A Christmas Story by Pamela L. Travers

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Christmas is just around the corner, which means that now is the right time to revisit Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable “The Fox at the Manger”.

It’s Christmas Eve in postwar London. The narrator along with three young boys takes part in the carol service at St. Paul’s cathedral. The young boys have brought their old toys for the poor children. Only, when the time comes to part with their toys, the boys swiftly change their minds and run off remorselessly in the opposite direction. The narrator witnessing their selfish behaviour affirms that “A gift must come from the heart or nowhere”. But the meaning of the story of the fox at the manger expands beyond this aphorism about love.

Right from the start, the title of the story hints of its unusualness, as Pamela L. Travers’s friend and collaborator, Brian Sibley, accurately noted when he first discovered the book: “What a bizarre, almost blasphemous idea: the wild, rough, red-haired chicken-thief at the place where the mysterious drama of the Incarnation had been enacted.” The idea is certainly provocative and the fox’s discourse throughout the story challenges our well accepted ideas about good and evil, love and service. I can assure you that Pamela L. Travers’s Christmas fable is definitely unlike any other Christmas story you have ever read or listened to. The story begins in a Christian religious context, but then quickly veers off and dives into the author’s inner world of esoteric beliefs, such as this poetical reference to the mysteries of time and space, to the Akashic records where all past, present and future human events, thoughts, emotions and intents are encoded in the non-physical etheric plane of existence:  

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

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

When one of the boys asks the narrator “Why weren’t there any wild animals at the crib?” the narrator tells the story of the forgotten verse in the Carol of the Friendly Beasts, the one about the visit of the fox at the manger. The fox comes with a special gift for baby Jesus. The fox presents the Son of God with its cunning.  The idea is subversive as it goes against the teachings of the Bible where the fox is portrayed rather negatively. But in Pamela L. Travers’s story, the fox appears in its positive aspect: wisdom and discernment. And at the end, wild and cunning and selfish as it may appear to be, the fox proves itself capable of the ultimate act of love, self-sacrifice. “‘It was not sudden, the fox said, coolly. ‘I was a long time coming to it and it was not easy.’”

Of course, when the fox arrives at the manger, it is not welcomed by the tamed animals, but their rejection does not deter it from its plans. In response to the common disapproval of its character the fox says:

Reynard you called me, and that is my name. But if you use it to threaten me, ass, I bid you remember its meaning. It comes from Raginohardus, a name that means ‘strong in counsel.

The farm animals see the fox from a narrow perspective. They see the selfish predator, the thief of chickens, but then the fox turns the tables around on them and confronts them with the idea that man is no different than the fox and that chickens are made to be stolen. The fox did not invent the laws of nature it simply lives by them. “I serve as man himself serves. I breath in, I breath out. What I take in from the air, the earth takes in from me. But what it is I serve, I do not know.” Does man really know? Nothing is less certain…

The dialogue between the farm animals and the fox also questions man’s place in Creation:

You speak like a slave, said the fox, mildly. Man, man, always man! Is there no other living thing? What of the forests no man has seen- do they not still go on growing? Will the fire at the core of the earth go out because man cannot warm his hand on it?

The fox also directs our attention to our all too human failure to see our life situations for what they are and the price we pay for not thinking for ourselves: “What would it profit me to run with the flock, shoulder to shoulder with woolly brother, when all it leads to is the basting dish.”

And as for the nature of the fox’s gift, well, it is ingeniously confounding, isn’t it? What use can Jesus have of cunning? I was dumbfounded by the fox’s gift, just as the farm animals in the story. Dumbfound and at the same time amused by Pamela L. Travers’s obstinate refusal to give explanations.

But what will you do with such a gift? I am puzzled at these riddles. What is this cunning? There is something here I do not understand.” Pamela L. Travers’s answer to the questions of the ass is that it is not important to understand but to simply let it be. Although this is a wise advice, especially when confronted with unanswerable questions, in this particular case, I couldn’t let it be. Knowing a little (just a little) about Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual beliefs I was convinced that there was some hidden meaning to the fox’s gift, some allusion to something deeper. This was not an unanswerable question.

My doubts were confirmed. I learned that:

Pamela L. Travers’s spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff believed that in order to make progress in the world it is necessary to have the devil on one’s side.” and also that “St Paul speaks of the cross as a trick against the Devil whose own cunning failed to make him aware that by crucifying the Lord of Glory he was thus caught in a trap which would see his end. Jesus’s crucifixion releases the end time: the end time for the wicked angels who have governed mankind. The cross is then a kind of trick, an act of pre-ordained cunning, played on Satan.”**

Pamela L. Travers must have been aware of the ambiguities and subtleties of the issue, or why would she write: “ For wild and tame are but two halves and here, where all begins and ends, everything must be whole.”

If you are interested in the story of “The Fox at the Manger” you could listen to Brian Sibley’s radio adaptation. Music is omnipresent throughout the dramatization and it beautifully enhances the emotional tonalities of the story. British actress Dame Wendy Hiller lends her voice to the narrator in the story, and I am almost certain that she must have prepared herself for the role by listening to interviews given by Pamela L. Travers (or maybe they even met), because the intonations of her voice are strikingly similar to the dramatic way of expression of Pamela L. Travers.

And one last comment, Pamela L. Travers had a somewhat analogous difficulty relinquishing the character of the fox in the hands of Brian Sibley as she did with her Mary Poppins and Disney, but of course with lesser intensity, the stakes were not the same. Only in this case the adaptation is loyal to the original creation.

She, who didn’t bother with radios or television found it almost as difficult to entrust the Fox at the Manger’ to me as the children in the story found it to relinquish their toys. ‘How is the child going to speak? How can you possibly give Him a voice? Why don’t you call the children X,Y and Z, as they are in the book? I don’t want them to be given names, you understand, but how will we know which one’s speaking? Does quite so much of the narrative have to go? Couldn’t someone just read the story? I’ve read it many times – in cathedrals too! Does it have to be a play…?*

One must admire Pamela L. Travers’s constancy.

Happy Holidays!  

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*  Excerpt from “A Good Gift, Thoughts on The Fox at the Manger” by Brian Sibley

** Tobias Churton, author of “Deconstructing Gurdjieff”

Pamela L. Travers’s First Gods (Part III)

 

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AUNT ELLIE

This week’s post will introduce you to Helen Morehead, the third (but not the least) influential presence in Pamela L. Travers’s early life. The post is inspired by the story of “Aunt Sass”, a semi-autobiographical and truly exquisite testimony about Pamela’s memorable great aunt.

♥  “Aunt Sass” was published privately in 1941 in a limited edition of five hundred copies and it was intended as a Christmas gift for friends, although the theme had nothing to do with Christmas.

I wonder what her friends’ reactions were. Were they touched? Did they care about her childhood memories? Did they discuss the story with her? Or, did they toss it somewhere on a shelf and forgot it existed? And I wish I knew why she dedicated the story to Eugene and Curtice. Who were they? Maybe someone out there having that piece of knowledge will read this post and give me the answer…

Fortunately, for the purposes of this blog and my personal obsession with Pamela L. Travers, Donna Coonan, Commission Editor of Virago Press, undertook to uncover Pamela’s unpublished works  after seeing the documentary The Secret Life of Mary Poppins a BBC culture show narrated by Victoria Coren Mitchell.  In November 2014, Virago Press, with the authorization of Pamela’s estate, published “Aunt Sass” along with two other stories: Ah Wong” and “Johnny Delaney.” (Stories that will be explored in future posts.)

Now back to the subject of this week’s post, Great Aunt Ellie.

From the moment Pamela L. Travers’s father passed away, Great Aunt Ellie, a wealthy spinster with a bullying tendency, became the controlling force of Pamela’s life. She was a born ancestress and matriarch and used the children and grandchildren of her brothers and sisters for her own dynastic purposes.”  “She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-around. When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses.

Pamela’s mother, Margaret, found herself financially unsupported and overwhelmed by the task of raising three young children alone. Great Aunt  Ellie (the sister of Pamela’s grandfather) came to the rescue and took the role of  the directing and protecting figure in Margaret’s and her children’s lives. The grieving family, anxious about its future, moved in temporarily with Ellie and her two dogs, Badger and Tinker.  The first meal at Aunt Ellie’s house seems to have been forever carved into Pamela’s psyche:

The next thing we knew we were all sitting at the luncheon table hearing Aunt Sass (Ellie) descant unfavorably on our table manners, upbringing, personal appearance and ghastly futures. One after another the children melted into tears and were ordered from the table. Eventually, my mother could bear it no longer and left the room, weeping. I alone remained. She glared at me and through a maddening haze of tears I glared back.

And now, I suppose, you’ll break down and go too.

I will not, you old Beast! I shouted to her. I am not crying, it’s only my eyes.

This was hardly a warm and comforting welcome.  Not only that, but according to Pamela’s biographer, the children, when visiting, would be sent to sleep on a cot in the attic while the best spare room would be reserved for the dogs, Tinker and Badger.

♥  The story doesn’t tell us explicitly, but it is possible that Ellie herself was overwhelmed by the events and by the long-term task of assisting the financial and moral needs of her niece and her three young children.

Here, take the cherries to the little ones and tell your mother Aunt Sass is a bitter old woman and that she didn’t mean a word if it.

Nevertheless, Ellie’s manners were cold and her mean words stuck in young Pamela’s mind for many years to come. If that was not the case, there would not have been a story about Aunt Sass and no Mary Poppins, for that matter.

♥  Aunt Ellie appears to have had somewhat of a split personality; a rough exterior and mean demeanor with some occasional sentimental deeds.

 “Her remarkableness lay in the extraordinary, and to me, enchanting discrepancy between her external behavior and her inner self. Imagine a bulldog whose ferocious exterior covers a heart tender to the point of sentimentality (…).

♥  Reportedly, extremely opinionated, Ellie viewed the world in either black or white. She also believed herself to be (or wanted others to think so) the retainer of all truth and expected, as “a general in a War Office,” to be obeyed on the spot.

The grim face was stony with conviction, the deep voice rumbled and you felt a delicious tremor of fear and anticipation fly through you. Any minute, any second some terrible miracle might happen. Would the world fall in two if you brought her the wrong knitting needles? Would you go up in smoke if you tweaked Tinker’s tail or Badger’s ear?

♥  For little Pamela, the ambiguity of Aunt Ellie proved itself frightening, but at the same time, her presence  provided a sense of safety, of being taken in charge by someone who appeared almighty and powerful; just like the Banks children in the Mary Poppins stories.

Ellie’s power resided in her wealth and in her use of constant criticism and gossip as her weapons of coercion and disempowerment. I suspect that she was being bullied by her own inner fears and disappointments, and that whenever guilt arose she tried to compensate for her exteriorized bullying by the occasional fairy godmother kind of attitude, which her financial resources allowed her to do. She did pay for Pamela’s boarding school, her typewriter, and her fare to England. As the years passed by, little Pamela grew up to become a young woman with artistic talents and a mind of her own.

♥  Now, this is just a hunch, but I feel that when Pamela, in her budding femininity, began to express her artistic tendencies more assertively,  her Great Aunt’s insecurities only increased and maybe even gave birth to some feelings of jealousy. I wish I could travel in time to see and hear for myself how things really happened. Instead, all I have are little bits and pieces of information to titillate my imagination with, just like these examples of exchanges:

I will not go out with you in that hat!”

Very well, Aunt Sass. I’ll go by myself.

Why do you have to turn yourself into a monstrosity? I am ashamed to be seen with you. Get into the car!

Or

“Writing? Faugh! Why can’t you leave that to journalists?”

 What’s all this I hear about you going to England? Ridiculous nonsense! You were always a fool.”

Anyhow, Ellie and Pamela never truly got along. “For the rest of her life we fought with all the bitterness of true affection.”

Ellie became ill right after her last visit to England. She was ninety years old. The illness “stretched her on her bed and drew a curtain of unconsciousness over her.”  When, against all expectations, she came briefly back to life she was a different woman.

The old gruffiness, the fierce egotism were gone. She was concerned and anxious now to reveal the heart that had hidden so long behind it. It was as if, knowing her time to be short, she must hasten to let the light appear through the thinning crust of flesh. … That stretch of dark unconsciousness had taught her how not to be self-conscious. Her defenses were down at last.

It was on their last meeting that Pamela gave Ellie a copy of the first of the Mary Poppins books. Her aunt took it to read it on her voyage back home. I wonder if she recognized herself in the traits of Mary Poppins. Could that be the cause of her softening of the heart? We’ll never know the answers and I can only speculate.

♥  I also couldn’t help but notice something else, a similarity of fortunes. It is almost as if Pamela in some way professed her own future. She too lived well into her nineties, she too was quite self-obsessed and self-conscious, and it was only in her later writings that she expressed this same willingness to open up and at last  be vulnerable; something that she resisted during her entire life.

“I had to learn that to be vulnerable, naked and defenseless is the only way to safety.”

(Letter to a Learned Astrologer, 1973)

It is true then that Pamela L. Travers wrote more than she knew, although when she said: “We write more than we know we are writing. We do not guess at the roots that made our fruit” she was referring to the resemblance between Mary Poppins and her Great Aunt Ellie. Strangely enough, when interviewed, Pamela always maintained that she didn’t know where Mary Poppins came from.

♥  A comment made by Camillus Travers, Pamela’s adoptive son, comes to mind. Talking about his mother he said:  “My mother was Mary Poppins.” And if Mary Poppins was based on the character of Helen Morehead, then it is only logical to assume that as Pamela grew older she ended up reproducing her bitter aunt’s behavior.

I also wonder if Pamela ever became aware of the irony of this condition. I can only hypothesize that Pamela, experiencing her life as an ordeal, modeled “the giantess, the frightening fairy-tale figure who” in her “childhood seemed immense enough to knock against the stars and hold counsel with God.” She modeled what she believed to be strength and resilience. She remained forever unaware of the wounded/orphan child archetypal energies in play in her psyche. What these are will be explored in future posts.