Blessed Mary and Mary Poppins

A perfectly wonderful, albeit over-the-top, attempt to draw out Marian symbology from the movie MARY POPPINS can be found here:

https://vestalmorons.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/mary-poppins-and-the-blessed-virgin-mary/

Let me admit, first, that this is one of my favorite movies of all time, and displays Disney at his peak of genius, creativity, whimsy, solid story-telling, and fun. Usually when a movie is made from a book, the movie is grossly inferior. This is one of the two stand out exceptions (the other is THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, which ironically is the weakest book of L Frank Baum’s series). I read the book in my youth; the movie is better.

My wife once worked at a bookstore which, to sell movies, would run the television continually. During an eight hour shift she would see the same movie running four times in a row, and then again the next day and so on. There are few or no movies one can stand seeing and still enjoy on so many repeated viewings. This is one of the two stand out exceptions. (The other was STAR WARS, the real version where Han shot first, but, alas, the bookstore sold it.)

Let me finally say that while I enjoyed this article enough to recommend it, I hope the writers are being slightly tongue-in-cheek with finding these farfetched analogies.

One disadvantage of a background in literature is the ability to find symbolic parallels from anything to anything, and a consequent inability to take such parallels seriously. At times the writer is merely attributing to Mary things true of all mothers, or even of all authority figures maternal or paternal, or finding a Marian symbolism in a magic which is true of all magic.

I myself do not think Disney or PL Travers or anyone else had this parallelism in mind. On the other hand, I do think all good drama, in order to be good drama, must reflect the Christian world view, with its odd blend of pragmatism and supernaturalism, which neither materialists (like Mr Banks) nor ideologues (like Mrs Banks) understand.

I will say, though, that the English have always had a special relationship with Mary, and, after the break between Henry VIII and Rome, with Marian figures, Virgin Queens, and the like. The English seem more easily able to take a female as an authority, for example, than other European powers: Elizabeth I, Victoria, Elizabeth II, and, for that matter, Margaret Thatcher have few parallels or none in European history. I don’t recall any reigning monarch or Prime Minister of Spain or France or Germany or Italy who was from the distaff side. Perhaps the loss the English suffered when their island fell away from the religion of the continent (and the oecumene) has lingered in the shadows of their national spirit.

Here is the opening of the essay:

There are several notable characteristics that both Mary’s share (more or less):

Heavenliness

Both Poppins and Our Lady have their homes above the earth.  Our Lady is Queen of Heaven.  Poppins similarly sits “enthroned” on the clouds.  Both exist far above all other creatures but nonetheless “come down” to aid those in need.

 

Motherhood

Both Poppins and Our Lady have maternal roles.  However, neither one is literally the biological mother of their respective children but nonetheless adopt them like their own.  Since Our Lady is the Mother of Jesus, Mary spiritually becomes our mother when we get adopted into God’s family as Christians.  Similarly, Poppins is a nanny, which is a sort of “spiritual mother” aiming at fostering children in virtue.  It also seems that Poppins has done this for a very long time and has got her motherly tactics down to a flawless science, something Our Lady shares too, no doubt.  She knows just what to say at just the right moment in order to move people in the right direction, even if it involves employing tricks of reverse psychology.  Her songs may seem shallow and silly at first but, upon closer inspection, prove to communicate deep and profound truths about supernatural realities (as I shall demonstrate later).  Furthermore, the lessons she instills do not only apply to children but eventually effect everyone in the movie, something that resembles Our Lady’s universal care of souls.

Virginity

One of the only roles an unmarried woman could occupy in Edwardian England respectfully was that of a nanny.  Hence, many governesses lived as virgins throughout their lives.  This relates to Our Lady’s perpetual virginity, as both their roles somewhat paradoxically also involve being a kind of mother as well (something normally involving the loss of virginity … which goes without saying).

Miraculousness

Though Our Lady perhaps didn’t perform miracles during her earthly life, she most certainly did after her assumption into heaven.  Poppins, too, performs miracles left and right.  In fact, all the supernatural events that happen seem to be connected to her (an allusion perhaps to Our Lady being the “Mediatrix of All Blessings”).  Sure, you could say Poppins is a “witch,” but I think this claim is adequately dispelled after Michael says, “Maybe she’s a witch” to which Jane says, “Of course not, witches have brooms.”  It’s a pretty solid argument.

Sinlessness

That magic tape-measure which “reads people’s souls” also shows us that Poppins herself is “Practically Perfect in Every Way,” an allusion, I would say, to … that’s right … the Immaculate Conception (i.e. Our Lady was conceived without original sin, thus not possessing the sinful inclinations that the rest of humanity shares).  One may raise the objection, however, that Our Lady was perfect in every way, not just practically.  However, to use precise theological terminology, Our Lady didn’t possess complete ontological perfection (only God has that … like the perfection of having omnipotence).  Hence, even Our Lady was not perfect in every way.  What Our Lady did have was complete moral perfection, that is, her will never wavered from God.  Hence, it can be said that Our Lady’s actions were always perfect … that is, she was perfect in practice … or … practically perfect in every way.

Queenliness

Although there’s actually no sufficient evidence that Mary Poppins is an actual “Queen,” she does, I would say, have an air of royalty about her.  At the very least, she seems to possess higher power than any other creature and is subservient to no one (except one thing which I shall point out), and even Mr. Banks, who hired her, when he tries to order her around ends up effectively doing whatever she wishes.  She takes command of every situation, as one would expect a Queen would amongst her subjects.  This may strike some as “proud,” but I do not think she ever goes that far.  In fact, if one grants she may be of some royal background, she starts to appear quite humble.  She has come to serve rather than be served.  When she is assigned her room, she says, “Well, it’s not exactly Buckingham Palace” (as if that’s her usual surrounding) but says with a smile, “Still, it’s clean … yes, I think it will be quite quite suitable” just as Our Lady is content in dwelling in the pure of heart, regardless of its simplicity … even though she deserves more.

This view of Poppins as Queen (or at least, some kind of “leader”), helps dispel the quasi-popular notion that Poppins is “unloving.”  She says about herself, “I am kind, but extremely stern.”  This theme runs throughout the whole movie.  Mary indeed loves those to whom she is entrusted, but she is forever wary about defending them from emotional excesses that might arise from her showing too much explicit love.  The Church’s rules and regulations operate in a similar way, for as G.K. Chesterton says, “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground.”  The Church with all its rules can appear cold, but the result of following her rules is joy.  Our Lady, I think, should be viewed this way as well.  She is a General, who trains and leads her Legion of spiritual soldiers against the darkness.  Doing such things must involve tough love, and you will not always feel loved in this undertaking.  However, all things have been carefully designed for our betterment to the last detail.

Gracefulness

Related to Our Lady’s lack of moral evil is her fullness of grace.  In common speech, “grace” means “simple elegance or refinement of movement” or “courteous goodwill.”  In a similar way, “divine grace” makes our soul act in a way pleasing to God.    Poppins, being a most elegant and refined creature thus is a reflection of the divine perfection of Our Lady.  This even includes her applying makeup, which is something, if done in the right spirit, that simply is used to please others.  This connection between “divine grace” and “attractively polite manners of behaving” seems to echo Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s words when he said, “Politeness is charity, charity is love, and love is God.”

Some people would say, on the other hand, that Mary Poppins is guilty of vanity, which is excessive pride and admiration in one’s own appearance.  Is there proof that Poppins is guilty of this?  She indeed looks in a mirror a couple of times, which is ample evidence to condemn her in some people’s minds.  But I would argue that such offenses are not offenses in themselves.

If Our Lady is full of grace, higher than all the angels, and her soul magnifies the Lord, then it is reasonable to speculate that Our Lady could legitimately enjoy her own reflection … because she reflects God Himself.  She is, of course, a limited reflection of God.  That principle also applies to any reflection of her.  What I’m trying to get at is that any representation of God’s mother, such as in religious icons, never accurately captures the Mother of God with adequate reverence.  No painting, no matter how divine, does satisfaction to her ineffable glory.  I am reminded of this, curious enough, when Poppins’ reflection in the mirror takes on a life of its own and begins singing (first in harmony and then flamboyantly by itself) to which Poppins exclaims, “Cheeky!”  That is how I view most Catholic art about Mary.  All of it seems cheeky.  In fact, the character of Mary Poppins, despite how representative she may be of the Mother of God, is nonetheless, cheeky.  All things considered, though, she’s not that bad of a likeness.

But, when all is said and done, if you point out that Mary Poppins falls short of perfectly portraying the Mother of God, I will, unfortunately, agree with you.

(At the very least, the movie toned down Poppins’ apparent vanity from the books, so much so that the author complained.)

George Banks is a Materialist

Mr. Banks is a materialist insofar as he puts excessive emphasis on worldly goods and scorns things that reek of the supernatural.  He regards his job as a money-grubbing banker as the most important thing in his life.  He takes it as a model for everything, as when he says, “A British bank is run with precision.  A British home requires nothing less.”  He disapproves of the nature-defying tales told to him about Poppins, like having tea parties on the ceiling.  When things happen that transcend his simplistic views, he becomes bewildered and rancorous, thinking he is in control, but Poppins proves otherwise and shows that this “wise man” is actually quite a fool.  He wants things that are “fraught with purpose, yes, and practicality” but he isn’t clear what the ultimate purpose is for any action.  He wants to make money, but for what?  He preaches about the importance of having “heirs to his dominion,” but he neglects spending time with his family.  He demands following some hand-picked customs and rules but doesn’t care what they help preserve (except that they vaguely prevent “a ghastly mess”).  He regards himself with god-like importance but fails to show what actual good he has done in his superficial existence.  When he sits down at a piano, he wants it to be tuned, but he doesn’t even know how to play.   In short, he wants things he doesn’t need (or has no consistent reason for needing).  This is, you could say, the essence of materialism.  And some results are vain pride and a troubled family.

Winifred Banks is a Feminist (i.e. extreme, secular feminism)

The machismo bred by the materialist thinking of certain men eventually may attach itself to the female mind as well.  As men focus more on themselves (now that they no longer focus on God), their attention turns away from women too.  This can incline women to be more masculine, for they see men in love with themselves … and so by assuming more masculine qualities, a woman may hope to be what men seem to want.  There is, of course, the added motivation for a woman to do this in order to try and provide for herself things which men no longer give.  Consequently, women rightly resent this male self-preoccupation, but it paradoxically impels them to masculinize themselves a similar way.  This, of course, doesn’t work.  Men actually don’t like manly women, and thus it fails to have the intended effect.  Upon realizing this, such women are confused and live the muddled role of both genders, trying to remain feminine to be lovable, while trying to be masculine to be noticed (and to try to give themselves what men no longer provide).

Read the whole thing: https://vestalmorons.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/mary-poppins-and-the-blessed-virgin-mary/

Hat tip to Mark Shea at Catholic and Enjoying It.

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
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6 Responses to Blessed Mary and Mary Poppins

  1. I don’t recall any reigning monarch or Prime Minister of Spain or France or Germany or Italy who was from the distaff side.

    If you insist on those particular nations, there’s Merkel, currently in power in Germany; and Marie de Medici, who if she did not have the title certainly had the power. If you broaden to European Great Powers more generally, we find both Maria Theresa of Austria – when Austria was the major Balkan power and a significant factor in European politics – and Catherine the Great of Russia. Glancing north a bit, we find Gro Harlem Brundtland, thrice Prime Minister of Norway, and Margaret I of Denmark, who engineered the Kalmar Union.

  2. Fabio P.Barbieri says:

    In the eighteenth century, the two imperial titles of east and west (before there was an inflation of empires, beginning with Napoleon) were held by two formidable women, Katherine II and Maria Theresa. And while Maria Theresa was an exception, as her father had suspended the Salic Law on her behalf, the Salic Law, which excluded women from inheriting royal thrones, did not prevail everywhere. Two of the greatest sovereigns in medieval Castile, for instance, were women – Urraca and the great Isabel, patroness of Columbus and conqueror of Grenada. And while the Salic Law kept women out of the throne proper, it doesn’t mean they had no role in the politics of Salic-law countries. Quite to the contrary! The number of female regents, governors, army commanders, diplomats and otherwise powerful women in European history is enormous, and it is one of the areas in which Christianity has made a huge difference with the rest of the world. I have written an essay on the matter here: http://fpb.livejournal.com/368548.html (It’s also worth noting that the difference is not restricted to Western Christianity. There have been several reigning empresses in Byzantium and in Russia, and IIRC, one or two in Ethiopia. This is many more than you could find in non-Christian cultures.)

    • Malcolm Smith says:

      One of the reasons their absence in non-Christian cultures is that most of them were polygamous. There were usually enough sons to go around. Too many, in fact. There was a tendency for there to be a free-for-all as the sons fought it out for the sucession.
      On the other hand, there was a period is the Ottoman Empire known as the Reign of Women, in which real power belonged in the hands of mothers, some of whom actually advised their sons from behind a curtain behind a throne. Of course, although they were very capable, they were nevertheless cloistered, and could not obtain a full picture of what was happening on the outside. The Empire did not flourish.

      • Fabio P.Barbieri says:

        Please read my essay. I dealt with such things as “the reign of women”, which happened regularly in all sorts of cultures, and why they are different not only in degree but in kind with the institutional position of women in Christian, and especially Western, societies.

    • Gian says:

      Razia Sultana was a Turkish Queen of Delhi in 12th century. As expected, a lot of nobles were unhappy and she was ousted after just four years.

  3. dimwoo says:

    There’s an enoyable interpretation of The Sound of Music that runs along similar lines: “Hegel with songs – The Sound of Music is a seriously religious film, its plot a fairytale version of modern Christian history”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2005/sep/07/features.comment

    I was glad to hear that Songs of Praise is planning a special edition devoted to the 40th birthday of The Sound of Music, to be broadcast next month. Last Christmas BBC1 offered a Graham Norton camp-fest tribute to the musical, with Denise Van Outen covering My Favourite Things. Julie Andrews she ain’t. Songs of Praise is a far more fitting forum. For this is a seriously religious film. Let the camp tittering cease while its spiritual significance is finally acknowledged.

    The Sound of Music offers us our religious inheritance in a form we can all accept. Its plot is a fairytale version of modern Christian history.

    The Reformation began with someone leaving a monastery; so does this film. In both cases the motivation for leaving is a conviction that God’s grace cannot be confined to a religious institution, but must be expressed in the midst of the world. Because Maria leaves her convent on good terms with her mother superior, we are apt to miss the radicalism of her departure. She is a fantasy-faith version of Martin Luther. The entire plot is a fantasy rewriting of the Reformation, in which the Catholic church is glad to be supplemented by this alternative vision.

    She becomes the governess to an aristocrat’s children. This is a representative Protestant/secular identity: her role is now economic. And the nature of her work is characteristically modern: to educate and to discipline. Her employer, a widower, seeks order in rational certainty. He has introduced a cold, militaristic atmosphere into his bereaved home. He symbolises the Enlightenment.

    Maria subverts all aspects of her new role. In place of discipline and rationality she offers love and music, even if this means defying her employer, and so jeopardising her new economic identity. She therefore redefines her role, from employee to friend, mother figure and (dare we hope?) lover.

    The highlight of the film comes early: the graceful advent of healing song, in the midst of a storm. Maria is the healer, the dispeller of the dark shadows of grief. She is the vicar of Christ who says: “Fear not.” When the children confess their fear and rush to her bed, she teaches them a new habit of hope, in the form of a new song. More widely, she teaches them that music has the power to dispel demons. When assailed by terrors (“when the dog bites, when the bee stings”), one has to call to mind one’s favourite things, such as raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, and brown paper packages tied up with string. The element of chocolate-box kitsch should not distract us from the truly primitive drama of this song. It is exorcistic. Music has the power to expel evil forces.

    So she is teaching them not just a new song but a repeatable liturgical practice, as we shall see. She is teaching them religious hope, but by means of art, self-expression. This form of religion is unregulated by the ecclesiastical institution; it is a synthesis of Christianity and Romanticism.

    But Maria is not simply a Protestant-Romantic reformer; she remains in touch with her Catholic roots and in need of them. She cannot sustain her independence from the church. When her bosom flutters with love for her master she returns to the nunnery. She loses confidence in her new identity and returns to her Catholic identity of daughter of the church. Her progress is a retelling of Europe’s spiritual history in which Catholicism is not left behind but continues to be needed as “base”. In this version, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and Romanticism remain explicitly and consciously indebted to their ecclesiastical source.

    The children are miserable without her, especially as their father plans to marry the scarlet woman from the city, Maria’s antitype. One day, in the garden, the eldest girl suggests that they cheer themselves up by singing the song they learned on the night of the storm. As they sing, Maria suddenly returns, running through the garden, haloed by her hat, guitar case in one hand, suitcase in the other, joining in the chorus. This is a dramatisation of the sacramental force of song: it has the power to make present what it represents, to conjure up the inspiration and protection it seeks. The film is in effect over now, with the resurrection of the resurrected mother.

    In the final part of the film the new family defy the Nazis, singing their way to freedom. Some think this intrusion of 20th-century history rather over the top. But the Nazis are a crucial foil. The tension between the church and the world, between Catholic and Protestant, between religion and Romanticism, is now resolved, for all are united against this extreme evil. And of course by this time Maria’s own role has stabilised. Before she marries, her identity is split between her Catholic and Protestant selves: nun and single working woman. This painful split is resolved by the new role of “mother” and wife.

    The film performs what Europe has always been pining for: the integration of its conflicting religious impulses. It is the fantasy unity of Catholicism, Protestantism and Romanticism. It is Hegel with songs. And what songs!

    · Theo Hobson is the author of Anarchy, Church And Utopia: Rowan Williams on the Church

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