Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

John Algeo – USA

Chapter 4: The Third Book of the Series: Mary Poppins Opens the Door

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

Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the third and final volume of the three basic Mary Poppins books (with 255 pages of text), is almost as long as the preceding volume and has eight chapters.

The book opens on November 5, which in England is Guy Fawkes Day. Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in Protestant England under King James I. Fawkes became part of a plot to assassinate the King and blow up Parliament in what is called the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605. Ever since then, that day on the calendar has been observed as Guy Fawkes Day, on which his effigy is burned on a bonfire to the accompaniment of fireworks, which are as closely linked to November 5 in England as they are to July 4 in America. The general term guy (which dates from 1806) has different meanings in England and America. In England, it means “a grotesque effigy of Guy Fawkes burned on Guy Fawkes Day, or a grotesque-looking person.” In America, it used to be a familiar term for any man, but more recently, especially in plurals like “you guys” it can apply to both men and women.

The Banks family in Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, is in its usual chaotic condition when Mary Poppins is not there to organize everything. Mr. Banks is particularly agitated on this bleak and chilly November morning because Robertson Ay (the man of all work who works as little as possible) has given him one black shoe and one brown one, and Mr. Banks announces that he will not be home for dinner, which greatly alarms the children because he is the one who sets off the fireworks for them on Guy Fawkes Day. As he is leaving, the chimney-sweep arrives and offers to shake hands with him because it is lucky to shake hands with a Sweep; but Mr. Banks will have none of that. But the Sweep offers to take the children to the Park and set off some fireworks for them. So off they go.

In the Park, they have a fine time with splendid loud and colorful fireworks, but as closing time approaches, they set off the last rocket. It goes off and upward but does not end with the shower of sparks all the others did. Instead it creates only one tiny spark. The children watch it, and unlike the others it does not go out, but grows larger and brighter; and, as it comes down, it turns into Mary Poppins, with her carpetbag and parrot-headed umbrella. The Park Keeper is very upset at this irregularity and flings out his hand to stop her, but Mary Poppins puts into his hand a small piece of cardboard, which she says is her Return Ticket. She ushers the children home, where Mrs. Banks is delighted to see her, but complains, “You left me Without a Word, Mary Poppins . . . . I think you might tell me when you’re coming and going, I never know where I am.” Mary Poppins replies, “Nobody does, ma’am.” Then her carpetbag slides up the bannisters to the Nursery, and her umbrella spreads itself like a bird and follows.

Mary Poppins is back, and the house is again orderly. The children want her to stay permanently. She says only, “I’ll stay until the door opens.” What door she refers to is unclear. To their observation that she came down from the sky from a spark that a rocket produced, she respond with her usual outrage at the impropriety of their observation. But when they are in bed, they see in the folds of her umbrella a mass of colored stars of a kind a rocket produces when it explodes in the sky.

In chapter 2, Mary, Jane, and Michael go to visit Mary’s cousin, Fred Twigley, to get him to tune the Banks’s piano. They are admitted, reluctantly and rudely by his housekeeper, Sarah Clump, who wants to marry him. Mr. Twigley’s Godmother gave him seven wishes, of which he has used up two and is trying to save the other five, but he keeps on carelessly squandering them. Mr. Twigley is making a music box, into which he will put all the sounds of the Park, including “the slow, soft murmur of trees as they grow.” Michael protests, “But you can’t hear trees growing . . . . There’s no music for that!” And Mr. Twigley responds, “Of course there is! There’s a music for everything. . . . Everything in the world — trees, rocks and stars and human beings — they all have their own true music.” That is a fundamentally Theosophical idea: everything vibrates, each thing produces its own characteristic sound. By the end of the visit, Mr. Twigley has gotten rid of Sarah Clump and used up all his wishes, the last one being to tune the Banks’s piano.

Other adventures follow until chapters 6, “High Tide,” and 7, “Happy Ever After,” either of which could be taken as the central-theme episode of the third book; it is a role they share. In the first book, the central-theme chapter involved a visit to the zoo, which represents the earth. In the second book, the central theme concerns a visit to the heavens, the air. In this third book, chapter 6 appropriately takes the children under water. There Jane has a conversation with a Terrapin; she says, “I thought the Sea would be so different, but really, it’s very like the land!” The Terrapin replies, “And why not? . . . The land came out of the sea, remember. Each thing on the earth has a brother here — the lion, the dog, the hare, the elephant. The precious gems have their kind in the sea so have the starry constellations. The rose remembers the salty waters and the moon the ebb and flow of the tide. You, too, must remember it. Jane and Michael! There are more things in the sea, my children, than ever came out of it.” The notion of the great sea as the source of life is widespread; and the concept of parallel lines of evolution is very Theosophical.

Chapter 7 (“Happy Ever After”) takes place on the last day of the old year and introduces a concept that was central to Pamela Travers’s thinking: that of a Crack in space-time, in which anything is possible and all problems disappear. That Crack is, as it were, an opening to the Dreaming. As he is going to bed, Michael suddenly sits up and asks:

“When igzackly does the Old Year end?’

“Tonight,” said Mary Poppins shortly. “At the first stroke of twelve.”

“And when does it begin?” he went on.

“When does what begin?” she snapped.

“The New Year,” answered Michael patiently.

“On the last stroke of twelve,” she replied, giving a short sharp sniff.

“Oh? Then what happens in between? . . . Between the first and last stroke,” he explained hurriedly.

Mary Poppins turned and glared at him.

“Never trouble Trouble till Trouble troubles you!” she advised priggishly.

Michael gets his answer later, when the first strike of midnight ends the old year. Then remarkable things happen. Toys come alive: a Golden Pig, Alfred the Elephant, Pinnie the Monkey, and an old Blue Duck. They lead Jane and Michael out of the house and to the Park, where the following exchange takes place:

“Alfred flung up his flannel trunk and eagerly sniffed the air. / ‘Ha!’ He remarked delightedly ‘We’re safely inside, Pig, don’t you think?’ /  ‘Inside what?’ asked Michael curiously. / ‘The Crack,’ said Alfred, flapping his ears.”

Then many other characters from nursery rhymes, such as Humpty-Dumpty, and stories, such as Robinson Crusoe, appear. They have all escaped from their books because, before leaving the Nursery, Mary Poppins had propped open their books. Jane wonders at the characters’ ability to slip out of their books and into the “real” world and asks whether they can often do so. Crusoe answers, “Alas, no! Only at the end of the year. The Crack’s our one and only chance.”

“‘What crack?’ demanded Michael. ‘The Crack between the Old Year and the New. The Old Year dies on the first Stroke of Midnight and the New Year is born on the Last Stroke. And in between — while the other ten strokes are sounding — there lies the secret Crack.’ [Sleeping Beauty continues:] ‘And inside the Crack all things are as one. The eternal opposites meet and kiss. The wolf and the lamb lie down together, the dove and the serpent share one nest. The stars bend down and touch the earth and the young and the old forgive each other. Night and day meet here, so do the poles. The East leans over towards the West and the circle is complete. This is the time and place, my darlings — the only time and the only place — where everybody lives happily ever after.’

Mary Poppins also enters the Park. “‘But why is she here?’ demanded Jane, as she watch that shape come down the clearing. ‘Mary Poppins is not a fairy-tale.’ / ‘She’s even better!’ said Alfred loyally, ‘She’s a fairy-tale come true. Besides,’ he rumbled, ‘she’s the Guest of the Evening! It was she who left the books open.’” Everyone is dancing. Everyone has a partner. No one is left out. Everyone is happy. Then the strokes of the clock begin again, up to “Eleven! O fleeting moment! O time on the wing! How short is the space between the years! Let us be happy — happy ever after! / Twelve!” Then the dancing ends. All the characters seem to melt into the moonshine, as all the bells all over London ring in the New Year.

Jane and Michael open their eyes and find they are back in their beds, and Mary Poppins asks who wants crumpets for breakfast. “‘Is today the New Year, Mary Poppins?’ asked Michael. / ‘Yes,’ she said calmly, as she put the plate down on the table. / Michael looked at her solemnly. He was thinking about the Crack. / ‘Shall we too, Mary Poppins?’ he asked, blurting out the question. / ‘Shall you, too, what?’ she enquired with a sniff. / ‘Live happily ever afterwards?’ he said eagerly. / A smile, half sad, half tender, played faintly round her mouth. / ‘Perhaps,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘It all depends.’ / ‘What on, Mary Poppins?’ / ‘On you,’ she said quietly, as she carried the crumpets to the fire.”

In chapter 8, “The Other Door,” Mary Poppins leaves as she said she would. When she and the children are out and about, all her friends are saying good-by to her. At first, the children think that the friends are going somewhere, but when they get back to the nursery, they find that her camp bed is gone, and they realize that it is Mary Poppins who is leaving. They look out the window and see reflected in it an image of the nursery in all details, including the nursery room door. It is the “Other Door,” and they see Mary Poppins carrying her carpet bag and umbrella walking through the reflected room and opening the Other Door. She walks through it and into the sky, from which she came. “We’ll never forget you, Mary Poppins!” the children exclaim, as they look up at the sky. “Her bright shape paused in its flight for a moment and gave an answering wave. Then darkness folded its wing about her and hid her from their eyes.” So ends the third and last of the three basic Mary Poppins books.