Introduction to a Well Known Author:
Fairytales are atmospheric, creepy and often cruel showing us temptation in the form of hope usually after great turmoil and sacrifice. They’re not often stories for children but more warnings as Pamela Travers herself claimed she didn’t write the Mary Poppins books for children. To some of us they can be seen as culmination of learning and with her tempestuous life perhaps a yearning – Ms Poppins being someone she wanted to be or wanted to guide her through the storm? Poppins being someone who glided through extremities like only few and a ‘nanny’ (granny, Dark Mother figure – remember the Dark Mother is an honourary title, she doesn’t have to be a Mother).
The remakes of well known fairytales in recent years have emphasized further that they are not really ‘family friendly’ and even modern authors from Roald Dahl to J. K. Rowling have shown us ‘dark’ children’s and young adult fiction, easily read by adults, and yet they hold a map for childhood. Dystopian themes have made it to the forefront of youth fiction – but then did they ever really leave? The scary has always been at home with musical folk tales and poems of old and are always present watching and coming closer to us from the periphery, they sometimes get watered by the likes of Disney but even Disney shows protagonists in danger. Is it a safe ‘threat’ we hanker for like that of a roller coaster where we feel the thrill but never the peril or is there something in us that really wants to fall? We never really face the unknown we just go round in circles, patterns and trends.
But Disney was right to excise from Mary Poppins the Zen mysticism and symbolism, about which academics had preposterously written lectures and learned papers. And although Disney’s songwriters the Sherman Brothers are on record as finding Travers “a hellcat” to work with (“like having two weeks of ulcers”), she comes across in the film as ultimately sympathetic, commanding respect for facing up with spirit to the Disney men. Travers was fond of saying that all women pass through three phases: nymph, mother, crone.
As Lawson writes, in the initial days of Disney’s charm offensive, P L Travers “fell into Walt’s embrace like a lovesick fool, but the fortune he gave her almost made up for the betrayal”. She got $100,000 upfront and 5 per cent of the gross, so she had to forgive “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and dancing penguins. And after five years of “uneasy wedlock”, the film emerged – unsubtle, sugary, sentimental; “gorgeous, but all wrapped round mediocrity of thought” – and won five Oscars. Sam Goldwyn wrote an open letter saying everyone in the world should see it. Never mind that Disney’s editions of Mary Poppins books outsold hers; her own sales trebled. She would later say that she had written “a small unpretentious book, but as full of meat as a sausage is. The film made it grandiose, pretentious and took all the stuffing out of the story.” But she always praised Julie Andrews and even thought Dick Van Dyke’s cockney was “really not too bad”. She discussed a possible sequel without objection.
Was he right to White wash (his own life and business White washed of course)? I love the Mary Poppins film (and I can understand why Emma Thompson was chosen to portray P. L. Travers due to her role as Nanny McPhee – the films of which I didn’t really like – and her bearing in general) but I’m aware there was more going on in her life and in the series. It seems as if Travers got caught up in great knowledge and mixed with great cultural icons who themselves did the same but like many were far too a bohemian, rich, elite set indulgent and immature for the wisdom they sought/practiced.
Too bad we can’t all be like the characters we create and adore; perhaps she wanted Mary Poppins but had some of that in her aunts and would have been better off with Granny/Mistress Weatherwax (another Dark Mother/Witch/Wise Woman/Crone figure) from Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’, whom many of us love… At a distance and with great respect and perhaps some bitterness and begrudgement, and she was the ‘good one’ out of her and her sister 😉 !
What we want and need are sometimes two very different things.
Discerning the Nature of Free Will
In the chapter entitled, “John and Barbara’s Story,” a starling, a wise bird, visits the nursery at Cherry Tree Lane and communes with Mary Poppins and the babies, John and Barbara. Through their conversation, we become aware that the babies, the starling, and Mary Poppins understand the language of the wind, the stars, and the sunlight. However, the starling laments that the children will soon forget everything about where they came from. The children, of course, vehemently protest. Soon, however, they do forget.
This theme is explored further in the chapter entitled, “The New One” in Mary Poppins Comes Back. When the baby Annabel is born, the starling makes another visit, and he turns somersaults on the windowsill, clapping his wings wildly together each time his head comes up. “What a treat!” he pants, when at last he stands up straight. (Now he had someone to whom he could speak again.) The starling asks Annabel to tell the fledgling that accompanies him to tell where she came from:
“I am earth and air and fire and water,” she said softly. “ I come from the Dark where all things have their beginnings. I come from the sea and its tides, I come from the sky and its stars, I come from the sun and its brightness—and I come from the forest of earth. Slowly, I moved at first always sleeping and dreaming. I remembered all I had been and I thought of all I shall be. And when I had dreamed my dream I awoke and came swiftly. I heard the stars singing as I came and I felt warm wings about me. I passed the beasts of the jungle and came through the dark, deep waters.” “It was a long journey! A long journey indeed!” said the starling softly, lifting his head from his breast. “And ah, so soon forgotten!”
This episode is reminiscent of the soul’s encounter with the river Lethe in Greek mythology. The souls of the dead bathe there before they are born, so they will not remember their previous history and choices made before birth (karma) until their life is over. If we knew what happened in past lives with the people we know in the present, we might avoid these people and many of life’s experiences. How can we operate with free will and choice if we know our sacred contracts, asks Caroline Myss, author of Sacred Contracts. In The Secrets of Dr. Traverner, Diane Fortune, the occult fiction writer of the early twentieth century, wrote about a character who refused to come completely into her body because she knew her fate and was afraid to face it. This presents the paradox that from ignorance we exercise free will; from knowledge we forfeit our right to choose.
The above link explores symbolism in the Mary Poppins series and Travers was herself an ardent student of mythology and culture which brings us to one of her passions, a passion of intrigue with eternal beauty.
The Allure of Beauty in Death/Slumber, the Conflict of Choosing Between Immortal and Mortal Love:
I’m not going to explain the symbolism in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ such as a the Spinners/Fates/Wheels but simply quote some of Travers’ own words as found in the ‘Afterword‘ of her book ‘About The Sleeping Beauty’. Therein she outlines five versions of the story from different cultures following her own refashioning. Bear in mind that I do not agree with everything.
The idea of the sleeper, of somebody hidden from mortal eye, waiting until the time shall ripen has always been dear to folkly mind – Snow White asleep in her glass coffin, Brynhild behind her wall of fire, Charlemagne in the heart of France, King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon, Frederick Barbarossa under his mountain in Thuringia. Muchukunda, the Hindu King, slept through eons until he was awakened by the Lord Krishna; Oisin of Ireland dreamed of Tir N’an Og for over three hundred years. Psyche in her magic sleep is a type of Sleeping Beauty, Sumerian Ishtar in the underworld may be said to be another. Holga the Dane is sleeping and waiting, and so, they say, is Sir Francis Drake. Quetzalcoatl of Mexico and Virochoca of Peru are both sleepers. Morgan le Fay of France and England and Dame Holle of Germany are sleeping in raths and cairns.
The themes of the sleeper is as old as the memory of man. Where it first arose we do no know. One can never find where myth and fairy tale begin any more than one can find wild wheat growing. They are not invented, that is certain. They germinate from seeds sown by an unknown hand. ‘The Authors’, as the poet William Blake has said, ‘are in Eternity’, and we must be content to leave them there. The story is, after all, what matters.
The appearance of this lady at the Christening [in her version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’] is the great moment of the tale, the hook from which everything hangs. Properly to understand why this is so we must turn to Wise Women in general and their role in the world of men. To begin with they are not mortal women. They are sisters, rather, of the Sirens, kin to the Fates and the World Mothers. As such, as creatures of another dimension, myth and legend have been at pains to embody them in other than human shape – the winged female figures of Homer, the bird headed women of the Irish tales, the wild women of ancient Russia with square heads and hairy bodies and the wisplike Jinn of the Middle East who were not allowed grosser forms than those of fire and smoke. 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 their golden and silver feet hover a little above the earth as the gods do on the Greek vases. And in dressing them in colours of the spectrum that the Thirteen are parts of the single whole and the opposites complementary.
For it should be remembered that no Wise Woman or Fairy is in herself either good or bad; she takes on one aspect or the other according to the laws of the story and necessity of events. The powers of these ladies are equivocal. They change with changing circumstances; they are as swift to take umbrage as they are to bestow a boon; they curse and bless with equal gusto. Each Wise Woman is, in fact, an aspect of the Hindu goddess, Kali, who carries in her multiple hands the powers of good and evil.
It is clear, therefore, that the Thirteenth Wise Woman becomes the Wicked Fairy solely for the purpose of one particular story. It was by chance that she received no invitation; it might just as well have been one of her sisters. So, thrust by circumstance into her role, she acts according to law.
Up she rises, ostensibly to avenge an insult but in reality to thrust the story and keep the drama moving. She becomes the necessary antagonist, placed there to show that whatever is ‘other’, opposite and fearful, is indispensable an instrument of creation as any force for good. The pulling of the Devas an Asuras in opposite directions churn the ocean of life in the Hindu myth and the interaction of the good and the bad Fairies produces the fairy tale. The Thirteenth Wise Woman stands as the guardian of the threshold, the paradoxical adversary without whose presence no threshold may be passed.
This is the role played in so many stories by the Wicked Stepmother. The true mother, by her very nature, is bound to preserve, protect and comfort; this is why she is so often disposed of before the story begins. It is the stepmother, her cold heart unwittingly cooperating with the hero’s need, who thrusts the child from the warm hearth, out from the sheltering walls of home to find his own true way.
Powers such as these, at once demonic and divine, are not to be taken lightly. They give a name to evil, free it, and bring it to the light. For evil will out, they sharply warn us, no matter how deeply buried…
Without the Wicked Fairy there would have been no story. She not the heroine, is the goddess in the machine.
But if the Prince is a mysterious figure, how much more so is she who is the crux of the story, the maiden of surpassing beauty asleep behind her wall of thorns, she whom men from the beginning of time have pondered on and treasured. I say the beginning of time with intent, for when a woman is the chief character in a story it is a sign of its antiquity. It takes us back to those cloudy eras when the world was rule not, as it was in later years, by a god but by the Great Goddess. Here, as with the Prince, is a heroine who has ostensibly nothing to do, nothing to suffer. She is endowed with every blessing and grace and happy fortune, no slights or indignities are put upon her as is the case with her sister heroines, Show White, Cinderella, Little Two-Eyes, or the Goose Girl. She simply has to follow her fate, prick her finger, and fall asleep. But perhaps – is this what the story is telling us? – perhaps it is not a simple thing to do to faithfully follow one’s fate…
Who is she, this peerless beauty, this hidden sleeping figure that has kindled the imaginations of so many generations and for whom children go about on tiptoe lest she be too soon wakened?
[My comment: The Princess is the representative on Earth, the Earth as the creation, she is the illuminated light illuminated from the light of the Mother like the moon to the sun; part divine, part mortal – the link between the Mother and potential creation, and the created. She is the Daughter and in a story involving a love interest she is like Persephone, abducted or tricked into staying in manifestation, separated from the Creator like a tool/weapon/treasure. She is the Fallen, fallen with creation which in itself is fallen because it is no longer with/an immediate part of the Creator. In this story and many she is Fallen by the actions of a Father figure and she is then through transformation of some kind, here it is sleep, rescued by the Dark Mother.]
There are those who see the tale exclusively as a nature myth, as the earth in spring, personified as a maiden, awaking from the long dark sleep of winter; or as a hidden deep in the earth until the kiss of the sun makes it send forth leaves. This is undoubtedly as aspect of the story. But a symbol, by the very fact of being a symbol, has not one sole and absolute meaning. It throws out light in every direction. Meaning comes pouring from it.
As well as being a nature myth, it is also possible that there are elements of a secret and forgotten ritual in the theme, reminders of initiation ceremonies where the neophyte dies – or sleeps – on one level and wakes on another, as a chrysalis wakes into butterfly. Or again it may be that since all fairy tales hark back to myth we are present here at the death and resurrection of a goddess, of Persephone down in the underworld biding her time until she returns to earth.
So, face to face with the Sleeping Beauty – who has long been the dream of every man and the hope of every woman – we find ourselves compelled to ask what is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?
[My comment: And hopefully they shall not waken us with a kiss.]
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 waken would make life meaningless? To give an answer, supposing we had it, would be breaking the law of the fairy tale. And perhaps no answer is necessary. It is enough that we ponder upon and love the story and ask ourselves the question.
I think she may have had a more conclusive answer being so well educated and thoughtful in her work and only seemed to naval gaze (as we all do at times) in wistful, poetic moments to make the prose (including her ‘afterword’) richer. Perhaps she thought the keys to the tale/threshold/door were not for us to know.