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Winnie-the-Pooh | Context


Portrayals of Childhood

A.A. Milne fondly recalled his childhood immersion in games and adventures. An avid reader, he loved the animal stories in Reynard the Fox and Aunt Judy's magazine. As an adult, Milne was especially fond of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows. In fact, he befriended Barrie, joining his rugby team, and adapted Grahame's work for the stage. However, while Barrie and Grahame were writing fantasy to reimagine unhappy childhoods, Milne was reinventing a happy childhood. His autobiography tells of adventures with his brother Ken before breakfast, of their father's encouragement and good humor, and of teachers stoking his curiosity. His characters spend hours exploring, lured home at day's end by its comforts, with no fear of punishment, as often is the case in children's books at the time. In Winnie-the-Pooh curiosity is celebrated; however, from Lewis Carroll to Beatrix Potter to Barrie and Grahame, curiosity often has frightening or malevolent consequences.

Furthermore, while Barrie and Grahame have clear antagonists in their work, Milne does not. Milne's stories are deliberate retellings of bedtime stories; they feature no cliffhangers, angry pirates, armed police, or evil creatures. The gruffest of Milne's characters is melancholy rather than mean. There is no cruelty, celebration of victory, or renewal after defeat in Winnie-the-Pooh; rather there are pots of honey and soft beds.

Milne does have one thing in common with his near contemporaries, Grahame and Barrie, the near-absence of girls and women from his work. Kanga, the one female character in Winnie-the-Pooh, is defined solely by being motherly and efficient. Milne says of his own mother that she did everything better than everyone else and was a good mother. He reserves his real affection, though, for his father. Within the fantasy worlds of Graham and Barrie, in which Milne was immersed, the omission of women or girls as other than "mother" or nurturer would not seem odd or out of place. Wendy, in Barrie's Peter Pan propels the action forward but isn't much of an actor herself. And Tinker-Bell, while important, is small and easy even for Peter to ignore. The sole girl in The Wind in the Willows is human, unlike the animals and thus an outsider. Girls as children, rather than adult surrogates, are nowhere in the books Milne admired or the stories he tells. Childhood in this context, then, is really boyhood.

Becoming a writer during the Edwardian era when upper-class children were romanticized, even deified, Milne does not show the same reverence for childhood his contemporaries do. His tone is gentle but often self-mocking. Christopher Robin, the character, is neither perfect nor precious. He is a little boy, learning to read, who has grand adventures with his toys. It is important that Milne's characters are seen as toys, not talking animals. This difference sets him apart from other writers of fantasy in that talking toys are not particularly fantastic; rather they are the outgrowths of a child's natural narrative play. While neither Christopher Robin nor his toys are fetishized, he does lead an ideal life. He plays in the woods, exploring nature and going on adventures. Precisely for this reason, Milne does not set the stories in a fantasy world. The natural world Christopher Robin, the boy, explored during his play is the same world Christopher Robin, the character, explores in his.

Ashdown Forest

The Hundred Acre Wood is modeled after Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England, about a mile from the Milnes' country house, Cotchford Farm, which they bought in 1925. The features of the Hundred Acre Wood—minus the doors in the trees, the ubiquitous signage, and the anthropomorphic animals—are very much like the 500 Acre Woods that make up Ashdown Forest. Ashdown Forest includes Roo's sandy pits for jumping, sturdy pine trees, and great oaks.

Artist E.H. Shepard visited the Milnes at their country house and sketched the natural environment. With the exception of Winnie-the-Pooh, whose image is based on Shepard's own son's stuffed bear, both the natural setting and the toys would be recognizable to anyone visiting the Milne home at the time.

Aftermath of World War I in England

H.G. Wells—who had been one of A.A. Milne's favorite teachers at Henley House before his own writing brought him fame—wrote that World War I would be "the war to end all wars." Both Milne and E.H. Shepard served in the British army at the front and at home. Milne was a propagandist for much of the war; Shepard illustrated publications by and for soldiers. Shepard's brother was killed days after his arrival at the French front. Milne saw friends and comrades-in-arms dead and wounded and became quite ill himself. Britain lost over 700,000 soldiers. Among officers like Shepard and Milne, the mortality rate was particularly high, at 17 percent. Both men suffered from immeasurable loss. Winnie-the-Pooh, written in the shadow of the war, was described by Milne as a "trifle," but in fact, it has a sense of both wonder and melancholy that seem a direct response to the age in which it was written.

Broken and bereft by the war, England was looking to rebuild itself. While Milne doesn't romanticize childhood, he portrays it as a time filled with hope and comfort. Pooh, described as a "bear of very little brain," is cautiously optimistic. He is helpful and kind but rather muddleheaded and simple. Like Britain, he finds satisfaction in routine. In the years between the war and the Great Depression, England needed to breathe, to find comfort in old routines—in short, to heal. For people with young children, Winnie-the-Pooh was a bright spot after a long period of great anxiety. Winnie-the-Pooh is able to hum, sing, eat honey, and play, yet he can fall from a great height into a prickly bush and remain unhurt. He can be bumped up and down the stairs with little injury, just as a faint tickling in his brain tells him there might be another way to get downstairs. Pooh hasn't made a Faustian bargain to stay young; he remains as he is because he is a stuffed teddy bear. Christopher Robin can solve any problem arising in the Wood, and his presence brings assurance to the Wood's inhabitants.

Finally, no commerce exists in the Hundred Acre Wood; Pooh finds honey, but more often than not, he has it on his shelves when he needs it. Piglet eats acorns, and Eeyore eats thistle. No one is seriously hungry, poor, or wounded in the Hundred Acre Wood. It is a place of respite and of plenty.

Unconventional Storytelling

Winnie-the-Pooh is not meant exclusively for children; to understand many of Milne's subtle jokes and wordplay, a reader must actually see the written word and be aware of the conventions of grammar and capitalization.

While the individual stories follow a fairly traditional pattern, they are sometimes interrupted with commentary by the author. In directly addressing both audience and characters, Milne breaks down what would be described as the fourth wall in the theater, the imaginary divide between actors and audience; he muddles the lines between narrator and author, between readers and characters, and among characters themselves. His asides and wordplay provide much of the humor for adults reading the book aloud. Winnie-the-Pooh might be considered postmodern, embracing the idea that truth is relative and that there are multiple ways to tell a story.

The stories are often punctuated by Pooh's songs, amusing poems that play with meter and spelling. For example, one song rhymes "discover the Pole" with "I've been tole [told]," while another follows "At a quarter to two" with "(Only it was quarter to eleven really)." Pooh also composes "hums" such as one with the lyrics "Tra-la-la, tra-la-la" and "Rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum." The songs and hums add to the book's popularity as a read-aloud.

Ernest Shepard, the "decorator" of Winnie-the-Pooh, as well as Milne's other works for children, created instantly recognizable images of characters. Their personalities are drawn into their faces and bodies and add layers of depth and humor to the stories. Shepard modeled Pooh on his son's teddy bear, but the rest of the drawings, with the exception of Owl, were based on his observations of Christopher Robin and his toys at home and at play in the woods.

Critical Reception

At its publication in October 1926, Winnie-the-Pooh was wildly popular both in Britain and in the United States; critics were positive and the public receptive. The book has been translated into more than 50 languages, including Latin and Yiddish. Its Latin translation, Winnie Ille Pu, was the first Latin book to appear on the New York Times bestseller list. The work remains popular today.

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