Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

John Algeo – USA

Chapter 1: Introduction: Pamela Travers and the Mary Poppins Cycle

Some books ostensibly written for children in fact appeal also to adults; they attract both age groups, albeit for different reasons. Such books are mainly in the genre of fantasy (or fairy tales, to use an older designation for the genre). Fantasy fiction consists of stories that are not about the world we know through our physical senses, but about an archetypal world we access through our imagination. Their truth is not literal and limited, but metaphorical and expansive. Because fantasy is archetypal, it is a form particularly adaptable to Theosophical interpretations. Adults will be more likely than children to puzzle out — either consciously or subconsciously — the archetypal metaphors and to expand the meaning of fantasy stories in more sophisticated ways. However, children will appreciate the stories and may absorb the meanings they embody on a subconscious level, which is more powerful than a conscious intellectual understanding.


Pamela Travers

Pamela Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, wrote an essay called “Re-storying the Adult” (originally published in the journal Parabola, but reprinted in What the Bee Knows, pp. 141-4). In this essay, Travers refers to the work of an analytical psychologist, James Hillman, who wrote of the importance of “re-storying the adult.” “Re-storying” is retelling stories about one’s life experiences as a form of therapy. Travers says, “There are, indeed, books that purport to be written for children that, in fact, do exactly this for the grown-up.” Such “re-storying” can be thought of as actually “restoring” the child’s view of the world in the adult. That is, a child perceives every new experience newly, on its own terms. But then the child files way that experience and his or her reaction to it in the filing cabinet of the mind. As children grow toward and enter upon adulthood, they gradually stop reacting spontaneously and newly to new experiences. Instead, when a new experience occurs, the adult (or soon to be adult) goes into the mental filing cabinet and finds there an old experience that is similar in some way to the new one; the (incipient) adult takes the old response to that old experience, and projects it onto the new one. Thus, effectively, the adult stops responding altogether to the new and lives instead, not in the present (as the child did), but instead in the past. To be psychologically and spiritually healthy, we all need to remain childlike (not “childish”). And we do that most easily through fantasy stories.

Lewis Carroll

Perhaps the best known of fantasy stories written ostensibly for children but appealing also to adults and promoting a childlike grasp of the present moment are the Alice books of Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. “Lewis Carroll” was the pen name used for his children’s books by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. His nom de plume is a sort of “looking glass” name, converting his first given name, Charles, into the Anglicized version Carroll (used as a surname), and his second given name, Lutwidge (which was his mother’s maiden surname), into an Anglicized version, Lewis (used as a given name). Thus he flip-flopped or mirror-imaged his proper name into his pen name. Dodgson/Carroll was an ordained clergyman and an Oxford don of mathematics who was conservative in almost everything except his writing for children. In his academic specialty of mathematics, for example, he opposed the rising interest in non-Euclidian geometry, notably in his book Euclid and his Modern Rivals. A friend of mine wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dodgson/Carroll, arguing that in his children’s fantasy books, the conservative Dodgson gave free rein to the imaginative Carroll, adopting a literary parallel to non-Euclidian geometry as their basis. It is a persuasive argument, but not one that would ever occur to or interest a child reader of the Alice books.

J. R. R. Tolkien

Other similar examples of adult interest in ostensibly children’s books include J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Hobbit was published by recommendation of one of the publisher’s children, to whom he had shown the manuscript. Yet all of the Middle-earth stories have attracted primarily adult readers. And an archetypal, Theosophical commentary was published by the comparative-religion scholar Robert Ellwood in Frodo's Quest.

Another more recent example is the Harry Potter series of seven primary books, plus several supporting volumes. They were first published for the children’s market, but have been avidly taken up by adults and interpreted in a variety of sophisticated ways. I wrote a collection of articles on the books, compiled into an electronic book by the Website Theosophy Forward, under the pen name Prof. Abditus Questor: The Ancient Wisdom of Harry Potter.

George Gurdjieff

Yet other examples are the Mary Poppins books of P. L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers, a stage name adopted by Helen Lyndon Goff, an Australian actress, journalist, and novelist (Travers being her father’s first name). Born in 1899 and died in 1996, she moved to England in 1924. She met the Irish Theosophical poets George William Russell (AE) and William Butler Yeats, through whom she developed an interest in the mythologies of the world. She also met and was greatly influenced by the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff. She was an early and long-time contributor to Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition, founded in 1976. Among her many contributions to that magazine were “On Unknowing” (10.3, Aug. 1985), “The Unsleeping Eye” (11.1, Feb. 1986), and “Nirvana Is Samsara” (11.2, May 1986). 

A collection of Travers’s articles, many originally published in Parabola but others in a variety of places, is What the Bee Knows). The articles in this collection show Pamela Travers to have been an inspired and inspiring writer on the topics of myth, symbol, and story. The book’s title is notable. Travers explains it in a headnote on page 3: “‘Ask the wild bee what the Druids knew’ / Old English adage.”  Here “Old English” refers to an older form of the English language, rather than to the scholarly use of that term for what is more popularly called Anglo-Saxon. As Travers acknowledges elsewhere in What the Bee Knows (p. 81), the adage goes back to the Scottish Highlands. It was popularized by the Scottish author William Sharp (1855-1905), who wrote under the penname of Fiona MacLeod. In addition, however, there is a long tradition associating bees with instruction and entertainment. Bees produce honey and wax (in their honeycombs). Honey is taken as a symbol of sweetness, entertainment, pleasure; and wax, from its use for candles, is taken as a symbol of light, instruction, knowledge. That apiarian connection of entertainment (honey) and instruction (wax) is highly relevant to all the writings of Pamela Travers, especially the Mary Poppins books.

With regard to the opening statement of the present chapter — that books ostensibly written for children appeal also to adults — Pamela Travers denied the distinction altogether, saying that books actually written for children were invariably bad literature, and that the most adult-oriented of books can appeal to children. In an essay titled “I Never Wrote for Children” (first published in the New York Times Magazine in 1978 and reprinted in Draper and Koralek’s A Lively Oracle, she wrote that, “even though children throughout the world have, some of them, been kind enough to read what I write . . . I didn’t write for children at all, . . . the idea simply didn’t enter my head.”

A well-done and useful work combining biographical studies drawn from Pamela Travers’s own writings, commentaries on her works, and the texts of some her rarer articles is Ellen Dooling Draper and Jenny Koralek’s A Lively Oracle. Travers, herself, did not want any biography written about her after her death — with good reason. Valerie Lawson’s Mary Poppins, She Wrote is an example, mentioned here as something to be warned about. It has errors of fact, unwarranted speculation, and antagonistic comments about Theosophy and the Theosophical Society, which are wholly without justification either in the writings of Pamela Travers or otherwise. However, it does have some useful features, such as a chronological list of Travers’s published books.

Pamela Travers wrote many books on the Mary Poppins theme, of which three are basic: Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), and Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943). Those three books are each self-contained but also follow one another in a continuous sequence, each treating a different visit by Mary Poppins to the Banks family, who live at number 17, Cherry Tree Lane. The father is a banker (obviously) and the mother is a harried housewife in desperate need of a nanny for her children: Jane and Michael (the eldest, in that order), the twins John and Barbara, and part way through the series a new baby, Annabel. Mary Poppins “pops in” on the Banks household in our ordinary world, which she causes to be an extraordinary world, full of surprises and archetypal experiences.

Three is precisely the right number for a series of fantasy or fairy-tale books, because three is the magic number in fairy tales. Pamela Travers calls it “a theme as universal as the universe” and asks, in fairy stories, “whether those three brothers are really three, or a threefold composite of one man, three stages in a single life? And whether the story is not a pattern, at once ancient and familiar, of how — if we could! — to live our own lives?” (What the Bee Knows, pp. 59, 63).

A fourth volume, Mary Poppins in the Park, consists of six episodes that the author says belong to various unspecified points in the first three volumes. This fourth volume lacks the coherence and chronology of the earlier three and so is not considered here. Two other additions to the Mary Poppins collection were added years later: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982) and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988). Two other useful, although whimsical, books are an alphabetical guide to the subjects (Mary Poppins from A to Z) and a cookbook (coauthored by Maurice Moore-Betty) with its recipes embodied in a story (Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book with a Story).

A word of caution: The Mary Poppins movie (produced by the Walt Disney studio in 1964), through which many know the story and the character, is a very unreliable version of Travers’s work. It has nice music, delightful acting, and is charming in many ways, but it is a Disneyesque version of the books. The published volumes include archetypal imagery clearly open to Theosophical interpretation, largely omitted from the movie. A London West-End musical version of 2004 was based on the movie, with significant additions from the books, and a New York Broadway production of that musical opened in 2006. The stage version is closer to the books than the film is; but any dramatization of a book has to depart in many ways from its original because of the different nature of the two forms, films and stage productions being basically visual and a book purely verbal and so visualized solely in the minds of its readers.

The overall theme of the Mary Poppins books can be seen in a poem Pamela Travers published in Parabola magazine (11.2, May 1986, p. 31):

Nirvana Is Samsara

Did you look back, O Prajnaparamita, as the strand
Sloped to its foamy edge to greet you
And your foot felt for its sandy landfall —
Did you look back and know, hand hard at your lip,
The journey needless;
That from there, looking back across the laboring waters —
Arrival mirroring the setting-forth —
This is the Other Shore?

“Samsara” is this world we experience with our senses, the constantly changing world of birth and death. “Nirvana” is the “blowing out” of all misery; it is the experience of perfect peace, the goal of life. Going from Samsara to Nirvana is metaphorically described as crossing the ebbing and flowing waters of experience to the “Other Shore.” “Prajnaparamita” is the highest wisdom, here personified as one who possesses that supreme wisdom. The point of the poem is that our experience of this world determines whether it is Samsara or Nirvana, which are not places, but states of consciousness that we can experience anywhere and at any time. That is also the point of the Mary Poppins books and is the insight that Mary Poppins tries to bring the children of the Banks family to realize — and, of course, what all readers of the Mary Poppins books should also realize as the theme of those books.

To be continued.


Algeo, John [Prof. Abditus Questor, pseud.] The Ancient Wisdom of Harry Potter, an e-book special edition of Theosophy Forward, 2011.

Draper, Ellen Dooling, and Jenny Koralek, eds. A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. New York: Larson Pub. for Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation, 1999.

Ellwood, Robert. Frodo's Quest: Living the Myth in “The Lord of the Rings.” Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, Quest Books, 2002.

Lawson, Valerie. Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins. London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1998, c. 1934.

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins and the House Next Door. London: Puffin Books, 1990, c. 1988.

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins Comes Back. San Diego: Harcourt, Odyssey/Harcourt Young Classic, 1997, c. 1935.

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins from A to Z. London: Collins, 1962; and Orlando: Harcourt, 2006 (with colored illustrations).

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. New York: Dell, Yearling Book, 1983, c. 1982.

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins in the Park. San Diego: Harcourt, Odyssey/Harcourt Young Classic, 1997, c. 1952.

Travers, Pamela L. Mary Poppins Opens the Door. San Diego: Harcourt, Odyssey/Harcourt Young Classic, 1997, c. 1943.

Travers, Pamela L. What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story. Wellingborough, UK: Aquarian Press, 1989; London: Penguin, Arkana, 1993.

Travers, Pamela L. (and Maurice Moore-Betty, Culinary Consultant). Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book with a Story. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Voyager/HBJ Book,1978, c. 1975.


Nirvana Is Samsarabr /

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