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(Pronunciation of the name sometimes puzzles readers: it is “Miln”.)
A. A. Milne is remembered today for one and only one work, Winnie the Pooh (OK, technically two works: Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, though they essentially constitute one work in two volumes). For that to be so, that work must be rather remarkable—and it is.
(Mind, it’s not as if Milne never wrote anything else. He published numerous plays, the crime novel The Red House Mystery, well received, and a collection of poems for children, When We Were Very Young, also well received, plus various other works. But absent the Pooh work, it is doubtful that many would know his name today.)
The Pooh saga can be described with two words: whimsey and charm (which sounds like a Victorian law firm). A great many excellent books for adults that are typically described as “children’s books” also rely on those characteristics. It should be noted that neither charm nor whimsey are qualities that the nominal readership (or, for the very young, audience) are equipped to appreciate; to children of the supposed target ages, such works are amusing stories—which is well and good, but that’s all they can be for the young. Charm and whimsey are adult appreciations.
Those qualities are by no means easy to achieve: they require of the author skill, finesse, and a certain inherent warmth. The author who seeks such qualities in his or her works walks a very, very narrow bridge with no guard rails, with the chasm of sheer sillines lying on one side and that of cloying preciousness on the other. Milne is one of those who has walked that bridge with nary a stumble.
The Pooh books, which comprise a series of free-standing vignettes, are to be understood as tales related by a father to his young son Christopher Robin (the name of Milne’s actual son) involving Christopher Robin himself and his several beloved stuffed-animal toys—see the image at the left—of which Pooh (emphatically described by Christopher Robin as “Winne-ther-Pooh”, [but called by the narrator simply “Winnie-the-Pooh”], but also known at times as Mr Edward Bear). Christopher Robin apparently accepts these are true tellings of adventures that he doesn’t quite exactly remember having had, but which he accepts as true. (Or so we are to suppose.)
There is now little more to be said; rather, we need now to see a couple of extended samples of Pooh and his world. Here is the first (as always, more or less randomly selected from the works):
He crawled out of the gorse-bush, brushed the prickles from his nose, and began to think again. And the first person he thought of was Christopher Robin.
(“Was that me?” said Christopher Robin in an awed voice, hardly daring to believe it.
“That was you.”
Christopher Robin said nothing, but his eyes got larger and larger, and his face got pinker and pinker.)
So Winnie-the-Pooh went round to his friend Christopher Robin, who lived behind a green door in another part of the forest.
“Good morning, Christopher Robin,” he said.
“Good morning, Winnie-ther-Pooh,” said you.
“I wonder if you’ve got such a thing as a balloon about you?“
“Yes, I just said to myself coming along: ‘I wonder if Christopher Robin has such a thing as a balloon about him?’ I just said to myself, thinking of balloons, and wondering.”
“What do you want a balloon for?” you said.
Winnie-the-Pooh looked round to see that nobody was listening, put his paw to his mouth, and said in a deep whisper: “Honey!”
“But you don’t get honey from balloons!”
“I do,” said Pooh.
Well, it just happened you had been to a party the day before at the house of your friend Piglet, and you had balloons at the party. You had had a big green balloon; and one of Rabbit’s relations had had a big blue one, and had left it behind, being really too young to go to a party at all; and so you had brought the green one and the blue one home with you.
“Which would you like?” you asked Pooh.
He put his head between his paws and thought very carefully.
“It’s like this,” he said. “When you go after honey with a balloon, the great thing is not to let the bees know you’re coming. Now, if you have a green balloon, they might think you were only part of the tree, and not notice you, and if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only part of the sky, and not notice you, and the question is: Which is most likely?”
“Wouldn’t they notice you underneath the balloon?” you asked.
“They might or they might not,” said Winnie-the-Pooh. “You never can tell with bees.” He thought for a moment and said: “I shall try to look like a small black cloud. That will deceive them.”
“Then you had better have the blue balloon,” you said; and so it was decided.
And there you are: Messrs. Whimsey and Charm, all present and accounted for. We can round off with another such sample:
Christopher Robin was sitting outside his door, putting on his Big Boots. As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was going to happen, and he brushed the honey off his nose with the back of his paw, and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.
“Good-morning, Christopher Robin,” he called out.
“Hallo, Pooh Bear. I can’t get this boot on.”
“That’s bad,” said Pooh.
“Do you think you could very kindly lean against me, ’cos I keep pulling so hard that I fall over backwards.”
Pooh sat down, dug his feet into the ground, and pushed hard against Christopher Robin’s back, and Christopher Robin pushed hard against his, and pulled and pulled at his boot until he had got it on.
“And that’s that,” said Pooh. “What do we do next?”
We are all going on an Expedition,” said Christopher Robin, as he got up and brushed himself. “Thank you, Pooh.”
“Going on an Expotition?” said Pooh eagerly. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on one of those. Where are we going to on this Expotition?”
“Expedition, silly old Bear. It’s got an ‘x’ in it.”
“Oh! said Pooh. “I know.” But he didn’t really.
“We’re going to discover the North Pole.”
“Oh!” said Pooh again. “What is the North Pole?” he asked.
“It’s just a thing you discover,” said Christopher Robin carelessly, not being quite sure himself.
“Oh! I see,” said Pooh. “Are bears any good at discovering it?”
“Of course they are. And Rabbit and Kanga and all of you. It’s an Expedition. That’s what an Expedition means. A long line of everybody. You’d better tell the others to get ready, while I see if my gun’s all right. And we must all bring Provisions.”
“Things to eat.”
“Oh!” said Pooh happily. I thought you said Provisions. I’ll go and tell them.” And he stumped off.
The World of Pooh: enter it and enjoy.
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While there is a slew of Milne material on the web, the problem is to extract meaningful appreciation and critical analysis from the morass of treacly tributes to Pooh by folk who appear never to have themselves grown past Christopher Robin’s mental age (and if I see one more copy of that stiff posed old photo, I will gag). That said, there are some good resources.
Probably the foremost resource is the dedicated Milne site The Page at Pooh Corner (that site is now defunct: the link is to an archived copy). Another excellent resource is the Milne page at the always delightful Author’s Calendar site. The Milne page at LitWeb [archived copy] is notable for links to Milne works other than Pooh. And there is a most charming, and ultimately significant, appreciation of the Pooh works, Lessons from a Bear of Very Little Brain, by Sam Torode, at the Boundless webzine.
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For these, one can do no better than to refer to the Page at Pooh Corner Bookstore list [archived copy] of Milne biographies and criticism. (The completist might also want to review that site’s “Other Pooh-related Books” list [archived copy].)
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