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Intertextuality and Psychology in P. L. Travers’ «Mary Poppins» Books

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Julia Kunz

As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the first appearance of Mary Poppins, interest in P. L. Travers’ most famous creation is still strong and the time is right for a reassessment of a work that is rich in meaning for child and adult readers alike. This book attempts to analyse some of the reasons behind the longevity and the ongoing appeal of the Mary Poppins material, with particular reference to intertextuality and the presence of what Freud described as «the uncanny». By comparing and contrasting the Mary Poppins material with previous texts, it can be seen that Travers has been drawing, consciously and subconsciously, on the great myths and archetypes of the collective human storytelling experience. The idea therefore emerges that the Mary Poppins stories touch on some fundamental aspect of the psyche – an aspect where the symbiosis of security and fear, the familiar and the unknown, are made manifest to the reader, whether as children finding their way into adulthood or as adults recalling their beginnings.
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VII. Myth in Mary Poppins

Extract

VII.Myth in Mary Poppins

[Mary Poppins], had she lived in another age, in the old times to which she certainly belongs, would undoubtedly have had long golden tresses, a wreath of flowers in one hand, and perhaps a spear in the other. Her eyes would have been like the sea, her nose comely, and on her feet winged sandals… (George Russell qtd. in Travers’s speech “Only Connect” (publ. 1967))

As George Russell, intellectual “colossus” and Irish poet, (cf. Ch. 5) observed, the character of Mary Poppins and the adventures the children experience are to a large extent informed by mythology. That is to say, while Travers’s use of fairy tale structure and themes is predominantly overt and more or less confined to distinct spaces (as demonstrated in chapter 6), her use of myth is more subtle and, at the same time, much more pervasive as she draws on Greek and Roman mythology, mythical archetypes and motifs.

The reason for that, as Valerie Lawson explains in her extensive biography on P.L. Travers, is the author’s obsession with myth and the esoteric–an obsession which both led her to and made her susceptible to the theosophical thought of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff’s teachings as a means to make sense of the universe. Travers was taught her first lessons in myth in Allora, Australia, by one of her father’s odd-job men; he gave her lessons about the stars and the constellations, turning heaven into a “celestial suburb (…) inhabited...

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