Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins

John Algeo – USA

Chapter 2: The First Book of the Series: Mary Poppins

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

Mary Poppins, the first book of the series (with 161 pages of text), begins in the house at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, the home of the Banks family, consisting of Mr. Banks (appropriately a bank officer), his harassed wife, their four children (Jane, Michael, and the twins John and Barbara), a cook, a serving girl, and a general-work man who avoids work as much as he can. There was a nanny also, but she has left without notice, leaving Mrs. Banks frantic about how to replace her.

The house itself is the smallest in the Lane, dilapidated, and in need of painting. The condition of the house is an objective correlative of the state of the Banks family and, indeed, of most of us most of the time. (“Objective correlative” is a fancy term invented by T. S. Eliot for an external thing or state of affairs that symbolizes and evokes an internal emotional response in a reader.) 

On the day the book begins, a strong cold East Wind is blowing (the capitalization in the book alerting us to the fact that this East Wind is more than air movement from a particular direction — it symbolizes change from the symbolic East, the place of enlightenment). The children, looking out the nursery window, see Mary Poppins arrive, not in a normal way, but blown along by the East Wind, carried over the gate of the house, and put down at the front door. Mrs. Banks immediately hires her, although Mary Poppins refuses to give references, as doing so is a “very old-fashioned idea.” She comes up to the nursery not by climbing the stairs, but by sliding up the banister. She brings with her a carpet bag, which the children see is completely empty. Yet from it she extracts a seeming endless number of things, beginning with a starched white apron and ending with a folding bed with blankets and a quilt.

So begins a series of wonderful and highly improbable experiences and adventures the children have with Mary Poppins, who never explains those events but consistently rejects the children’s reports and questions about them, implying that they did not happen, although the children often have physical evidence that they did. Each of the three basic books has at least one such adventure that embodies a central theme of the stories: the unity of all life and the order that guides and regulates the cosmos. Moreover, each of those central-theme chapters is set in different one of the traditional archetypal elements: earth, water, and air (which correspond with the Theosophical planes or dimensions of reality: physical, emotional, and mental. In the first book, that adventure in described in chapter 10, “Full Moon.” It is set in a zoo, thus representing the basic earthly, physical, animalistic world.

The occasion described in that chapter is a very rare one, namely, Mary Poppins’s birthday coinciding with a full moon (the phases of the moon being another traditional symbol of change). The coincidence of those two events (full moon and birthday) always has a remarkable effect, which this time is witnessed by Jane and Michael. Just before bedtime, those two are counting the pennies they have saved, and Michael says he wants to use his to buy an elephant of his own, like the ones they have at the zoo. That leads him to ask Mary Poppins what happens in the zoo at night, when everyone’s gone home.  Jane tells him, “It’s no good asking her. She knows everything, but she never tells.” The two children are about to find out what happens in the zoo at night.


Mary Poppins puts the children to bed and then hurries away “as though all the winds of the world were blowing behind her.” Almost at once, Jane and Michael hear an invisible voice urging them to get up, get dressed, and to come with the speaker, whom they never see. They are led to the zoo, where they meet a Bear who tells them that he (and the other zoo creatures) are out of their cages “only when the Birthday falls on a Full Moon.” They don’t know whose birthday it is, but inside the zoo, they find that all the animals are out of their cages, which instead are filled with human beings. The Bear then leads them to meet Mary Poppins and an ancient Hamadryad (or king cobra), who is the lord of the animal world, “the wisest and most terrible of us all,” the Bear tells them. The Hamadryad then gives Mary Poppins a birthday present, one of his own skins, on which he has written a greeting. Then he says he hears the signal for the Grand Chain, and he leads the children to a huge green square in the center of the zoo.

“As they drew nearer they could hear the animals singing and shouting, and presently they saw leopards and lions, beavers, camels, bears, cranes, antelopes and many others all forming themselves into a ring round Mary Poppins. Then the animals began to move, wildly crying their Jungle songs, prancing in and out of the ring, and exchanging hand and wing as they went as dancers do the Grand Chain of the Lancers.” That Chain is “a figure in formation dances, such as the lancers and Scottish reels, in which couples split up and move around in a circle in opposite directions, passing all other dancers until reaching their original partners” (Collins English Dictionary). It is a stately, solemn dance in which the dancers salute and bow to one another as they pass each other, a dance originally performed by military groups with lances in hand.

The Hamadryad explains that creatures that normally prey on each other do not do so on the Birthday: “Even I . . . can meet a Barnacle goose without any thought of dinner — on this occasion. And after all, . . . 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.” That may seem like a shocking statement, but actually it is a reference to one of the Gnostic Gospels, the Acts of John, which tells of a dance and song done by Jesus and his disciples before going to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus foretold the events of his coming crucifixion. Here is part of that Gospel, as translated by G. R. S. Mead:

“… he gathered all of us together and said: / Before I am delivered up unto them let us sing a hymn to the Father, / and so go forth to that which lieth before us. / He bade us therefore make as it were a ring, / holding one another’s hands, / and himself standing in the midst he said: / Answer Amen unto me. / He began, then, to sing a hymn and to say: / Glory be to thee, Father. /
And we, going about in a ring, answered him: / Amen. . . . I would be saved, and I would save. / Amen. / I would be loosed, and I would loose. / Amen. / I would be wounded, and I would wound. / Amen. / I would be born, and I would bear. / Amen. / I would eat, and I would be eaten. / Amen.”

Thus the wisdom of the Hamadryad is actually a quotation from a Gnostic Gospel and should be seen in a spiritual archetypal sense, not a physical, literal one. The Hamadryad continues: “‘We are all made of the same stuff. 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. . . . Look!’ and he nodded his head towards the moving mass of creatures before them. Birds and animals were now swaying together, closely encircling Mary Poppins, who was rocking lightly from side to side. Backwards and forwards went the swaying crowd, keeping time together, swinging like the pendulum of a clock. Even the trees were bending and lifting gently, and the moon seemed to be rocking in the sky as a ship rocks on the sea. [para.] ‘Bird and beast and stone and star — we are all one, all one —’ murmured the Hamadryad . . . as he himself swayed between the children. [para.] ‘Child and serpent, star and stone — all one.’”

The Hamadryad’s comment is clearly a Theosophical statement of the unity of all existence, the oneness of all being. And the Grand Chain is clearly a Theosophical image of the universal order of the cosmos. This whole passage is a magnificent example of why the Mary Poppins books can be regards as expositions of the Ancient Wisdom presented in the form of fantasy fiction.

Jane and Michael are entranced by the Hamadryad’s speech and slip off into a state between waking and sleeping. When they come into normal consciousness, it is morning and they are back in their beds in the Night Nursery at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane. At first, both think that they had been dreaming, but when they discover that they had the same “dream,” they conclude that it must have been an actual experience. Jane then asks Mary Poppins, who is fixing their porridge, whether she, Mary Poppins, was at the zoo last night. Mary Poppins replies in her usual, offended manner to any such question, without actually answering it, but expressing outrage at its impertinence and changing the subject. Jane therefore concludes that the night’s experience must have been just a dream after all. But Michael points out that Mary Poppins is wearing a belt made of golden scaly snakeskin, on which is written: “A Present from the Zoo.”

The question of what is dream and what is reality is also a Theosophical theme. Dreams are sometimes our daytime remembrance of actual experiences on the higher planes or dimensions of reality. Pamela Travers writes about “the Australian concept of the Dreaming, of which I know a little, having been brought up there. Everything that is not at this very instant — when we’re chopping wood or finding witchetty grubs — is in the Dreaming. I can go into the Dreaming and you can go into the Dreaming at any moment and be refreshed. The anthropologists call it the Dreamtime but that word ‘time’ immediately makes things move serially, puts them into place and locality. The Aborigines speak of it as the Dreaming — in their tribal tongues, Tamminga or Dooghoor—and for them everything is there” (What the Bee Knows, p. 97).

In response to a question about where she got the idea for a particular scene, Travers responded: “I just put the scene down as it arrived. It comes out of something in me, but it isn’t as though I invented it. . . . In Celtic legend it’s the Cauldron of Plenty, the Water of Life, and among the Australian aborigines it’s ‘the dreaming’” (Draper and Koralek, A Lively Oracle, pp. 164-5). Elsewhere in that same work (p.212), Koralek writes: “D is for . . . the Dreaming of the aboriginal people of her [Travers’s] native land, of that ‘objective Now’ where time stops, that non-moment of wakefulness, the everlasting non-existence from which existence rises.” In that sense, dreams are more “real” than the ordinary reality of our physical consciousness.

Travers also wrote that “the Dreamtime . . . was not, in fact, time at all, but rather timelessness; space, too, and spacelessness; matter, spirit, life and death, everything and always.” And farther on in the same article on “The Legacy of the Ancestors”: “Death on one plane may be life on another. . . . [para.] . . . Dreamtime teachings . . . tell us, again mythologically, that what is irreconcilable is at the same time reconciled; that our profane, desacralized life . . . is the seeding ground of the sacred; that if I forget thee, Jerusalem, Jerusalem nevertheless is there; that rock is gold that does not know itself; and that in the darkness of Kali Yuga fallen light is renewed” (What the Bee Knows, pp. 31, 34-4). That is a thoroughly Theosophical mode of thought.

At the end of the first book, another strong wind is blowing, but this time it is a West Wind. Both represent change; but as the East Wind begins things, the West Wind ends them. Mary Poppins has packed all her things into her cornucopian carpet bag; holding it and her umbrella, she steps out the front door of Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane. The West Wind slips under her opened umbrella and carries her off into the sky or, it may be, into the Dreaming. She has left behind a message for the children, ending “Au revoir,” which the cook translates as, “To Meet Again.”

To be continued

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