Mary Poppins, Disney style

With sweets, it’s best to avoid the addictive, fat-producing, highly processed substance in your diet.

Same is true for literary works. Why get sucked into the intellectual tooth-decay of adapted movies when you can read the stuff that’s really good? – the original work.

Mary Poppins, by P.L. TraversIf you’re at all interested in Mary Poppins, try to put the infectious jingles of the 1964 movie out of your mind and return to the source. As Jerry Griswold wrote in Travers’ obituary he wrote in 1996 for the Los Angeles Times:

I once asked Travers what she thought about the Disney film, and she replied obliquely: “When I left the theater, I was weeping.” (. . .) She left it for you to consider whether they were tears of joy or (as I assumed) prompted by some other emotion.

Mary Poppins is a wonderful novel first published 1934. It was later made into an upbeat movie by Disney, the story of the movie itself now the subject of the 2013 Disney holiday movie, Saving Mr. Banks.)

If you want to know more about the real P.L. Travers, I recommend this insightful interview from The Paris Review (Winter 1982), with Travers.

The interview (by Edwina Burness and Jerry Griswold) includes this line, talking about the mundane/marvelous balance of the Mary Poppins story:

“And it is only through the ordinary that the extraordinary can make itself perceived.”

You’ll also see Travers’ comments about the idea of writing specifically for children (or not). That’s something I addressed in my recent book, The Purpose of Fantasy.

On this, P.L. Travers says:

When I sat down to write Mary Poppins or any of the other books, I did not know children would read them. I’m sure there must be a field of “children’s literature”—I hear about it so often—but sometimes I wonder if it isn’t a label created by publishers and booksellers who also have the impossible presumption to put on books such notes as “from five to seven” or “from nine to twelve.” How can they know when a book will appeal to such and such an age?

If you look at other so-called children’s authors, you’ll see they never wrote directly for children. Though Lewis Carroll dedicated his book to Alice, I feel it was an afterthought once the whole was already committed to paper. Beatrix Potter declared, “I write to please myself!” And I think the same can be said of Milne or Tolkien or Laura Ingalls Wilder.

. . . But I suppose if there is something in my books that appeals to children, it is the result of my not having to go back to my childhood; I can, as it were, turn aside and consult it (James Joyce once wrote, “My childhood bends beside me”). If we’re completely honest, not sentimental or nostalgic, we have no idea where childhood ends and maturity begins. It is one unending thread, not a life chopped up into sections out of touch with one another.

As you know, I agree.

I was also impressed with the depth of her literary chops (at one point, she was closely associated with George Russell and William Butler Yeats in the “Celtic Twilight” revival; Lord Dunsany was also connected with that literary revival).

Travers’ spiritual underpinnings were also remarkable to consider. According to Jerry Griswold, who met and interviewed her several times, “she did yoga daily, had studied for several years in Kyoto under a Zen master and had been an intimate of Gurdjieff and was a practicing teacher in that circle.” He also mentions she lived several years in the American Southwest on the Navajo reservation at Window Rock (Arizona).

Consider this passage from Mary Poppins:

“It may be that to eat and be eaten are the same thing in the end. My wisdom tells me that this is probably so. We are all made of the same stuff, remember, we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us — the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star — we are all one, all moving to the same end. Remember that when you no longer remember me, my child.”

Also quoted in a piece about Travers on a website, The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life:

“For me there are no answers, only questions, and I am grateful that the questions go on and on. I don’t look for an answer, because I don’t think there is one. I’m very glad to be the bearer of a question.
– Quoted in “Hail, Mary!” in The Independent, by Mark Bostridge, September 19, 2004

Describing the power of the Mary Poppins characters in the original novel, fantasy/science-fiction author Jane Lindskold notes:

What made me fall for Mary Poppins was neither her unconventionality nor her compelling authority. It was the way in which Mary Poppins shapes the world around her into something new and exciting. Best of all, she offers no explanations for what she does, nor do the stories ever leave the reader in doubt that whatever has happened – no matter how extraordinary – really happened. Mary Poppins might deny that she was flying through the air on the string of a balloon, but Jane and Michael always find evidence that their experiences were real.
. . .
These stories don’t have a “spoonful of sugar” – they have something far better. The impossible made possible. (. . .) For me, Mary Poppins embodies sense of wonder as few other original characters manage to do.

I’ll close by noting that Neil Gaiman cites P.L. Travers as an influence, and in many of Gaiman’s works, from Stardust (about a star fallen to earth) to his recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you can see glimmers of Poppinry in the wondrous mix of ordinary and extraordinary, and in characters (especially, of course, the anti-Poppins nanny, Ursula Monkton in Ocean).

Now, go get a copy of the original Mary Poppins, and start reading.