel they are artificial beneath that. You seem to have a hankering for Biblical symbolism which I doubt is natural. Quality is the thing my dear, not quantity. This must have been disappointing… 

(By the way, Biblical references find their way in Moscow Excursion but that will be explored in the following posts on this blog.) 

The political atmosphere in Europe in the early thirties of the last century was disrupted by the rise of the fascist and communist regimes, as described in Pamela L. Travers’s own words: 

In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer (herself) prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made. But it is a desolate alternative, for Communism in Russia is for one class of the community only and thus is hardly on bowing terms with Communism as defined in the dictionaries. 

Significantly interesting fact, visits to Russia appear to have been somewhat of a trend among the constellation of renowned intellectuals Pamela L. Travers orbited around. The writer/poet Hubert Buttler, a friend of George W. Russell went to Russia in 1931. Another influential intellectual of that time who was also a contributing writer to The Irish Statesman, George Bernard Shaw, traveled to Russia where he personally met with Stalin. Shaw wrote about his observations of the Soviet State in a most positive light and it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers had read his praise for the communist regime before undertaking her own trip to Russia. 

The idea of writing political articles with the intent of establishing herself as a serious journalist could very well have been the major motivation for her visit to Russia. According to her biographer a year after her visit to Russia Pamela approached Russel for “names and phone numbers of contacts for a series of articles on Irish politics which she planned to sell to Australian magazines. Pamela was unhappy with the result.”  Even Russell told her that writing political articles was a complicated matter. I believe that she would have been a great political reporter judging by what she wrote in Moscow Excursion. I can’t help but think that the real reason for her not succeeding in the endeavor was because she was a woman, although she had said in interviews to have never felt cast aside because of her gender. But then again, she published under the name P. L. Travers….  It was also in the autumn of 1933 that Pamela L. Travers asked Russell to introduce her to his friend Alfred Richard Orage the editor of The New English Weekly where the extracts from her letters were first published. Her contribution to The New English Weekly span from 1933 to 1949, but she mainly wrote about theater, books and films.   

Pamela L. Travers was apparently so eager to find her place as a writer that even her serious health issues could not stop her. In the early 1932, the same year of her Russian trip, she had to stay in a sanatorium because of a tuberculosis infection, a condition that without any doubt must have caused her deep feelings of anxiety. Her biographer, Valerie Lawson, reports that starting in her late twenties Pamela began to experience serious bouts of anxiety which escaladed to sheer feelings of dread. Going through serious health issues must have only exacerbated her mental condition.  

In the light of these circumstances her decision to undertake a long trip to a controversial country can be viewed as a personal affirmation of her determination and zest both for life and writing A young woman travelling alone in a dangerous foreign country, the idea must have appealed to her romantic, adventurous mind.     

But was it that dangerous to travel to Russia in 1932? According to her biographer, Valerie Lawson, it was not: “The journey was in fact a carefully packaged experience with little risk. Pamela traveled with a party of English tourists herded about in boats, trains and museums by a guide following a strict schedule. This organized tour was to take Pamela L. Travers to Leningrad-Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  

The trip might not have been extremely perilous but it was definitely not devoid of risks. Pamela L. Travers strayed away a few times from her appointed group of tourists and the tourist guide to go and explore Russia on her own. She wrote: 

I never go out by myself without being told by a guide where I have been. How is it done? Have I a special bit of the Cheka to myself. And which is he –or she? The woman in the tram yesterday carrying one of those eiderdown bags which (judging from the faint muffled protests one hears coming from within) contain slowly suffocating babies? Or the man who was knocked down by an ambulance and left on the road to die or recover as he wished? It is no good explaining to Intourist that I have friends here and letters of introduction and that anyway even if I hadn’t I should want to be alone sometimes. That to them is the worst of evils. A good Bolshevik never wants to be alone. 

However, before I tell more about her Russian adventures I must share a most interesting and contemporary piece of information.  While I was trying to find a copy of Moscow Excursion (which was not easy but proved to be possible) I stumbled on a YouTube video posted by Pushkin House in 2017, The Russian Travels of Pamela Travers: A Talk by Olga Maeots. The video is a recording of a conference given by Olga Maeots , a Russian librarian and translator, who  in 2016 published a Russian annotated translation of Pamela L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion.  I was amazed! Olga Maeots performed an incredible investigative feat and succeeded in identifying the people whose identity Pamela L. Travers willingly disguised in her book by only identifying them by single letters: T, Z, V.   

It is perhaps necessary to stress the fact that the characters in the book are all synthesized personages and that I have studiously given fictitious initials for names throughout. So that should anyone, slipping among the paragraphs, imagine that he has come face to face with himself, I take this opportunity of courteously assuring him that he is mistaken. It is always someone else.   

Was this a safety precaution on Pamela L. Travers’s part? Maybe, some of the characters she met in her book were persecuted shortly after. And maybe her reasons for mystifying the identity of the characters were of a totally different nature. Regardless, I believe that Pamela L. Travers, wherever she might be in the beyond, is pleased with Olga Maeots‘s work. I will tell you more about Maeots’s discoveries and about Pamela L. Travers’s adventures in Russia in the following post on this blog.  

Hope you stay tuned!

Pamela L. Travers and the “Tale of Beatrix Potter” (Part II)     

Beatrix Potter 2

Her rigorous Victorian childhood reads like the record of life on an island rock. Year after year, alone in a nursery in Bolon Gardens, she lunched on a daily cutlet and a plate of rice pudding much as a castaway might regale himself from a single clump of lichen.  

The Hidden Child, Pamela L. Travers.  

This week’s post delves deeper into the reasons which might have inspired Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong reverence for Beatrix Potter.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers’s admiration was probably sparked after she read Potter’s biography “The Tale of Beatrix Potter”. I doubt that it could have been any other way. “The Tale of Beatrix Potter”  by Margaret Lane was Potter’s first biography published only a couple of years after her death. Prior to that not much was known about her personal life. And without the details of her life I am not sure Pamela would have had the same interest.  

I believe that Pamela L. Travers admired Potter not only for her artistic talent, but because she felt that, just like herself, Potter gave expression in her stories to the hidden child within (see Pamela L. Travers and the “Tale of Beatrix Potter” (Part I)).  

Pamela L. Travers and Beatrix Potter both experienced, early in their childhoods, the neglect of their emotional needs.  Potter’s biographer, Margaret Lane, put it in a nutshell by writing that Beatrix was born in a time and a social class that had very little understanding of children. This affirmation pretty much encapsulates Pamela’s own situation.   

That being so, both girls grew up unnoticed, somewhere on the fringes of the lives of the grown-ups around them, only to find themselves later on burdened by selfish parental expectations. Pamela L. Travers had to give up on her pursuit of higher education and her acting dreams to work as a secretary to help support her widowed mother. As for Potter, she was expected to dedicate her life to the care of her parents who, for that reason, opposed her plans to marry and have a life of her own.  However, there is yet another reason for which, I believe, Pamela L. Travers held Beatrix Potter in high regard.  

Beatrix Potter succeeded in reinventing her life exactly the way she wanted it to be, and contrary to Pamela, without any excess or overt rebellion.   

It is the second act in Beatrix Potter’s life that must have struck Pamela’s psyche.  At the same age at which Pamela wrote her book review of Potter’s biography, Potter was already married and happily living in her estate in the countryside enjoying her life as a farmer, her illustrated stories no longer occupying her mind. As for Pamela, she was single, living with her adopted son in London and still looking for that elusive “something else” from her childhood.   

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to now lack – a longing, even nostalgia for something I had never known. In all the completeness, I was incomplete, a cup only half full. This ache, this lonely weight of heart came upon me always at sunset. There would be Something Else! I would say. Aching, I would say it. But all I knew was Here and Now, and of all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, unfolded, implicate. Was it an answer to an unheard question? If a question, how would I know the answer? 

Pamela L. Travers Now, Farewell and Hail 1985.  

While Pamela spent her long life chasing after something she could not articulate, Potter had a clear understanding of what would be the right life for herself. Pamela judiciously noted that fact herself.

To begin with she (Beatrix Potter) knew exactly what she wanted. Her first glimpse of the countryside, Miss Lane tells us, aroused in her the lifelong passion that became articulate only with the purchase of Hill Top Farm.

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

So, one girl completely reinvented her life in alignment with her inner nature and the other continued her search for herself, following one guru after the other, desperately looking for guidance. 

At the end, it was the determined, quiet and patient Beatrix, not the rebellious and mischievous Pamela, who succeeded in creating her ideal life.   

Although Pamela did break out of her expected role as the provider of her widowed mother and her younger siblings, and made a life of her own as journalist and writer, her life was not a fulfilling one.  

What intrigues me is Pamela’s failure to heal the hidden child within? Why was it that little Lyndon (Pamela L. Travers’s real name, of which she was quite protective) never found peace? How was it that Beatrix Potter succeeded in healing her childhood wounds while Pamela only exacerbated them throughout her life?  

This post is an attempt to answer this question by examining a little closer what appears to have been emotionally similar childhood experiences.  

Both girls felt lonely but it was Beatrix Potter who was the one leading the most confined existence. She was not schooled, it was not expected nor required for girls of her social class. Beatrix spent her days alone in the silence of her nursery only to escape briefly for a daily walk with her governess. Pamela on the other had went to school and to Church and played with her peers.    

However, despite the lack of interest of her parents, Beatrix Potter was luckier that Travers because she had a governess, Miss Hammond, who “encouraged her awakening interest in nature and drawing and gave her that feeling of loving confidence in an older presence which she otherwise night have missed“.   

Potter’s secluded childhood, despite its smothering atmosphere, provided a sense of unshakable stability. Her parents were predictable, living in calm routine and without the stress of financial troubles. There were no uncertainties, no ambiguities in Beatrix’s childhood that could have prevented her from forming a firm sense of self. Beatrix was introverted by nature, and the secure, undisturbed home environment allowed her to concentrate all of her attention on her own fantasies and interests: nature and painting.   The family summer vacations to Scotland also played a major role in Beatrix’s grounding in nature. These regular trips provided Beatrix with a basis of comparison of a different way of living than the one adopted by her parents in London.  

..and from the first moment of wandering out into the lanes and fields her imagination found the food it had been waiting for. Everything that she saw was suddenly ‘real’…. Here, in white-washed cottages and among rick-yards, whole families lived in a way which her instinct told her was sensible and right.  

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

Beatrix Potter loved the natural world and surrounded herself with many pets who soothed her lonely days in her nursery. She had a hedgehog, a mouse, a rabbit and a bat in a birdcage. She spent innumerable hours painting, in extraordinary detail, her pets and the flowers she gathered and dried during her summers in Scotland. 

Things were different for Pamela.  As a child, she did not benefit from a benevolent older presence nor a stable environment. She was often times dispatched to relatives, her mother busy with her two younger sisters. Pamela was often scolded and criticized and even ridiculed by her parents.  Pamela’s father was emotionally unavailable due to his heavy drinking, which also caused his early and sudden death when Pamela was only seven years old (see Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods Part I).  

The unexpected loss of her father caused Pamela intense pain which was amplified by what she perceived as God’s betrayal of her trust. From then on things did not get any better. Her mother attempted suicide when Pamela was only ten years old. Travers’s memory of the event (which she kept secret for the bigger part of her life) is heart breaking (see Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods Part II).   

Pamela L. Travers’s loneliness was of a different kind. She was left alone to deal with difficult psychological experiences and her trust in people and life was shattered. There was no guiding presence and no stability to develop a clear identity. She spent her adult years swinging between opposites. Why else would she write:    

For in the children’s world there must be no uncertainties, no might-be, maybe cloud of grey but only the solidest black and white”  

Pamela L.Travers, The Hidden Child, 1947

And this is how, most likely, Mary Poppins came into life, she was born from the unmet emotional needs of Helen Lyndon Goff, the hidden child within Pamela L. Travers. Pamela’s inner child was fragmented and needed a mediator to make sense of life so, she kept summoning Mary Poppins back into her life…

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part III)

Sleeping Beauty 3

This week we continue with the analysis of Pamela L. Travers’s book “About the Sleeping Beauty”, and more particularly, with the study of the character of Sleeping Beauty. 

In her Afterword, Pamela tells us of the reason behind her decision to write her own version of Sleeping Beauty:

It was written not at all to improve the story – how could one improve on the Brothers Grimm?  – but to ventilate my own thoughts about it.

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, speculates that Pamela wrote her own version of the fairy tale in imitation of Beatrix Potter whom she admired enormously. According to Lawson, since Beatrix Potter wrote her own extensive version of Cinderella, Pamela L. Travers felt compelled to write her own version of Sleeping Beauty. Somehow, I doubt that this was the driving force behind Pamela’s writing.  I believe that her interest in the story had something to do with her own inner conflicts and the influences of her spiritual teacher Gurdjieff.  Now, let’s see what points us into that direction.

For Pamela, the character of Sleeping Beauty is as a mysterious symbol from which emanate many possible meanings. Since Pamela believed that fairy tales conceal their secrets behind the obvious interpretations, she did not see in Sleeping Beauty a pretty girl waiting to be awaken by the right lover; at least that is what she said.

To uncover the possible meanings of Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale, Pamela researched its origins and then reported her findings in her Afterword. She describes the different interpretations given to the story of Sleeping Beauty: (i) for some this fairy tale is a nature myth in which Sleeping Beauty symbolises the Earth in spring, awakening to life under the warm kiss of the sun; (ii) for  others the story holds elements of forgotten ancient secret initiation ceremonies in which one dies on one level only to awaken on another, “like the chrysalis waked into butterfly”; and (iii) there are those who read in it a myth about the death and resurrection of a goddess as in the myth of Persephone.

What is remarkable in Pamela’s Afterword is that she does not provide the reader with her own original interpretation of the story, and yet one could feel that the interpretations rendered by others were not sufficient in meaning for her. She was looking for a deeper unveiled spiritual meaning. However, that meaning seems to have eluded her because she only asked questions without providing any answers.

All who have studied Pamela L. Travers’s work (including her Mary Poppins) have noticed her fascination with the polarities in life. Pamela herself said on many occasions that as a child she believed in a place where the opposites meet and reconcile.  A place where the wolf is friend with the sheep. What could be the meaning of this fascination?

Pamela, from her early childhood, was plagued by feelings of unworthiness and of inadequacy . At the same time, she felt special and craved recognition. In her teen years, she rebelled against the repression of her artistic talents and the role her mother and her great-aunt had chosen for her. Is it possible then that these contradictory emotions caused her to experience what she described as being Sleeping Beauty’s experience of maidenhood?  

And at length the time of maidens was upon her. …she seemed to waver in the wind, hardly knowing where she was, bending this way and that. Sometimes she would sigh for no reason at all, and of she smiled and became thoughtful, again it would be for no reason. …Thus swung between one thing and another, dipping and swaying like a flag in the breeze, she came to her fifteenth birthday.

Pamela left her Australian homeland in search of that reconciling “something else”, not knowing if it was a place, a person, or an occupation? Just like in her description of Sleeping Beauty’s emotional states she herself wandered in her maze of maidenhood. What she sought she did not know. She only knew that not to find it would leave her incomplete.”

Searching for that elusive “something else” in the hope of filling her emotional inner void, Pamela L. Travers found (in her late thirties, past the time of the maiden) the esoteric teachings of the charismatic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. His peculiar teachings were inspired by Eastern philosophies and resembled the theosophical ideas instilled in Pamela in her mid-twenties by her mentor, George W. Russel.

Why do I bring Pamela’s spiritual teacher here? Because his teachings were based around the theme of the sleeper, and because this same theme appears continually in Pamela’s writings throughout her life, including in the Mary Poppins stories.

Gurdjieff conceived man as a sleeping machine, lost in life and unconsciously reactive to his environment. According to him, to escape the imprisonment of his automatism, man needs to practice the act of what he called “self-remembering”. This concept is similar to the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness”. Gurdjieff thought his students that man is born with an essence and that this essence is formed by the impressions it receives in the first years of life. For him “impressions” meant experiences that are simultaneously processed and understood by all the centers in the human being. These centers are: Intellectual Center, Emotional Center and Moving Center (the body).

For Gurdjieff, the only true understanding of reality consists of information perceived and processed in unison by all these centers. He affirmed that this ability is lost around the age of five or six. So, as the human being grows older these centers become at odds with each other thus opposing the body to the mind and vice-versa. The result of this opposition is a human being which is fragmented into many different parts and only having the illusion of being one person.  

Gurdjieff explained that the way to self-remembering consists of remembering one’s highest possibilities; that is remembering what one opens to when one comes back to oneself. Maybe this is why Pamela concludes her Afterword with these words:

Are we dealing here with the sleeping soul and all the external affairs of life that hem it in  and hide it ; something that falls asleep after childhood, something that not to awaken would make life meaningless. To give an answer, supposing we had it, would be braking the law of fairy tale. And perhaps no answer is necessary. It is enough that we ponder upon and love the story an ask ourselves the question.

Two elements in Sleeping Beauty seem to have particularly fascinated Pamela. First, the unescapable fate of the princess and second, the spell of sleep:

But perhaps – is this what the story is telling us? – perhaps it is not a simple thing to faithfully follow one’s fate. Nor is it really a simple fate to carry such a wealth of graces and to fall asleep for a hundred years.

Did she herself find her fate difficult to follow? Probably. I believe she experienced her life as an ordeal. Was she aware of her own blessings and talents?  Most likely not, at least not completely…

It is conceivable to think that the character of Sleeping Beauty resonated with Pamela, who as a true follower of Gurdjieff, saw her fate as the fate of a sleeper trying to awaken to a higher reality. Sadly, what she needed to awaken from was her trance of unworthiness and feelings of not belonging to this world. How I wish she could have awaken from her feelings of separateness and fallen in love with all of life…with her life…

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part II)

Sleeping Beauty 2

This week we’ll continue the analysis of Pamela L. Travers’s book “About the Sleeping Beauty”. Pamela’s retelling of the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale takes place somewhere in Arabia, in the palace of the Sultan and the Sultana. (The curious choice for the setting of the story was discussed in last week’s post.)

Before we continue with the analysis here is an outline of Pamela’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty.

Outline of Pamela’s retelling

Just as the King and the Queen in the Grimm’s fairy tale, the Sultan and the Sultana desperately want a child. One day the Sultana, grieving by a lake, encounters a frog who tells her that she will soon have a child. As prophesised by the frog, a daughter is soon born; The baby must be christened and the Wise Women of the kingdom must be invited to the christening. Unfortunately, the Sultan has only twelve golden plates to offer to each of the Wise Women and, there are thirteen of them living in the kingdom. A decision is made, one of the Wise Women must stay at home. But which one is to be excluded from the gathering is left to chance. The Sultan orders his servant to give the golden plates to the first twelve Wise Women he crosses on his path. On the day of the christening the Thirteenth Wise Woman arrives at the gathering and avenges the injustice she has suffered by casting a fatal spell on the princess.  On the day of her fifteenth birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Twelfth Wise Woman, who still has a gift to bestow, modifies the curse. Instead of death, the fate of the princess is changed for one hundred years long sleep. At the end of this period a prince is to arrive and kiss the princess back to consciousness.  

After this unfortunate incident, the Sultan, a man of action, forbids the use of spindles in the kingdom and all such devices are destroyed. Obviously, the Sultan’s wit is not sufficient to counter the magic spell and the fateful day arrives. The princess, alone in the palace, begins to explore the surroundings. Her investigations lead her into a courtyard which she has never seen before. In the courtyard, there is a tall tower. Curious, she climbs the stairs to the top of the tower where she finds a door with an old key in the keyhole. She unlocks the door and walks into a room where a mysterious figure in a cloak is spinning a thread upon a spindle. The princess fascinated by the strange tool wants to try to spin it. But as soon as she touches the spindle she pricks her finger, and falls asleep. Then, the entire Kingdom follows her in her sleep and a thick hedge of thorns grows out of nowhere and surrounds the palace.

Pamela L. Travers goes on to tell the reader the story of a family of woodcutters living at the edge of the hedge of thorns. They become the guardians of the fairy-tale and witness the trials of many princes who find gruesome deaths trying to cross the hedge of thorns.

When the hundred years are finally over the right prince arrives. The woodcutter warns him of the danger but the prince, set on his life quest, cannot be dissuaded. As soon as the prince approaches the hedge the thorns untangle and make way for him to pass. And this is how the prince, effortlessly, enters the castle and finds Sleeping Beauty.

As you can see Pamela L. Travers did not change much to the plot of the story. Her variation on its theme is a sort of elaboration of details around the different characters. These details are what I want to explore here.

We’ll begin with the analysis of the female characters in the story mainly because they seem to be the most revealing of Pamela L. Travers’s emotional states.

The Sultana

We meet the Sultana at the very beginning of the story, a woman desperate to have a child.

Each morning she grieves by a lake until one day a frog comes out of the water and asks her for the cause of her grieving. The Sultana’s response caught my attention: “I ache for what I lack.”

Didn’t Pamela herself ache for what she lacked? Wasn’t she always trying to fill an inner void? Wasn’t she always searching for that mysterious “something else”? Didn’t she cross the ocean to come out on the other side of the world hoping to find comfort?  

Pamela L. Travers never had a child of her own and adopting one did not change her inner discomfort. In fact, the adoption of her son Camillus only further complicated matters but that is a subject for another post.

Back to the retelling of Sleeping Beauty. When the frog announces to the Sultana that she is to have a child in less than a year, the Sultana exclaims:

‘How can you know that?’ she protested, with a shade of irritation. For the truth was that all unknown to herself she had become so fond of her sorrow that now the mere thought of loosing it made her feel naked and bereft.

This passage stopped me in my reading tracks. The phenomenon of identifying oneself with one’s suffering is not easily grasped unless one has experienced it first hand or has witnessed someone close grapple with such a problem. Therefore, I can only conclude that this insight comes from her own experience. It is possible that she held on to her anxieties and her depression for fear of being left naked and vulnerable and without any clear identity.  This may have contributed, at least in part, to her failure to heal her emotional wounds. Maybe some part of her refused to get better. Maybe it felt safer to play the role of the sleeper awaiting the awakening.

It is rather remarkable that all her writings, especially the Mary Poppins stories, are infused with a dreamlike state quality. Could it also be that Pamela L. Travers feared losing her writing if she was to lose her sorrow?

And there is the question of the timing of the awakening. In Sleeping Beauty, time has no effect on the princess while she sleeps, but in our so called “ordinary” world time does have an impact. The stages of life through which we all must progress cannot be stretched infinitely without dire consequences. It is then important to notice that Pamela wrote “About the Sleeping Beauty” in her seventies. Isn’t that a little late to be still waiting for a prince, or some other outside intervention to awaken? Which makes me wonder, is there such a time as too late of a time to awaken to one’s life? Wouldn’t the realization of all the wasted time and all the wasted opportunities be too painful to endure? 

At the end of her life when we did talk together a great deal she did not feel that she had come to a point of completion. I think she still felt that there were many many things that she wished to do, much more to understand.

(Patricia Feltham, friend of P.L.Travers, Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

At the end of Sleeping Beauty’s story it is the Sultana that ponders on all that has happened to her daughter.

And the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that her daughter had stepped, as it were, into another dimension – into, in fact, a fairy-tale. And if this were so, she told herself, she would have to look for the meaning. For she knew very well that fairy tales are not as simple as they appear; that the more innocent and candid they seem, the wilier one has to be in one’s efforts to find out  what they are up to.

So, pondering, she would sit under the cypress tree, secretly telling herself the story and hoping that the story at last would tell its secret to her. Who was the maiden, who the Prince, and what the thorny hedge.

No one can say that Pamela lacked in willingness to interpret the meaning of Sleeping Beauty. However, what can be said is that she failed to interpret it in the context of her own life. Because that is what she needed fairy tales for, to find a map for her own life experiences.

Four inevitably if the fairy tales are our prototypes – which is what they are designed to be – we come to the point where we are forced to relate the stories and their meanings to ourselves…what is it in us that at a certain moment falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us, what aspect of ourselves.

(P. L. Travers, Afterword, “About the Sleeping Beauty”)

I believe that what was hiding deep within her was little Helen Lyndon Goff (P.L.Travers’s real name), all scared and lonely and feeling unworthy of love.

In conclusion to this post, the character of the Sultana can be viewed as an expression of Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of lack and her desire to understand the meaning of her own life story.

 

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I)

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Don’t you know that everybody’s got a fairyland of their own?”

Mary Poppins, The Day Out

What was Pamela L. Travers’s fairyland?  As a child, Pamela was entranced by the fairy-tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and in her mid-thirties, George W. Russel rekindled her interest in fairy-tales. Once the flame reignited, it burned until the very end of her life. The following quote from Pamela L. Travers expresses the importance of fairy-tales in her own life. 

Later, like streams, they (the fairy-tales) run underground. For a while they disappear and we lose them. We are busy instead, with our personal myth in which the real is turned to dream and the dream becomes the real. Sifting all this is a long process. It may perhaps take half a life-time and the few who come round to the tales again are those who are in luck.

Was she then in luck? Maybe she was, to a certain extend. And even though the fairy tales did not provide her with the answers to her existential questions, at least they provided her with an occupation to sooth her anxieties and fill the lonely hours of her existence. She escaped her ordinary everyday life in fairyland, the same place where she used to escape in her childhood from the coolness of her parents.

Since she had a fertile imagination and a gift for words, the fairy-tales provided her with a creative outlet that eventually won her an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters from the Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The previous year, she also received an OBE from the Queen, however, for the record, it must be told that she was not satisfied by her distinctions – she felt like she deserved more. Pamela wanted to be recognised as a serious scholar and not a writer of children’s literature.

Pamela L. Travers said that each woman can find her role model in the female characters, both good and evil, in the stories collected by the brothers Grimm. Hers, without a doubt, were the characters of Sleeping Beauty and the Wicked Fairy from the fairy-tale of the Sleeping Beauty. Pamela traces her fascination with the Wicked Fairy back to her childhood:

As a child, I had no pity for the jealous queen in ‘Snow White’ or the shifty old witch in ‘Rapunzel’. I could cheerfully consign all the cruel step mothers to their cruel fates. But the ill luck of the Wicked Fairy roused all my child’s compassion. She was in a sense a victim. For her alone there was no gold plate-all she could do was accept the fact.

Doesn’t this identification to a wicked character appear most intriguing? I find that it is. I intuit that maybe the cause for this is that Pamela (or little Helen Lyndon, her real name) felt like the victim in the family, the one always unjustly cast aside, the inadequate one, the one touched by the bad. These inner unprocessed thoughts of inadequacy transformed themselves throughout the years into deep feelings of anxiety and profound identity issues. Her lifelong search for herself explains her later interest in the character of Sleeping Beauty.

What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come at last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves? (…) something that falls asleep after childhood, something that not to waken would make life meaningless?

In 1965, Pamela L. Travers was invited as a writer-in-residence to Radcliff College (part of Harvard University) at Cambridge and it was during her residency there, in the Widener Library, that she started working on her book “About the Sleeping Beauty”. She spent her time poring over books of myth and fairy-tales and making connections. The book was finally published in 1975 and, disappointingly for Pamela, was trashed by the critics. Patricia Demers reports in her book P.L.Travers that some of the reviews were frankly hostile: “repetitious and windy…buried in self-infatuated blah” (“P.L.Travers’s About the Sleeping Beauty” Kirkus Review, 15 October 1975, 1202)

Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, concluded that “this book had been one for the insiders. Or perhaps for Pamela alone, a woman talking to herself.

And although it is true that Pamela sometimes tended to write her essays in a hermetical manner, she was NOT talking to herself. Maybe the public was simply unable to understand her. Her retelling of Sleeping Beauty is based upon “Briar-Rose” (Dornrpschen) which is the Grimm’s version of the fairy tale. There is also an Afterword in which Pamela writes a comparative study of the Grimm’s version and four other versions from different countries and periods in time, namely: “The Beauty Sleeping in the Wood” (La Belle au Bois Dormant), “Sun, Moon and Talia” (Sole, Luna e Talia), “The Queen of Tibber Tintye,” and the “Petrified Mansion.” 

Now, back to Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty. The Grimm’s version is quite short compared to the detailed 45 pages of Pamela’s retelling.

Pamela L. Travers, in her retelling of the story, remains loyal to the original plot. The major differences, the ones that are easily identifiable from the start, are of form and detail around characters. First, the story is located somewhere in Arabia in the Court of the Sultan and Sultana. Pamela explained the reason for that change in the setting:

To begin with, I was at pains to give it a faraway setting – a vaguely Middle-Eastern world – to lift it out of its well worn rut. I needed to separate it from its attic clutter-the spinning wheel, the pointed witch cap and all the pantomime buffoonery – in order to see its meaning clear.

I fail to see how the meaning of the story becomes clearer by changing the setting. I think the reason for her choice has something to do with her guru Gurdjieff who himself came from the Middle-East and articulated his body of esoteric teachings around the theme of the sleeper. It is almost as if she believed that by setting it in a land of eastern wisdom tradition, the tale itself will be imbued with more wisdom.

Second, the Wise Women (the fairies) are depicted as futuristic aliens, at least this is the image I got when I read:

Not a sound did the Wise Women make as their bare feet of gold or silver floated, as is customary in the fairy world, some inches above the floor. The twelves figures seemed to hang in the air, their naked golden and silver heads gleaming above the swirling robes which were every colour of the rainbow.

This modification to the story is also explained by Pamela: “ It was to do away with their pantomime image and give them their proper weight and authority that our version provided the Wise Women with their hairless heads of gold and silver and made gods their golden and silver feet hover a little above the earth as the gods do on the Greek vases.

Ironically, in my opinion, it is her description of the Wise Women that makes them look like a pantomime image. And for me, it just felt discordant.

Why didn’t her editor say something? With these elements removed, maybe the critics would have been slightly gentler with her work. Or maybe not. They blamed her of using Jungian babble …. but I think she was using Gurdjieff language to express her inner state.  The book is very interesting if one reads it with the intention of getting a better understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psyche. But if you are not interested in the inner workings of the author, it is not especially entertaining, although the descriptions are beautiful. Pamela L. Travers had a real talent for writing exquisite, lyrical descriptions of places and characters.

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part II)

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The story of the “Fox at the Manger” is a fable based upon the opposition between the tamed farm animals who view themselves as good, because of their seemingly selfless service to men, and the untamed, aloof, and selfish fox. The fox comes to the manger well into the night when everybody is asleep but his visit is not about his ordinary hunting business. He has come to give a special gift to baby Jesus. The fox’s gift is his cunning ability because he knows that one day baby Jesus will find himself “alone against the world” and that he will need all the protection he could get.

A careful reading of the dialogues between the animals reveal a great deal about Pamela’s outlook on life and her understanding of the nature of our human interactions. This post will attempt to articulate Pamela’s belief system through the analysis of the symbolical meanings woven into the character of the fox.

As you will come to see, the fox in the story is a multifaced character, a sort of symbol, sending signals to the reader. A quote from Pamela L. Travers about the nature of a symbol comes to mind:

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.

 (The World of the Hero, 1976)

Three aspects of the character of the fox seem, in my opinion, to be revealing of Pamela L. Travers’s psyche. First, I believe the fox in this fable to be a personification of Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness and alienation from others. Second, the fox can be perceived as the personification of Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual guru, Gurdjieff; and third, the nature of the fox’s gift to baby Jesus can also be understood as the expression of Pamela L. Travers’s unsatisfied childhood need for unconditional love. Now, let’s examine each one of these three elements.

Pamela L. Travers’s feelings of loneliness

Pamela L. Travers left her familiar Australian homeland at the age of twenty-four in search of a new, more fulfilling life in the mythical land of her deceased father’s fantasies, Ireland. Her escape from the controlling forces of her mother and her great-aunt Ellie propelled her into a newly gained freedom, which unfortunately, had the effect of activating (or maybe intensifying some already existing) deep survival anxieties; anxieties which might also have been the cause of her various illnesses throughout her life. And despite her serendipitous new writing beginnings, her work provided only meager revenues. Her fortune came much later in her life and did not relieve her from her deeply ingrained fears of never having enough money.

When Pamela L. Travers arrived in England, she sent a poem to George W. Russel, the editor of The Irish Statesman, who then introduced her into the Irish literary society almost overnight. She attached herself to Russel who, until his death ten years later, played the role of the mentor and grounding presence in her life. When Russel died, Pamela L. Travers was totally devastated. Her love life was a disaster and her sexuality somewhat ambiguous. Her relationships seem to have been very intense and shortly lived. She never married, and four years after Russel’s death Pamela adopted a child which she ended up sending to boarding school at the age of twelve.

In her early eighties, Pamela was awarded an OBE from the Queen (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) as a recognition of her literary work.  She asked Aidrian House, Former Editor of Collins Publishing, who also happens to have edited the “Fox at the Manger” to accompany her to the Buckingham Palace; a request that came to him as a surprise:

I felt surprised when Pamela asked me to the Buckingham Palace, I felt surprised that she didn’t have any friends closer to her in age, friends from her past who might’ve come with her. But then I suppose that she was probably in her early eighties. But there was always something about her, she always stood back slightly from ordinary relationships in every day life. And maybe that made her slightly lonelier than some people.”

(Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

Now, knowing these facts from her life, one comes easily to the conclusion that the following statement made by the fox reflects Pamela L. Travers’s own life experience. I believe that it is Pamela lending her voice to the Fox:

No one bids me go here, go there. … I live in danger, as the halcyon lives that builds her nest on the wave; alone with myself at all times….To be alone is my nature. … I have or have not, according to fate and season – and either way it is whole. Half a thing is of no use for me.

The Gurdjieff teachings

Pamela L. Travers followed the esoterical teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff and her writings were greatly influenced by her spiritual beliefs. (These influences will be explored in more detail in future posts.) For the purposes of this post, I will simply expose the basic idea of Gurdjieff’s teachings which has found its way into the story of “The Fox at the Manger.”

Gurdjieff taught his students that man was basically a sleeping machine with a potential to develop his consciousness through the practice of divided attention, which means to be simultaneously aware of both oneself and what one is considering. To delay reaction intentionally while consciously observing oneself, to question one’s ways of being and knowing, and thus generating the necessary inner friction to cause awakening. Continuous conscious effort and voluntary sacrifice are at the core of his teachings. Although inspired by Eastern philosophies, his system is uniquely different and articulated in a negative sort of way.

The students are challenged to question their perceptions of reality and of their identities, and at the same time, they are constantly reminded of their incapacity to see reality; thus locking them in a loop of endless questioning and confusion without any hope of finding an answer. I believe that Pamela’s emotional needs made her vulnerable to these teachings and although she was looking for solace, I believe these teachings exacerbated her survival anxieties and identity issues.

So, when the fox questions the farm animals’ perception of the reality of things as they know them, I can’t help but imagine Gurdjieff talking to his followers. The following exchanges between the animals are self-explanatory.

You speak like a slave, said the fox mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forest no man has seen – do they not still go on growing?  Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand at it? I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve I do not know.

And when the farm animals confront the fox about his cunning techniques, the fox replies wisely:

Foolish creatures (his victims), I remember them well. They did not trouble to think for themselves. They deserved what they got.

The need for unconditional love

The fox’s gift to baby Jesus illustrates Pamela L. Travers’s idea about the nature of true love, which she rightfully attributes to the act of giving. The problem with Pamela’s concept of true love is that she seems to have conceived giving as an act of painful self-sacrifice; an all or nothing affair. This notion of intrinsic pain associated to the act of loving is present in her other writings and was briefly examined in the analysis of the story of “Johnny Delanney.”

In “The Fox at the Manger,” the fox gives up the only thing that has value for him: his survival tool, his essence, his cunning. In Pamela’s eyes, the gifts of the farm animals are of a lesser value compared to the fox’s gift. Did she believe that true love must necessarily imply self-annihilation? To me, the fox’s gift is ambiguous. He gives up on his own nature and I don’t believe this is a loving act. To love another does not mean to stop loving oneself. To me, the fox’s gift looks more like a co-dependant impulse and it makes me wonder:  Did she lose herself in others? Did she expect from others self-sacrificing as proof of their love for her? Either way, if that was her mental representation of love, it is no wonder she experienced love as suffering. It is possible that she ended up believing that most people are incapable of true love. That somehow, she was one of the few people capable of true love and that others have somehow failed her….

The story ends on a lonely note:

And always, among the sleepers, there must be somebody waking – somewhere, someone, waking and watchful. Or what would happen to the world….

At the time when Pamela wrote the story she was herself acting as a guru and receiving people in her home to discuss Gurdjieff’s teachings. Did she see herself as one of the awaken few watching over the lost souls…? How lonely she must have felt…and how hopelessly burdened by the task…

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Fox at the Manger (Part I)

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The last two posts on this blog (analysis of the story of “Ah Wong” published in 1943 and analysis of the story of “Johnny Delaney” published in 1944) revealed Pamela L. Travers’s religious upbringing and the signs of her losing her religion after the early and sudden death of her father. These two stories were written during Pamela L. Travers’s war time evacuation to the United States, and as Christmas gifts for her friends; thus published privately.

The story of “The Fox at the Manger,” which is the subject of this week’s post, was published at large in 1963, almost twenty years after the end of the war and in my opinion, it expresses the same sentiment of rejection of the main-stream Christianity and the spiritual void experienced by Pamela L. Travers as the stories of “Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney“.

The “Fox at the Manger” is an account of the first Christmas service at St. Paul’s cathedral in post-war London when people were just beginning to settle back into their normal lives. The narrator (who is obviously Pamela L. Travers) takes three boys to the Christmas service. One of the little boys is dear to her heart and is obviously her son Camillus. By the way, the story is dedicated “To C. to remind him of his childhood.” 

Each of the boys are bringing one of their favorite toys with the intention of offering them as presents for the poor children in London. But when the moment comes for the boys to part with their precious possessions, they remorselessly change their minds. To this, the narrator (Pamela L. Travers) wisely concludes “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere.” 

Obviously, the story is about giving and about loss. As Patricia Demers writes in her book, “P.L. Travers,” “The Fox at the Manger” is “an affective meditation on gift giving.” But there are also other layers woven into the story which deserve closer exploration. So, let’s explore them.

The story begins with, and is wrapped around, the Christmas carol of the Friendly Beast.

Carol of the friendly beast

(Here sang by Peter, Paul and Mary)

 Jesus, our brother, strong and good

Was humbly born in stable rude

And the friendly beasts around him stood

Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

 

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown,

Carried his mother uphill and down,

I carried her safe to Bethlehem town,

I, said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

 

I, said the cow, all white and red,

Gave him manger for his bed,

I gave him my hay to pillow his head,

I, said the cow, all white and red.

 

I, said the sheep with curly horn,

Gave him my wool to keep him warm,

He wore my coat on Christmas morn,

I, said the sheep with curly horn.

 

I, said the dove, in the rafters high,

Cooed him to sleep with a lullaby,

We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I,

I, said the dove in the rafters high.

 

Thus, every beast by some good spell

In the stable dark was glad to tell

Of the gift he gave Immanuel

Of the gift he gave Immanuel.

 As a side note, I learned that this song probably originated in 12th-century France and was sung during the Fete de l’Ane (Festival of the Ass or Donkey), and the focus was the flight into Egypt by the Holy Family. At some point over the centuries, the scene shifted from the flight into Egypt to the journey to Bethlehem. Robert Davis (1881-1950) is attributed with writing the English words, probably in the 1920s. 

And now back to the story. The children in the story prove themselves to be keen observers. When the Church choir sings I, said the donkey, shabby and brown one of the boys remarks that the donkey in the Nativity scene is actually quite grey and smooth. Then another boy candidly demands: “Why, he asked, are they (the clergymen) wearing nightgowns? They look like Wee Willie Winkie.

Now, I didn’t know who Wee Willie Winkie was, so for those who may be ignorant of the character, here is a link to Wikipedia. Basically, Wee Willie Winkie is a character from a nursery rhyme (Pamela loved nursery rhymes) dressed in a night-gown and running around town tapping on windows and reminding children to go to bed. Therefore, it is not  exactly a dignifying comparison for the clergymen.

Although seemingly embarrassed by the attention from the congregation caused by the children’s comments, the narrator does not find the words to contradict them. She herself wonders, looking at the bishop lip-syncing the carol, “through what town of the mind this paunchy Wee Willie Winkie was running.” And then, to continue with her own meditation on the nativity scene:

 The rose-bloom faces of the kings gave no hint of the discipline, the labors, that must surely be the lot of any group of Magi.

And what disappoints her the most, is the absence of a black sheep amongst the white lambs:

And I dearly wanted a black lamb. For without him, where are the ninety and nine? Flocks, like families, have need of their black sheep he carries their sorrow for them. He is the other side of their whiteness. Does anybody understand I wandered, that a crib without a black lamb is an incomplete statement?

This passage in the story reminded me of another one of Pamela L. Travers’s essays published in Parabola in 1965, “The Black Sheep:”

What was a black sheep, I asked myself. Obviously, in the general view, one full of iniquity. If so, might I not be one myself, in spite of the tireless efforts of parents, teachers and friends.

The expressed feelings of not belonging to a tribe and being somewhat flawed are so obvious and ever recurring in her writings; even in the stories of Mary Poppins. But that will be explored at another time on this blog.

So, from the dialogues between the boys and the narrator, and the narrator’s own reflections of the religious service, one can easily deduce Pamela L. Travers’s general dissatisfaction with the religious concepts from her childhood. The worship rituals are portrayed in the story as a thoughtless mimic and mindless repetitions by some slightly ridiculous clergymen.  Clearly, Christianity did not provide answers to her questions nor did its teachings reflect what she perceived as being the truth.

So again, as in the previous stories, we can trace Pamela L. Travers’s rejection of the Christian religious beliefs. Yet, at the same time, the reader can feel a deep sense of her spiritual sensibility. She writes about the passage of time, which is associated to the flow of life, as something deeply mysterious and undisturbed by human actions:

Whenever the bombs fell in London, reinforcements in the shape of sycamore, rose-bay     willow, and fern came to fill the gaps. …. What had been here- some stately office? A bank?   A merchant’s hall? And before that, what? I wondered. If it is true the print and form of things remains forever, as they say invulnerable and invisible -surely these children were dancing now through long forgotten board meetings, and shades of accountants, lawyers, clerks. Or if one went back further, through the flames of the Fire in London in 1666. Further still, the marble floor would be mud and marshland and all around us brontozors; and beyond that we would whirl in lava, turning fierily through the air, nothing but elements.

Contrariwise, would not the City lords to come, in rooms that would rise from this fern and rubble start up in astonishment at the fancied sight of willow-herb breaking through the carpet. And old cashiers scratch their heads, wondering if they were out of their wits or whether they had really seen three boys run through the cash desk? Are we here? Are we there? Is it now? Is it then? They will not know and neither do we (Insert last name of author, page of quote).

Reading this, one feels the brevity of one own’s life and the impermanence of our human creations (or destructions for that matter). Pamela L. Travers must have felt rather small and insignificant, lost in a vastness of something beyond human comprehension. What is the meaning of it all? Pamela L. Travers does not know but the pain of the question remains forever present in her writings.

 After the service, the children ask the narrator why there were no wild animals at the crib. “Haven’t they got something to give?  In response, the narrator finds herself, like in a dreamlike state, telling the children the missing verse in the carol; the verse about the Fox.  She then proceeds to tell them the story of the “Fox at the Manger,” which can be compared to a sort of fable where the dialogues between the animals convey a moral to the reader. What is the moral? And who does the Fox personify?  I will tell you more in next week’s post.

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