I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love Winnie-the-Pooh. I grew up on the Disney animated versions, and even today when I step foot on a Disney property, Pooh and his friends can expect to be hugged. I’m grateful that I never picked up the books that inspired these theme park favorites until I was an adult, because they are so hilarious, so thoughtful, and so smart, the animated interpretation surely would have disappointed me if I’d been exposed to the books first.
If you’ve never read Winnie-the-Pooh or The House at Pooh Corner, do yourself a favor and get hard copies right now. Make sure that whatever you buy includes the original illustrations by Ernest Shepard. If possible, find a charming used version with a bookplate or inscription on the inside front cover that hints at the previous owner. To get in the proper state of mind, take a good whiff of the pages, edges slightly browning with age, and dig in. All your cares will vaporize and you’ll be transported to a magical place where Pooh and friends frolic.
Which is not to say that these books are saccharine–far from it. The writing is filled with irony, and Milne writes in a way that brings the reader along on the joke even as the characters are figuring things out. In one passage that makes me giggle, Piglet is running with a balloon, trips and falls, and hears a loud BANG. At first he thinks something terrible has happened, like he has been blown to bits or shot to the moon. When he realizes he’s still in the forest, he thinks, “I wonder what that bang was. I couldn’t have made such a noise just falling down. And where’s my balloon? And what’s that small piece of damp rag doing?” This window into Piglet’s mind just tickles me.
You may have seen things online claiming that each of the characters in Winnie-the-Pooh represents a mental illness, which is utter nonsense of course, but I get it. This is the internet, where people are paid to write utter nonsense so readers can get into flame wars with each other. But it’s worth taking a closer look at each of these personalities.
The titular Winnie-the-Pooh or Pooh Bear is often referred to as a “bear of little brain” which I think is quite unfair. He has a short attention span, certainly. He likes to eat, that’s for sure. He may even be a little slow, but he comes up with solutions more often than you’d expect. For example, when Eeyore loses his tail, who is the first to notice that Owl has been using it as a bell rope? Not Owl, who is supposed to have a Ph.D. in smarts. Pooh notices and breaks the news to Owl that somebody else has been looking for that rope:
“‘My dear friend Eeyore,’ Pooh says, ‘He was–he was fond of it.’
‘Fond of it?’
‘Attached to it,’ said Winnie-the-Pooh sadly.”
Piglet is Pooh Bear’s BFF. When Pooh goes adventuring, Piglet is the first one he turns to for companionship. Unfortunately, Piglet isn’t very brave, but you can hardly blame him; he is such a small animal. During a hike through the snow, Piglet gets spooked by the idea that something might be following them (due to the increasing number of tracks in the snow). He tries to back out with dignity by telling Pooh that he has something else to do, but Pooh doesn’t take the hint and tells him they’ll do whatever it is later in the afternoon. “‘It isn’t the sort of thing you can do in the afternoon,’ said Piglet quickly. ‘It’s a very particular morning thing, that has to be done in the morning, and, if possible, between the hours of–What would you say the time was?’ ” Piglet’s small size does come in handy, though, when Owl’s tree falls over and he, Owl, and Pooh are all trapped inside. Piglet is the only one small enough to squeeze through the letter box and go for help. Huzzah, Piglet!
I love Eeyore, I really do, but man what a downer! Poor guy has a serious martyr complex, but he’s a master at passive aggression. When his stick house goes missing, he shows Christopher Robin the spot where it used to be: “In a very little time they got to the corner of the field by the side of the pine wood where Eeyore’s house wasn’t any longer. ‘There!’ said Eeyore. ‘Not a stick of it left! Of course, I’ve still got all this snow to do what I like with. One mustn’t complain.”
For reasons I can’t really explain, Eeyore is my favorite. I just wanna tickle him and say, “Come on dude, it’s not that bad!”
We’ve already talked a bit about Owl. He uses big words but he’s not smart enough to recognize a donkey tail belonging to one of his own friends when he sees it. Obviously Milne wasn’t much for pedants.
Ok, let’s take a minute to talk about the madman that is Rabbit. There is so much crazy going on here, yet I still love Milne’s version so much more than the unpleasant, goody-two-shoes that Disney painted him to be. In the first book, Rabbit shows an appalling level of callousness towards his friend Pooh when the bear gets stuck in Rabbit’s front door after eating too many snacks. Rather than be inconvenienced, Rabbit decides to make the best of the situation by using Pooh’s legs as a towel rack.
Then, when Kanga and Roo move into the forest, Rabbit hatches a plan to get rid of them by kidnapping Roo. What the hell, Rabbit? Was there some gentleman’s agreement in the forest not to rent to marsupials? Pretty racist, if you ask me. At any rate the plan backfires because Rabbit decides he quite likes little Roo, whom he ends up playing with all afternoon while Kanga terrorizes Piglet. Finally in The House at Pooh Corner, Rabbit hatches yet another plan, this time to teach Tigger to stop bouncing by losing him in the forest overnight! This plan backfires as well, because of course Tiggers don’t get lost (but Rabbits do). In spite of all this, I still love Rabbit, because look what a cute little authoritarian he is!
Of course we mustn’t forget Tigger! Surprisingly, Tigger doesn’t even show up until the second book, and to be honest, he’s not as bouncy and annoying as you would think. He’s a bit of a braggart, but he’s also fun-loving and he keeps Roo company, which is probably why Kanga lets him stay with them.
I haven’t mentioned Christopher Robin, who really just shows up now and then to restore order. But here’s the part where all the feels come in. At the end of The House at Pooh Corner, Milne absolutely guts me by having Christopher Robin tell Pooh that he won’t be able to hang out and do nothing for much longer. Without saying so directly, Christopher Robin lets his friend know he’s growing up and growing older. I haven’t been this shattered since Toy Story 3! (And I know that the real Christopher Robin supposedly hated the whole Pooh thing, but I’m not talking about him, I’m talking about the character.)
Milne’s stories are pure magic. They’re honest and funny and whimsical. In my heart, these guys never grow up and when I’m with them, neither do I. Which is probably why I still hug them every time I go to Disneyland.