Saturday, March 2, 2013

Neleus will get you thinking...

Neleus has troubled me for years. When my wife and I saw the West-End production of Mary Poppins in 2004, I thought I was hearing in the theatre that the statue in the park was one of Peleus. I puzzled on that through the entire play... It made no sense. When I learned that it was NELEUS, I was really stumped. Who's ever built that myth into another narrative? What good does it do a narrative? What kind of mythological shorthand comes of it?

I had to go digging for answers. I didn't find much!

Now that Mary Poppins is touring several North American venues this Spring, I'll put out some feelers and see whether anybody in my massive readership has better answers than I have!

Mythologically, Neleus is hardly a central figure. Twin of Pelias, sons of Poseidon and Tyro whom the god seduced in the likeness of a the river-god Enipeus, Neleus is exposed with his brother as infants but saved by a kindly mare (sent by Poseidon) who suckles them. Pelias becomes father of Alcestis and figures significantly in the Argo story, and Neleus founds Pylos and fathers Nestor and Periclymenos. At sandy Pylos, Neleus refuses to purify Heracles and later suffers the hero's spiteful retaliation. (See Apollodorus Libr., 1.9.8 and 2.6.2-3.)

P.L. Travers, illustrations by Mary Shepard and Agnes
Sims, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (Harcourt:
San Diego, 1997; reprint of 1943 original), 101.
P.L. Travers chose to embed the Neleus story into the story Mary Poppins: Opens the Door (1943). It's easiest to crib the plot summary from the TP-verso: "Mary Poppins returns to the Banks family in a rocket and involves the Banks children in more magical adventures, including those with Peppermint Horses, the Marble Boy, and the Cat That Looked at the King." OK. Chapter Four, "The Marble Boy," involves the Banks children in a relationship with the animated statue of Neleus they meet in the park one fine day.

In real life, near Hyde Park Corner, in the area known as the Rose Garden, stands a marble sculpture with functionally precise likeness to that depicted in the Shepard/Sims illustration. The Hyde Park marble boy, though, is not named. It would seem not totally far-fetched to suppose that Travers knew the anonymous sculpture in the Rose Garden but herself asserted a telling name and crafted a mythological reference around it.

The sculpture from Mary Poppins' "The Marble Boy" and its animation figure prominently in the West End-to-Broadway musical Mary Poppins (2004: R and R Shermans' 1964 Disney music and lyrics augmented by G. Stiles and A. Drewe; book by Julian Fellowes [Mr. Downton Abbey... for you youngsters].)

So, what about that sculpture in Travers' park? The boy on the pedastal is clearly connectable to Poseidon, since he stands there beside the dolphin and the crashing wave. In the narrative of the book, no particular allusion to the Poseidon/Neleus myth seems forthcoming. In the play, as I remember it now 9 years back, there was the spectre of fleeting youth. Sort of the way Sherman/Sherman make George Banks learn to fly kites, the Stiles/Drewe/Fellowes script seems to feel Mr. Banks' need to get out of the bank and into his children's life. Neleus may remind us of that: an abandoned boy whose divine father still finds a way to succor him by way of a kindly mare.

One of my students in 2008 proposed that Neleus in the musical becomes a "thinking tool for the importance of charity." (Liz Sands) I wonder whether perhaps Neleus is an artifact of abiding youth: loquacious Nestorian old-age (like what confines Mr. Banks in a premature senility) was preceded once and evermore by a youthful sprite. Insofar as the marble boy can coax that playfulness out of the Banks children — and maybe get their dad to join in — there may yet be hope for both father and son.

If you see the play this Spring and have thoughts about Travers Marble Boy, let me know.

—   This content is taken almost entirely from my slide, which has links to the chapter in Travers' book and to several other key details. Go have a look: OGCMA0000NOTNeleus_Travers
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  1. Yes, Neleus got me thinking. After having watched the play last night, I felt compelled to do a little research into the matter. Adding to what already appears on your website,I would only suggest contemplation over the fact that P.L. Travers just a few years before publishing that story had promised to adopt twin boys, but then changed her mind and took only one of them. It can't be coincidence that she then includes Neleus without reference to Peleus. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. My goodness. I am sorry to have overlooked this comment for several weeks! I see it now only in the fourth week of May.
    When you mention "reference to Peleus", I think you mean to write PELIAS, the mythological brother of Neleus. Of the twin sons of Tyro, Pelias seems the elder (as Apollodorus names him before Neleus, 1.9.8). Pelias ("livid") was named for a bruise he sustained from a horse-kick as an infant. Neleus becomes more famous because he fathers Nestor and founds Pylos. Pelias' ignominious killing of their stepmother, Sidero, at the altar of Hera seems enough to reduce the glory of his offspring; however, Pelias' daughter Alcestis goes into mythological history as one of the most heroic wives of all time.
    Sorry for that detail. It's a pitiful way of responding to your very helpful insight about Travers' life story.
    I think it remarkable that she had found herself involved with the adoption of twins but had to choose between them. I am intrigued by your observation and agree that it can hardly be "coincidence" that she is still thinking of twins in 1943.
    Do you have a date for the adoption?