Monday, July 20, 2009

“Of Myth and Mary Poppins”: A Review of A Lively Oracle: A Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers

edited by Ellen Dooling Draper and Jenny Koralek (Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Society by Larson Publications, 1999,

Everyone knows Disney’s Mary Poppins, but what of Mary’s creator, P. L. Travers? Due to the at-times questionable magic of Walt Disney and company, authors are often separated from their works. Ask most people who authored The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Tarzan and you might just get a blank-faced stare.

In the case of P. L. Travers, this wonderful collection of twenty essays (three by Travers herself) not only reconnects the author with her most famous work, but illuminates the vibrant thoughts, expressive writing, and lifetime of exploration into myths, fairy tales, and folklore that were the true passions of this gifted writer.

A Lively Oracle is divided into six parts (Biographical Notes; Mary Poppins; The Other Books; Themes; Conversations, Lectures, Interviews; and Three Articles by P.L. Travers) book-ended by an Introduction penned by Dooling Draper and an Afterword (Pamela Travers from A–Z) cleverly crafted by Koralek.

Dooling Draper’s Introduction sets the stage, giving the reader glimpses into the breadth and scope of Travers’ life and outlining the vast terrain to be covered. In these few pages we meet a private woman who asked in her will that no biographies be written about her. Instead, the editors have gathered an impressive array of authors, editors, and friends who knew Travers professionally and personally to shed some light on her life.

Part One: Biographical Notes comprises two essays, which are an invaluable resource in understanding Travers’ origins and influences. Born in the Australian outback at the fin de siècle, she spent some time as a dancer and actress in a traveling theatre company before going to Dublin, where she met such luminaries as A.E., Yeats, and Bernard Shaw. She would later meet the mystic and author G.I. Gurdjieff and receive a secret name from Navajo elders. In 1976 she became involved with Parabola, the Magazine of Myth and Tradition, culminating in the 1988 publication of What the Bee Knows, wherein many of her essays were collected.

Part Two contains two essays on Mary Poppins by co-editor Jenny Koralek and Brian Sibley, respectively. Koralek’s piece looks at the six books in the series and their relationship to the Disney film. In a broader sense, the essay explores the mythic/shamanic underpinnings of Poppins and her creator. Those who love the Mary Poppins stories will no doubt want to go back and revisit them after reading this illuminating piece.

Brian Sibley’s contribution elaborates on the Disney adaptation and Travers’ role in the journey. Sibley is in a unique position to discuss this intriguing tale of artistic wills—he worked with Travers on a script for a never-produced sequel to the film. Having won six Oscars and the hearts of millions of children and adults, with a memorable set of songs and charming performances by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the film version of Mary Poppins is, in and of itself, one of the best movie musicals ever made. What is of interest here is just how different the film is from the intent of the author. Travers, who served as a consultant on the film (in title, at least), resisted relinquishing the rights for a full decade after meeting Walt Disney, and Sibley details “many tempestuous meetings” between Travers and the production staff, although she seems to have been quite fond of Julie Andrews.

Part Three, entitled “Other Books,” considers, respectively, Friend Monkey (about the Indian Monkey King Hanuman), About the Sleeping Beauty, and The Fox at the Manger. The authors of these essays do a wonderful job of providing analysis not so much for its own academic sake but rather intrinsically linked to the influences and themes buzzing around Travers.

The fourth part, entitled “Themes,” expands on Travers’ fascination with the world of myth. The first essay, by co-editor Dooling Draper, looks back on Travers’ contributions to Parabola. Over the course of 15 years she contributed over 40 articles and stories. From the point of view of the essential elements of myths and why they are so vital to a fully lived life, this essay is a highlight of the book. The third essay in this section is an extended culinary metaphor called “A Writer Worth Her Salt” by the aptly named Rob Baker that illuminates Travers’ editorial relationship and input with the Parabola staff. This essay is a rich companion to Sibley’s on the Disney version of Mary Poppins because Travers always had plenty to say about how things were done and was not always gracious when ignored. It was interesting to read that despite her long and ongoing relationship with Parabola, half a dozen of her potential contributions were rejected and also that as protective as she was of her own writing style and word choice, she was not one to edit others’ writing. She instead chose to focus on the overall vision and direction of the journal. The essays by Trebbe Johnson and Feenie Ziner that conclude the “Themes” section are equally entertaining and enlightening.

Part Five serves as a bridge between others writing about P.L. Travers and the final section, which presents some of her works. The three contributors to this section share their excerpts of conversations and interviews with Travers with an unmitigated joy and respect that truly brings home the tremendous impact that she had on so many people. Jonathan Cotts’ reminiscences about her garden I found particularly touching.

The three articles chosen to represent Travers’ writing in Part Six (beyond the cornucopia of excerpts that were used to this point) give the reader a chance to become immersed in a gifted, giving mind. The first, “I Never Wrote for Children,” is essential reading for writers who produce materials—picture books, films, plays, etc.—for younger audiences. As a playwright and novelist, I found myself in agreement with all that Travers’ had to say. “Myth, Symbol, and Tradition,” a transcription of a Travers lecture at the Far West Institute and “The Fairy-Tale as Teacher” rank with the best essays of Campbell, Eliade, Bettelheim, Bly and other perhaps better-known thinkers and writers.
For the writer and reader who goes daily swimming in the depths of myth, fair-tale, and folklore, this collection—and the broad range of works by its intriguing subject—will be a resource gone back to again and again.

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