I saw that this past week (January 18) was the birthday of A.A. Milne, most famously the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. The Pooh books have been favorites of mine since childhood and have had a revival in my life since the appearance of grandchildren.
Milne was a complicated person famous for simply-written stories. His own life was more complex. Like many famous men I have admired, he was, unfortunately, a poor father.
He was born in London in 1882. H.G. Wells was once his schoolteacher. Alan Alexander Milne went to Trinity College on a mathematics scholarship, but he preferred the less practical path of writing. At that stage, he was writing light verses and plays.
He considered himself a lifelong pacifist. But he enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and worked in the Royal Corps of Signals in WWI.
He was also solidly an atheist. He said that “The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief — call it what you will — than any book ever written. It has emptied more churches than all the counter-attractions of cinema, motor bicycles, and golf courses.”
He wrote for the British humor magazine Punch. He played cricket on a team with Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) and J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan).
Pooh wasn’t his first publication. He had written several plays – Mr. Pim Passes By and Toad of Toad Hall.
While on holiday with his son, Christopher Robin, he started to write some verses about Christopher’s stuffed animals. The main character was a teddy bear his son called “Edward the Bear.”
The verses grew into stories set in the Hundred Acre Wood, which was his version of the Ashdawn Forest where they went on holidays. Winnie-the-Pooh was first featured in a Christmas story, “The Wrong Side of Bees,” published in the London Evening News in December of 1925. Fans of Pooh will recognize which chapter in the book that story became.
In six years, Winnie-the-Pooh was a million-dollar business.
Milne wasn’t happy that the “bear of very little brain” overshadowed any other writing he did, particularly if he tried to be more serious. Doyle and Barrie could identify with that writer’s trap.
Christopher Robin was also not a fan of Pooh as he grew older. He blamed the characters for making his father famous and distant from him. It took most of his life to reconcile his relationship with the character and fame. He never really reconciled with his parents. (More on that here.)
Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) are now considered classics of children’s literature though still read by adults. (Though Amazon lists 13 Pooh books.)
Elsewhere I have written that Pooh’s world is philosophically a good personification of wu wei and pu. I’m sure Milne had no idea about this or intended it. Wu wei is a Taoist concept of “effortless doing” your work and life.
The homophone of pu is also Taoist and the Chinese word that means “unworked wood” or “simple.” Philosophically, this is a metaphor for the natural state of humanity. This “beginner’s mind” is open to, but unburdened by, experience.
That’s Pooh bear.