Mary Poppins Goes to Hell. Pamela Travers, Gurdjieff, and the Rhetoric of Fundamentalism

by Massimo Introvigne

(A paper read at The International Humanities Conference, Bognor Regis 1996. Pamela Travers died in the same year 1996)


On September 6, 1995 La Stampa, Turin's daily newspaper, titled at full page "Is Mary Poppins really Satan?". Many readers were, understandably, surprised but no reader was more astonished than the undersigned. In fact I learned from the article that I had accused Mary Poppins to have "clear links with the esoteric and satanic thought". I was credited for having discovered that "under the gentle mask of the extraordinary nanny a dangerous creature was hidden, with features no less than satanic" [1]. The same journalist, appropriately, interviewed an exorcist who complained that "Introvigne normally minimizes the presence of Satan in our life" (a reference to my book on Satanism, where I argue that the number of real Satanists is minimum compared to the number of those who promote Satanism scares) [2]. But this, for the exorcist, amounted to still more convincing evidence that Mary Poppins was really satanic: "If someone like Massimo Introvigne has written such a thing, this could only mean that the danger is really there" [3]. The problem was, however, that I had never written such a thing. The day before, on September 5, 1995, the Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire had anticipated a small part of a chapter on Pamela Travers and Mary Poppins of my book Il sacro postmoderno [4]. The chapter and the article were, if anything, complimentary to Pamela Travers (and Mary Poppins). This did not prevent a majority of the Italian daily newspapers from picking up the news that Mary Poppins was a Satanist. Having a good access -- for a number of reasons -- to a number of daily newspapers and to the national TV, I managed to be interviewed in the evening news of Channel 2, wrote a letter to La Stampa and slowly persuaded most reporters that there was in fact a big misunderstanding. By September 8, the situation was improving and the leftist daily newspaper Il Manifesto wrote, appropriately, that the news was not that I had accused Mary Poppins of Satanism, but that a reputable newspaper like La Stampa had entirely misrepresented an honest article. Calling my article in Avvenire "original, entertaining and scholarly", Il Manifesto commented that "Introvigne simply analyzed the cultural education of Pamela Travers" and "called for more scholarly studies about the important cultural influence of Gurdjieff in Europe". The newspaper correctly noted that the word "esotericism" that I used for the work of Pamela Travers is not a synonymous of "occultism" and much less of "Satanism". By confusing three different things -- esotericism, occultism and Satanism -- La Stampa had "invented" news that never was [5]. Reconsidered after six months, the curious incident had, at least, the advantage of calling the attention of the Italian public on Gurdjieff and his influence. After all, we do not hear every day Gurdjieff mentioned in the evening news. To a scholar, the incident also offers the opportunity for some comments on the rhetoric of fundamentalism.


Pamela Travers met Gurdjieff in 1938, while the first edition of Mary Poppins was published in 1934 [6]. The equally famous Mary Poppins Comes Back followed in 1935 [7]. Although Travers may have heard about Gurdjieff in the British esoteric milieu before their personal meeting, this is far from being probable and any influence by Gurdjieff is more likely to be found in the following Mary Poppins books (particularly Mary Poppins Opens the Door, 1944 and Mary Poppins in the Park, 1952) [8]. Travers, of course, is more clearly influenced by Gurdjieff in her non-fiction works About the Sleeping Beauty (1975) and What the Bee Knows (1989) [9], and in her non-Mary Poppins fictional work Friend Monkey (1971) [10]. All scholars of Gurdjieff are familiar with the entry on the Master authored by Pamela Travers for Richard Cavendish' encyclopedia Man, Myth & Magic (1970) [11], and with the subsequent fascinating booklet George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1973) [12]. Apart from placing Gurdjieff's birth date in 1877 (rather than in the more probable 1866) [13], Travers' work still maintains the taste of a genuine Gurdjieffian experience, and is a good introduction to the Fourth Way for beginners. The perennial popularity of Mary Poppins, thus, could become an opportunity to explore Travers' other works and her relations with Gurdjieff.

This is not, however, the only possibility. Although any influence of Gurdjieff is extremely unlikely for the first two books of the Mary Poppins saga, the situation could be different for Mary Poppins in the Park, published in 1952. On the other hand, one could apply to Mary Poppins the theory that Max Weber suggested for capitalism. Although early modern capitalism, in Italy and elsewhere, could obviously not be "protestant" or "puritan" many decades before Martin Luther and John Calvin, Weber argued that capitalism had from its very beginning some significant "elective affinities" with puritan protestantism. In time, these "elective affinities" (a concept Weber borrowed from Goethe, who had used it in a very different context) would have revealed themselves and forged an alliance between capitalism and puritanism [14]. I argue that Mary Poppins had, from the beginning, an "elective affinity" with Gurdjieff's thought. This was, of course, not entirely casual. Travers, from 1925 on, had been introduced to Theosophical thought and to literary figures familiar with the Theosophical Society, including George Russell and William Butler Yeats. The latter was, of course, also one of the leaders of the Golden Dawn [15]. Although many authors have insisted on Gurdjieff's uniqueness, a recent study by Paul Johnson -- controversial but useful -- insists on what he had in common with Theosophy and a larger western esoteric tradition [16]. The correspondence between Travers and Staffan Bergsten, when the latter was preparing his book Mary Poppins and Myth (1978) [17], is particularly interesting. Travers insists that Mary Poppins is not only a children's book but the conscious creation of a myth. One could wonder whether Travers purposely led Bergsten away from the Gurdjieff track, since the Master is never mentioned in Mary Poppins and Myth. Bergsten, however, at least insists on what he calls the "mythical method" of Mary Poppins.

I will give only three examples of these "elective affinities". In chapter 10 of Mary Poppins we meet the animals of a zoo dancing the "Grand Chain" (a military dance, but also -- as Bergsten knows -- a reference to the esoteric Great Chain of Being) guided by a snake, Hamadryad (the snake is common in Yeats and Travers was also an admirer of Blake). To the children surprised that the animals, left free, do not eat each other, the snake explains that after all

I would take a second example from Mary Poppins Comes Back, where each chapter corresponds -- symmetrically -- to a chapter in Mary Poppins. Like the twins John and Barbara in Mary Poppins, the newly born baby of the Banks family of Mary Poppins Comes Back, Annabel, talks with a starling. Infant children in the saga of Mary Poppins are in fact able to understand the language of the animals, but they forget after a few months. In fact, they forget a number of other things, as we understand from the following dialogue between Annabel, the starling and one of his fledglings:


Here, again, there is a quite obvious reference to Blake, but also to the Theosophical scheme of the discent of the humans along the Rays. Gurdjieff is not far away if we reflect that children are born with a pure essence in touch with the mysteries of the universe, that will soon be overcome by a personality that will forget everything about the true origin of the humans. In turn, the only way to overcome the personality is to be "different" like Mary Poppins: "She is the Oddity, she is the Misfit" according to the Starling [20].

A third example comes from Mary Poppins in the Park (written, as mentioned earlier, after Travers had met Gurdjieff). Here Jane and Michael discover that the real word is probably less real than it may seem. While Jane is reading to Michael in the Park the story of the three princes, Florimond, Veritain and Amor, the princes step out from the book and start a real-life conversation with the children:

One should not jump to the conclusion that there is a clearly gurdjieffian element here about the real word not being too "real" after all, since this is simply an inversion of the theme of earlier Mary Poppins stories, where the children (and occasionally Mary Poppins and her friend Bert) may jump into a book or a picture. Bergsten thinks that one source is a book by William Anderson about the story of the Chinese painter Wu Tao-Tsz, of the T'ang dinasty (600-900 A.D.), who entered one of his own pictures, disappeared and "was never seen again" [22]. The idea of an "elective affinity" between Travers' "mythical method" and Gurdjieff remains however here particularly fascinating.

We should, of course, resist the temptation of reading too much of Gurdjieff into Mary Poppins' stories. In an interview which appeared in The Paris Review in 1982 the interviewers asked Travers whether "Mary Poppins' teaching -- if one can call it that -- resemble that of Christ in his parables". Travers replied:

"My Zen master, because I've studied Zen for a long time, told me that every one (and all the stories weren't written then) of the Mary Poppins stories is in essence a Zen story. And someone else, who is a bit of a Don Juan, told me that every one of the stories is a moment of tremendous sexual passion, because it begins with such tension and then it is reconciled and resolved in a way that is gloriously sensual".

The answer is clarified by the following question: "So people can read anything and everything into the stories?". "Indeed" [23].

It would be nice to conclude on this sober note, but I would like to add a final comment on the rhetoric of fundamentalism. Although new religious and esoteric movements only amount to 1% of the general population in all Western countries, they have become a convenient scapegoat for all kind of social trouble. The secular anti-cult movement is mirrored, within Christianity, by a fundamentalist counter-cult movement that sees the direct work of the Devil behind all "cults" [24]. Generally speaking, the activities of both the secular anti-cult and the religious counter-cult movements have been less successful than they normally like to believe. For many groups and private individuals, however, the assault -- largely based on ignorance -- has been a source of unnecessary suffering. The rhetoric of the "children in danger" has been often used in the anti-cult discourse. Fundamentalist counter-cultists have been particularly active in "discovering" occult or satanic meanings hidden in children literature. A case in point is Madeleine L'Engle (in fact, if anything, a liberal Christian) whose award-winning books for young boys and girls (particularly her Time Trilogy, which consists of A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet) [25] have been accused by fundamentalist Christians to carry sinister New Age and occult messages, not far from Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible [26]. True, fundamentalists have been able to prove that L'Engle occasionally flirts with esotericism and quotes Theosophical authors. But, once again, in the case of L'Engle -- and countless other authors -- the rhetoric of fundamentalism operate by confusing esotericism with occultism, and occultism with Satanism. My own adventure with La Stampa about Pamela Travers and Mary Poppins shows that this rhetoric may make dangerous inroads into the mainline press. The latter, however, unlike its fundamentalist fringe counterpart, is at least prepared to hear another side of the story, and occasionally to correct its own errors. It would be, however, a mistake for scholars and friends of esotericism alike to dismiss the dangerous rhetoric of fundamentalism as merely stupid, and to underestimate the power of the popular press.


  1. [back] Paolo Poletti, " ‘Mary Poppins? Satana’", La Stampa, June 6, 1995.
  2. [back] See my Indagine sul Satanismo. Satanisti e anti-satanisti dal Seicento ai nostri giorni, Milan: Mondadori 1994.
  3. [back] Paolo Poletti, "I bimbi nel mirino", interview with the exorcist Don Gabriele Amorth, La Stampa, June 6, 1995.
  4. [back] See my "Mary Poppins esoterica", Avvenire, September 5, 1995 and my book Il sacro postmoderno. Chiesa, relativismo e nuova religiosità, Milan: Gribaudi, 1996, pp. 293-304.
  5. [back] Giuseppina Ciuffreda, "Mary Poppins non è Satana", Il Manifesto, September 8, 1995.
  6. [back] P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, London: Gerald Howe, 1934.
  7. [back] P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Comes Back, London: Lovat Dickson & Thompson, 1935.
  8. [back] P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, London: Peter Davies, 1944; Ead., Mary Poppins in the Park, London: Peter Davies, 1952.
  9. [back] P.L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975; Ead., What the Bee Knows. Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Stories, Wellingborough: The Aquarian Press, 1989.
  10. [back] P.L. Travers, Friend Monkey, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
  11. [back] P. Travers, entry "Gurdjieff", in Richard Cavendish (ed.), Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1970, 24 voll., vol 9, pp. 1188-1189.
  12. [back] P.L. Travers, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, Toronto: Traditional Studies Press, 1973.
  13. [back] According to the seminal work by James Moore, Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth. A Biography, Shaftesbury (Dorset)-Rockport (Massachussetts): Element 1991.
  14. [back] On the concept of "elective affinity" in Weber see Hubert Treiber, "Nietsche's Monastery for Freer Spirits and Weber's Sect", in Hartmut Lehmann and Guenther Roth (eds.), Weber's Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts, Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 133-159.
  15. [back] See George Mills Harper, Yeats's Golden Dawn: The Influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on the Life and Art of W.B. Yeats, London: Macmillan, 1974; in general: Ellic Howe, The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
  16. [back] See K. Paul Johnson, Initiates of Theosophical Masters, Albany (New York): State University of New York Press, 1995.
  17. [back] Staffan Bergsten, Mary Poppins and Myth, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1978.
  18. [back] P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, pp. 172-173.
  19. [back] P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins Comes Back, pp. 142-144.
  20. [back] Ibid.
  21. [back] P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins in the Park, p. 131.
  22. [back] S. Bergsten, Mary Poppins and Myth, p. 64. The reference is to William Anderson, Descriptive and Historical Catalogue of a Collection of Japanese and Chinese Paintings in the British Museum, London: British Museum-Department of Prints and Drawings, 1886. Bergsten misspells the name of the noted historian of Japanese art as "Andersen".
  23. [back] Edwina Burness and Jerry Griswold, "The Art of Fiction LXXIII - P.L. Travers", The Paris Review, 24:8 (Fall 1982), 211-229 (218).
  24. [back] For the difference see my "The Secular Anti-Cult and the Religious Counter-Cult Movement: Strange Bedfellows of Future Enemies?", in Eric Towler (ed.), New Religions and the New Europe, Aarhus-Oxford: University of Aarhus Press, 1995, pp. 32-54.
  25. [back] Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1962; A Wind in the Door, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968; A Swiftly Tilting Planet, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
  26. [back] For a typical fundamentalis assault see Brenda Scott - Samantha Smith, Troyan Horse: How the New Age Movement Infiltrates the Church, Lafayette (Louisiana): Huntington House Publishers, 1993.

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