Theosophy, Fantasy, and Mary Poppins


John Algeo -- USA

Chapter 3: The Second Book of the Series: Mary Poppins Comes Back

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

Mary Poppins Comes Back, the second book of the series (with 269 pages of text), is about 1.67 times longer than the first book, with ten chapters, compared with the first book’s twelve chapters, so the episodes are significantly longer, as well.

At the opening of Mary Poppins Comes Back, the Banks’s house, without Mary to give it order, has returned to its natural state of chaos. Mr. Banks complains, “I don’t know what’s come over this house . . . . Nothing ever goes right — hasn’t for ages! Shaving water too hot, breakfast coffee too cold. And how — this!” Robertson Ay, the man of all work around the house (who does as little work as possible and sleeps as much as he can), has brushed Mr. Banks’s hat with the boot-brush and polished it. “‘Oh, dear!’ Said Mrs. Banks [as her husband left] ‘It is quite true. Nothing does go right nowadays. . . . Ever since Mary Poppins left without a Word of Warning everything has gone wrong.’”

But Mary Poppins is about to return. In the first book, she is lifted and borne by the East Wind into the house at Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane. In this second book, she literally descends from the sky. The children are in the park alone, as they have no nanny to keep an eye on them. Michael is flying his green and yellow kite, which goes up very high indeed. A cloud drifts across the sky and hides the kite from sight: “The taut string running up from Michael’s hand seemed to link them all to the cloud, and the earth to the sky.” They try to pull the kite back down, but it will not come. Then suddenly the kite string starts winding around the stick of its own accord. But what comes down at the end of the string is not the kite; it is Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins takes the children home and puts them to bed. As she is changing her clothes, they notice a small golden locket on a chain around her neck. Michael asks what’s in it, and she tells him a portrait. He asks, “Whose?” And she tells him that they’ll know when she goes. They all beg her to stay forever, and she replies, “I’ll stay till the chain breaks.” “Chain” here refers not just to the physical one around her neck, but to the metaphorical one that connects her with this world, including Number 17, Cherry Tree Lane. Mary Poppins, as usual, emphatically rejects the children’s account of her coming down out of the sky at the end of a kite string. But that night, the children spot her coat hung on a hook behind the door. “And dangling from the pocket were a row of paper tassels, the tassels of a green-and-yellow Kite.”

A series of Poppins-esque adventures for the children follow. In chapter 2, Euphemia Andrew, Mr. Banks’s governess when he was a little boy, comes for a visit. She is, in Mr. Banks’s words, a Holy Terror, who trapped a lark and keeps it in a cage. Mary Poppins frees the lark and puts Miss Andrew in the cage instead, as a result of which she leaves posthaste. In chapter 3, Jane is having a bad Wednesday and ends up inside the world depicted on a Royal Doulton bowl that she has cracked. In that world, she is made into a servant until she calls on Mary Poppins, who comes to rescue her.

In chapter 4, Jane and Michael accompany Mary Poppins on a visit to her cousin, Arthur Turvey, who on the day they arrive is experiencing everything backwards, such as standing topsy-turvey on his head, as all his visitors do also. In chapter 5, a new baby, Annabel, is born to the Bankses. Like all newborns, she can talk with animals, and she tells a starling on the window sill, “I come from the Dark where all things have their beginning. . . . I come from the sea and its tides . . . . I come from the sky and its stars. . . . I heard the stars singing as I came and I felt warm wings about me. . . . It was a long journey.” Within a week of birth, however, all newborns forget how to talk with animals and where they came from. In chapter 6, Robertson Ay, the work-dodging man of all work at Number 17 turns out to have been a very wise Dirty Rascal fool in the court of a king in another world who fell to earth at No. 17, Cherry Tree Lane.

Chapter 7, “The Evening Out,” is the central-theme episode in the second book and is set in the sky, that is, the archetypal element of air, representing the mental plane or dimension. This evening is Mary Poppins’s evening off, so after feeding the children and tucking them into bed, she scurries away. Jane and Michael lie in bed looking through the window at the shooting stars that fill the sky. Michael says it’s like fireworks or a circus and wonders whether they have circuses in Heaven. Suddenly a large bright shooting star comes right into the bedroom and urges the two children to get dressed and come with him. They do, but Jane wonders whether she could be dreaming. The star that is leading them leaps into the air and tells the children to follow by stepping on stars. They do so and find themselves standing at the edge of a ring of shining sand, with the sky above it drawn up to a point, like a tent. They are in the circus in the heavens, where the Ring Master is the Sun, and the Performing Constellations participate in the Big Parade. Seated in the Royal Box is Mary Poppins. And then the Sun invites all to dance the Dance of the Wheeling Sky.

Michael wonders whether his experience is real or not, and the Sun replies: “What is real and what is not? Can you tell me or I you? Perhaps we shall never know more than this — that to think a thing is to make it true.” Jane wonders whether it is true that they are there or only think they are. The Sun smiles sadly and responds, “From the beginning of the world all men have asked that question. And I, who am Lord of the Sky — even I do not know the answer. I am certain only that this is the Evening Out, that the Constellations are shining in your eyes and that it is true if you think it is.”

Then Mary Poppins and the Sun dance together, without touching, but opposite each other, keeping perfect time together, as all of the constellations and planets join in the dance. At its end, the Sun lightly touches Mary Poppins’s cheek with his lips. The dance being over, all the constellations rush from the ring. The children feel themselves in the rocking arms of Venus, the Homeward Star, and before they know it, they are back in their beds at home. The next morning, they ask Mary Poppins about what happened. As is her wont, she dismisses their question without answering it or denying the events of the night. But Jane points out to her brother that on the center of Mary Poppins’s cheek is a small fiery mark, round and with flame-shaped edges like a very small sun.

In chapter 8, Mary Poppins takes Jane and Michael and the twins, John and Barbara, on a shopping trip, in which they meet the Balloon Woman, from whom they all get balloons with their names on them. The Balloon Woman denies having put their names on the balloons and says, “All I know is that the names are there! And there’s a balloon for everybody in the world if only they choose properly.” The balloons, which let them float joyously through the air, may be taken as symbols of liberating self-knowledge. In chapter 9, Mary Poppins takes the children to meet Nellie-Rubina, a wooden-doll person who sells conversations, as a sort of candy.

Chapter 10 (which can be seen as a second central-theme episode) ends the second book appropriately with a merry-go-round, a symbol of life as a pleasant series of recurring cycles, which has come to the park near Number 17. When people hear that Mary Poppins is takes the children to it for a ride, they all assume that Mary Poppins is going to leave the world on that merry-go-round, and their expressions of farewell puzzle the children. Their ride on the merry-go-round is quite an experience: “It seemed as if they would never stop, as if there were no such thing as Time, as if the world was nothing but a circle of light and a group of painted horses. [para] The sun died in the West and the dusk came fluttering down. But still they rode, faster and faster, till at last they could not distinguish tree from sky. The whole broad earth was spinning now about them with a deep drumming sound like a humming top. [para] Never again would Jane and Michael and John and Barbara be so close to the centre of the world as they were on that whirling ride.”

Then Mary Poppins goes to ride herself, first telling Jane to take care of Michael and the twins. The ticket collector asks her, “Single or Return?” She hesitates for a moment, then says, “You never know . . . . It might come in useful. I’ll take a Return.” The merry-go-round begins to revolve faster and faster. As Mary Poppins passes them on her wooden horse, something breaks from her neck and lands at the children’s feet. It is her locket, whose golden chain has broken. Jane opens it and finds a picture of all five children with Mary Poppins. “And then a strange thing happened. With a great blast of trumpets, the whole Merry-go-round rose, spinning, from the ground. . . . [para] On and on, pricking through the sky, went the Merry-go-round, carrying Mary Poppins with it. And at last it was just a tiny twinkling shape, a little larger but not otherwise different from a star. [para] . . . Out of the sky she had come, back to the sky she had gone.”


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