James Brown looks back at A A Milne’s classic books for children.
The World of Pooh is my all-time favourite formative book. This is a collection containing A A Milne’s two Pooh books – Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – though it’s also two books in another sense. There are the perfectly paced stories about a bear’s adventures with his odd animal friends and a pre-school boy that you read as a child. You like the settings, the characters, the humour and, especially, the plot lines. Then there are the stories you read as an adult, this time seeing their craft for the genius it is.
Most much-loved books create vivid worlds in their readers’ minds, places they can inhabit instinctively and unconsciously, and my childhood imagination was completely at home in the landscape, diction and sensibility of English children’s literature. At university, I was taught how English settlers attempted to re-create the Mother Country in New Zealand, often transposing it incongruously onto a physical and social landscape that was dramatically not England. That may be true once you get into the back country, but where I grew up there were more alignments than disjunctions. Our back garden had large English deciduous trees and a vegetable garden worthy of Mr McGregor, while the perennials of English children’s literature – grass, gorse and pines – were everywhere.
It would be pushing it to say the same of Milne’s language – polite, gentle and humorous in that oh-so-English of ways – though my parents were English immigrants, so Kiwi vernacular was always used self-consciously in our house. I encountered it mostly through Murray Ball and John Clarke. I knew Kiwis like theirs probably did exist, but I didn’t interact with many.
But why, out of all the classic English children’s books I was reading, did The World of Pooh outlast childhood? The stories, each with its own wonderful, self-contained drama, fit into an overarching narrative that becomes gradually more knowing – more adult – and it takes an adult reader to fully appreciate the transition. Also, maybe only experience shows you just how good Milne’s writing is. His narratives are masterclasses in short-story writing: I can now enjoy them simply for their structure; it doesn’t matter that I know what’s going to happen next. The unfolding dramas are full of “what-have-we-here?” moments, but everything always comes together in a satisfying conclusion. Just the way Milne handles the third person, deftly managing the transitions between overviews and the perspectives of different characters, is an essay in itself.
There are a lot of possible perspectives to juggle. Perhaps the characters in The World of Pooh endure because, especially to adult readers, they seem so archetypal. How many Eeyores, Tiggers and Rabbits do you know?
One of the great pleasures in the Pooh stories is watching the characters reveal themselves through Milne’s dialogue. Milne does a nice line in pastoral description, but dialogue is where he really shines. The conversation between Piglet and the Heffalump (presented, initially, as a script) must be applauded, but another personal favourite comes from “Rabbit has a Busy Day”. It takes place between Rabbit and Owl, the two animals with “brain”, as they puzzle over a notice Rabbit has found on Christopher Robin’s door:
The resulting dialogue is such a stellar example of double-speak, it’s possibly over the heads of younger readers, who might fail to realise that Owl can’t read the notice and is simply trying to maintain his image as “wise”: “ ‘Amazing,’ said Owl, looking at the notice again, and getting, just for a moment, a curious sort of feeling that something had happened to Christopher Robin’s back.” Finally, he sees a way out:
“Tell me, Rabbit,” he said, “the exact words of the first notice. This is very important. Everything depends on this. The exact words of the first notice.”
“It was just the same as this one really.”
Owl looked at him and wondered whether to push him off the tree; but, feeling he could always do it afterwards, he tried once more to find out what they were talking about.
I love Owl’s exasperation. Such a violent thought could seem inappropriately adult, except that falling from heights occurs regularly in The World of Pooh to no ill effect. Physical danger, from ambush to gorse bush, is gauged with a child’s eye and logic throughout.
The conversation is doubly funny because of the way it mirrors the adult world. How many times do we hear people bluffing to hide inadequacies or make themselves seem grander than they really are? Learning to recognise how language can be manipulated is one of life’s never-ending lessons, and it begins in the playground.
Perhaps the most directly adult themes occur in “In Which Kanga and Baby Roo come to the Forest” and “In Which Tigger is Unbounced”. I don’t know what the British attitude to immigrants was in the 1920s, when the books were published, but Milne shows little tolerance for intolerance. Despite Rabbit’s justifications, even younger readers will know that both stories reach the right conclusions.
Pooh’s verse, which manages to be both a celebration and send-up of poetry, is another reason I still love the Pooh stories. Pooh is an occasional poet, verse comes to him as he goes about his business:
Here is a myst’ry
About a little fir-tree.
Owl says it’s his tree,
And Kanga says it’s her tree.
“Which doesn’t make sense,” said Pooh, “because Kanga doesn’t live in a tree.”
The sound versus sense dilemma pops up a few times, with Pooh usually opting for what sounds best. The sounds he goes for are, of course, heavily dictated by regular rhyme and rhythm. This is the 1920s, and free-verse is still “modern Behind-the-ears nonsense”. We see Eeyore (a traditionalist) grappling with its threat in his poem “POEM” farewelling Christopher Robin. Milne cleverly takes the role of local bard away from Pooh at this crucial juncture. The occasion is simply too big for the necessarily inadequate poem, and a piece of well-intentioned but comic Pooh verse could belittle Pooh, so up steps Eeyore, his effort showing that good poetry requires more than just sincerity.
Do we care?
(To rhyme with “where”)
(I haven’t got a rhyme for that
“is” in the second line yet.
(Now I haven’t got a rhyme for
The poem’s stumbling attempts to achieve regular rhyme are hilariously dreadful, but its self-referentiality is ahead of its time.
Pooh’s bardic moment is his poem commemorating Piglet’s bravery. While Piglet glows with pride, knowing readers will smile as Milne pokes fun at grandiloquence with such delightful phrases as “Sing ho! for Piglet, ho!”
It’s a great poem, but Pooh’s best work is his casual verse. “Tiddly Pom”, with its simple innocence and catchy refrain, is probably the people’s choice, but take, for example, this untitled hum that comes to Pooh while Rabbit plots the unbouncing of Tigger.
If Tigger was smaller,
Then Tigger’s bad habit
Of bouncing at Rabbit
Pooh dismisses it as “No good”, yet it neatly encapsulates the story’s essence, revealing Rabbit’s insecurity and need to dominate in a bouncy rhyme and rhythm that does Tigger proud.
Pooh’s verse shows Milne as a shrewd judge of poetic effect, but it is the stories’ developing narrative charting the joy and, finally, loss of early childhood that are the book’s central pleasure. By the time we reach the last chapter, Christopher Robin is about to go to school, an event which marks his first major separation from childhood. He knows it, is being pulled by its inevitability, but can’t quite articulate his feelings, and Pooh, faithful and uncomplicated, doesn’t really understand what’s happening. The final paragraph and preceding dialogue are up there with such other great literary conclusions as the last paragraph of James Joyce’s “The Dead”, the last page of Pobby and Dingan (Ben Rice), and the last few pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez) – to offer a few yardsticks. Try reading the story aloud to some kids, and you’ll be startled by how grown-up the book suddenly becomes, how child-like your emotions. The kids will enjoy it, especially after the other stories, but it’ll mean more to you because adulthood’s terrible consolation is that you can only fully appreciate the enchanted place at the top of the forest once you have left it.