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.