Tuesday 20 November 2012

Winnie the Pooh: A.A. Milne

We're not going to dissect the whole of the Winnie-the-Pooh corpus as that would leave a lot of fluff and stuffing all over the site and would be a right mess. It would also take a long time. We'll focus on how the general Pooh-ness of the stories works.

Writers like to write about writing, and there's quite a bit of it in Winnie-the-Pooh. It's only fair to judge a writer by his or her own dicta, so let's start there.

"This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it."
~ Eeyore

We've all heard people like this. They don't read books; they think writing isn't a real job. This comes near the beginning of Winnie-the-Pooh. Of course, it's humorous. And of course, Milne doesn't agree with it. Or maybe he half agrees. Most of us have occasional (or frequent) moments of doubt when we wonder if spending out lives making stuff up, talking to imaginary friends, is really a worthwhile thing to do. But this also sets up a distance between Milne and Eeyore. Wherever Milne's emotional locus in the stories is, it's not here - not with the pessimistic, sardonic, faux-resigned, begrudging Eeyore.

There's something else about Eeyore in this, though - something that's not as easy to spot. This reductive view of writing that we've all heard is often followed (at parties) by 'I'd write a book if I had time.' And children are dismissive of things they can't do. We've all heard the child who can't play the piano/roller-skate/skip saying 'but skipping is stupid!' Eeyore can't write, so it's over-rated. 

This gives the reader two potential points of contact with Eeyore. The child who can't write, possibly agrees with Eeyore. The child who can write, recognises (subconsciously) the 'I can't do it so it's not valuable' stance. Although Eeyore projects the image of being self-effacing, he isn't really and this line is a clue, early on. Eeyore is very aware of how little notice other people are taking of him, of how he isn't the centre of attention. It's rather like shyness being a form of arrogance - why would everyone be looking at you/listening to you/interested in if you make a fool of yourself? Eeyore is disappointed because he wants to be the centre of attention and isn't. Every child is the centre of their own world and finds it frustrating when they're not always the centre of everyone else's world. If no one thinks about Eeyore, no one knows it's his birthday, no one asks how he got bounced into the river... he feels slighted. 

But back to writing:

"You can't help respecting someone who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn't spell it right; but spelling isn't everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn't count."
~ Rabbit

Of course, spelling isn't writing. But for a child the age of Christopher Robin (and the Winnie-the-Pooh world is his world), spelling=writing. At least, it did in the 1920s. Rabbit is a busy character, basically kind, but proud of his academic achievements and inclined to take charge of situations. Rabbit assumes he is the best creature for the job (any job) and acts on that - another aspect of the child's self-centredness. Rabbit's verdict on writing also endorses two types of child: the skill of the child who can write/spell is 'respected'. But there is consolation for the child who can't because 'spelling[/writing/ isn't everything.'

Now let's see what Pooh, the writer-in-the-text, has to say about writing:

"Poetry and Hums aren't things which you get, they're things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you."
~ Pooh

This is how a lot of writers feel - we don't invent stories, we wait for them to come from somewhere. We have various names for this visitation - inspiration, a muse, even a gift from God. The idea that stories or poems are somehow 'out there' is familiar, but rarely so eloquently expressed as this.

Which brings us to the principal strength and characteristic of Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner: the unique style and voice.

Here's the start:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, "But I thought he was a boy?"
"So did I," said Christopher Robin.
"Then you can't call him Winnie?"
"I don't -"
"But you said -"
"He's Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don't you know what 'ther' means?"
"Ah, yes, now I do," I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.

What a mess! But an enchanting mess.

The first sentence is told by a third person narrator. The only remarkable thing, that takes it away from a straight explanation of activity is the onomatopaeic  'bump, bump, bump' that emulates the sound and rhythm of Pooh's head bumping on the stairs, one after another. Although Christopher Robin is in front of Pooh, Pooh comes before Christopher Robin in the sentence - and this sets the pattern for the book, in which Pooh is in the foreground. Christopher Robin is God in the world of Winnie-the-Pooh, but as Milton discovered, God is not a very interesting character in a narrative. 

The next sentence introduces Pooh's point of view - as far as he knows. The narrator can see into Pooh's head. There was a suggestion of that with the bump, bump, bump, but now we know. With 'but sometimes he feels that there isn't', we meet the first twist in the chronology. This sentence sets knowledge against feeling - a theme that recurs throughout the Pooh stories. Pooh is the champion of feeling and instinct. He is a Bear of Very Little Brain - reason is not part of his make-up. He has fluff instead of a brain.  

'And then he feels that perhaps there isn't.' 

We are now in the convoluted stream-of-consciousness of Pooh, which the stories slip in and out of from here onwards. The pacing is so even as to be a feature in itself. Pooh feels this; then he feels the opposite; then he feels the first thing. There is no change of state - he is in the same frame of mind at the end of the sequence as at the beginning, and if there is any uncertainty, it doesn't bother him. Because he lives in the moment, we need each moment in Pooh's psyche to be enumerated. His character is made up of these fleeting, sequential emotional or psychological episodes. He reflects very little. Indeed, his interior life is characterised by 'bump, bump, bump.'

Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you.

With 'Anyhow', the narrator takes back the narrative from Pooh, who has somehow hijacked it. And suddenly the reader has a place in the book - addressed as 'you'. We are drawn in. In the next sentence, the narrator steps forward to claim 'I'. This is a very present first-person narrator. But in 'I said, just as you are going to say', this omniscient narrator becomes more omniscient than any narrator we have ever encountered because he can not only see into the characters' heads, but into the reader's head. We are in the book, or the narrator is out of the book, and it is all about to get worse because one of the characters argues back...

"So did I," said Christopher Robin.
"Then you can't call him Winnie?"
"I don't -"
"But you said -"

Christopher Robin - at once character and audience - is arguing with the narrator/author about the name of one of the characters. If this reminds me of anything, it's Tristram Shandy. Where are the boundaries of reality/fiction? Not only are we not going to find out, we are not even allowed to care. Because that is all the explanation we are going to get.

What about the illustration? In the picture for this passage, Pooh is the focus of attention, even though smaller, even though behind Christopher Robin - because he is upside-down. He is the discordant element in an otherwise mundane domestic scene. 

Look at the lines in this picture. The diagonal lines - the rebel lines - are Pooh's body, the handrail, the line of the stair-runner and Christopher Robin's raised leg. But Christopher Robin's leg is perpendicular to Pooh, the runner and the bannister. It is not part of the little Pooh-world in which this is the natural way of going downstairs, the world in which Pooh is (literally) in line with the handrail and the stair-runner. Christopher Robin is in line with the vertical bannisters. But that right-angle between Pooh and his leg makes a link: a link between the normal, upright world Christopher Robin inhabits in his real life (for remember Christopher Robin was a real boy) and the chaotic Pooh-world. He just needs to turn a corner - a regular corner - and he is in the other world. Pooh Corner.

Christopher Robin is not looking at Pooh. He's not looking at us. He is looking down at the stairs (very sensible - we don't want another redaction of 'Christoper Robin has fallen downstairs'). Pooh is looking at the ceiling, though we can see his eye. His eye is the visual centre of the picture, like the circle in the middle of a target. An imaginary line between Pooh's eye and Christopher Robin's eye is, again, perpendicular to Pooh, parallel to Christopher Robin's leg and the line between Pooh's feet - the path into this other world.

That's enough of that. I could write a book a good deal longer than Winnie-the-Pooh continuing in that vein, but it's useful to know where we are starting from if we want to get somewhere.

The first story is about Pooh trying to get honey from a beehive up a tree. It's introduced by Christopher Robin asking the narrator (/author/his father) to tell a story to Pooh, about Pooh. How many of us have told our children stories in which they themselves feature? Not only is Milne telling his son a story in which the child himself features, but the child is displacing that request onto Pooh: Pooh wants a story about himself=Christopher Robin wants a story about himself. Is this confusing? If Pooh is Christopher Robin in the story, who is Christopher Robin? 

Christopher Robin is himself. He is also the most powerful being in the world of the story - the God/benevolent dictator of the Pooh world. And author - the narrator occasionally adopts the conceit that he is reminding Christopher Robin of the story rather than telling it to him. 

The characters turn to the boy for help, for advice and as the fount of all knowledge. Christopher Robin's knowledge sets the parameters within which the stories can work. Christopher Robin both lives in a house with proper stairs, and in a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood (shown in Rabbit's Busy Day, The House at Pooh Corner). He mediates between the characters, but also between the narrator/author and the story. At the start of the first story, he asks, "What does 'under the name of' mean?", saying that Pooh wasn't certain (=Christopher Robin wasn't certain). In a rather astonishing leaning-out-of-the-frame moment, Pooh then growls, "I am now" to the narrator/author. 

But Christopher Robin is also Pooh. And Piglet, and Rabbit, and Eeyore. Just like a medieval morality play, in which the 'characters' (using the term loosely) are personified aspects of the single protagonist's psyche, so the characters in the Pooh stories are aspects of the real, complex Christopher Robin, and of any child, including the reader. The stories that are played out dramatise the internal struggles between the individual child's timidity, confidence, arrogance, pessimism, playfulness, insecurity and so on. 

Pooh is the character closest to Christopher Robin's heart and the favourite of most readers. He is at once an alter-ego, a familiar and an acolyte. He also provides a good deal of the voice. Ah, back to the voice. What makes this voice so complex and difficult to analyse is that it has two components, but the components shift. One is the 'vanilla' narratorial voice which tells thing as they are. This aims to be the voice as clear as water (as Pulman would say), in which words are not visible but carry the message imperceptibly into the brain. Overlaid on this is a sort of mimicry. Like a person who picks up the accents of people they speak with, the narrator picks up bits of the voices of the characters whose stories he narrates. Often, the voice switches in the middle of a sentence, with the first half telling us what happens and the second communicating character: 

"[Pooh] was getting rather tired by this time, so that is why he sang a Complaining Song. He was nearly there now, and if he just stood on that branch..."

The Pooh-isms are often tiny. Here they are in 'Complaining Song', and 'just'. If it said 'so that is why he sang a song' there would be no Pooh-ness in the sentence. In the second sentence, the second half paraphrases Pooh's thought - 'if I just stood on that branch'. But these touches are enough to lift the sentence into whimsy while still communicating the vital information. Take out the Pooh clauses: 'He was getting rather tired by this time. He was nearly there now.' The same stuff happens.

There is a sort of Pooh-lite voice used throughout, whether or not Pooh is present in a scene; this is the general, whimsical narratorial voice. It gives the impression of all the characters being filtered through Christopher Robin. He had brought these creatures to life in his imagination and although they have their own distinctive voices, they all basically speak Christopher-Robin - just as all Dickens' characters speak Dickensian. 

Rabbit's voice is quite distinctive. It uses longer sentences and an officious tone which is conveyed through the fastidious syntax, the contrast with the stream-of-consciousness Pooh-style, and the use of abstract adverbs.

but there was another animal here nowadays, the strange and Bouncy Tigger; and he was the sort of Tigger who was always in front when you were showing him the way anywhere, and was generally out of sight when at last you came to the place and said proudly, "Here we are!" 

But there is still Pooh-style in here: 'he was the sort of Tigger who was always in front....'

Voices 'leak' to different degrees. Rabbit's voice leaks into the surrounding prose a good deal. So does Piglet's. It's really a matter of giving a view of events from their point of view without explicitly adopting their voice (close third-person, in CW jargon). Other voices aren't as leaky. Eeyore's voice is very distinctive and doesn't leak into the surrounding prose at all. Kanga's voice is rarely heard: 'she got cross with Owl and said that his house was a Disgrace, all damp and dirty and quite time it did tumble down.'

So much for how we're told - now for what we're told. I'm not going to do character analyses because, to be honest, that's so straightforward for this text that it's an insult to your intelligence. These are WYSYWIG characters - there will be no transformations, surprises, development or anything else - another way in which they resemble the facets of a personality represented in the morality play.

The narrative matter of the stories themselves is slight:
  • Pooh wants honey, so he uses a balloon to try to steal from the bees. The bees frighten him and he gives up. (There's some pretty dodgy physics here - a balloon blown up with air doesn't float on its own, never mind when carrying a heavy bear. But it doesn't matter. The opening confusion of real/not real has prepared us for suspension of disbelief to trample all over the place and even for disbelief to be suspended from a balloon.)
  • Pooh and Piglet decide to build Eeyore a house. They unwittingly demolish the house he already has and use it as building materials to make a new one.
  • It rains a lot and Piglet is stranded in his house by a flood; Pooh and Christopher Robin rescue him in a make-shift umbrella-boat.
  • Tigger, the new arrival, doesn't know what he likes to eat. Pooh helps him to try several things, before he settles on Roo's hate Extract of Malt as his favourite food.
  • Pooh and Piglet decide to give Eeyore birthday presents; but Pooh eats the honey he plans to give him and Piglet bursts the balloon, so the presents fall short of their grand ideas - yet Eeyore likes them (just like the parent joyously accepting a grubby, anonymous Something made of Fimo).
The plots are often fanciful (whimsical comes to mind again), and frequently deal with the domestic concerns of small children. They are gentle and endorsing of the child's view and preoccupations. They also deal in the improbable and impossible.

There is vicarious wish-fulfilment aplenty: balloons float upwards; characters are allowed to eat honey and condensed milk from the jar as a whole meal; it snows nicely in winter. There is very little malice. The only story that edges close to ill-feeling is the plan to get Tigger lost so that he is sorry for bouncing so much and calms down. This could be seen as therapeutic malice, but it backfires anyway as the plotters get lost and Tigger gets home safely. Most of the perils and challenges the characters face are either self-initiated (Pooh and Piglet in the Heffalump trap, for instance), or the result of natural disasters (Owl's house blowing down, Piglet stranded in a storm), or are accidental (Tigger bounces Eeyore into the stream).

Given that the stories can be so simply summarised, and are unhampered by subplots, lengthy digressions and descriptions, how do they stretch to 3,000 or so words apiece? Every episode and thought is explored at as much length as anyone could wish for. Or as a small child could wish for. The story is told at the pace of a child speaking - distracted by seeming irrelevancies, dwelling on details an adult would skip over, taking all the time in the world because a child *has* all the time in the world. The words are spent on being unhurried, on delighting in small things - and in revealing character, and the characters' responses to events and other characters. Here's a bit from the end of the last story in The House at Pooh Corner. The bits that move the action forward are underlined.

Everybody said "How-do-you-do" to Eeyore, and Eeryore said that he didn't, not to notice, and then they sat down again; and as soon as they were all sitting down, Rabbit stood up again.
"We all know why we're here," he said, "but I have asked my friend Eeyore -"
"That's Me," said Eeyore. "Grand."
"I have asked him to Propose a Rissolution." And he sat down again. "Now then Eeyore," he said. 
"Don't Bustle me," said Eeyore, getting up slowly. "Don't now-then me." He took a piece of paper from behind his ear, and unfolded it. "Nobody knows anything about this," he went on. "This is a Surprise." He coughed in an important way, and began again. "What-nots and Etceteras, before I begin, or perhaps I should say, before I end, I have a piece of Poetry to read to you. Hitherto - hitherto - a long word meaning - well, you'll see what it means directly - hitherto, as I was saying, all the Poetry in the Forest has been written by Pooh, a Bear with a Pleasing Manner but a Positively Startling Lack of Brain.

There's a lot of 'clutter' here. Every word spoken, every move and shuffle is recorded, just as a young child speaks, unselectively reporting everything: "And then, mummy, Ben took my apple out of my lunchbox and he took a bite out of it, and I hit him, but Mrs Murphy told me off and I had to stand outside..." You know how it goes. There is no hierarchy of information - everything is included, however trivial. This helps not only to create the small-childness of the voice but also the languorous pace of the narrative. Although the sentences are often quite long, everything can be read sequentially. It is very informal, with frequent references to 'you', especially in the more densely Pooh-ish passages:

Piglet didn't actually say anything, but you knew at once why he didn't; and if anybody mentioned Hums or Trees or String or Storms-in-the-Night, Piglet's nose went all pink at the tip, and he talked about something quite different in a hurried sort of way.

And there's the difference between Pooh and Piglet - the Pooh stories can be summarised as 'talking about something not so-very-different in an unhurried sort of way.'

This could go on and on. But you are probably bored now, so I'll stop....

Quotations and illustration from Winnie-the-Pooh are copyright A A Milne and E H Shepard are given here for the purposes of review and comment.


  1. Brilliant and fascinating. Aspiring-to-be-published authors should read this closely, to understand voice. I love the idea of Pooh-lite!

  2. Not bored - totally distracted from what I'm meant to be doing - fascinating perspective thank you Stroppy.

  3. Loved this. I've read Pooh countless times but this makes me see it in a different light. Thank you!

  4. I didn't much like Pooh as a child, but now I'm going to take those books down off the shelves and look at them again in a new light. Thank you so much, Stroppy.

  5. The quote from Eeyore was the sweetest ever. He is my favorite Winnie-the-Pooh character. There are very few people who are awesome spellers. I think that the quote from rabbit is absolutely right.

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