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mary poppins – a modern mythology

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Nancy and I recently re-watched the 1964 Disney “Mary Poppins” movie, which we love (though it does get a little hyperactively frenetic at times). The disc included a trailer for the  2013 movie “Saving Mr. Banks” (also good!), which loosely tells the story of the adaptation of P.L. Travers’ original books into the Disney movie. Together, they got me interested in reading the original source books.

I do like the Disney movie, with its message of parental priorities, its memorable music, and its magical fun. It is (not surprisingly) straightforward and relatively light — or let’s say, not very complex. But the original books are more ambiguous and mysterious, showing glimpses of a deeper world hidden from normal adults.

J.R.R. Tolkien has said that he was looking for an English mythology in building Middle-Earth, since England did not have a “native” mythology of its own, like the Norse gods for example. I think that in writing Mary Poppins, P.L Travers has provided another proposal for an English mythology. Mary Poppins can easily be seen as a Nature Spirit, the Trickster, benevolent but with shades of gray (and sometimes even dark). In the chapter “Miss Andrew’s Lark”, Mary does a Trick worthy of Coyote or Raven, with a keen sense of poetic justice. In the London Zoo, Mary’s birthday is the Birthday, and according to the Brown Bear, the Hamadryad, King of the Animals, is Mary’s “cousin once removed on the mother’s side.” We also meet strange characters like Nellie-Rubina and Uncle Dodger, the Dancing Cow, Robertson Ay and The Dirty Rascal, Mrs. Corry and her daughters, pasting stars to the sky at the top of a ladder. When Mary tells a fairy tale to the children, we’re not sure if it’s a children’s tale, or family history!

When reading this bit from the chapter “The Day Out”, keep in mind that Tolkien, who was writing The Hobbit in the same era, used “Fairyland” to refer to the magical world:

When she came back from her Day Out, Jane and Michael came running to meet her. “Where have you been?” they asked her.
“In Fairyland,” said Mary Poppins.
“Did you see Cinderella?” said Jane.
“Huh, Cinderella? Not me,” said Mary Poppins, contemptuously. “Cinderella, indeed!”
“Then how could you have been there? It couldn’t have been our Fairyland!”
Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff. “Don’t you know,” she said pityingly, “that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?” And with another sniff she went upstairs to take off her white gloves and put the umbrella away.

The Starling calls Mary Poppins “the Great Exception”, and says “she’s Different, she’s the Oddity, she’s the Misfit.” For P.L. Travers, Fairyland is all around us, always available, but we’ve all (except for Mary Poppins) forgotten how to see and hear it. That’s especially true in my favorite chapters, the touching “John and Barbara’s Story”, and the nearly heartbreaking “The New One”.

Even apart from mythological aspects, I also like these books for their honesty about childhood; for example in the chapter “Bad Tuesday”, sometimes you do just get up from “the wrong side of the bed”, or in “Bad Wednesday”, some days you really just don’t want to be the responsible one — and honesty about adults; Mary Poppins is not snuggly and cuddly, she is vain and can be dismissive and judgmental. But all these qualities of real people are visible to real children anyway, so why not show them in books together with the magic of Fairyland?

Mary Poppins (1934) and Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), by P.L. Travers

(ps: it’s probably best to get one of the 1981 or later editions of Mary Poppins, where P.L. Travers laudably goes back to replace some unfortunate ethnic stereotypes in the original “Bad Tuesday”.)

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