Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part II)

Grimm's Women II

 

Pamela L. Travers believed that all prototypes of womanhood were contained in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales, or at least, that is what she wrote in her essay “Grimm’s Women”.   

To persuade her readers to accept her point of view she presents in her essay, albeit briefly, her interpretation of the meanings of a few of their stories. Like a dexterous magician, she masterfully shuffles the meanings of these stories to the point of presenting a seemingly knowledgeable standpoint.  But did she see that clearly into the meanings of these stories?  

In order to answer this question a careful examination of Pamela L. Travers’s understanding of the meanings of the fates of the female characters in these fairy tales is required. I believe that Pamela’s appreciation of these stories can give us an indication about how she might have experienced her own womanliness.   

It is true that the Grimm’s fairy tales date back to a time when the roles of women and their living conditions were much different from our current ways of living. And yet, despite our technological and scientific discoveries and social advancements, the human dynamics depicted in these stories not only remain the same but they underlie all aspects of our modern lives.   

Now, I must admit (and I wrote about it in my last post) that I thought that Pamela’s advise to her friend to model herself on the Grimm’s women seemed quite peculiar. The Grimm’s princesses appear, for the most part, to be passive victims and what woman in her right mind would want to be a victim? But then I realized that the problem with these old fairy tales is that we all get side tracked by their most obvious interpretation. Yes, back then women were powerless and their survival depended greatly on men (and in many parts of the world today this is still true.) So, of course the fairy tales reflect the social reality of their times. However, if you peel off that first layer of meaning another one appears. The Grimm’s stories which Pamela examined in her essay can be separated into different categories depending on their major themes. There is the theme of the passage from childhood to maidenhood and theme of the passage from maidenhood to motherhood.   

From child to maiden  

The narrative in all of these fairy tales is about a female character in a psychologically dire situation. The obstacles that must be surmounted could potentially prevent the heroine’s passage from one stage of her life into the next. Another common element in these stories is the role played by the parental authority figures as the threshold guardians to the passage leading to maidenhood.   

I do agree with Pamela, now that I have read the Grimm’s fairy tales, that the Disney versions of these tales are quite superficial and do not take into account the psychological dynamics in play.   

Now let’s revisit the original versions of two of these stories:  Cinderella and Snow White, and ponder on Pamela L. Travers’s interpretation of their meanings.  

Cinderella  

When I read the first English translation of the first edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales I was amazed at how different the original Cinderella story was from the story most people know today. Surprisingly what is left out from the story is what I believe to be its most significant element, the key that allows to unlock its meaning.    

Just before she dies Cinderella’s mother makes a promise and a request. She promises Cinderella that she will look after her from heaven and then asks Cinderella to plant a tree. The tree, her mother tells her will give Cinderella everything she wishes for, all she has to do is to shake it. After her mother dies, Cinderella plants a tree on her grave and waters it with her tears. Then, eventually, her father remarries and from that point on in the story he disappears from the narrative.   

As we all know, Cinderella is forced by her stepmother and stepsisters to do the heavy chores around the house, which she accepts without complaining (and without shaking the tree). Then, the time comes in the fairy tale when the prince must find a bride. A ball, which is to last three nights is organized for that purpose and Cinderella’s sisters are attending. Not only is Cinderella left behind, but before the stepsisters leave, they throw lentils in the hearth and order Cinderella to separate them from the ashes. Unexpected help comes in the form of white pigeons who also encourage Cinderella to go to the tree and ask to go to the ball.   

Cinderella follows their advice and shakes the tree making her plea: “Shake and wobble little tree! Let beautiful clothes fall down to me“.  Beautiful clothes and a carriage appear and Cinderella goes to the ball and dances all night with the prince.  The third night of the ball the prince wants to make sure Cinderella does not escape him when midnight strikes, so he paints the stairs of the castle with black pitch and posts guards on the road. But again, Cinderella runs away, only this time one of her golden shoes (not glass!) remains stuck on the stairs of the castle.  The prince announces that he will marry the maiden who fits the shoe. The two evil sisters try to force their feet into the small shoe by following their mother’s advise. One sister cuts off a piece from her heel, the other cuts of her toes and each time the prince brings them back because their bloody deceit is uncovered. Then Cinderella must try the shoe… well we all know how that ends.  

Now, what did Pamela write in her essay about Cinderella? She wrote: “Cinderella, in Grimm’s at least is wise enough to know that nothing is to be got by wishing. It is only by performing the necessary rites at her mother’s grave that she goes to the Prince’s ball.”  

What?   

What is, according to Pamela the feminine prototype embodied by Cinderella? What should a woman who wants to model herself to Cinderella do? What proper rites must she perform?   For one thing Pamela was right though, nothing can be achieved simply by wishing.   

Clearly Pamela’s convoluted interpretation does not unveil the meaning of the story but it is articulated around its key element: the relationship between Cinderella and her mother.  

Cinderella’s story is a story about the blooming of an orphan child into a beautiful confident woman. I believe that Cinderella’s story teaches us that the successful transition from childhood to womanhood is closely linked to the quality of the nurturing a little girl receives from her mother at the very early stages of her life.  

In this story both the mother’s promise and the tree symbolize the healthy bond between a mother and her daughter and the life-giving force of the mother even from the beyond. The story is truly about the most important gift a mother can give to her daughter: a strong sense of self-worth.  

It is this early imprint of self-worth that allows the young Cinderella to outstand the attacks of the outside world. Her mother’s love taught her that she deserves to be loved regardless of her condition. Cinderella is resilient and patient but when the opportunity knocks on her door she rises up to cease it and all this is possible because of the love she received from her mother. She doesn’t tell herself things like:  I am not worth it! It is impossible, so why even bother? My stepsisters are right I am ugly and dirty!  The Prince will never pay any attention to me, why would he?

Judging by what she wrote about Cinderella, it is obvious that Pamela did not fully understand the meaning of the story. This fact is not the least surprising. Pamela’s bond to her mother was severed early in her life (See blog post Pamela L. Travers’s  First Gods (Part II)) and this may have been the cause of the inner torments and physical ailments she experienced until the very end of her log life.

Snow White 

Another surprise here too. The original story is about a narcistic Queen and her beautiful little daughter. It is not the stepmother who wants to kill Snow White but her real mother. When Snow White turns seven years old, her mother orders a huntsman to kill her. 

The huntsman takes pity on the little girl and leaves her in the forest where he believes she will be devoured by the wild animals. Instead, Snow White finds her way to the house of the seven dwarfs who offer her shelter in exchange for her help around the house. Eventually the Queen finds out that Snow White is living with the seven dwarfs in the seven mountains and decides to go there and kill her herself. She makes three attempts on Snow White’s life and each time her disguises allow her to deceive Snow White.

The first time she pretends to sell laces and laces Snow White’s dress so tight that Show White loses consciousness. In the evening when the dwarfs return home they untie the lace and Snow White recovers her breath. The second time the evil Queen combs Snow White’s hair with a poisonous comb but again, the dwarfs find it and remove it and Snow White is safe one more time. The third time the Queen makes a poisonous apple. This time Snow White cannot be helped. The dwarfs build a glass coffin and write Snow White’s name on it in golden letters. Time passes but unexplainably Snow White remains fresh and beautiful in her glass coffin. One day a prince comes into the dwarfs’ house and falls in love with dead Show White. The dwarfs let the prince carry her to his castle. The prince, infatuated with Show White, orders his servants to carry her everywhere he goes. One time, one of the servants gets really upset with the absurdity of the situation, opens the coffin and shakes Show White. The poisonous piece of the apple pops out of her mouth and Snow White becomes the prince’s bride.   

What did Pamela L. Travers have to say about this female heroine?  Not much: “...before becoming a candidate for Happy Ever After  (she) had to surmount inordinate obstacles.” Fine, but what are the obstacles Pamela?  

In this story the mother hates her daughter and does all she can to destroy her. Snow White in her child’s innocence cannot protect herself even if the dwarfs warn her about the evil ways of her mother. The child is prevented from maturing and crossing over the threshold to maidenhood because she is unable to truly recognize the meanness of her mother. Snow White is not awaken from her unconscious state by the prince’s love but by the servant’s anger. The prince’s love was not enough to heal the damage caused by the evil Queen. Snow White needed to be shaken in order to awaken. It comes a time in everyone’s life when one must see people (including and especially family members) for what they are and not what they look like they are, or what one wants them to be, this is the adult way. To disengage from an unhealthy relationship, one must first be able to see it for what it is.   

What fascinates me personnaly is the fact that despite all the life shaking events in Pamela L. Travers’s life nothing seems to have succeeded in totally awakening her to life. It is significant that the fairy tale that appealed the most to her was the tale of Sleeping Beauty.  Another story of girl stuck at the threshold to maidenhood and unconscious of all the gifts bestowed upon her by the good fairies at her christening. Pamela  even wrote her own retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty which I examined in detail on this blog see: About the Sleeping Beauty Part I, II, III, IV, V and VI.  

In conclusion to this post, I must point out that to a certain extend Pamela L. Travers was right, the fairy tales can teach us about womanhood however, it is not a question of modelling oneself to the characters as she believed, as it is a question of understanding the patterns of human emotion and behaviour in play in these tales and use them as road maps.  

In my next post I will continue exploring Pamela L. Travers’s analysis of the Grimm’s tales: Goose Girl, All Fur, The Twelve Princesses and Rapunzel. Hope you stay tuned.   

  

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Pamela L. Travers and Grimm’s Women (Part I) 

Brothers Grimm 2

This blog post begins the exploration of Pamela L. Travers’s beliefs about womanhood. According to her biographer, Pamela L. Travers loved the threefold concept of the Mother Goddess: maiden, mother, crone. For that reason, Lawson cleverly organized Pamela L. Travers’s biography in three parts: The Nymph (1899-1934), The Mother (1934-1965), The Crone (1965-1996). 

Although, I doubt that Pamela spent much time pondering on how this progression from one stage to the other occurred in a woman’s life. She wrote in her short essay “Grimm’s Women that the mere fact of having been born on the side of Yin was sufficient. A woman was what you inevitably, and willingly, became as the seed becomes a flower“.  

Well, this assertion clearly implies that Pamela believed in a naturally unfolding process of maturation comparable to the blooming of a flower or the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Human’s growth though is not linear nor smooth. The natural aging of the body does not necessarily equate to a mature mind and heart. Many factors in a woman’s life can prevent a healthy maturation. And it is quite possible that Pamela L. Travers’s own maturation process was interrupted by painful childhood experiences such as the early and sudden death of her father and her mother’s suicide attempt

In her essay “Grimm’s Women” Pamela recounts being caught up in the street by a female acquaintance who wanted to learn how to be a woman, so she asked Pamela for advice. After a brief introspection, Pamela responded Read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and then, without any further explanation, left her acquaintance standing, flabbergasted, on the corner of the street. 

At first, knowing about Pamela L. Travers’s childhood, this response did not surprise me. Pamela was brought up (or more accurately brought herself up) on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and kept a lifelong love for their collection of folk tales. References of these tales appear time and time again in her essays and interviews.  

However, reading the essay (which is only 3 pages) felt like trying to snorkel in murky waters.  What was Pamela L. Travers trying to communicate to the reader?  I could read the words, and although they read like there was some sense in them, I couldn’t figure out the message. Was she trying to articulate in a poetic fashion that there were many different ways of being a woman? That was not a satisfactory response for me. But then I thought, if this essay was first published in The New York Times then maybe the reason for my incomprehension was  my lack of knowledge of the Grimm’s tales. So, I decided to educate myself and cross over from the Disney Hemisphere of the World into the Old World of the original Fairy Tales.  

Luckily for me there was only one available edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales in my local book store. I say luckily because if there was another one with a prettier cover I would have chosen it over the one I ended up buying, and I would have probably ended up with the seventh edition of these tales. It turns out, the Brothers Grimm, mostly one of them, Wilhelm kept adding and modifying the tales that were first published in 1812. So, this is how I accidently bought the first translation in English of the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The collection of folk tales in this edition is probably the truest one to the oral tradition which the Brothers Grimm wanted to preserve, at least at the beginning of their project. (The story of the brothers Grimm is also interesting but that is another subject.)  

This of course means that I did not read the exact versions which Pamela read as a child and reread later on in her life. This first English translation of the first edition of the Grimm’s fairy tales was undertook in 2012, some 16 years after Pamela’s death, but that doesn’t change much for the purposes of this post.  (I know Pamela would have loved to read it.) And besides, even after six more editions the Grimm fairy tales remain renowned for their grimness. 

Most people know the Disney versions of only a hand full of the Grimm’s stories and these new versions are largely sanitized for entertaining purposes. All of the original violence is completely left out. Pamela disliked the inflation of the animal world in the Disney animated cartoons and the corresponding deflation of the human impulses depicted in these stories. 

However,  these tales are not and were not specifically meant for children. The folk tales were something of a house tale, people would recite them in social gatherings.   

The Brothers Grimm relied on many people to bring  these stories to them and the surprising (at least to me) fact is that many of these stories were told to the brothers by women, some from aristocratic families and other simple peasants. Why is it surprising?  

Because in most of these stories the violence is more often than not directed towards women. For the most part the princesses (the maidens) in these fairy tales are passive victims, betrayed by their own parents or by an evil stepmother, waiting to be saved by a valiant prince. Even the ones that have more active roles in the stories somehow end up naked in a forest or a cave and must endure incredible trials in total silence under penalty of death, and for what? For the sake of saving lost brothers or to get back lost lovers. Yes, some of the princes in these stories forget their princesses and get a second bride.  

I know that Pamela preached that fairy tales should be experienced in order to grasp their true meaning but isn’t it a strange advice to tell a woman to model herself on the female heroines of the Grimm’s stories? Either you remain a passive victim and hope for rescue or you chose the evil side and die in dire pain.

I believe these tales to be descriptive of human dynamics and also of hopes for justice in life but they no longer apply to the realities of modern women. This is why there are so many new adaptations of these stories in movies and books.  

There are only 2 stories out of 156 about intelligent women. The story of The Clever Farmer’s Daughter in which an intelligent woman of lower ranking becomes the king’s wife but then almost gets killed by her husband when he realizes that she might be even smarter than him. And then there is the story of the lazy wife, The Lazy Spinner, who dislikes spinning yarn and finally gets her own way by outsmarting her husband.  If I had to model myself to any of the Grimm’s Women these would be my chosen examples. But Pamela never spoke of those.  (Maybe they were not included in the seventh edifion, I will have to verify…) She spoke of other heroines and they will be the subject of the next post on this blog. Hope you stay tuned. 

 

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part V)

Sleeping Beauty 5

When I wrote the post About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I) I did not expect to have material for more than a couple of posts. Yet, here we are, Part V with the subject still not exhausted… There are simply so many things to be said…about the book and about Pamela L. Travers.

It is of course impossible to get a completely undistorted image of another person, especially when one does not have the opportunity of a direct experience. Fortunately, in the case of writers we have their work to dissect and investigate.  Willingly or not, they always leave something of themselves in their works and Pamela L. Travers was no exception to that rule.

Sleeping Beauty’s inability to cross the threshold in to maidenhood

Pamela L. Travers was not the only one interested in the meaning of the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, Joseph Campbell, the renowned American mythologist and writer, was also amongst those who commented on its meaning. Although, his vision, in opposition to Pamela’s, was quite clear and affirmative. He saw in this fairy tale the pattern of a little girl refusing to grow up. (I wonder, did Pamela know of Campbell’s work? What did she think of it? Wish I had the answers…) Anyhow, in my opinion, Campbell’s interpretation is probably closer to the truth of the fairy tale than Pamela’s fabrications, original as they may be.

Yet, can we really talk about a refusal to grow up? Doesn’t the word refusal imply a conscious decision not to do something? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that Sleeping Beauty was unable to move on to the next stage in her life? The question then is why? What caused her inability?

Sleeping Beauty is locked into her childhood by the power of the Thirteenth Wise Woman’s spell, but the spell is the consequence of something else. And that something else is directly related to Sleeping Beauty’s inability to grow.

Why didn’t Pamela L. Travers consider these questions in her Afterword? Maybe because she failed to properly identify, both, the nature of the threshold which the princess had to cross, and the identity of the guardians of that threshold. Pamela, in my opinion mistakenly, saw the Thirteen Wise Woman as the guardian of the threshold in Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale:

The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as a guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed.  …. Without the Wicked Fairy, there would have been no story. She, not the heroine, is the goddess in the machine.”

But isn’t the purpose of thresholds and their guardians to test the heroine’s ability to move on to the next stage of her journey. Aren’t they the psychic growing pains of the heroine?  Thresholds and their guardians are intimately linked to the heroine and not to the story. Without the heroine, there is no story. And, if it was for the Thirteenth Wise Woman, there would have been no story, her spell was one of death. It was the Twelfth Wise Woman who modified the spell to a hundred-year sleep.

Who are then the guardians of the threshold in the story? Well, since the princess is arrested in her childhood it is only logical to turn our attention towards her parents and to examine their roles in the story.

The Sultan and the Sultana as the threshold guardians in the story

The true cause of Sleeping Beauty’s stunted growth is caused by her parents’ inadequate nurturing skills. After all, it was her father’s error of judgment, his lack of consideration for the Thirteenth Wise Woman that aroused her vengefulness to which the unfortunate Sleeping Beauty happened to be the recipient?  

And in Pamela L. Travers’s retelling, the Sultan was not quite happy with the birth of the child:

The Sultan received the news with satisfaction tempered with disappointment. “I could have asked for nothing better, except, of course, a son. … we need a successor to the throne and a son would have been very useful.” At that, as though she felt herself to be unwelcomed, the baby set up a doleful weeping…

Now after this, how can one expect the Sultan to be fully involved and interested in his daughter’s growth?

Why did Pamela add this detail to the story? Was that her experience too? It is possible. She was the eldest of three daughters. Maybe her father longed for a son too…Maybe this is why Pamela felt inadequate…

Still, the responsibility of Sleeping Beauty’s fate does not all fall on the Sultan’s shoulders. The Sultana does have a role to play even though Pamela L. Travers does not dwell much on it in her Afterword. But curiously enough, in her retelling, she elaborates on the  Sultana’s longing for a child:

Here,” she (the Sultana) said touching her belly. “And here,” she said, touching her breast. “And here” she said, touching the inner crease of her elbow, “I ache for what I lack”.

And then after the baby is born:

“…the Sultana holding her baby in her arms, was utterly content. She had no ache anywhere and she felt that she lacked nothing.”

Now, if Sleeping Beauty was filling the hole in her mother’s heart how can one expect the Sultana to be willing to let go of Sleeping Beauty and set her free when the time comes? Isn’t the passivity of the Sultana and her unwillingness to contradict her husband in the story just that, the unwillingness to lead her daughter into maidenhood.

Could it be that the story is telling us that Sleeping Beauty’s fate is the consequence of her parents’ mistakes; that no matter how many virtues a child may posses if those virtues are not recognized by the parents, chances are the child will remain unconscious of its intrinsic value, unless brought to its attention by some loving presence, in this case the prince. 

The Sultan’s and Sultana’s absence from the palace on the fatidic day of Sleeping Beauty’s fifteenth birthday is another representation of their inadequate parenting, their inability to lead their child to the next stage of her life.

And by choosing to turn the key on the door leading to the unknown, Sleeping Beauty begins her adventure into the underworld of her unconscious mind. The adventure to which Gurdjieff, Pamela’s guru, called his followers:

The real adventure to which he (Gurdjieff) calls any man courageous enough to attempt it is that of daring to look down into the abyss of his own unconscious. Can we, like Theseus, enter our inner labyrinth, at the risk of never meeting the Minotaur, of never seeing daylight again, deceived by an infernal game of echoes and false exits as in a never-ending course of psychoanalysis.

René Zuber, “Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?

What goes on in Sleeping Beauty’s unconscious mind?  The story doesn’t tell, but the fact that the princess needs the prince’s help suggests that she was lost into her inner labyrinth. Why didn’t Pamela explore that aspect? I wish someone asked her that question?

Another thought comes to mind. I read an excerpt somewhere from one of Gurdjieff’s talks (which unfortunately I cannot trace back now and quote) and which is relevant here because it deals with family history and karmic bonds. The basic idea was that we all, in our lives, pay for our ancestors’ actions. It would have been interesting to ask Pamela about that too…

Now, why was it that Pamela L. Travers did not see the most simple and obvious interpretation of the story? Why was she looking for some other mystical explanation?  Could it be that she was Sleeping Beauty in her own life?

 

 

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part IV)

Sleeping Beauty 4

As discussed in last week’s post, Pamela L. Travers did not see Sleeping Beauty as simply a pretty girl waiting for a lover”. Yet, she affirmed that all fairy tales about princesses and princes are stories “speaking to us of love, laying down patterns and examples for all our human loving”. What is then Sleeping Beauty’s pattern? And how did Pamela L. Travers relate to that pattern?

Isn’t it significant that an old woman (Pamela was in her mid-seventies when she wrote “About the Sleeping Beauty” and that, after some ten years or so of research and “brooding”) was so fascinated by a story about a little girl stuck at the threshold of maidenhood? Isn’t Sleeping Beauty just that, a girl who must, according to the laws of time, leave the protective walls of her childhood to embrace her new identity as a maiden. This is somewhat of an obvious interpretation of the story and yet it remained in Pamela L. Travers’s blind spot. Instead, she pondered about the nature of a mysterious something that falls asleep after childhood, echoing the teachings of her spiritual teacher Gurdjieff (see last week’s post). It just never occurred to her that Sleeping Beauty’s sleep could also represent the inability of the princess to move on to the next stage of her life. The princess needed some convincing, some reassurance that it was safe and worth the effort to awaken to life as a woman. The princess needed a prince. And so did Pamela (or more accurately Lyndon), she needed and hoped for help to come from the outside and guide her from the inner maze of her subconscious mind back  into the light of life.

♥ We discussed in a previous post Pamela’s peculiar relationship to names and how she said she trembled inside when people used her real name. Can we see then Pamela L. Travers as Lyndon’s castle walls and the unresolved issues from her childhood as the ingredients of the spell of sleep? Could it be that little Lyndon was waiting for someone to come and help her cross over to the other side of her infantile ego and free her from the grip of her survival fears?

Can we go even further and extract from Pamela’s retelling her ideal of romantic love? That is a legitimate question, to which my answer is: We can most certainly try. For that purpose, we need to examine the character of the prince in Pamela’s retelling and the details around Sleeping Beauty’s awakening.

The prince in the original fairy tale is an atypical hero because he is pretty much the only hero in the land of fairy tales to have no special deed to perform nor any danger to face. All he has to do is to show up at the right place at the right time.

Of course, Pamela, versed in fairy-tale and myth, noticed this peculiarity and labored to find a meaning to this strange state of fairy tale affairs. Her interpretation though is quite disappointing: to chose the moment when the time is ripe is essentially a hero deed.”  But how can a hero choose the right time for the awakening of someone else? How can he know what goes on in Sleeping Beauty’s unconscious mind? That cannot be the right interpretation!

Apparently unsatisfied by the prince’s lack of courage display, Pamela decided to elaborate on the nature of his quest to justify his role in the story. Her prince tells the woodcutter, who warns him of the deadly nature of the endeavour of crossing the hedge of thorns: I am indeed, all unarmed. But all my life, without ceasing, I have bent my thought to this quest.

And can you blame him? The princess has all the virtues one can wish for and thus embodies the prototype of the perfect woman, except that her sleep makes her unavailable. And what man would not want to posses the perfect woman? According to Pamela the prince’s quest is not only to awaken the princess to life and make her his wife but also to serve her. These are, as ascribed by Pamela, the prince’s thoughts at the sight of Sleeping Beauty:

He knew himself to be at the center of the world, and that, in him, all men stood there, gazing at their heart’s desire-or perhaps their inmost selves.”

Silently, he vowed to serve the accomplishment as he had served the quest.

And what did Pamela’s Sleeping Beauty do as soon as she received the prince’s kiss? She opened her eyes and said:I have been dreaming about you…now my dream has come true.”

Now, this is of course Pamela talking, the same Pamela that affirmed in the Afterword that Sleeping Beauty was not waiting for her lover….

♥Could it be that, unconsciously, the couple of Sleeping Beauty and her prince represented for Pamela the prototype of perfect love?  A prince that would devote his entire life to his princess, from finding her and awakening her to life to serving her into the happily ever after.  Is it possible that little Lyndon hoped for somebody who would come and save her from her survival fears? Someone who will see himself in her and in return would worship her. Isn’t her retelling of the story suggesting of a co-dependant pattern?  I wish I could talk about this with Pamela herself, alas…

Before we conclude this post it is worth mentioning that to underline the erotic symbolism in the story Pamela L. Travers gave the princess a name, Rose, reminiscent of the five-petaled flower sacred to the Celtic White Goddess, the erotic briar rose. She also gave princess Rose pet companions:

a dove which in myth was sacred to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love; and a cat which was sacred to Freya, Aphrodite Nordic counterpart. To these a lizard is added, not merely to provide the necessary fairy tale third but to be assimilated to the symbol of the spindle which is nothing if not erotic.

But that was about all she had to say on this subject. For those who are interested in the erotic symbolism in this fairy, here is a link to an interesting blog post by Hunter Jones: Unravelling the Sexual Mystique of Sleeping Beauty.

In next week’s post we will discuss the possible causes of the princess’s inability to consciously walk into her new identity as a maiden and the reasons for her need for the prince’s help.  Hope you stay tuned and come back to meet with the characters of the Sultan, Sultana and the wicked Thirteenth Wise Woman.

 

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. (If you want to read the outline of Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of the fairy tale click here.)

The Afterword in “About the 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 (see Pamela First Gods Part I, Part II and Part III) . 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        (See Lyndon Invents Pamela and  Pamela L. Travers and the Rebel Archetype Part I and Part II

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” and yet it is not quite the same. 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: Higher Intellectual Center, Higher Emotional Center, Intellectual Center, Emotional Center, Moving Center, Instinctive Center, Sex center.

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. I am only at the beginning stages of my research surrounding these esoteric teachings but they appear quite fanciful and confusing. Somehow, I am under the impression that Gurdjieff intentionally designed them in a way to prevent his followers from finding any answers. 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…

Next week we’ll continue with the study of: (i) the character of the Prince (ii) Sleeping Beauty’s awakening and (iii) the relationship between Sleeping Beauty and the prince. Hope you stay tuned and follow this blog 😊.

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. Since Pamela was quite self absorbed 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.  That might have contributed 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? Ironically Pamela lived almost for one hundred years, she died at the age of 96:

 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, Documentary “The Shadow of Mary Poppins”)

Now that is extremely sad…

At the end of the 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, 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.

In next week’s post, we’ll examine the two other female characters in the story: Sleeping Beauty and the Thirteenth Wise Woman, and their meaning related to Pamela L. Travers’s own life. I hope you stay tuned.

 

About the Sleeping Beauty (Part I)

Sleeping Beauty.jpg

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. (Pamela tended to draw universal conclusions from her own experiences.)

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 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?

There is one fact from her early life that is quite serendipitous of her interest in the fairy-tale of the Sleeping Beauty. In Australia, Pamela had a brief acting career in her early twenties and her first role was as a pantomime dancer (in 1920) in the production of Sleeping Beauty. Now, that is what we can call a meaningful coincidence.

In 1965, Pamela L. Travers was invited as a writer-in-residence to Radcliff College (part of the 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. She was expressing inner states and beliefs which unfortunately had no interest for the public. Or, 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.” The Afterword will be explored in the Third part of this blog post.

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, it is her description of the Wise Women that makes them look like a pantomime image. And for me, it felt discordant and not in tune with the fairy-tales dimension.

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 …. 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. But if you are not interested in the person, it is not especially entertaining or educating, although the descriptions are beautiful. Pamela wrote exquisite descriptions of places and characters, and I think I will dedicate a post or two to these artful creations.

Next week’s post will concentrate on the analysis of Pamela L. Travers’s retelling of Sleeping Beauty, the influences of Gurdjieff’s teachings, and what it was that Pamela L. Travers was trying, knowingly or unknowingly, to communicate to the readers.