Throwback Thursday

April 11, 2014

Recently I had a fit of nostalgia and went back, way back, to my childhood, all the way to Winnie The Pooh, who I guess technically predates my childhood. My parents named me after Christopher Robin, although my middle name is Allen, because I’m also named after my Uncle Jack. At the time my mother picked it "Christopher" wasn’t a very common name, but it would experience a resurgence, just as Winnie The Pooh experienced kind of a renaissance, both with the first Disney animated version, and books like like Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh, which was later followed by The Te of Piglet, the Socratic Tigger, and, of course, Also Sprach Winnie The Pooh, which opens with the bear emerging from hibernation to survey the Hundred Acre Wood from a high crag to announce that Christopher Robin is dead.

I thought of A.A. Milne’s stories as completely idyllic, childish stories-sort of like the Teletubbies, but without as much sex and violence, so it was kind of surprising to find that reading Winnie The Pooh as an adult is kind of like watching Bugs Bunny cartoons as an adult.

I know I’m not the first to pick up on this, but it’s still easy to forget just how subtly twisted the Winnie The Pooh stories are, mainly because of the overly sweet Disney adaptations that get "updated" every few years, stripping away more and more of what made the original stories interesting. The most recent Disney film, "Winnie The Pooh’s Neato Fun Spectacular Awesomeness Time" was supposed to be twenty minutes of a CGI Pooh jumping on a trampoline, but this was changed to him just jiggling in one place, out of fears that trampolines might promote gang activity.

And I have to admit that the name "Winnie The Pooh" kind of gets on my nerves. It did even when I was a kid. I don’t mind the "Winnie" part, even though I don’t know any guys named Winnie. Actually I don’t know any women named Winnie, either, although I’ve heard it’s short for Winifred. There is a Winifred in Disney’s adaptation of The Jungle Book-she’s Colonel Hathi’s wife-although she doesn’t appear in the original, since Kipling was another author Disney played fast and loose with, but that’s another story. And in a world where there are girls named Chris I have no problem with a guy named Winnie, but why is he a "Pooh"? He’s a bear, and originally he was called Edward Bear, but maybe he was given the new name to throw Edwardian-era parents off the scent. Winnie The Pooh has a deeply subversive streak. The "bear of very little brain" is really smarter than he seems, and kind of a badass.

In his first adventure he tries to get to a bees’ nest full of honey high up in a tree by getting Christopher Robin to blow up a balloon so he can float up. Having a friend who can exhale helium is pretty clever. And he also asks for a blue balloon, to blend in with the sky, and rolls in mud to disguise himself as a cloud. It’s a remarkable degree of planning, so it’s a buzzkill that the bees don’t go for it. And the one thing he didn’t plan was how to get down again. Maybe that wasn’t that smart of him, or maybe he just knows what the protagonists realize at the climax of the Harry Potter series: planning is overrated, because you can’t expect the unexpected. Preparedness is a virtue, but it’s eclipsed by adaptability. Fortunately Christopher Robin had the foresight to bring his gun, because it’s always a good idea to be armed when you’re going into woods where there are bears around. Aiming at the balloon he managed to hit it on his second try. Pooh reportedly later described the first shot as just a flesh wound.

What remains most relevant, though, is something I don’t think any critics have ever picked up on. Pooh’s circle of friends consists of a pig, an owl, a rabbit, and a depressed donkey decades before "diversity" and "multiculturalism" became buzzwords. In the first book they’re also joined by Kanga and her soon Roo. Even though Rabbit objects a little bit to this foreigner and her weird foreign ways (he doesn’t keep any of his family members in his pockets) his scheme to kidnap Roo has nothing to do with getting Kanga to leave and everything to do with getting to know her better. And think about it: she’s a single mom raising a child in a foreign country. The neighborhood becomes even more diverse in The House At Pooh Corner with the arrival of Tigger. The fact that all these different species get along and even live as complete equals is never really even treated as something unusual, except in an early draft of "In Which Tigger Is Unbounced" in which some unemployed vultures come through the neighborhood talking about sending Tigger "back where he came from".

Almost every critic starts by saying how A.A. Milne and his son longed for an earlier simpler time. But it’s hard to see what time exactly he was imagining. It seems more like Milne, who was so traumatized by the horrors of World War I he said writing about it in his autobiography made him physically sick, was hoping for a peaceful future where barriers of class and ethnicity no longer exist, where everyone lives alongside each other as equals and helps each other. He also knows such a future, if it’s even possible, is a long way off. At the end of The House At Pooh Corner Christopher Robin says goodbye to his friends. He and Pooh go off to an enchanted part of the forest, "the only place in the Forest where you could sit down carelessly, without getting up again almost at once and looking for somewhere else." They have a long final talk in an enchanted part of the forest about knights, kings, "factors", and other countries. For Christopher Robin growing up means an end to the egalitarian world like the one that Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger have created, although he’s not sure why, and he never fully leaves Pooh behind.

And the animals themselves seem to realize that in a peaceful world it’s easy to lose focus, so maybe that’s why, when they all meet to say goodbye to Christopher Robin it’s Eeyore who gets nudged forward as the leader of the group. Everyone thinks Eeyore as merely depressed, but his mood is defensive rather than congenital. Eeyore knows the power of negative thinking. He assumes the worst will happen so he’s never disappointed. In the depths of his depression he also takes pleasure in little things. In one story he’s lost his house so he’s out freezing in the snow, but, he says, "we haven’t had an earthquake lately". Maybe that’s why I always liked Eeyore best. Ever since I was very young I’ve tended to think of fictional characters as real. I imagine what their hidden backstories are, and what it would be like to hang out with them. Maybe this started with Eeyore, who I still think would be fun to hang out with. And I don’t think he was always the depressed donkey. He’s come to live in the Hundred Acre Wood because he’s fleeing demons he can never fully escape. When he’s introduced in the Pooh stories it’s because he’s lost his tail, but he loses it because it’s not attached securely. Somewhere, back when he lived somewhere else, maybe when he was hauling a wagon full of ale or working as a longshoreman, his tail was amputated and he had to have his ass pierced to have it reattached. There’s a story there, and plenty more where that came from. Loosen him up with a couple of beers and I bet Eeyore is a riot.

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