By P.L. Travers
Let me start with the film! I saw bits of it almost twenty years ago, and remember it as a fun story. The book is a little different, though. Disney’s goal to entertain is quite different from the author’s intent. Several passages in the book make it clear that the author is trying to bring across a certain view of the world and higher powers—what exactly that view is, though, I didn’t know at first, but thought I would read up on.
THE GOOD: The audio version that we listened to was extremely well read and enjoyable, and the kids loved how Mary rides up the banister and how all the laughing makes everyone end up on the ceiling at her uncle’s house. There are humourous ideas like the babies knowing so much more than their mother thinks, but giving the proper coos and giggles to satisfy her. There are fun and fanciful ideas like one of the seven sister stars, Perseides, coming down to buy Christmas presents for her sisters (but not paying for them, for, of course! everyone knows stars don’t have money).
THE BAD: But as an adult, I found the zoo scene creepy—not the fact that the animals locked the humans in cages, that could perhaps be seen as funny—but the snake (symbolic?) that is the king of the animals reverences Mary Poppins and hisses over and over to the children that we are all one, earth and animals and sky. He also gives Mary a snakeskin to have made into a belt which she wears around her waist from then on…these aren’t random facts that the author has thrown in, I am sure.
THE PUZZLING: Why does everyone obey and wait for Mary, respect her and seek her advice? Who is Mary? That is what I was left wondering. Not just a fun-loving nanny… For she is presented as extremely vain of her looks, completely unsmiling, always “speaks snappishly,” and never gives so much as a friendly smile, let alone a hug to the children…who are strangely yet attached to her, so much so that by the end of the book Michael is heart-broken when she leaves and he is left with his mother (who quickly foists them off on another old servant in the home).
In closing, as an author I think it would be fun to dream up a story like this—of a nanny who does the unexpected—and the film did have fun with the idea as far as I know. But P.L. Travers has a worldview that she is bringing across, and it is not one I am comfortable with.
Recommended only with discussion
Ages 5 and up
Available from public libraries
More regarding the author’s worldview:
The Fourth Way addresses the question of humanity’s place in the Universe and the possibilities of inner development. It emphasizes that people ordinarily live in a state referred to as a semi-hypnotic “waking sleep,” while higher levels of consciousness, virtue, unity of will are possible.
According to a brief biography on her life, P.L. Travers (pen name) met with the mystic Gurdjieff and studied his teachings under someone else. His teachings, called the Fourth Way, “teaches how to increase and focus attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. This inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform man.
“Gurdjieff’s followers believed he was a spiritual master, a human being who is fully awake or enlightened. He was also seen as an esotericist or occultist. He agreed that the teaching was esoteric but claimed that none of it was veiled in secrecy but that many people lack the interest or the capability to understand it. Gurdjieff said, “The teaching whose theory is here being set out is completely self supporting and independent of other lines and it has been completely unknown up to the present time.”
“The Fourth Way teaches that humans are not born with a soul and are not really conscious but only believe they are. A person must create a soul by following a teaching which can lead to this aim, or else “die like a dog”. Humans are born asleep, live in sleep and die in sleep, only imagining that they are awake. The ordinary waking “consciousness” of human beings is not consciousness at all but merely a form of sleep. Gurdjieff taught “sacred dances” or “movements”, now known as Gurdjieff movements, which they performed together as a group.” Source: Wikipedia