At this time of the year, here in the Northern Hemisphere, autumn is in full swing. Winds are rising, trees are gradually shedding their colorful leaves and nights are getting longer. Symbolically, we are beginning our descent into darkness, and holidays like the approaching Halloween invite us to honour this shadowy season. So, this is an appropriate moment to write a blogpost about Hallowe’en, a story from Mary Poppins in the Park, the fourth Mary Poppins book published in 1952.
It is Halloween night and Jane and Michael see their shadows outside in the garden “floating down the front path and through the garden railings”. Encouraged by the sounds of music coming from the Park and the messages left on their pillows – two maple leaves on which are inscribed the words “Come” and “Tonight”- Jane and Michael leave the warmth and safety of their nursery and follow their shadows into the night.
In the Park, under the light of the Full Moon, they attend a strange party crowded with shadows of people they know, and fictional characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Of course, the children are amazed to see something unreal, that just goes through things and has no substance, to suddenly have an existence of its own.
But then, The Bird Woman’s shadow explains to Jane and Michael that shadows are more than real. In truth, she tells them, they are the outside of our inside, and they know important things.
And that’s what they are made for – to go through things. Through and out on the other side – it’s the way they get to be wise. You – take my words for it, my loves, when you know what your shadow knows – then you know a lot.
Mrs. Corry, a close friend of Mary Poppins is also at the party, but just like Mary Poppins her shadow is firmly attached to her feet. She warns the children that shadows have feelings.
They feel twice as much as you do. I warn you, children, take care of your or shadows or your shadows won’t take care of you.
Then Mary Poppins arrives, and Jane and Michael learn that it is not only Halloween, but also the eve of Mary Poppins’s birthday. The celebration begins. However, soon after the dancing starts, the owners of the merry shadows show up in the Park looking for them. Things get even more interesting for Jane and Michael.
The Park Keeper is a character that appears in many of the Mary Poppins adventures. He is always fretting and admonishing people to follow the rules, while living in constant fear of punishment for the irregularities that inevitably occur each time Mary Poppins comes to the park. On this Halloween night the Park Keeper is particularly frightened. Spooky things come out in the night, and he decides to abandon the Park for just this one time.
Understandably, when Jane and Michael see his shadow at the party, they are quite surprised, but the shadow explains:
Oh. I am not frightened, Miss – it’s ‘im. My body, so to speak. A very nervous chap’e is – afraid of ‘is own shadow.
The Park Keeper, who ignores that he has lost his shadow, but can not bring himself to ignore his duty, returns to the Park. When he sees his shadow dancing, which by the way is against the rules, he orders it to behave like a human being. His shadow replies with a giggle: “But shadows are so much nicer!” Then, the Park Keeper is forced by some mysterious powers to dance with his shadow, but even this shocking experience does not succeed in changing the Park Keeper’s rigid mind. At the end, he gets a firm hold of his shadow, and it is clear that the Park Keeper will remain just as he was before this uncanny incident. Apparently being forced to face one’s shadow is not enough. One has to willingly enter the dance for change to occur.
Admiral Boom, another frequently encountered character in the Mary Poppins adventures, is aware that his shadow is missing, but he is unwilling to face it. Instead, when he realises that his shadow has gone missing, he sends his wife out in the dark to look for it. Now, this is a rather cowardly act, and one that contradicts his usual authoritative behavior during the day. But Admiral Boom’s shadow knows better. It knows that behind the Admiral Boom’s imposing façade hides an entitled, spoiled child who wants everything on a plate. When things get tough, Admiral Boom gets tough on people. Someone else needs to fixit the situation for him.
I leave him for one night in the year – and he threatens to sink the ship! Now, that’s a thing I’d never do. He is nothing but a spoiled child – no sense of responsibility.
Obviously, the Admiral will remain locked in his anger and his experience of life will remain unchanged.
What about snobbish Mrs. Lark? She too braves the darkness and shows up in the Park looking for her shadow. When confronted with it, she is horrified by its behaviour. In her opinion, it is totally unacceptable for the shadow of a woman of her social standing to be dancing around the Park with total strangers. But this is not how her shadow sees the situation:
I’m gayer than you think, Lucinda. And so are you, if you knew it. Why are you always fussing and fretting instead of enjoying yourself? If you stood on your head occasionally, I’d never run away.
Surprisingly, Mrs. Lark does not need a lot of convincing, although she does not quite know how to go about this standing on your head business. Anyhow, she is going to practice on the hearthrug in her drawing-room.
The Professor, Mrs. Lark’s companion, follows in her footsteps. He walks in the Park knowing that he is looking for something, only he does not remember what that something is. This is much in line with the Professor’s usual absentmindedness. Funny enough, his shadow is just as forgetful as he is.
‘Lost and found!’ He (The Professor) embraced his shadow. ‘How beautiful are those two words when one hears them both together! Oh, never let us part again! You will remember what I forget – ‘
‘And vice versa!’ his shadow cried.
This happy reunion suggests that the Professor is not at odds with his shadow like the rest of the characters in the story. The Professor’s wholeness and alignment with his true nature is illustrated by the affectionate hug he shares with his shadow.
Mr. Banks, Jane and Michael’s father, comes sleepwalking across the Park with his arms stretched out before him. He talks in his sleep about feeling that there is something missing, although he cannot figure it out. In his dream, he has his bag and morning paper, so what could possibly be missing? His shadow gently comes forward and takes him back to his bed.
‘There, old chap! I’ll do the counting. Come along back to bed.’
Obviously, Mr. Banks is unconscious of his soul searching. Sadly, he is hopelessly trapped in the rat race of his existence, and his role as the provider of his large family. There is no revelation for him on this Halloween night.
Knowing about P.L. Travers’s spiritual allegiance to Gurdjieff and his teachings, it is easy to make the link between Mr. Banks’s sleepwalking and the functioning, according to Gurdjieff, of the average person. Gurdjieff believed that, for the most part, we are asleep and unconscious of the forces that control our lives. He compared the human being to a machine with three commanding, so to speak, centers: the physical center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center, which act independently from one another. Meaning that Gurdjieff viewed human beings as fractured beings who need to integrate their split off parts.
In interpreting this story, it is tempting to make a parallel between P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow and Jung’s concept of the shadow. In Jungian terms the shadow is the dark part of the human psyche. It contains our unconscious motivations, unfulfilled desires, needs and complexes. Simply put, if completely split off from our consciousness, our shadow gathers up destructive powers which can be harmful both to us and to others. According to Jung, the only way of becoming mentally and emotionally healthy is by integrating our shadow, by acknowledging its existence and examining its needs. In this sense, stories about adventures in the underworld can be understood as reminders that we can go into darkness in our lives and emerge on the other side better for it.
However, P.L. Travers’s metaphor of the shadow in this story is one paradoxically full of light. In this story the shadows are aware of the problems and complexes of their owners. However, they are not the embodiment of these forces. The shadows appear to be the repressed inner essence of the characters, their soul, the inner voice of truth. Or why would the Bird Woman’s shadow tell the Banks children that shadows never hurt anybody? “A “shadder” never did anyone harm-at least, not as I know of.”
P.L. Travers’s allegorical tale teaches an important lesson. Blindly following social rules and norms will never make us happy. Assuming roles imposed from the world outside of us will never allow us to live a life of fulfillment. To experience life fully, we must focus on our inner world, and recognise our true nature, or else, we are setting ourselves up for an unhappy, unfulfilling, small lives. And, now is as good a time as any to bring a little light into the dark corners of our inner worlds. Will you take on P.L. Travers’s invitation and party with your shadow?
Happy Halloween to all!