Eighty years ago this year, a stuffed bear was brought downstairs by a small English boy named Christopher Robin — “bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head” — to be introduced to the world in the first of two books starring the amiable, slow-witted creature. The world got one look at Winnie-the-Pooh and surrendered instantly. “Almost never,” one reviewer wrote, “has there been so much funniness in a book.”
By the time Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, died in 1956, the bear and his friends had become household names throughout the English-speaking world, somewhat to Milne’s chagrin (he aspired to be remembered as a more serious writer). How would he have felt if he could have peeked ahead another 50 years and seen how much farther their fame would spread?
There could hardly be two more dissimilar settings, for example, than “the green, hilly countryside” of 1920s’ England where Pooh was born and the vast, bustling metropolis that is 21st-century Tokyo. Yet Pooh-san, as he is affectionately known here, appears to be just as comfortable in the frenzy of Harajuku’s Kiddyland or at Tokyo Disneyland, where his “Hunny Hunt” ride is mobbed daily, as he was doing Nothing on a quiet morning in the Hundred Acre Wood.
By all accounts, he feels equally at home in modern Australia, Africa and Andorra — provided he can get “a little smackerel of something” to eat when he needs it.
Milne actually might not have recognized his little troop, had he been given a glimpse of Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet, Owl, Kanga, Roo, Tigger, Christopher Robin and the rest as they approach 80. Their contemporary look reflects the hand of Disney rather than that of their first and far superior portraitist, E.H. Shepard, of whom Milne once wrote: “When I am gone,/ Let Shepard decorate my tomb.”
The author may also have been surprised to learn that Pooh’s modern admirers probably got to know him through movies, television shows, theme-park rides, toys and novelties — anything, in fact, but the original books, “Winnie-the-Pooh” (1926), “The House at Pooh Corner” (1928) and two books of verse in which Pooh makes an appearance.
Yet by some miracle the character’s essential personality — his peaceableness, his habit of Getting Things Wrong, his equanimity — has survived the translation to other media and the slathering on of Disneyesque sentiment.
Perhaps Milne would even have taken pride in Pooh’s popularity, knowing as he did that original intent is not always enough: “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and had other people looking at it” (a sentence every politician and artist should memorize).
A few people over the years have indeed reacted negatively to Milne’s great Thing, the most notable being the American wit Dorothy Parker. But the cynics have remained in the minority. Pooh’s ability to transcend time, place and cultural differences to appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds has been nothing short of remarkable. It has not, however, been inexplicable.
Pooh makes no bones about his limitations, and that makes him a refreshing and consoling figure, especially in societies such as Japan’s that put a premium on achievement. “I have been Foolish and Deluded,” he readily admits after yet another misadventure, “and I am a Bear of no Brain at All.”
Big words bother him, which means he’s always getting into tussles with the long-winded Owl. Yet he is never frustrated or depressed, like Eeyore. Challenges excite him — as when he hears about the South Pole from Christopher Robin and sets off to discover the East Pole, which he is sure must exist, or has to plot an Escape from yet another Tight Spot. And a pot of honey and a Quiet Moment by the fire are always there to restore cheer after an Accident or Failure.
But the world of Pooh is not all honey, for all its “funniness.” Few chapters in children’s literature are sadder, in fact, than the last one in “The House at Pooh Corner,” when Christopher Robin admits he is going away. “I’m not going to do Nothing any more,” he tells Pooh. “Never again,” Pooh wonders. “Well, not so much. They don’t let you.” In that small sentence, the gray world of school, work, adulthood and responsibility casts its shadow over the sunny Forest of childhood, as it has done, inexorably, for us all.
As the Forest’s 80th anniversary looms, it’s hard not to think that longevity has more to do with the childlike capacity for doing Nothing than any amount of striving toward an undefined, mostly unreachable Something. Happy birthday, Pooh.
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