The New Age Interview:
P. L. Travers
Mary Poppins wasn’t created, but “summoned,” says her elusive author—and mythology is always “right here, right now.”
P. L. TRAVERS is one of the most popular writers alive today and also one of the most elusive. All five of her Mary Poppins books have sold millions of copies all over the world; her name is almost as well known to children (and parents) as those of Donald Duck or Robin Hood; when a book of essays on mythology was published in Japan with contributions by such stalwarts as T.S. Eliot, J.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and herself, the publishers placed on the cover only “by P. L. Travers and Others.” And yet P. L. Travers is so reserved and reclusive that in a sense we know more about Homer than about her. Few even know her Christian name—“I tremble inwardly and withdraw when my Christian name is seized before I have given it,” she wrote once.
A few—very few—things are known about this creator of haunting and mysterious fantasies. P. L. Travers was born in 1906 in the outback of Australia, of mixed Irish and Scots ancestry. During World War II, Travers was a guest of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. and lived among the Navajo and, for a shorter time, among the Pueblos, peoples who live close to their myths. Along with the Mary Poppins tales, she has authored several essays on world mythology that show an extensive scholarly knowledge of the subject and a passionate concern with the spiritual truths contained in myth. She has been Writer-in-Residence at Radcliffe College, Smith College, and Claremont University, and has lived in Ireland, the United States, England, and “for short times, as a tourist only” in many parts of Europe and Asia. She now resides in London on a street as quiet and ordinary as those in the Poppins books: her house looks much like my mental image of the Banks house where Mary Poppins works (when she’s in the mood) as a governess.
Nearly all else is Mystery, like the question children are forever asking: “Where does Mary Poppins go when she’s not with the Banks family?” When I corresponded with Travers about the interview, she insisted that no personal questions would be answered, and I was made to understand that even asking them would be impolite. I finally did learn the name behind the P. in P. L. Travers, but after being submerged in her ambience I am afraid to reveal it, lest she disappear, like the mermaid wife in the legend, and never return to us again. When I was admitted to Travers’s house, a younger woman showed me to a study to wait; I asked if she was Travers’s secretary, wondering if she was a daughter, and she replied as if I had asked a different question, then vanished, still unidentified. Among the books that were visible were The Mind of the Dolphin by John C. Lilly, Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and Summerhill by A.S. Neill. There was also a slim paperback by quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg but before I could copy down its title, Travers herself appeared. She looks a great deal younger than her seventy-eight years and her eyes literally gleam with humor—like those of a character actress playing the Fairy Godmother. I started with some casual talk, and she told me of her struggles to get the USSR to pay royalties on her books—a common problem for Western writers. The Polish government at least has agreed on a settlement: royalties on Polish editions of her books will go to provide scholarships in English literature for young Polish students.
A great deal of the interview that followed kept circling back to George Russell, the Irish poet-painter-mystic who published under the initials A.E. Regarded as one of the leading figures of the Irish Literary Renaissance, A.E. was the butt of satire by social realists like James Joyce and Sean O’Casey but is still a powerful influence in Ireland. Travers spoke of him with great respect and devotion. If A.E.’s more famous friend, Nobel Prize poet William Butler Yeats sometimes talked to ghosts, A.E. outdid that by frequently seeing faeries and on one occasion reported what nowadays would be called a Close Encounter with a UFO. Talking to Travers, none of this seemed strange, and when I came back out onto the street I was not perfectly sure whether I was in London or Baghdad.
— Robert Anton Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson: Do you think you created Mary Poppins or did she create herself?
P. L. Travers: There’s a Zen koan that says, “Not created, but summoned.” I think that must refer to Mary; she must have been summoned—by some need in me.
Wilson: The name Poppins has always seemed like a pun to me, because she does pop in on the Banks family and pop out suddenly and then pop in again. Was that deliberate?
Travers: No, it just came together. In anything I write the names just come to me; I don’t have to think of the names. But then I don’t have to think of anything when I write; it just happens. Somebody who was planning a television series based on Mary Poppins came to me once to discuss the project, and at one point he said, “You know, those books weren’t invented,” and I was very pleased, because I never sit down and screw up my nose and think, “Now, what shall I write?” That’s why I think summoned is the word for my books, not created.
Wilson: Incidentally, did you study Zen in any formal way?
Travers: Yes. I was in Japan for several months and studied Zen there. I have also continued the study of Zen since I returned to the West.
Wilson: I believe that, before that, the major influences on you were William Butler Yeats and George Russell, who wrote under the name A.E.?
Travers: I was brought up on Yeats and A.E. My father was Irish and my mother was Scotch-Irish and I was born of this mixture in Australia. My father was particularly keen on Yeats and A.E. and was forever quoting them. My mother quoted a lot of poetry to me, too; you might say I was raised on poetry. I was very happy with Australia and loved the bush country where we lived, but I always wanted to go back home. You see, my parents always spoke of Ireland and the British Isles as home, so, to me, home was where all that beautiful poetry was written. I was always convinced that some day I would go home, and I did. I became a dancer on the stage, and the company I was with went on tour and that got me out of Australia originally, and then one day I was in London—that would be in 1924—and I sent a poem to A.E. I had already had poems published in Australia and I sent this poem without a covering letter of any kind; I didn’t try to explain myself. I just sent a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a return, which promptly came back. I wasn’t surprised at that, but I was surprised when I opened it and found two guineas and a letter from A.E. saying he was sure nobody but an Irish person, and a young Irish person, could have written that poem, and that he was printing it in the next issue of Irish Statesman. He also said that were I ever in Ireland he would like me to visit him. Well, I was off on the next boat-train to Dun Laoghaire.
Wilson: In a BBC interview, you mentioned that A.E. believed he had known you in a previous life. Do you believe that?
Travers: Actually, it was more a question by A.E. than a statement; that was his way. We were walking on Regent Street in London and I said something about having wanted to meet him since my father first read his poetry to me, and he asked simply and quietly, “Do you really think this is the first time we’ve known each other?” I was looking at sheets and blankets in a shop window, and it was a stunning question. The point is that everything I learned from A.E. I learned by osmosis, sometimes by indirection. He was always reading to me or reciting to me, but the important things came across almost casually, like that remark while I was examining bedding in a shop window. Many years later, sometimes decades later, I found myself recalling things he had said and I would think, “Oh, now I understand that.” As to reincarnation itself, I don’t want to go into that; I’m not at all sure how I think about it. I have a dread of making grandiose statements.
Wilson: You do seem to imply reincarnation rather strongly in one of the Poppins books—in the conversation between the starling and the newborn baby.
Travers: The starling is a very special bird; he’s very much a family man, very domestic. He likes houses and nests in chimneys. Do you understand that?
Wilson: Well …
Travers: I don’t think that what the starling hears the baby say really means reincarnation. But perhaps it does … I’m not going to be definite. I don’t want to lay down laws; I’m the last person to lay down laws.
Wilson: A.E. and Yeats tended to take reincarnation very literally. Is it the result of Zen that you don’t take it as literally as they did?
Travers: No, it’s that I don’t dare seize upon ideas. I prefer to leave things as questions. I call myself an Unknower; I leave everything as a question.
Wilson: After living in Ireland for two years, I find that a very Irish attitude. In fact, it reminds me of the two clocks in Padraic Pearse Station in Dublin which never agree. An Englishman once complained that that was typical of Irish vagueness, and an Irishman replied, “Ah, sure, if the two clocks agreed with each other, then one of them would be superfluous.”
Travers: That’s my father’s influence. He carried Ireland around with him, even in Australia. He had Ireland around him, like a cloak, very much the way James Joyce wrapped Dublin around him even when he was in Paris. There’s something very special about Ireland. It’s one of the most beautiful islands in the world, I think, and I’ve seen many. But it’s not just visual beauty; there’s something nostalgic there. It calls you back, and calls you back, and calls you back.
Wilson: Weren’t you with A.E. one time when he saw the faery folk?
Travers: Yes, I was in Donegal with him once when he saw them. I didn’t see them, but he did. There was smoke coming out of his pocket, and I thought that was part of the magic at first. He went on painting—he was painting the faeries—and the smoke kept pouring out of his jacket, and I finally realized he really was on fire. I shouted, “A.E., you’re on fire.” And he looked down from a long distance and slowly took a pipe out of the pocket and knocked it on a rock and said, “Ah, well, another pocket for my poor wife to reline.”
Wilson: Some people will say A.E. was experiencing something real and others will say that he was simply off his head.
Travers: There’s a third alternative: he really did see the faeries. Mind you, he was the sanest and most ordinary of men.
Wilson: Did you decide at some point that you were going to be writing for children, or did that sort of just happen?
Travers: C.S. Lewis put it very well. He said that there are some things that are better put down in books for children. Personally, I think the Mary Poppins books are really for grown-ups, as all children’s books that last are. That’s why children love them. I get as many fan letters from grown-ups as I do from children, and the best fan letters come from boys and men-they’re just in love with Mary. The other day, when I was coming home from church, two boys ran after me and said, “You’re the lady that wrote Mary Poppins.” I asked how they knew, and they said they were in the church choir and the vicar had told them. I asked what they thought of her, and one said, “She’s so ordinary,” and I liked that, because she is very ordinary, you know. The other boy said he was going to marry her when he grew up.
Wilson: Incidentally, what church do you go to?
Travers: The Anglican church.
Wilson: Trollope said Anglicanism interferes neither with ones politics nor ones religion. You find it compatible with Zen?
Travers: Yes. Comparative religion and comparative mythology—those have been the great studies of my life.
Wilson: In the last three decades, since about the time of Robert Graves’s White Goddess, there has been an upsurge of interest in goddess worship and the female aspect of divinity. Do you see Mary Poppins as a kind of harbinger of this trend, a domesticated White Goddess as it were?
Travers: I didn’t plan it that way; as I said, I planned nothing. But A.E. was the first to notice that, when I had written the very first book. He wrote to me, “Popkins comes right out of myth”—he always called her Popkins for some reason. I hadn’t wondered where she came from, before that; she simply was. And she is. I’m still learning from her. But I am sure now that she comes out of myth. I think she would be the handmaiden of myth, as I am myself. I imagine myself sweeping Homer’s staircase very happily or taking him a cup of wine and saying, “There you are, sir-that will do you a world of good.” I didn’t have a clue at first, of course. I learned about my books after I wrote them. I had a very short course on Jungian psychology once, and the instructor said, “You don’t need this course; you just need to read your own books.” I thought that was very perceptive, because sometimes when I read them I think, “Now that’s true; how on earth did she know that?” And there isn’t a she, there’s only me. I’m she.
Wilson: But if she knows things you don’t know, she might be creating herself in a sense?
Travers: Do stop talking about creating. C.S. Lewis said another very wise thing; he said there is only one creator and we merely mix the elements of existence. I like that. I don’t like people swaggering around and calling themselves creators. They always expect special treatment, and I don’t want to get into that league.
Wilson: What about the revival of the goddess, both as part of the women’s liberation movement and separate from it?
Travers: I do not belong among the feminists. Of course, feminism is some echo of the time when the first god was a goddess, but now she is reappearing in her wrath. Wrath is the word, I think. She can be dangerous as hell. But her true function, ultimately, is to balance things.
Wilson: There are neo-pagan groups all over the Western world now. One reads in the papers about people going out at the full moon to summon the goddess …
Travers: I don’t know much about neo-paganism. I know about one group, the Golden Dawn, to which Yeats once belonged. I went to one of their rituals once and there was a man there with a six-pointed star tattooed on his palm and he told me to beware of Robin Hood. They all seemed very strange people. Does Robin Hood still walk?
Wilson: Does he?
Travers: Maybe he does; I don’t know.
Wilson: In studying comparative religion and mythology, have you encountered Mary
Poppins under other names?
Travers: I suppose she’s everywhere. A poet named Robert Bly once sent a friend of mine a dissertation he had written about the mother in myth, and he classified different archetypes of the mother. One was the ecstatic mother, and it has been suggested to me that Mary Poppins is the ecstatic mother. I don’t know, but wherever she is, there’s a celebration. I didn’t make it so, but there’s always a festival around her. One man said to me that the Poppins books are very erotic, because there’s a rising excitement and then a crisis and then a marvelous resolution at the end. If you think about it, that’s true. An Irish poet once said to me that he couldn’t stand children’s books: I said, “Read Mary Poppins anyway, but just for my sake.” He read it and wrote back, “Why didn’t you tell me? Mary Poppins and her cool, green core of sex has me enthralled forever.” That’s why the letters from boys and men are so moving; they’re in love with her. And she’s very plain, you know-but I’ve come to think she must be one of those plain people who has great beauty. The truest beauty is found in a plain person.
Wilson: Why are myths so important?
Travers: Because they are always being reenacted in the ordinary diurnal world. The whole terrible Patricia Hearst story, for instance, is a reenactment of the Persephone myth, the maiden who disappears into the underworld. Mrs. Thatcher is another goddess figure—a very stern one.
Wilson: The killing of John Kennedy affected many people like the ancient myth it resembled, the death of the Divine King right out of The Golden Bough.
Travers: Yes. But I’ve always thought the Kennedys got their myth backwards. The myth they were trying to embody was Camelot—Arthur and the Round Table. But there was no faithless Guinevere; it was the other way around. Guinevere did not ride off with Lancelot, so in the mythic sense there was no Guinevere. And John Kennedy was not pure and valiant Arthur, although valiant he may have been. The myth got turned upside down.
Wilson: Is it dangerous to turn myth around or upside down?
Travers: I don’t know. It is dangerous in literature. I am often annoyed with Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, because he departs from real myth and makes you cry in the wrong way. I have the same objection to Tolkien at times, because he leaves true myth and starts writing Boys Adventure Novels.
Wilson: Where else in modern life do you see myths being reenacted?
Travers: In daily life, every day. Joyce knew that: Ulysses is the most daily day possible, but the characters are all following Homeric myths. Yeats and A.E. understood that, too, because they had very long memories, not something that grows up from the grass. Their minds were ancient.
Wilson: What myth was William Butler Yeats living?
Travers: I never knew Yeats as well as I knew A.E., but … Yeats was very much the bard, in the traditional Celtic sense. He never came into a room; he entered it. He taught me a great lesson once. I went to the Lake Isle of Innisfree and fetched some rowan branches and brought them to Yeats in his home in Dublin. Well, there was a terrible rainstorm when I arrived, and he had me sent to kitchen to be warmed up and fed, and when I was refurbished he received me in the drawing room. And he had one branch only of all the rowan branches I had brought, one single branch in a vase. I realized that one branch was enough, just as in his poems he never uses many words when one word is enough, the right word in the right place, just like one single branch in a vase. Do you know what A.E. said of Yeats? He said Yeats took ordinary words and knighted them.
Wilson: Do you think, like Yeats, that perhaps we take off one mythic mask only to put on another—that we are almost trapped in myth?
Travers: Blake wrote in a letter, about the origin of myth and poetry, that the authors are in Eternity. That’s where I am content to leave them. You are asking about the why and the wherefore and that’s what I don’t know. I am a simple taker-down perhaps.
Wilson: That sounds like Mary Poppins again. She always tells the children not to ask questions.
Travers: No, Mary does not say that. She simply never explains.
Wilson: Well, if the children do ask questions, she always changes the subject. She says, “Now its time for tea” or something like that.
Travers: She never explains. That’s her chief characteristic, and I think it must be mine. I don’t not explain because I’m too proud to explain, but because if I did explain where would we be? There’s a Chinese ideogram, pei, that means both “explain” and “in vain,” depending on context. I think that’s significant: to explain is in vain. Nothing is bettered by explanation. If I were to explain, what would you go away with? Something finished, and you wouldn’t go on thinking about it.
Wilson: Well, not necessarily. In science and philosophy, explanations usually lead to further questions. They don’t stop thought: they incite thought. In mythic literature, the explanations of Yeats and Joyce and Wilde, for instance, did not stop thought: they gave birth to whole new areas of speculation in psychology.
Travers: Well, there you have me. But why do people want to know these things—where do myths and poems come from? You wouldn’t go to Shakespeare and ask how he came to write King Lear.
Wilson: In the film of Mary Poppins, something got lost. There is a stern or forbidding side to Mary that just was not in the film. She was a less interesting character.
Travers: The film was not true to her at all. It was very glamorous and colorful entertainment but it wasn’t Mary Poppins.
Wilson: Why is that element of sternness or authoritarianism necessary?
Travers: That’s her ordinariness.
Wilson: It may be ordinary for an English governess, but it sometimes disturbs American children. My children, for instance, would sometimes complain, “Why is she getting so mean all of a sudden?”
Travers: Yes, American children often make that complaint. I ask them, “Do you like her?” And they say, yes, they like her. “Does she take you into worlds you never would have found by yourself?” “Yes.” So then they remember the other side and aren’t disturbed any more. Now, I don’t know why she is that way; she came fully grown, as I say—she wasn’t invented—she came just as she was. Don’t forget, also, that these books are set back in a time a bit, say to my own childhood, when there was much more strictness—not a great deal as far as I was concerned, but it was around. Everybody’s great-aunt had very strict views on children. Mary Poppins is not mean, really; she’s more than generous, in a way, but she won’t stand for any nonsense.
Wilson: The people that Mary Poppins knows, all those strange folk who seem so ordinary but aren’t ordinary at all: do you think there are people like that?
Travers: Don’t forget that many of them are her relatives. That will give you a clue. Don’t you think that’s a clue?
Wilson: Once again, I wish you would explain your explanation. Pardon me for being so pedestrian.
Travers: It’s a clue to her magic, that there is a family of them.
Wilson: I feel that if I ask the obvious next question you’ll hit me with a stick, like a Zen master, but … do you mean they’re the Olympian gods, who were also a family?
Travers: Oh, nothing so grandiose. Don’t put her on Olympus. Think of the lesser gods.
Wilson: The faery folk? Are we back in Donegal with A.E. again?
Travers: You might say the faery folk.
Wilson: Whatever one calls them, do you believe in them?
Travers: Oh, yes.
Travers: Because they’re there. There have never been families like that in the world before, as far as I know, but there are now. They’re in my books!
Wilson: This gets more Irish all the time.
Travers: Well, you must remember Mr. Twigley who made a nightingale of wood, and then when the children were coming home through the park they heard a nightingale singing and they realized it was Mr. Twigley’s nightingale.
Wilson: As you said in another interview, “Myths never were but always are”?
Travers: Mr. Twigley’s nightingale came to me when I was walking with a friend on Hampstead Heath and a little old man came toward us beating his breast and saying, “My heart aches, my heart aches, my heart aches …” My friend said, “Oh, we must get a doctor for him,” but I said, “No,” and went up to the little old man and said, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains. My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.” And he cried, “That’s it, that’s it! I couldn’t remember it.” It’s the beginning of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” But that’s not the end of the story. The man I was with was in the British Museum the next day, and as he came out he met the little old man again. The old man asked, “Where is she?” My friend said he didn’t know where I was at the moment, but he would be seeing me again, and the old man said, “She gave me something yesterday, so I want to give her something. Tell her this secret: tell her the whole world is made of … music.” So that was the origin of Mr. Twigley’s nightingale.
Wilson: That was so enchanting I’ll risk another dumb question: why doesn’t Mary Poppins have references?
Travers: That’s hinted at in one of the stories. Jane and Michael are reading out of The Silver Fairy Book and they see a picture of three princes and a unicorn. Suddenly the three princes are in the park and the three princes tell Jane and Michael that they, the children, are in the story. “Oh, no,” the children say, “you’re the ones who are in the story.” So you don’t know which is which, who is in the story and who isn’t. The three princes are called Florimond, Veritain, and Amor, which if you look closely means beauty, truth, and love. Then Mary Poppins comes along and the three princes greet her: she’s been their nurse. So if she’s been their nurse—the nurse of beauty, truth, and love—how could such a one come into the little Banks family and be able to give references? And then, you may remember, a policeman comes into the park and doesn’t like the look of the three princes in their fancy costumes and starts questioning them. “Name of father?” “Fidelia.” “Name of mother?” “Esperanza“—faith and hope, you see. “Name of aunt?” “Sleeping Beauty.” The policeman won’t believe that. “Oh, no,” he says, “Sleeping Beauty wasn’t nobody’s aunt.” You see? I didn’t understand at first why Mary Poppins didn’t have references; it just happened. But later it occurred to me: well, having looked after such people, how could she give references? Who could write a letter and just sign it “Fidelio” and little Mrs. Banks understand it?
Wilson: Getting back to the family Mary Poppins belongs to, did they create the story the children are living in, the story we’re all living in?
Travers: Did they? You want to make everybody a creator. We weren’t created by our parents—they were channels.
Wilson: The Poppins people are channels also?
Travers: Evidently; channels for ideas.
Wilson: Did Mary Poppins channel the story you’re living in?
Travers: Well, I suppose everybody is living in a story. As I wrote in an article on the hero, everybody is the hero of their own story.
Wilson: Mythology, which you have studied so deeply for so long, seems to require symbolic interpretations, but Zen, which you’ve also studied, says we shouldn’t think symbolically at all; we should be right here right now. How do you resolve that contradiction?
Travers: I think mythology is right here right now. People can learn a great deal from Jung’s writings on mythology, but in general psychologists have gone at myth in the wrong way. They dissect it like a patient on an operating table, and that’s all wrong. We have to live in it. As children we live in myth as a frog lives in water, but in adolescence we change and go through the process of creating our own myth. Every generation has to rebel and create its own myth; but then as it matures, it comes around and sees the truth of the old myths on another level. It’s a spiral process.
Wilson: If we are living in myths or stories, and they live in language, are we not living in language, in metaphor?
Travers: Yes, language is fundamentally a sacred thing and it is often profaned. We use any old word for any old thing and do not make it precise. That is demeaning the language.
Wilson: If Yeats took ordinary words and knighted them, you seem to have taken ordinary people and knighted them.
Travers: Yes, Mary Poppins and her relatives and friends are all ordinary. Not one of them is a Prince. I have a great respect for the ordinary because I think the extraordinary is incorporated in the ordinary. For instance, you can’t fly unless you have something solid to take off from, and this world that Mary Poppins comes into is an ordinary world that contains the extraordinary, just as the natural contains the supernatural.
Wilson: Different myths come to different writers; does the writer choose the myth or does the myth choose the writer?
Travers: I had no choice. Mary Poppins picked me, if you want to put it that way.
Wilson: Shouldn’t we be very careful about which myths we allow to invade us?
Travers: I think we should be very, very careful.
Wilson: This is not an abstract question. Jung among others considered Hitler a man invaded by mythic forces that overwhelmed rational ego. How do we choose a safe myth to live in or live with?
Travers: I don’t know. I don’t know. But something must tell us, something true in us … in the midst of all our untruths, there must be something true, something that knows. No, I’m wrong there. I retrace my steps. The Germans were taken in by it, and I remember people here in England being taken in by it. I knew Hitler was an evil man, but there were some who did not know, who were really taken in.
Wilson: Do you think there really are magicians like the Poppins family?
Travers: I would prefer to call them healers. They exist. But the word “magician” is grandiose.
Wilson: Do you have any final message that sums up all you have said in your books?
Travers: Something to be carved in marble and handed down to the ages? No, I don’t have anything of that sort at all. My biography is in the Mary Poppins books. If you want to find me, look there. Or, if you must have a quotation, “I come like water, and like wind I go.”
The Enchantment of P. L. Travers
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in the New Age Journal in August 1984.