Pamela Travers

Gurdjieff International Review

Pamela Travers


It was fitting that Pamela Travers died on St. George’s Day, 23 April, and that her funeral took place on May Day, both dates significant examples of myth and meaning, the profound study of which had been her great love for many years.

She made a point of being extremely reticent about her personal life, so there remains much uncertainty as to where and when she first met Mr. Gurdjieff, although it is thought to have been in Paris during the 1930s.

She spoke more freely about her friendship with A. R. Orage which developed when he published one of her poems in the New Age. She would speak with immense gratitude about the way he encouraged her in her writing, and inspired her in her search, already alive and strong since childhood and nurtured in early adulthood by George Russell (A. E.) and W. B. Yeats among others. She would often say, “If you want to know more, read What the Bee Knows,”—the book she wished most to be her epitaph. It contains all her major contributions over 20 years to Parabola magazine, and includes her remarkable lecture to the American Library of Congress in 1967 entitled “Only Connect,” that phrase so loved by her, taken (or as she herself would say “stolen”) from E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

It was her special skill in connecting or linking the pearls of spiritual tradition which was undoubtedly her greatest and perhaps her unique contribution to the activities of the [Gurdjieff] Society. She helped to set up and index the Society’s library to include not only all Gurdjieff’s books and those of Ouspensky, Nicoll, Walker and others pertaining to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also a comprehensive collection of major texts and works on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and so on.

Later, she arranged fine visual exhibitions on Islam and Buddhism, and, when encouraged by Henri Tracol, she and Dorothy Maffett, activated by their own enthusiasm, gathered round them a number of study groups to share with them, each in their own inimitable fashion, their knowledge, understanding and love of all this material. Studies of the traditions continue in the Society to this day, thanks to the labours and inspiration of these two exceptional women, both of whom participated in these study groups until almost the very end of their long lives. In Pamela’s case a small group was meeting regularly to study Maurice Nicoll’s Living Time until a few weeks before she died.

While studying Sufism in the early 1970s, Pamela and her study group presented a dramatised reading of The Conference of the Birds, but only when she was satisfied that enough years had been given to a shared study of The Koran, the Hadith, the historical life of the Prophet, as well as the works of al-Ghazzali, Rumi, ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj, the question of al-Khidr (the Islamic green man) and dul-Quarnein (Alexander the Great). This latter study raised and left open the fascinating question of the divergence between the Koranic view of this invading emperor and that held by Mr. Gurdjieff.

Even during the time she was living in the United States, she initiated at that distance, a study of Hinduism, apportioning different aspects to different individuals. When, much against her wishes, her students divided the ten volumes of the Mahabharata among themselves and embarked on a five-year study, she bowed to their wishes and sent richly learned missives across the Atlantic, encouraging papers to be written.

She taught that to study is to question, and to go on questioning, for ever if necessary. “Why,” she once suddenly asked, “do you think King Solomon (or Siegfried for that matter) could understand the language of the beasts and the birds?” And would not stay for an answer.

She gave an ostrich egg to the Dean of the ecumenical Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the edge of Harlem in New York City. “Why?” he asked. “The ostrich is a forgetful mother,” she replied, trusting implicitly, one feels, that somewhere among the 6000-strong congregation someone—and it need be only one—would take up the question and perhaps discover that ostrich eggs are hung above the alter in the Greek Orthodox Easter service as a reminder of our responsibilities towards the possibility of inner re-birth.

She searched, and drew others into her search for the original source of Hans Christian Andersen’s Ugly Duckling which she had heard tell was ensconced somewhere in the many volumes of Rumi’s Mathnawi. Twenty years later she found it and shared her effervescent joy over a glass of Armagnac.

In the 1960s, she was instrumental, with others, in shaping the long day in the children’s area of the Guild at Bray. She produced a rocking chair and the complete works of Beatrix Potter, and would appear, suddenly, her old grey coat slung over her shoulders, with cherries sometimes dangling from her ears or bearing kites from a trip to Japan. She would sit with young mothers on the grass at the end of a summer’s day, keeping the children occupied with a hunt for as many different leaves and flowers as they could possibly find. Or one might come upon her in the rocking chair, receiving in a regal way imaginary gifts from a long line of children, or turning a pile of paper plates into erratic Frisbees. Original in her whimsies, theatrical, magical, inspirational, her particular resonance is already missed by many of those mothers who are now grandmothers, and those children who are now parents themselves.

She had the habit of stuffing endless old envelopes and scraps of paper into any book she was reading. Not long after she died, one of those scraps fell into my hands. In faint pencil she had written: “How to serve the work?” A questioner always. A questioner to the end … or to her new beginning?

Copyright © 1996 The Gurdjieff Society (London)
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2000 Issue, Vol. III (2)
Revision: April 1, 2000

Notable New Release

A Lively Oracle: a Centennial Celebration of P. L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. Ellen Dooling Draper and Jenny Koralek, editors. New York: Larson Publications, 1999, 224p., index. Sixteen eloquent, informed and deeply appreciative tributes, not only about Travers’ beloved Mary Poppins novels but also for her enduring contributions as a storyteller and myth-spinner. Includes three major articles by Travers. Her article, “The Fairy Tale as Teacher” evokes the awakening effect of fairy tales and examines Beelzebub’s Tales as an exceptional example of their power. “Here is a fairy tale for our time, a piece of objective writing that we cannot read without in some sense experiencing it.”