Bear Up! | Daily News

Bear Up!

 A. Milne with Pooh and Christopher Robin
A. Milne with Pooh and Christopher Robin

If Winnie-the-Pooh had been around when I was growing up, our paths never crossed. Perhaps because when I was a kid I lived in a seaside suburb of Galle, far from the Hundred-Acre-Wood, where only news of Suttara Puncha’s pranks reached me.

About a decade ago, it was my youngest niece who introduced me to the Bear of Very Little Brain. When she was two years old, she named all of us at home after a character in the Pooh stories. Those of you who know us, would easily recognize who was called the Wise Old Owl, Rabbit, Roo, Kanga etc.

If you are trying to guess what I was called, guess no more. I was Tigger – the little guy with orange and black stripes, large eyes, a long chin, a springy tail, and a passion for bouncing. I’m sure you are smiling now and thinking the name suits me perfectly. I’m smiling too. I know, like Tigger, I never walk from one place to the other. I bounce.

Since then, I have been as much in love with Pooh and his friends, as any three-year-old. What fascinates me though is that the story of how they became our mentors, bestowing on us a vast number of enlightening comments (“The things that make me different are the things that make me.” “One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries,” etc) is as interesting as their fascinating interests and eccentric ways.

Here’s how the story behind the story goes. Long before Walt Disney turned Pooh and his pals into movie stars, Christopher Robin Milne, a very real little boy living in England, received a small stuffed bear on his first birthday. Following the bear, came the rest of the stuffed animals, Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, Roo and Kanga. Christopher loved them all and played with them throughout his childhood.

One day, Christopher’s father, A. A. Milne, and an artist named Ernest H. Shepard, decided that these animals, and two other imaginary friends, Owl and Rabbit, would make fine characters in a bedtime story. From that day on, Pooh and his friends have had many fanciful adventures, from Piglet’s encounter with a Heffalump to Eeyore’s loss of his tail. These stories have been embraced by millions of children and adult readers for almost a hundred years.

And yet, as critic Patrick Sauer points out, the sweet, oft-befuddled bear actually evolved out of Milne’s decidedly unquiet time on the Western Front during World War I. He was injured at the First Battle of Somme in 1916, and his time in the trenches left Milne with “shellshock” (what we now call PTSD). Following the war, he uprooted his family, moving from London to the quieter country retreat of Crotchford Farm. Milne and his only child, Christopher Robin, who went by the nickname “Billy Moon,” spent countless hours exploring the woodlands of the Ashdown Forest, often accompanied by his son’s stuffed animal collection.

Prior to World War I, Milne was a successful essayist, humorist, and editor at Punch, and following the war, he was a successful playwright, with works like ‘Mr. Pim Passes’ By(adapted as a silent picture in 1921.) It was the time spent with Billy Moon, and his wild imagination, though, that made Milne world-famous.

Fatherhood inspired Milne’s first foray into children’s literature through poetry. Published in Vanity Fair in 1923, the poem he wrote, called “Vespers” has a line “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.” He followed that up in Punch with the poem “Teddy Bear,” which mentions a “Mr. Edward Bear.” Edward would soon be re-named by Christopher Robin after a visit to the London Zoo, where lived a black bear rescued from Winnipeg, as Winnie. And in Milne’s popular 1924 poetry book When We Were Very Young, the author tells of his son explaining how he would feed a swan in the morning, but if the bird wouldn’t come, the boy would say “‘Pooh!’ to show how little you wanted him.’”

Thus on Christmas Eve, 1925, in the London Evening News, A. A. Milne’s short story “The Wrong Sort of Bees” gave readers the holiday gift of Winnie-the-Pooh, the newly renamed bear who is dragged down the stairs by Christopher Robin, bumping his head all the way. Christopher Robin asks his father to make up a tale about Pooh and the yarn he spins established the Pooh the world knows and loves today.

In this first story, the hungry hero comes up with a plan to steal honey from some tree-dwelling bees. He rolls around in mud to disguise himself as a raincloud, then floats up to the hive with a blue balloon, making up songs to pass the time. Pooh fails to acquire honey, but the silly slow-witted but oh-so-lovable character found a permanent home in many a heart since that snow-covered day in December 1925.

All of Milne’s children’s works, starting with “Vespers” were accompanied by Ernest H. Shepard’s elegant monochromatic pencil illustrations. The prose and drawings of the Hundred Acre Wood animals, and their young human friend, were a perfect match, capturing the wide-eyed innocence and thrills of childhood, but with an underlying bit of melancholy and sadness. The working relationship between combat veterans Milne and Shepard deepened over time, and they truly developed the Winnie-the-Pooh world together.

A world that proved hugely popular, with sales spanning all five continents and Milne’s biographer, Ann Thwaite, observing that the animals in the Hundred Acre Wood “have become part of the English language”.

Yet there are awkward footnotes to this tale of success. Winnie-the-Pooh crippled A.A. Milne’s career as a playwright and comic writer and Christopher Milne grew to dislike the stories that immortalised him. He once declared it seemed to him “almost that my father has got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with the empty fame of being his son”.

This may come as something unbelievable, but it’s true. Not everyone is a fan of the “silly old Bear.” Understandably, some readers might find honey and condensed milk to be sickly after a while.

But the truth is, to read the books and only see treacle is to miss the point. Certainly they are sweet, and yet, if you can read the final story without feeling sad then, you surely qualify to be a kinsman of the Heffalump. And let us also not forget not everything in Pooh is sweet; not piglet’s acorns for sure, nor a line like, “Owl looked at [Rabbit] and wondered whether to push him off the tree”. And when Pooh, trapped in Rabbit’s front door, requests to be read a “Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness”, you really feel his pain.

In my eyes, in his own way, Milne is as acute an observer of human behaviour as Dostoevsky. One story opens: “It was going to be one of Rabbit’s busy days. As soon as he woke up he felt important … It was a Captainish sort of day, when everybody said, ‘Yes, Rabbit’ and ‘No, Rabbit’, and waited until he had told them.” Don’t we all know, someone like Rabbit!

Milne also gives us a character as complex as Raskolnikov in Eeyore – And yet, negative Eeyore has optimistic moments too: “It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily. “So it is.” “And freezing.””Is it?” “Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.” And even Eeyore is happy - when he is reunited with his tail.

Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, and Christopher Robin are wonderful companions when life becomes as gloomy as Eeyore’s Gloomy Place. And it’s comforting to read in the final Pooh story, “in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing”.

That’s how it should always be. And, this is how our days should always be, too. “What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favourite day,” said Pooh.”


 

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