Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Books of my Life: AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh

The Guardian had a series of podcasts called “Books of My Life” in which they interviewed famous people (mostly writers I think) and asked about the “books of their lives”.  At about the same time I started listening to this series of podcasts I also got an iPad and downloaded the free iBook app.  One free book comes with the app and that is AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.  I was virtually thumbing through it, looking at the pictures, and I thought “This is a book of my life.”

When I was a child my sister received a full set of AA Milne books and, at about the same time, acquired a set of records in which a British man read them aloud.  I have no idea who the man was.  Probably some famous British actor but, as a child, names meant nothing to me.  I don’t remember either my sister nor I picking up the AA Milne books and reading them but we listened to that record over and over.  I can still hear his baritone voice:

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.”

There was a time in my life when I probably knew the short story in Chapter One, “We are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin,” by heart.  I probably could still tell you that entire story very close to word-for-word.   Eventually, when I was older I read all of the AA Milne.  I still sometimes give the original Winnie-the-Pooh books as baby gifts in the hope that, eventually, the small children will grow into the stories. 

Chapter One of Winnie-the-Pooh shaped my expectations of what a good work of fiction should be.  Winnie-the-Pooh was more than a story book.  Oh, sure, there were stories.   In Chapter One Winnie-the-Pooh decides to try to steal some honey from the bees he discovers living in a tree.  He comes up with a plan that involves floating up in the air under a balloon so that he can reach the honey.  He enlists the help of his friend, Christopher Robin, who is doubtful about the plan but helps out anyway.  In the end the plan fails.   My first encounter with a non-happy ending.  Not a tragic ending, but not a typical American ending where everyone gets what they want.

AA Milne created a world that was imaginable but wasn’t too full  of detail.  We know that the story takes place in a forest and that one day Winnie-the-Pooh “came to an open place in the middle of the forest”.  We know that Christopher Robin lives “behind a green door in another part of the forest.”  But we are never overwhelmed with detail.  And if I imagined a Missouri forest rather than an English forest, it didn’t matter.

AA Milne created real, living characters for Winnie-the-Pooh, even if he took his inspiration from his small son and his collection of stuffed animals. He invested his characters with depth without ever having to describe that depth.  We learn about Pooh Bear from his what he says and what he does.  We learn about Christopher Robin from what he says and what he does.

But none of this is completely out-of-the ordinary in children’s books.  The Madeleine books certainly had simple stories, just-enough description and vivid characters.  Milne did something that was a revelation to me as a child.  In Chapter One he told two stories simultaneously.  The main story is the story of Pooh Bear and the honey bees.  But the Bee Story is a story within a story.  It is wrapped up in a story of a man telling his little boy a goodnight story.  There is an “outer story” and an “inner story”.   The little boy, Christopher Robin,  comes downstairs, dragging his bear behind him, and says “What about a story?”  The father, AA Milne, complies and tells a story about Christopher Robin’s bear in which a further fictionalized Christopher Robin makes an appearance. 

This is something that parents do all the time, tell stories to their children in which the children are characters.  Children love that.  What I loved as a child and as an adult about Chapter One of Winnie-the-Pooh is that AA Milne told both stories at a level that children could understand even though he used two “voices” and the “audience” for the two stories is different.  The inner story-within-a story is directed at a “you'” who is the Christopher Robin of the outer story.  The “you” to whom the outer story is directed is the reader.   As a child I completely understood this.  As an adult I marvel that AA Milne could make children understand this.  Here, he is talking to the “you” who is the reader.

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?”

“A, yes, now I do,” I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.

In AA Milne’s world, readers (even childish readers) live on the adult side and are talked to as adults.  Adults either must know everything or must pretend to know everything.  The inner story-within-a story is told to a child and children are not barred from asking the obvious questions, even if the adults have to make up the answer:

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.

(“What does ‘under the name’ mean? asked Christopher Robin.

“It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it.”

“Winnie-the-Pooh wasn’t quite sure,” said Christopher Robin.

“Now I am,” said a growly voice.

“Then I will go on,” said I.”)

The Christopher Robin in the outer story is a boy described to us the reader and is just a little boy.  Here Winnie-the-Pooh has fallen into a gorse-bush:

He  crawled out of the gorse-bush, brushed the prickles from his nose, and began to think again.  And the first person he thought of was Christopher Robin.

(“Was that me?” said Christopher Robin in an awed voice, hardly daring to believe it.

“That was you.”

Christopher Robin said nothing, but his eyes got larger and larger, and his face got pinker and pinker.”)

The Christopher Robin in the inner story is still a boy but is invested with much more sophistication than the real Christopher Robin, as befits a character in a story.   Here Winnie-the-Pooh has put his plan into action and has rolled himself in mud in the hope of looking like a small, black cloud in a blue sky.  He has then floated upward holding onto the balloon:

“Hooray!” you shouted.

“Isn’t that fine?” shouted Winnie-the-Pooh down to you.  “What do I look like?”

“You look like a Bear holding on to a balloon,” you said.

“Not—“ said Pooh anxiously,”—not like a small black cloud in a blue sky?”

“Not very much.”

And of course the more sophisticated Christopher Robin would not have gone for a walk in the English woods without taking his gun with him (in the pictures it is a hunting type of gun with a pop cork on a string hanging from it) which comes in handy when he has to shoot the balloon so that Winnie-the-Pooh can get down. Of course he misses the first time and grazes Pooh Bear.  The more sophisticated Christopher Robin just simply says “I’m so sorry” but the child Christopher Robin of the outer story is troubled by this:

Christopher Robin gave a deep sigh, picked his Bear up by the leg, and walked off to the door, trailing Pooh behind him.  At the door he turned and said, “Coming to see me have my bath?”

I might,” I said.

“I didn’t hurt him when I shot him, did I?”

“Not a bit.”

He nodded and went out, and in a moment I heard Winnie-the-Pooh – bump – bump – bump -  going up the stairs behind him.

This is a sophisticated structure for a children’s story.  It’s a sophisticated structure to pull off in an adult short story.   As a child I didn’t overtly wonder why AA Milne chose to tell the story this way.  I understood that he was accomplishing something by doing it this way but I never thought to ask myself what he had hoped to accomplish.  But it made me take sophisticated structures for granted.  To this day, I’m never completely satisfied with a novel or a short story that just wants to tell a tale or give me well-drawn characters.  I can enjoy them but I’m never really satisfied. 

I’m only satisfied if there is a good tale with well drawn characters and a complicated structure.  Then I’m in heaven.  And I blame AA Milne for that.