Saturday, October 10, 2009


As a young boy, I loved to read the stories of Alan Alexander Milne, the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh and his cast of characters. Even before I could read, my folks would read me the stories as I enjoyed the illustrations by E.H. Shepard. It was the age of innocence until the big bad Disney Corporation acquired the rights in 1961. Today, according to Fortune Magazine, Winnie-the-Pooh features and merchandise bring in to Disney as much revenue as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto combined.

Be that as it may, I prefer the early, pre-Disney, uncommercialized Pooh Bear stories. When I was in law school, in the late 1960's, the University of Illinois introduced the "free university" in which anyone who wanted to teach a course could do so. A course was formed to read and analyze the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, and I eagerly signed up. It was held one evening each week, off campus, for about 2 hours, and about 10 students signed up. In each session, we would choose one story and each student would portray a character. By popular acclaim, I became the permanent Pooh. Apparently, my voice was perfect for the part.

The characters were essentially the toys belonging to Milne's son, Christopher Robin Milne (1920-1996), who was the narrator of the stories. In Shepard's illustrations, young Christopher Robin is pictured with a page boy haircut, wears a dress and says stuff like "tut, tut, it looks like rain." I was very young, and I thought he was a girl, but apparently that's how young boys dressed in England in the 1920's when Milne wrote the books. In school, young Christopher was often teased about the stories and poetry written about him, and he learned to box to fend off the teasing. He was skilled in mathematics and also in working with his hands. For example, he could pick locks, and he was able to modify a cap gun to fire real bullets. In later life, C.R. came to resent his starring role in the stories, believing that his father exploited him.

After serving honorably in World War II, he returned to England, earned a degree in English at Cambridge, married his cousin Lesley, and quietly ran a bookstore in Dartmouth for many years. Matrons often brought their children in to meet the "original Christopher Robin." Chris was uncomfortable with that, but smiled politely.

In the beginning, Chris received a 2 foot light colored teddy bear for his first birthday which he called Edward Bear. In the stories, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh was his teddy bear. It's not clear how the name got changed, but he named the bear after Winnie, the bear cub at the London Zoo. Christopher spent a lot of time at the zoo, and he especially loved the bear. The bear was tame, and, unbeknownst to the zoo's insurance company, Christopher was allowed to spend time in the cage with it.

The bear's story is interesting. A Canadian officer named Harry Colebourn purchased the female bear cub in White River, Ontario for $20 from a hunter who had killed its mother. He named the bear "Winnie" after his hometown Winnepeg, Manitoba. Colebourn was shipped to England with his unit in World War I, and he sneaked the bear on the troop ship with him as a mascot. He couldn't take the bear with him to the front lines in France, so he left it at the London Zoo. After he returned from the war, he donated Winnie to the zoo where it was a popular attraction for many years.

The stories are set at Crotchford Farm where the Milnes lived, located in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, England. Just outside Ashdown Forest is the Five Hundred Acre Wood, which, in the Pooh stories, is called "Hundred Acre Wood."

In 1930, Milne sold the rights to Stephen Slesinger for $1,000 and 66% of the income, thus creating a licensing agreement. Slesinger was a marketing genius, and within 2 years, Pooh became a $50 million a year business with a board game, puzzles, dolls, animation, a radio show and even a motion picture. Among other things, Slesinger dressed Pooh in his familiar red shirt.

The lovable characters mirror real life personalities, neuroses and all. Pooh exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior, walking around in circles. Piglet is a small, timid animal, struggling to be brave. He probably has an inferiority complex. Kanga, the only female character, is the classic Jewish mother. Eeyore, the stuffed donkey, with his negativity and sarcasm, suffers from depression. Tigger, the stuffed tiger is hyperactive.

What is it about cartoon characters? The Looney Tunes characters created by Mel Blanc, all have speech defects. Porky Pig stutters. Elmer Fudd can't pronounce "R's". Tweety can't pronounce "th" or "s". Sylvester the Cat has a lisp. Taz can't talk at all. Bugs Bunny has a thick Brooklyn accent. I suppose if they were all normal, nobody would tune in.

Back to our Winnie-the-Pooh friends. They eat different foods. Pooh, of course, likes honey ("hunny"). Pooh's best friend, Piglet is fond of "haycorns". Kanga feeds little Roo "extract of malt" to make him big and strong. Tigger, bouncing up and down and off the walls, is taken in by Kanga's motherly instincts. He can't decide what Tiggers eat. (Fortunately, it's not the other characters.) He tries honey, acorns, thistles and everything in Kanga's pantry. He eventually finds that he likes Roo's "extract of malt" best.

Rabbit is the most sociable character. He is the organizer who usually has a hare brained plan to help Pooh and Piglet in their latest adventure. Rabbit has an extended family of assorted "Friends and Relations", mostly unnamed minor animals in the forest. For example, in my favorite, "The Search for Small", the characters devise elaborate plans to locate one of Rabbit's lost Friends and Relations, a tiny wasp named Small who is finally found by Piglet at the bottom of a gravel pit.

Owl has the persona of the wise old owl who can read and write, and spells his name "wol". Actually, in the southern England Kentish and Sussex dialects, that is the correct word and spelling. Owl, being "wise" likes to give advice and opinions which are, more often than not, disregarded.

Eeyore is constantly rebuilding his house which keeps falling down after "woozles" bounce on it. Of course, anyone whose house keeps being destroyed would be upset and depressed.

Piglet lives in a beech tree next to a sign "Trespassers Will" which Piglet insists is short for his grandfather's name, "Trespassers William".

Pooh, as we all know, is Christopher Robin's favorite. He lives in a hollow tree under a sign reading "Mr. Sanders" a previous tenant who joined the army and became a Colonel. Pooh tends to over-indulge in honey and gets stuck in inopportune places like a honey pot or the entrance to Rabbit's subterranean den.

The stories abound with fictional animals. For example, our friends are terrorized by a "heffalump" which, in Shepard's illustrations resembles an elephant like creature. Perhaps that is how a young child would pronounce the word "elephant".

Milne invented a game called "Poohsticks" in which the characters throw sticks from a bridge into the current and bet on which stick will come out first on the downstream side of the bridge. The game has become popular in England, so much so, that the trees in the area of the bridge in Ashdown Forest have been decimated. Competitors have been advised to bring their own sticks. The annual World's Poohsticks Championship has been held on the Thames River in Oxfordshire since 1984. It features both individual and team events. The winners receive gold medals and Winnie-the-Pooh teddy bears. Winning teams have come from as far away as Japan, Czech Republic and Australia.

AS one can see, these innocent stories and poems of A.A. Milne have had a meaningful effect on world culture. In Warsaw, Poland a street is named Ulica Kubusia Puchatka after the popular bear. In Poland, a male bear with a female name doesn't work, so he is called Kubus Puchatek (Jacob the Pooh). Budapest, Hungary also has a street named after Winnie-the-Pooh. In Dreamworks' 2007 film, Bee Movie, Pooh and Piglet are tranquilized and the "hunny" jar is confiscated. Adults enjoy the stories as much as the children. Humor is universal.




Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home