A few days back, Reader Wil had a post about Mary Poppins -- the movie, not the book -- and I was reminded of how dearly I'd loved those books sixty or more years ago. And as I've held on to all my childhood books, I seized the opportunity to revisit Cherry Tree Lane and the inimitable Mary Poppins.
The books are still wonderful to read. So many old friends -- Mrs. Corry -- who hangs the stars in the night sky. . . Maia, one of the Pleiades who descends to London to do a bit of Christmas shopping, Nellie Rubina and Uncle Dodger who bring in the spring . . .
Some scenes verge on the mystical, such as the undersea visit where Mary Poppins and Jane and Michael visit the Terrapin -- the oldest and wisest thing in the world.
"I am the Terrapin. I dwell at the roots of the world. Under the cities, under the hills, under the very sea itself, I make my home. Up from my dark root, through the waters, the earth rose with its flowers and forests. The man and the mountain sprang from it. The great beasts, too, and the birds of the air. . . .
"I am older than all things that are. Silent and dark and wise am I, and quiet and very patient. Here in my cave all things have their beginning. And all things return to me in the end. I can wait. I can wait. . . ."
Or this passage from a trip to the zoo where, after closing time, Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael meet the Hamadryad snake, the Lord of the Jungle, and he reminds the children." We are all made of the same stuff, we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us -- the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star-- we are all one, moving to the same end..."
Well, it's no "Chim-chiminey, chim cheroo" but the magic is still there for me. I don't remember what I made of passages like this back when I was six or seven. My grandfather or grandmother read the books to me and I was entranced, never scared. I think children do best when they’re occasionally presented with material that is beyond their grasp – it encourages them to think.
I went looking for information about the author, P. L. Travers, and found, among many interesting tidbits, that she was an admirer of the mystic Gurdjieff -- whose teachings may well have influenced the ‘mystical’ passages.
The Disney version – which I saw once, long ago, is such a watered down, sweetened up version of the Mary Poppins of the books that I’m not surprised that P.L. Travers wept at the premiere. Her battles with Disney are chronicled in a terrific New Yorker article.
I don’t know how an adult, raised on the movie version, would like the astringent Mary Poppins of the books. Nor, indeed, how a child today would respond to the magic in the words. But I wish that everyone could have met the real Mary Poppins first.