“So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” (The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, Methuen & Co Ltd, 1928)
Is there anyone who wouldn’t want to get lost in the Hundred Acre Wood for a few hours of play and whimsical chit-chat with Pooh bear and friends? Milne is the master of pure escapism, shaped within the realms of reality, with a dash of humour and old-fashioned sentiment thrown in. The Hundred Acre Wood, unlike the pure fantasy of Neverland and Wonderland gone before it, feels like a real place, where fantastical things just so happen to take place.
Christopher Robin has no superpower or special abilities; he is a typical six-year-old with a vivid imagination, and as such we believe completely in his adventures with his toys, Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo. Milne never takes his magical woodland friends too seriously, because a child would not, and why write for children if you can’t see things the way they do? You have fun with a teddy bear – get stuck in holes together, fall out of trees together, build houses out of sticks together, and hide from Heffalumps together.
This, of course, was Milne’s greatest skill – to situate his stories within a child’s perspective and use child-like language to build his adventures. No writer in his time, or since, has really come close to being as attuned to a child’s ability to blend a fantasy world with the real world.
Most children’s writers of the time used fantasy as a way of reflecting adult desires for a simpler time – a romanticised childhood view – but Milne preferred to stick with tales that make real-enough insignificant events seem hugely magical in the only way that a child can, and it is in this that he found humour, more so than any sadness for a lost time.
The first collection of Winnie the Pooh stories was published in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. Both books were instant best sellers and have not been out of print since. His use of very simple child-like language to tell his tales of Christopher Robin’s favourite toys, was something that had not been seen in children’s literature before, and had more similarities to the ‘nonsense’ poems of the Victorian period than any novel published at the time.
The House at Pooh Corner sees the full character ensemble completed, with the arrival of Tigger who spends much of the book asserting that he knows exactly what Tiggers do and like best, whilst relying entirely on the other inhabitants of the wood to unwittingly reveal to him what he actually does do best. One of the most amusing tales is of Tigger trying to tell his friends what breakfast he likes most, only to find that he must go door-to-door eating the breakfasts of others before he can truly commit to one.
Typical of the stories, is the warmth shown to this new character from the other animals of the wood; they accept Tigger’s misplaced confidence in himself not as a character failing, but of simply who he is, and are more than happy to rally around him, without judgement, when he finds himself in trouble (as he often does!). At its heart, as with the first book in the series, is lessons in friendship, and what better lesson than to accept individuals for who they are.
Eeyore is another good example of this, for despite his constant moaning, pessimism, and condescension, the animals try their best to make him happy. These attempts often run into comical errors in judgement, such as Pooh and Piglet taking it upon themselves to build Eeyore a house without running it by him first, but nevertheless the good intention is the thing that binds the characters together in genuine friendship.
Literary critics tore into the books for its focus on a middle-class hero in a world safely bubble-wrapped, far away from the aftermath of World War, within quaint nursery walls and pretty English countryside. But the uneventful and safe world of Christopher Robin are in fact the very things that has kept the books on people’s shelves around the world for more than 90 years. The tales of Pooh counting his honey pots, or Tigger trying to decide what Tiggers’ do best, are so simple and universally childlike, that, much like the toys themselves, they can never grow old.
Christopher Robin, however, does – he grows up at the conclusion of the book. This is perhaps one of the few places where we see adult yearning for the past creep in. Play is no longer the main priority; it is pushed out for academic life and the hard work of learning how to be a grown up. But unlike Peter Pan, who is stuck in an endless loop of childhood fantasy, Christopher Robin moves on with the knowledge that his affection for his childhood toys doesn’t fade with time and will make them real whenever he needs them to be.
Unfortunately it is this sort of sentimentality that cast Milne out as a ‘serious’ writer, and in many ways prevented him from being known for anything other than the creator of whimsical kid’s stories. Ironic, seeing as this non-intellectual approach to children’s writing was what set Milne apart from other writers at the time and heralded a new era of children’s writing – funny, silly, child-centric stories that avoid promoting childhood as a time for moral purity (as Victorian writers did), but instead a time to feel unashamedly self-important, where the main goal is simply to do as you please and have fun doing it.
And where better to have such carefree days than the Hundred Acre Wood, with a teddy bear and his friends.
The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, Egmont, 2016.
Recommended for a reading age of between 5 and 8.