(Walt Disney Studios)

Mary Poppins as the Bodhisattva Ideal

Like all good nannies, Mary Poppins was a teacher. But she was a teacher of the invisible things. The author of the Mary Poppins series (1934-88), P.L. Travers, tells a story of her experience with a psychiatrist who asked to read her published stories. When she returned for her second session, the psychiatrist told her, “You don’t need me, just read your books.”

As she never had, Ms. Travers sat down and examined what she had written over the decades. She then understood what her writings were telling her.

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

A student on the Joseph Campbell Forum recently wrote, “Mary Poppins comes out of nowhere to facilitate other folk’s enlightenment. She lovingly and wholeheartedly practices compassionate non-attachment.”

The student likened Mary Poppins to a bodhisattva. By the widest definition, a bodhisattva is a being who has attained enlightenment but voluntarily commits to returning into the world of messy causes and conditions, in order to save other beings. Jesus, the Buddha, Gandalf the White, a ghost-angel, would all be considered bodhisattvas.

P. L. Travers was not keen on the first Mary Poppins (1964) starring Julie Andrews. In her view, the film did not contain the ideals of what she found in her books following the prompting of the psychiatrist. “When I left the theater, I was weeping,” she told journalist Jerry Griswoldd. In the Disney version, she saw her mysterious and mythic character, a humorous goddess in a British-nanny smock, morph into a music-hall song-and-dance gal.

As Ms. Travers wrote in a letter to writer Brian Sibley, “It is as though they took a sausage, threw away the contents but kept the skin, and filled the skin with their own ideas, very far from the original substance.”

History is written by victors, or sometimes, just the survivors, and is not always the truth. I loved the Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks, about the uneasy relationship between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers during the development and creation of the 1964 Mary Poppins, but it was a confection. P. L. Travers was much more than simply a curmudgeon. One only needs to hear her comments on the song, Feed the Birds, to open the door on one of the key issues in the matter. She was looking for the meaning behind the story just as her shrink had demonstrated to her. “Now, the parents while they are watching, do not look at each other,” she says to the Sherman Brothers, songwriters for the film. “Each of them is looking at themselves. You see . . . inside.” While Ms. Travers did not understand film language, she understood the message behind her words. (That said, working with her as a consultant on the movie must have been difficult.)

[Read “Existentialism in Children’s Film“]

Approaching P. L. Travers and Mary Poppins

As many of my Disney compatriots had tried, I , too, in the late 1980s, attempted to persuade Ms. Travers to allow the Walt Disney Studios to make another Mary Poppins movie.

Ms. Travers was perfectly kind and hospitable when I knocked on the legendary pink door to her London flat. She had invited me for tea. We had a lovely chat, but I did not walk away with the ability for Disney to make another movie. It would take her estate and death to grant rights for Mary Poppins Returns (2018)Had I known then what I know now, or had I researched her worldview more precisely, I might have had a go at obtaining the rights. For P. L. Travers, she was happy that children loved her books, but she had written them for adults.

Most importantly, Travers was not a traditional Children’s author. As a young woman, she hung out with those British mystics from the Celtic Twilight crowd, including W.B. Yeats and George Russell. From Yeats she had learned that “telling less was more.” In her early twenties, she was very interested in goddess mythology. Ms. Travers studied with a Zen Master in Kyoto. She spent a year living off the grid with American Navajo Indians. I think I could have talked to her about those invisible aspects of life—which both The Little Prince and Francis of Assisi spoke.

I knew nothing about her past or beliefs. For all my adult life, I had been a student of C.S. Jung and Joseph Campbell. I was a practitioner of both Western Prayer and Eastern Meditation but in my meeting with Ms. Travers, I was as out of it as the banker, Mr. Banks. I simply had not done my proper homework. Shame on me. And yet, knowing much more about her then I did when I had tea, I think she would have enjoyed this new version quite a lot. In the Return, Mary Poppins, played flawlessly by Emily Blunt, is a key into the ineffable mysteries.

This can certainly be experienced in three of the film’s songs.

[Read “Peter Pan, Existentialist Fairy Tale?”]

‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’

The song is both a lament and a call to action. It also hints at the probability of the eternal soul. The three Banks children mourn the recent loss of their mother, to which Mary Poppins sings: “Nothing’s gone forever. Just out of place.”

Later, when the youngest Banks child, Georgie, is trying to encourage his father, he reprises the song. It is a touching moment, leaving his father somehow rejuvenated and his older sister looking out the window at the depth of stars in the night sky.

I recently viewed a YouTube video where a ten-year-old girl, Gemma Allen, performs the song at a funeral—the song is certainly affecting to children.

‘There’s Nowhere to Go but up’

This song, which becomes the finale of the story, reflects what P. L. Travers told the Sherman brothers. What Ms. Travers had wanted expressed about inner-reflection 50 years earlier has born fruit in her return.

Look inside the balloon
And if you hear a tune
There’s no where to go but up

The cheerfulness of Mary Poppins is used to encourage all the Banks — the children and the adults — to seek an optimistic worldview that lies within them:

Life’s a balloon
That tumbles or rises
Depending on what is inside
Fill it with hope
And playful surprises
And oh, deary ducks
Then you’re in for a ride

[Read “Overcoming Childhood Trauma and Other Lessons from The Dark Knight“]

‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’

Most world religions encourage the discovery of light from their practitioners. In general, light can be a metaphor for enlightenment, goodness, or a higher spiritual perspective. It is eloquently articulated by the gentle saint of the Catholic church, Francis of Assisi: “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

“Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is one of the featured songs performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Joined by lamplighters of London, he carries out a rousing song and dance: “So when life is getting scary, be your own illuminary. Who can shine the light for all the world to see?”

P. L. Travers would have been pleased with the return of her Mary Poppins character to the silver screen. When she sings “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” Emily Blunt may very well have been singing a confirmation to Ms. Travers herself, wherever she may be.

Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
. . .

Searching for the things
You used to know
Looking for the place
Where the lost things go.

David Paul Kirkpatrick

David has been a storyteller all his professional life. He has worked on over five hundred motion pictures. Most notably, David was President of Paramount Pictures and Production President of Walt Disney Pictures. He is Co-Founder of the MIT Center for Future Storytelling. His latest novel is The Dog (2018).

Leave a Reply