“The Sphinx, the Pyramids, the stone temples are, all of them, ultimately, as flimsy as London Bridge; our cities but tents set up in the cosmos. We pass. But what the bee knows, the wisdom that sustains our passing life—however much we deny or ignore it—that for ever remains.” —P. L. Travers
Pamela Lyndon Travers (1899-1996) was an Australian novelist, actress and journalist, most remembered for her series of novels about the magical nanny Mary Poppins.
In 1925 while in Ireland, Travers met the mystic poet George William Russell who, as editor of The Irish Statesman, accepted some of her poems for publication. Through Russell, Travers met William Butler Yeats and other Irish poets who fostered her interest in Celtic folklore and world mythology. Later, the mystic Gurdjieff would have a great effect on her, one that would last the rest of her life.
In 1934 Mary Poppins blew into Miss Travers’s life and remained long enough to be captured on paper. Miss Travers was living in Sussex, recuperating from an illness in a 900-year-old thatched cottage mentioned in the Domesday Book. One day she found herself with two bored visiting children to entertain. She came up with a story about a raven-haired, rosy-cheeked governess who arrives with her carpetbag and parrot-headed umbrella at 17 Cherry Tree Lane to care for Jane and Michael Banks and their siblings. When Mary Poppins wasn’t busy ruling the nursery with a will of iron, or admiring her own reflection in a shop window, she worked fabulous deeds: sliding up banisters, presiding at tea parties held on the ceiling, pasting gold paper stars in the heavens at night.
Encouraged by friends, Miss Travers published “Mary Poppins,” which was an immediate critical success. A sequel, “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” appeared the following year. It was followed by “Mary Poppins Opens the Door” (1943), “Mary Poppins in the Park” (1952), “Mary Poppins From A to Z” (1962), “Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane” (1982) and “Mary Poppins and the House Next Door (1988).
I have read all the books many times and love them. I treasure the copies I own.
The books were adapted in 1964 into a musical Disney film starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. For the record, Miss Travers was not terribly fond of the adaptation (she reportedly wept through the premiere of the movie), nor of Disney himself. I share her sentiments regarding both.
In 2004, Disney Theatrical produced a stage musical adaptation in the West End. The stage musical was transferred to Broadway in 2006. It recently closed (March 3rd) after 2619 performances and over 6 years of running on Broadway.
But Miss Travers was more than a children’s book author. She was a brilliant essayist on all things mythical and mystical. A collection of her spiritual essays have been published in a book entitled What The Bee Knows.
Most of the essays were first published in the journal Parabola, which was devoted to the scholarly exploration of myth and tradition. Miss Travers was a contributing editor of the journal.
The title essay of What The Bee Knows is filled with facts about bees in world mythology and about their importance to our ecosystems. Miss Travers shares many of the traditions followed among beekeepers, including the practice of telling the bees all the important news. It reads:
But this apprising of the bees, telling them, for all one knows, what they already know, is not the business merely of great ones. The bees are constantly being told. No beekeeper would fail to do it. For if they are not courteously kept informed of everything that happens, they will take umbrage, swarm, and fly away, or die of grief or resentment.
The woman knew what she was talking about.
Travers was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1977. She died in London in 1996.
“Perhaps we are born knowing the tales of our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first bear them is not of surprise but of recognition.”
― P.L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty
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