Mr. Roger Sale, a very learned and respectable gentleman of the University of Washington, wrote a book in the 1970s entitled Fairy Tales and After, an ingenious collection of essays on children’s literature. He is very fond of Dr. Seuss’s two early novels for little ones, as well as the whole body of work otherwise known as the “Babar books.” I’m sure it’s all entirely delightful, for I was, indeed, very interested to read the many snippets Mr. Sale included from the pages of Seuss’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. Even as a young child, however, I was unfamiliar with the Babar books, so I can give no educated response in their favor.
My only real problem with Sale’s work is his stark disparagement of the Winne-the-Pooh books. If you are not aware, there are two: the first entitled, simply, Winnie-the-Pooh; and the second being known as The House at Pooh Corner. Pooh bear was first introduced to the world in a poem called “Teddy Bear,” completely wonderful, and included in Milne’s volume of children’s poetry called When We Were Very Young.
Sale admitted that his students often had trouble with his views on Milne’s work, seeing as they considered them to be such sweet and innocent books. My own arguments, however, are not based merely on the “slander of what is innocent.” I do not claim that the Pooh books are wholly innocent; or wholly sweet. Indeed, I did not come to them until much later in life, well after the age of twenty. What I now find so compelling about the books, I probably would not have noticed when I was a child. I was a smart-alecky and sarcastic child, surely – but still, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
That comment, of course, will lead you directly to what I find so great about these books. To explain it better, I will include a quote from Sale’s book, and then set about refuting it.
Sale wrote: “Pooh is not, of course, a bear of very little brain, but Christopher Robin keeps putting him in situations where he will think he is . . .
“What I never saw as a child, but see in many places now, is that the Forest is becoming tainted . . . by the alien values of Christopher Robin’s and Milne’s world . . .
“Milne believes that if one learns how things are done, and named, and spelled, everything will turn out all right.”
Well, then. First, and most importantly, of all: Milne doesn’t believe that knowing how to spell things makes the world a perfect place. The whole point is that he’s mocking that notion. He’s making fun of adults who think that knowing more makes you a better individual. It’s a sarcastic remark on his part – not an autobiographical point of view.
He never meant for the Forest to be seen as a Utopia. It’s a place like any other, with nice things, and not-so-nice things. The characters have good qualities and bad ones. The best part about the bad qualities, of course, is that they serve as the ammunition for Milne’s caustic humor. That, by far, is my favorite part of his books.
To prove these points, let’s take a look at the second story of the first book: “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place.”
Pooh bear goes to visit Rabbit, you see, and shares luncheon with him. But he eats too much, and then can’t get back out the door. He gets stuck in the door, and requires the assistance of his friends to get free.
Christopher Robin advises Pooh bear to stay in the door for a week, so as to get thinner, and then pop right back out again.
“‘A week!’ said Pooh gloomily. ‘What about meals?’
‘I’m afraid no meals,’ said Christopher Robin, ‘on account of getting thin quicker. But we will read to you.’”
Now – if Christopher Robin hadn’t reminded Pooh that he couldn’t eat while he was stuck in the door, Pooh never would have gotten out. So he is, all in all, a bear of rather little brain. But that doesn’t mean Christopher Robin goes to the trouble of trying to make him look foolish. It wasn’t as though he made him eat too much, and thereby get himself stuck in a doorway.
In fact, at the end of the story, after Pooh gets out of the doorway: ‘ . . . with a nod of thanks to his friends, he (Pooh bear) went on with his walk through the forest, humming proudly to himself. But Christopher Robin looked after him lovingly, and said to himself, ‘Silly old bear.’”
Pooh is a silly old bear, but still, Christopher Robin says it lovingly.
And then, when “Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,” and follow their own footprints for rather a long time, it takes Christopher Robin stepping in, and helping them to realize there’s no woozle at all – but only their own footprints in the snow.
“‘I have been Foolish and Deluded,’ said Pooh, ‘and I am a Bear of No Brain At All.’
‘You’re the Best Bear in All the World,’ said Christopher Robin soothingly.”
So I say, in opposition to Sale’s comments (which are no doubt meant to improve the overall mental health of insecure modern children who might think that they themselves are brainless bears), that Pooh bear is indeed a bear of very little brain. But Christopher Robin loves, and supports him, anyway. The Forest is an imperfect place – just like every other place. But, just like every other place, it has its own special beauty.