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Mary Poppins – by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins, #1)Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

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.

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Posted by on June 3, 2014 in Children's Literature

 

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The Iliad – Homer

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

“Achilles Slays Hector” by Peter Paul Rubens

How do you review a great classic that’s been around for thousands of years? I am not an expert and all I can say has already been said by scholars. All I really have to offer are my own impression and whether or not I thought it was worth my time reading it.

I’m obviously more of a feminist than I usually consider myself because  all I could think about was how badly women are used and that threatened to overshadow all the heroism and bravery I know I was supposed to be admiring. Achilles takes over a small town, kills all the men and then takes Briseis –  after he’s killed her husband, father, brothers – and makes her his concubine. Great. Fantastic. What a brute! When the river god Scamander becomes offended at Achilles during a battle in front of Troy, he attempts to drown him in his river and I was completely rooting for him to succeed. Sadly, he doesn’t.

Clearly, Homer means the audience to admire the Greeks over the Trojans, who come across as rather inept. They can’t even send a spy out efficiently, whereas the Greeks excel at everything. The Greeks have wise help (Nestor), awesome-in-might help (Achilles, Ajax), and cunning help (Odysseus). I think part of my problem is that I have an underdog mentality. I can’t help rooting for the Trojans, even though I know they will lose. Zeus has declared they will lose from the beginning and so it must be.

The poem represents a very specific slice of the Trojan War, so Troy does not fall during the timespan of the poem. It begins ten years into the war and ends after Achilles kills Hector, the son of King Priam of Troy and brother of Paris, who ran off with Helen and started the war in the first place. So, although we know from other poems and myths that Achilles will be shot in the heel by Paris and die, and that there will be a Trojan horse (why isn’t it called a Greek horse; they built it?), it is not the focus of the poem. The main hero is Achilles and his desire to live on in glory, after he’s dead.

The poem is also interesting because the last half becomes a kind of divine free for all, with the gods and goddesses choosing their sides and pitching in, fighting alongside the humans. It is Athena who helps Achilles kill Hector by bringing him back his spear after an errant throw. It is this constant divine intervention and predetermination that is interesting, because these people know it’s happening but keep stoically fighting for glory and immortality, despite the fact that so much is out of their control…and they know it. It makes for a curious, heroic fatalism.

What is also interesting is how reverent people are towards the gods, though there’s no guarantee that respect will cause the gods to help them, but there is a definite guarantee that they won’t if you ignore them. Reverence and piety are very much valued and it is considered unthinkably arrogant and foolish to ignore them.

Despite my general lack of sympathy for any particular character (except all those nameless women destined to be Greek concubines), Homer is an incredibly evocative story teller and really conveys the energy of the battles (there are a lot of battles, and one-on-one challenges, and skirmishes over fallen heroes and their armor). I could picture those battles well, and I don’t usually picture things vividly.

And it was worthwhile to read, if only to say that I’ve done it. I got the idea after reading another book called The Trojan War: A New History, by Barry Strauss, who analyzes the myth of the Trojan War (from The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and others) as well as what we know from history and archeology and describes how it could very well have occurred, even if the characters are most likely fictional. It also connects how the descriptions in The Iliad – complete with references and praises to gods and exaggerations about victory and army sizes – was part of how ancient records did record real events.

Ultimately, I guess the best praise I can give it was that I was not bored, which, if you think about it, is often the best praise you can give any work of literature.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Books

 

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