Thursday, January 05, 2012

What the Bee Knows

What the Bee Knows: Reflections on myth, symbol and story / P.L. Travers
London: Penguin, 1993, c1989.
303 p.

This is a collection of spiritual essays by P.L. Travers, an author I only knew previously as the writer of Mary Poppins. This book was mentioned in passing in another book I was reading recently about labyrinths, as there is a wonderful essay included here on Travers' experience walking the labyrinth at Chartres, years before it became regularly accessible. She writes about the attraction she felt for it and is able to express her physical and spiritual reactions very vibrantly. If I didn't already have Chartres on my travel wish list, it would be there after reading this :)

Most of these essays were first published in Parabola: the magazine of myth and tradition. I wasn't even aware of this magazine before, either, but am now quite fascinated! Most of the essays are about the deeper themes in life, and if you have an interest in myth, world culture and the psychospiritual side of life you may find this intriguing.

I thought this was a fabulous read. The back of the book describes it as "a honeycomb of essays pointing to the truth-of-things handed down in the great popular stories of cultures around the world". And that is what it felt like, a honeycomb of brief essays covering a range of esoteric, myth-based and biographical themes. She shares tales of her friendships with literary types like Yeats and A.E. Russell, of her studies among many religions of the world, of her early experience with fairy tale and folklore which shaped her character. At times the writing gets a little ponderous and very "high Tolkien-ish" in tone, but that's only in bits... overall, it is quite accessible and idea-laden. I found if I only read a few at a time it was much more digestible, giving me time to reflect on the themes of the essays.

It provided a variety of thought-provoking quotes that I copied out to ponder later on. One of the early essays, "The World of the Hero", was about The Hero's Journey, and as my husband was reading the seasonally appropriate Gawain and the Green Knight at New Year's, we had a lot to discuss on this theme. I was struck by this quote:

Could it be...that the hero is one who is willing to set out, take the first step, shoulder something? Perhaps the hero is one who puts his foot upon a path not knowing what he may expect from life but in some way feeling in his bones that life expects something of him.
The title essay was also fascinating, with many facts about bees in world mythology and about their importance to our ecosystems. Travers shares many of the traditions followed among beekeepers, including the practice of telling the bees all the important news. This passage struck me as applicable to any situation in which someone in authority must communicate fully to those they are responsible for. It reads:

But this apprising of the bees, telling them, for all one knows, what they already know, is not the business merely of great ones. The bees are constantly being told. No beekeeper would fail to do it. For if they are not courteously kept informed of everything that happens, they will take umbrage, swarm, and fly away, or die of grief or resentment.

This was a really lovely, serendipitous discovery which I enjoyed greatly. Travers is so much more than "the Mary Poppins lady", and reading this gives a glimpse into her far-reaching interests and experiences.

To learn more, read a fabulous post about this book, with excerpts, by blogger Art Durkee


  1. Definitely putting this on my wish list! That magazine sounds fascinating too.

  2. Eva - so glad you're interested! I am definitely going to be reading as much of Parabola online as I can.


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