Judging Milne’s famous novels as literature
I have in front of me a beautiful little blue volume published by Methuen and Co. in London in 1928. Not That It Matters is a collection of essays from the end of that extraordinary silver age of English belles-lettres at the turn of the last century, when men such as Shaw and Belloc earned their daily bread by scribbling in newspapers and magazines about anything they could scrape a thousand or so words out of: socialism, dogs, the weather, how they celebrated Christmas, capital punishment, Wagner. For those who like this sort of thing, this volume is very nearly perfect: There are pieces on snobbery, oranges, cricket, bad fiction, “Smoking as a Fine Art” (“My first introduction to Lady Nicotine was at the innocent age of eight”), chess, thermometers, Holy Writ (“Isaiah was the ideal author. . . . He kept to one style”), and — prophetically — those bores who fetishize “good brown ale”:
I suppose that I have already said enough to have written myself down a Temperance Fanatic, a Thin-Blooded Cocoa-Drinker, and a number of other things equally contemptible; which is all very embarrassing to a man who is composing at the moment on port, and who gets entangled in the skin of cocoa whenever he tries to approach it. But if anything could make me take kindly to cocoa, it would be the sentimental rubbish which is written about the “manliness” of drinking alcohol.
If A. A. Milne had never written anything other than these delightful squibs, his short stories and light verse for Punch, his very amusing detective novel The Red House Mystery, and a handful of comedies for the stage, he would be one of those major-minor writers whose reputations some of us delight in shoring up. Thankfully for him and untold millions of readers, he had the good sense to invent Pooh Bear.
I am on record somewhere saying that Winnie-the-Pooh — the 90th anniversary of whose publication passed last October — and its sequel The House at Pooh Corner are better than anything by Faulkner or Joyce. Returning to them once again, I find myself standing by that judgment; indeed, I feel inclined, if anything, to double down and say that they are among the ten or so finest novels in our language.
It is important to recall that Milne, like Dickens, the novelist whom in many ways he most resembles, did not sit down to write books from beginning to end but rather published chapters that appeared in serial form and were meant to be self-contained. (This, I think, explains the Pooh novels’ unrivaled suitability for reading at bedtime.) A glance at the manuscripts shows us that, among other things, Kanga was originally meant to be male, like all the other inhabitants of the world surrounding the Hundred Acre Wood — a reference to Roo’s mother as “he” pops up in some early British printings of the novel.
Some adult Pooh readers will be surprised by what they have not remembered or were never acquainted with in the first place because they have seen only the old Disney film (the less said about the computer-animated sequel and the television series, the better). The books are, for one thing, uproariously funny. Most of the dialogue is worthy of P. G. Wodehouse, Milne’s great contemporary, with whom he had an unfortunate falling-out during the Second World War:
“Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
“I’ve got a message for you.”
“I’ll give it to him.”
“We’re all going on an Expedition with Christopher Robin.”
“What is it when we’re on it?”
“A sort of boat, I think,” said Pooh.
Others will be put off by unexpected hints of melancholy. Milne’s trees loom in the background as a kind of reminder of the adult world with its attendant horrors. It is difficult to think of a novel with a more memorable ending than The House at Pooh Corner (Great Expectations comes to mind); it is almost impossible to think of one that is sadder. In “an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest,” after confusing him with talk about “People called Kings and Queens and something called Factors,” Christopher Robin dubs our hero “Sir Pooh de Bear, bravest of all my Knights,” and begs his friend never to forget him while tacitly begging his forgiveness in the — well-nigh inevitable — event that he will leave his animal friends forever. (One cannot read this passage innocently after learning that Christopher Robin Milne, the author’s son who along with his toys inspired the novels, would go on to be mercilessly teased about Pooh at school, undergoing beatings and possibly sexual abuse before taking up boxing lessons in order to fend off his attackers.) “Wherever they go,” Milne tells us in his final paragraph, “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.”
For me, the crucial thing about this passage is that Pooh does make the promise. It is the last of hundreds of acts of kindness carried out by Milne’s characters in these pages full of charitable exemplars. Nor are the books’ lessons confined to morality of the simple Golden Rule variety. I have often wondered whether His Holiness Pope Francis is a great admirer of Pooh Bear. Fiction affords no better illustration of the Holy Father’s all-encompassing view of God’s mercy — about which he is obviously correct, however wrong-headed some of us might think his approach to sacramental discipline — than the scene in which Christopher Robin responds to Pooh’s eating too much honey and getting stuck in Rabbit’s front door by saying “‘Silly old bear’ in such a loving voice that everyone felt quite hopeful again.” Pooh himself, with his speculations about cosmogony, nearly always voiced in the form of slightly fuzzy syllogisms, sounds like a kind of Anglican Thomist; and Piglet’s description of a Heffalump — this creature and its supposed accomplice the Woozel turn out not to exist; it is an extraordinary thing that there are no villains in Milne’s world — as “a great enormous thing, like — like nothing” is a perfectly lucid exposition of the Augustinian view of evil as a mere privatio boni, or privation of the good. I cannot reflect on Milne’s characters or the man himself for very long without thinking of those beautiful words of Blessed John Henry Newman about the young (including, I suppose, the young at heart):
The simplicity of a child’s ways and notions, his ready belief of everything he is told, his artless love, his frank confidence, his confession of helplessness, his ignorance of evil, his inability to conceal his thoughts, his contentment, his prompt forgetfulness of trouble, his admiring without coveting; and, above all, his reverential spirit, looking at all things about him as wonderful, as tokens and types of the One Invisible, are all evidence of his being lately (as it were) a visitant in a higher state of things.
This suggests a rather different — and more hopeful — way of thinking about the “enchanted place.” But it is also perhaps a bit heady for a self-described “Bear of Very Little Brain,” especially on his birthday.
– Mr. Walther is the associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon and a 2016 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.