Fixing the Family - Kabbalistic Archetypes in Mary Poppins
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The children’s books about the adventures of Mary Poppins were first published in 1934 by the Australian author PL (Pamela) Travers but it was the film version, released in 1964 complete with a musical score and a mixture of live actors and animation, which really caught the public’s imagination.
The film has retained its popularity for the last 60 years and, for this to have happened, there needed to be high quality scripts, songs, production and performers. Even more importantly, however, there must also have been a touch of fairy dust to make everything fall into place.
In the words of Glynis Johns who played Mrs. Banks “There was always a touch of magic to do with Walt [Disney]” (0 minutes and 47 seconds into link)
While Dick van Dyke, who played Bert, was confident of the film’s success from the outset:
“I knew from the very beginning…..how good that movie was going to be – I never had a moment’s doubt about it.” (31:14):
One feature of the film which may help to explain its universal appeal is that it contains characters and symbols demonstrating the qualities of each of the
The Sefirot – aspects of the Divine – synthesised with our understanding of the psyche (after Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi).
Sefirot on the Tree of Life. These are the qualities of the Divine and, when they are united in a single work, then the Divine itself has been imitated and a complete micro universe created.
Mary Poppins was nominated for thirteen Oscars and won in five categories including best actress (Julie Andrews for her portrayal of the title role), best musical score and best song (Chim Chim Cheree). It was widely considered to be Walt Disney’s finest work and came just a couple of years before his death in 1966.
The origins of some of the archetypal characters may owe something to the involvement of PL Travers in the study of esoteric knowledge as well as to the painful circumstances of her childhood which were explored in the film Saving Mr. Banks.
While the Poppins books proved popular, the fairy dust which converted these stories to a film was sprinkled by the writers of the screenplay - Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh and, perhaps more importantly, by the writers of the musical score, the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman.
The other key figure, of course, was the producer, Walt Disney, who had spent twenty years attempting to buy the rights to the stories and who worked closely with Walsh, DaGradi and the Shermans as well as navigating the conditions imposed by Travers.
Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman whose songs took the stories of PL Travers from the page to the screen.
Whether the members of this team had any involvement in esoteric work is not clear (or is well hidden from public view) but their collaboration bore fruit regardless of any such wisdom being put in the film intentionally. Perhaps meaningful art is sometimes created more effectively by responding to the clues and messages sent from the higher worlds than by deliberately structuring it around an esoteric scheme.
In an interview about the making of Mary Poppins the Sherman brothers said they were both excited by the characters in Traver’s book but noted that there was no single story which
unified them. In creating the story with which we are now familiar it is the use of archetypal symbols that brings everything together in the lyrics of the songs as well as the script.
One of the major differences between the books and the film is the period in which the action takes place. The 1930’s depression era of the books is replaced by the much brighter Edwardian era – specifically the year 1910. The issue of women’s suffrage in the UK was in full flow at that time and provided a natural peg on which to hang the story.
The decision for this this change was made by the Sherman brothers and, by adopting the Edwardian era as the backdrop, they were able to use many of their favourite songs of that time as source material for the songs in the film.
At the outset of the film of Mary Poppins we find the Banks household of 17 Cherry Tree Lane in disarray as the two children are missing and their nanny has resigned.
The children’s mother, Winifred Banks, is oblivious to this chaos as she sings Sister Suffragette – a song which demonstrates her passionate involvement in the campaign for women’s votes. In contrast, her husband, George Banks, arrives home from work with the expectation that his home will be in perfect running order as he sings The Life I Lead.
When we set the structure of a family on the Tree of Life the parents correspond to Tiferet. This is the intersection of past and future, where they can draw on their own family tradition and provide a mixture of love and discipline to raise their children who are placed at Yesod – the Foundation of the next generation.
In the case of the Banks family what was once (we assume) a working parental unit has been split apart in the Malkut (physical home) of the family – 17 Cherry Tree Lane.
Winifred has moved from Tiferet to Hesed where the lovingkindness intended for the children has been displaced into liberating the whole of British womankind from the electoral restrictions of the past.
In contrast, George Banks remains so rooted in the past that he has also left Tiferet but moved in the opposite direction - to Gevurah - where he states (or, rather, sings) that in raising children the home should operate in the same way as the bank for which he works:
“A British bank is run with precision
A British home requires nothing less
The family unit set on the Tree of Life. Diagram by Joanna Lapage-Browne and Kurt Browne
Tradition, discipline and rules must be the tools
Without them, disorder, catastrophe, anarchy
In short you have a ghastly mess”
The underlined qualities align exactly with the Sefirot on the left hand pillar of the tree which indicates rigidity – tradition is Binah, discipline is Gevurah and rules are Hod.
While George makes a telephone call to place an advertisement in the newspaper for a new nanny the children (having finally returned home after chasing a kite that flew away) write their own advertisement for the ideal person to fill the vacancy.
When their father tears this up the children put the pieces in the fireplace where they are magically taken to the heavens. Mary arrives with the East Wind the following day and proceeds to secure her position as the new nanny (magically, again) removing all the other applicants waiting for an interview.
The chimney demonstrates the principle of Da’at as the interface between two worlds. The letter with the children’s specification for a nanny ascends from the dark chimney – the Da’at of Yetzirah - to the Yesod of Beriah where there now exists the idea (Beriah) of the perfect nanny.
This idea manifests the following day in the form (Yetzirah) of Mary Poppins who, having arrived in 17 Cherry Tree Lane, assumes the temporary role of Tiferet. From this position she operates as a substitute parent dispensing love and discipline to the children in equal measure. She becomes, temporarily, both their mother and father.
Extract from Jacob’s Ladder showing the correspondence between the Yesod of Beriah and the Da’at of Yetzirah – symbolised by the chimney.
Mary proceeds to arrange outings for the children with characters and events which demonstrate the qualities of Hod and Netzach – these are the servants, or helpers, of Tiferet – as well as the lower triads of the tree.
The fairground and race meeting represent the action triad (Netzach-Yesod-Malkut), while the jokes which are told to Uncle Albert and the invention of a magical word (supercalifragilisticexpialidocious) belong to the thinking triad (Hod-Yesod-Malkut). Bert, with his drawings on the pavement evokes the feeling triad of the imagination (Netzach-Hod-Yesod).
When, as they are reluctantly falling asleep that night, the children recall these events Mary pretends to have no recollection of them although she has, of course, transported them into another world by magic. The awakening triad is where we literally wake up to the possibility of other worlds and experiences above and beyond our everyday life.
The metaphor is used in a similar fashion The Wizard
of Oz where Dorothy is taken from her everyday world of Kansas to the world of her dreams which lead to Oz – the film switches from black and white to colour at this point in the story.
Mary’s main helper in the adventures which she instigates is Bert, whose various talents include being a chimney sweep and a one man band as well as a pavement artist. These occupations clearly belong to the active Sefirah of Netzach and, in the film, there is also a hint of romantic involvement between Mary and Bert – another Netzachian theme which PL Travers was adamant did not exist in the books.
In the books, Bert is principally a pavement artist who sells matches when the weather is bad while the chimney sweep is a separate and relatively unimportant character. The merging of these occupations into one character by the Sherman brothers was one of the happy “co-incidences” (4:13) of the film’s creation.
The other main participant in this phase of the story is Uncle Albert who “loves to laugh” and who is transported to the ceiling whenever he hears a funny joke where he will remain until he becomes sad.
The archetype of Hod is evident here – not just that of the comic telling of jokes but of the person who, despite much movement on the spot (or on the ceiling), stays in the same place. Hod is the spinning top which (almost literally in this case) keeps on turning around and around without making any progress.
Mr. Banks is then persuaded by Mary that he should take the children on an outing to his place of work so that they will better understand some of the worldly values he believes are vital to their education.
The opposing and complementary institutions of Church (Hokhmah-Hesed-Tiferet) and Secular Institutions (Binah-Gevurah-Tiferet) are experienced on this outing. The children firstly pass the old Bird Woman on the steps of St. Paul’s cathedral who makes her living by selling breadcrumbs at “tuppence (two pence) a bag” for passers by to feed to the birds.The encouragement of an act of charity in this case belongs to the Sefirah of Hokhmah since it is impersonal. Although charity may also be associated with Hesed, that implies a personal level of giving whereas, in the example of the Bird Woman, the gift is
The world of Mary Poppins set on the Tree of Life showing the correspondences between the Sefirot and triads and the characters and events in the film.
of an impersonal nature – see Kabbalah and Money and Chapter 20 of It Was Never About the Money for further discussion of this subject.
The Bird Woman is the person who lives outside society and has the wisdom (Hokhmah) to see the world for what it is with its many games.
In contrast to the Bird Woman of Hokhmah, freely dispensing breadcrumbs to the birds, Mr. Dawes Senior, the aged chairman of Dawes, Tomes, Mousley Grubs – the bank for which George Banks works - represents the negative face of Binah, attempting to extract tuppence from Michael.
The concept of limitations, which is one aspect of Binah, is shown clearly by the incident in the bank where Michael, a child, tries to retain in his hand the two pennies his father and his employers are trying to get him to “invest” in schemes which are beyond his comprehension.
When Michael refuses to part with his tuppence the ensuing chaos creates a “run” on the bank where too many investors want to withdraw their savings at the same time and the bank shuts the tills to stop money leaving the premises. As a result of this debacle George Banks is dismissed from his job and, with time on his hands, rediscovers his family by learning to fly a kite with his children.
St. Paul’s Cathedral on whose steps the Bird Woman sells bags of breadcrumbs to feed the birds. The layout of the central part of the cathedral – rebuilt in after the Fire of London in 1666 – is based on Kabbalistic principles.
The film, Saving Mr.Banks, which told the story of PL Travers’ troubled relationship with her father interprets Mary Poppins as a story of her father’s redemption but it can be reasonably argued that the redemption goes beyond George Banks.
Firstly, there is the transformation of the two pence which Mr. Banks, having refused to let Michael use to buy a bag of crumbs from the Bird Woman, now attempts (with Mr. Dawes Senior) to coerce him to invest – an action which leads to his own dismissal. The tuppence is finally redeemed by being used to buy the material for a kite which endows almost angelic qualities on the family as they sing Let’s Go Fly A Kite:
“With tuppence for paper and string
You can have your own set of wings.”
The redemption is completed by unifying the three lower worlds:
“With your feet on the ground (physicality of Assiyah)
You’re a bird in flight. (the air of Beriah)
With your fist holding tight (the psychological attitude of Yetzirah)
To the string of your kite.” (connecting the three lower worlds)
The act of flying a kite shows the effect of the great triad of the Spirit (Hokhmah-Binah–Tiferet) – the transformation of the money leads to the transformation of those who have used it.
“When you send it soaring up there, all at once you’re lighter than air.”
The conflict between the institutions of Church and Commerce are resolved by a spiritual consciousness which transcends both of them and the conflict between the broken George Banks and the political crusader, Winifred Banks, is resolved as they learn how to be a family again.
Crucially, it is not just George Banks who is saved - as PL Travers implies in Saving Mr.Banks - but the whole family.
The theme of unifying the worlds is echoed in the imagery used in the song Chim Chim Cheree where Bert spends his time
“ ’Tween pavement and stars [in] the chimney sweep world.”
The blackened chimney in the place of Da’at is now seen not just as connecting the worlds of Yetzirah and Beriah but as a metaphor for the whole world of Yetzirah which exists between pavement (Assiyah -the physical) and stars (Beriah – Spirit).
Yetzirah is the world of the human psyche where the imperfections of the ego are transformed and the spiritual dimension is uncovered.
When Mary Poppins arrives at the beginning of the film she says that she will only stay until she has completed her work (of healing the family). As the films draws to a close Bert, with his dancing troop of joyous chimney sweeps, shows us the triumphant emergence from the work which has been done and that we can all go home with a smile on our face as the Banks family is made whole once more. The creation of the character of Bert is the creation of an Everyman who almost acts as a one man chorus echoing Mary’s wisdom. He is, in some ways, similar to Che in Evita although whereas Che stays outside the plot for the entire film, Bert dips in
Dick van Dyke as Bert with his fellow chimney sweeps dancing on the rooftops of London – the chimeny is an important symbol in Mary Poppins.
and out of the main action. Bert's contemplative mood and words right at the beginning of the movie are prescient:
“Wind's in the east, mist comin' in.
Like something is brewin' about to begin
Can't put me finger on what lies in store
But I feel what's to happen, all happened before.”
The final line points to the circularity of human existence where actions are endlessly repeated while consciousness is centred on Yesod – the katnut (lower) state. Human consciousness only makes progress when we manage to live and act at the level of Tiferet – the gadlut (greater or higher) state. Bert’s words, perhaps, also point to the idea that this circularity repeats in successive lifetimes as well as the present one.
The realisation that the resolution of family problems is crucial to the film is stated by Julie Andrews:
“the magical quality of Poppins’ life and her main thrust, her reason for being in our lives, is that she fixes things, she goes in and makes families better.” (8:46)
There are many plays, films and novels containing characters that evoke all the archetypes of the Tree of Life - it is almost essential for the telling of a good story. Alttough might see the redemption of the Banks family as key to Mary Poppins it seems there is another, even more fundamental, quality which is critical to the film outstanding appeal of Mary Poppins. What is the glue which holds all these archetypes together?
One suggestion comes from Dick van Dyke who says:
“It’s the small things that make us happy.” (32:00)
while Richard Sherman perhaps sums it up best when he describes Feed the Birds as “the heartbeat of the movie” (12:35) and goes on to say that
“ [the song] has nothing to do with bread or crumbs – it has to do with kindness and love. ” (13:50).
Love, in this context, is very different from the passion which forms the basis of most "love stories" - it is Agape, rather than Eros.
The reunited Banks family watching their kite flying over a London park – an activity which unites the worlds of Assiyah, Yetzirah and Beriah.
Richard Sherman (49:22) also tells how he played Feed the Birds, at the unveiling of the statue of Disney on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. This was Walt Disney’s favourite song from Mary Poppins and, while Sherman was playing, a single dove swooped down out of the clear blue sky hovering briefly over Sherman’s head. That, said Sherman, was Disney expressing his thanks.
Feed the Birds was also the first song (13:59) the Shermans wrote for the film and was what persuaded Disney to give them a permanent place in the production team. It seems unlikely, from the various stories and events in the creation of this film, that there was no intention to create a masterpiece which
consciously embodied all the archetypes of the Tree of Life. There was, however, a sensitivity to the clues which were – literally – heaven sent and a willingness to act upon them.
Either way, the result is a film which demonstrates all the archetypes embodied in the Tree of Life. Nearly 60 years after its release, it seems to be well on the way to demonstrating the words of John Keats quoted by Mary Poppins as she unpacks her magical carpet bag in front of the disbelieving children:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
© Jonathon Clark 2022