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)

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. 

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.

 

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