A literary rationale for appreciating the Winnie-the-Pooh books

Continuing my reflection on the Pooh books, I took a look through my collection of books on children’s lit. Most of them were acquired second-hand, so they tend to be a bit out of date (or, at least, older editions of titles). But they are definitely useful for my own private research … and for the picture that they give of certain classics at various points in time.

So are Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner among the really special classics? May Hill Arbuthnot, in Children and Books, called them “different from anything that has preceded them” (page 358). That’s a big claim … but I think it might be true on some levels.

The books do still seem to be read. (By the way, they were very popular when they came out—according to Lewis M. Terman and Margaret Lima, they “required thirty-four printings in the first month they appeared” [page 137]. I’m not sure whether this refers to the U.S. debut, or if this means that both books came out at around the same time in the U.S. or not.) What is it then makes them popular? Pooh and his friends don’t ever leave the Hundred Acre Wood. There isn’t a huge variety in scenery. Neither is there a highly obvious dramatic impetus such as somebody’s death looming over the chapters, as in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. Although this is mostly due to a difference in format, it is of some note that the climax to a particular chapter often involves rather ordinary-sounding things … like “Extract of Malt” (Milne, page 200). (Then again, I’ve never had any. Does it have something to do with malt balls? Or malted milk? Or am I just saying that because I’m an American with a sweet tooth?)

It seems to me like it is primarily the characters that make the unique humor, the more understated theme and dramatic buildup, and humble yet colorful world stand out the way it does. Milne and perhaps a few others deserve a lot of credit for the way their unique personalities come across. (According to critic and writer John Rowe Townsend, who wrote the entry on Milne in In Twentieth Century Children’s Writers, Milne’s wife gave the characters “individual voices” (page 548) early on—In 1913, Milne had married Dorothy de Selincourt (547). Townsend also believes that Ernest Shepard’s illustrations play a very large part in establishing the characters (548).)

In terms of the writing in the books, there are perhaps a few rough spots, technically; Edward Bear, Winnie-the-Pooh’s formal name, is introduced in the second-chapter, and that chapter keeps alternating between using “Bear” and “Pooh.” I’m not exactly sure why … though it’s not a huge problem. Part of the charm of the books is that they sometimes imitate a spontaneous sort of storytelling. It’s a bit different from the style used by, say, E. B. White in Charlotte’s Web. I find the technical aspects in other spots very good, especially when it relates to the timing of the humor, and those more elusive, reflective moments. Generally, all that stuff has to do with the characters. (A side note: is Pooh the only character to have a traditional name from his home country and to be named after both a real-life swan and a real-life bear?)

There’s perhaps another question, though. Some of the characters are really simple … maybe even a little too simple sometimes. Townsend, who in the above mentioned entry on Milne, says they “are drawn with two or three simple strokes” (page 548). I think this could be applied to Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, and Roo. However, I think Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and Christopher Robin could be seen as a bit more complex than Townsend’s statement might imply, due largely to their early introduction and, in some cases, the number of roles they end up playing throughout the various stories and chapters.

I would like to go a bit deeper and discuss individual characters in subsequent posts. One last thing I want to go into a bit more here is the setting. Although they never leave the Hundred-Acre-Wood, I think that the changing seasons and the various little locales that are described …like the gravel pit and the bridge over the stream with its lower and upper rails … make up for that. Also, because of the characters, the Hundred-Acre-Wood comes across as a very warm and comforting place. Unlike the world in, say, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, it’s not mired in issues of class. No racism either. It’s really about a community, that, during some triumphant moments, can manage to come together, like a family. An example would be the Blustery Day episodes, which certainly offer more evidence of togetherness than the catastrophe at the end of the first book. I don’t mean to downplay the character’s very real vices. But Milne does offer hope, despite the gloom and gluttony from various quarters.

Hope to post sooner next time, about the fascinating complexity of Edward Bear himself.

Please let me know what you think!

References

Arbuthnot, May Hill. Children and Books. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1964. Print. Page 358.

Milne, A. A. The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1994. Print.

Terman, Lewis M., PH.D., and Margaret Lima, M.A. Children’s Reading: A Guide for Parents and Teachers. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1931. Print. Page 137.

Townsend, John Rowe. Twentieth Century Children’s Writers. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 1983. Print. Pages 546-48.

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