My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I first read Mary Poppins when I was twelve, but at the time I was more interested in authors like Jane Austen or Agatha Christie. But when Saving Mr. Banks came out my interest in the book was renewed, though perhaps I read it too intellectually. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had let myself read it for pleasure instead of looking for it’s meaning.
The general assessment is that is all about order. Mary Poppins comes and puts the Banks’ lives in order, but she also introduces them to quite a few disorderly things…at least to the children. She has a kind of dual nature.
She is a mysterious nanny. She comes, she bides a while and takes care of Jane, Michael and the twins, John and Barbara, and she departs…with the promise that she will return. She doesn’t come with any stated or unstated goal. She just takes care of the children, and because of knowing her they are exposed to the magical world that she lives in. She interacts quite as a matter of course with animals, she pops into a chalk picture with Bert the match man, she is acquainted with a star from the constellation Pleiades, her uncle gets filled with laughing gas on certain birthdays and floats in the air.
There is stability in the house, but also the expectation that something marvelous could happen at any time, though usually not in the house. Mary Poppins is both reassuringly solid, stable and no-nonsense, but also extraordinary, mysterious and slightly unpredictable (unpredictable not because she is capricious, but because she is unknown).
One thing that fascinated me is this subtle theme of terror or the frequent use of the word ‘terrible.’ The word is used several times by Travers. She uses the word in reference to Mary Poppins, Mrs, Corry and the snake they meet at the zoo. Mrs. Corry’s children are terrified of their mother, the animals are terrified of the snake. Jane and Michael never quite feel terror, but Mary Poppins certainly gives them a lot of terrible glances.
According to Valerie Lawson in her book, Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers, “But Poppins had yet another aspect. Something sinister lay behind the blue button eyes and flowerpot hat. As P. (Pamela) L. Travers…wrote, every good fairy has her evil counterpart, the necessary antagonist.” She continues, “Poppins has lasted because she is as peculiar as she is kind, as threatening as she is comforting, as stern as she is sensual, as elusive as she is matter of fact.”
Mary Poppins is a fairy tale, but in a much more traditional way. Our modern understanding of fairy tales is hugely influenced by Disney films, but the original fairy tales were far darker. Mary Poppins comes from older fairy tales, with a dash of mythology – the snake, a Hamadryad, is a mythological creature that bonds with a tree and is related to nymphs. The star, Maia, is also a mythological character.
Travers said in an interview that the book was “entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out.” However, she said that it had been pointed out, and she had come to believe, that Mary Poppins represented the Mother Goddess and that it was a Zen story that people could read anything into.
She also commented that she did not write the book specifically for children. She felt that children’s literature is a genre created by the publishers. However, she did feel that reading myths and nursery rhymes is the best method for teaching children because they are not a direct means of teaching, but lessons are imparted indirectly. One example she gave was Humpty-Dumpty, which teaches that not all things are possible. Her book, Mary Poppins, is the same. With Mary Poppins leaving at the end, she imparts the understanding that not all things last.
Another thing that interested me about Mary Poppins is how she does not seem to command magic, she is part of the magic. The Hamadryad tells Jane and Michael, during their Zoo adventure, that they are all one and Mary Poppins somehow seems to be able to do what she does because she is actually aware that she is one with everything. This is what makes her unique from everyone else. Her knowledge is her power.