Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

John Algeo – USA

Chapter 5: A Review of the First Three Books and a Look Ahead

This last part of the present series on Mary Poppins offers some comments on books other than the three basic ones and sums up a Theosophical view of the subject. Those first three basic books, considered in chapters 2-4 of this series are Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), and Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943).

The fourth book in the series, Mary Poppins in the Park, 1952, is a collection of six episodes:

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

In that book, a beginning note tells us that its events “should be understood to have happened during any of the three visits of Mary Poppins to the Banks family. This is a word of warning to anybody who may be expecting they are in for a fourth visit. She cannot forever arrive and depart. And, apart from that, it should be remembered that three is a lucky number.”

For that reason, the present series of commentaries has been limited to the lucky first three volumes, The two last books in which Mary Poppins takes the children at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane on adventures are, however, also especially worth noting:

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

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

These two, like Mary Poppins in the Park, are not stories of additional visits, but episodes to be understood as happening earlier, both during book 2 (Mary Poppins Comes Back) or book 3 (Mary Poppins Opens the Door) as they have the new baby Annabel in them and House Next Door is about a reappearance of the Holy Terror Euphemia Andrew, both of those characters first appearing in book 2.

On the last page of an article entitled “The Interviewer,” originally published in Parabola and reprinted in What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story (Wellingborough, UK: Aquarian Press, 1989; London: Penguin, Arkana, 1993; pp. 203-9), Pamela Travers gives an insightful description of the process by which she wrote the Mary Poppins books, which is the same process that every reader goes through in responding to them: “C S Lewis, in a letter to a friend, says, ‘There is only one Creator and we merely mix the elements He gives us’ — a statement less simple than it seems. For that ‘mere mixing’, while making it impossible for us to say ‘I myself am the maker,’ also shows us our essential place in the process. Elements among elements, we are there to shape, order, define, and in doing this we, reciprocally, are defined, shaped, and ordered. The potter, moulding the receptive clay, is himself being moulded.” As Travers indicates elsewhere, every reader is also a co-author of what is read, because reading involves more than recognizing the words printed on a page. It also involves understanding the meaning of those words, and every reader’s understanding will be uniquely his or her own, shaped by the past experiences of personal history and changing as passing time changes the reader.

The point just made is also stated in an April 13, 2012, Times Literary Supplement book review entitled “English Made Me: We Are Different People When We Read a Book a Second Time — and We Are Often Reading a Different Book.” The review ends (p. 4) thus: “As we revisit the objects of our reading, like recognizable but weathered landmarks, there can be no full going back, because we are not exactly the same people we were; but the consolation of rereading is the knowledge that we are these different people in part because of what those books have made of us.”

Pamela Travers also emphasizes in many ways that life is a mixture of opposites, a fact graphically illustrated by the Chinese cosmological symbol of the “Great Ultimate” Tai Chi:


The complementary halves of this symbol are the black yin and the white yang, representing all opposites: dark/light, female/male, soft/hard, low/high, contemplation/action, sustaining/dominating, sensitivity/intellect — each turning into its opposite complement in harmonic equilibrium. Every person is likely to favor one or the other of those complements, generally or at least at particular junctures in life. Travers states that she gravitates to the dark complement, even when it is embodied in the villain, rather than the light complement embodied in the hero: “It is the lineaments of the villains — dwarf, giant and stepmother, wicked fairy, dragon, witch — that leap to me now across the years. Each one is different, each is its own — pitted, grained and cicatriced [i.e. scarred], battered by passion and power.” That statement may remind us of other similar ones in the great literature of the world. The novel Anna Karenina opens with the memorable line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And a witticism about the two main characters in the novel Vanity Fair (the cynical anti-heroine Becky Sharp and her opposite, the good-natured but naive Amelia Sedley) is “Moralists may preach and carp in platitudes most deadly; the world remembers Becky Sharp and not Amelia Sedley.”

It may say something about us that we find wickedness more interesting than goodness, and imperfection than perfection, but it is a very human reaction. A well-known observation is that “evil” is “live” spelled backward. Evil and good are ultimately our responses to various stages in the evolution of the cosmos and to the stages of our existence. That complex interaction is the theme of all the Mary Poppins books.