Winnie the Pooh: The Bear of Very Little Brain

The “actual” Hundred Acre Wood, in Hartfield, where Christopher Robin plays, is a valuable playground for children, as much now as it ever was. Throw some “pooh” sticks off the bridge, check if anyone’s home at Mr Sanders’ home (Winnie the Pooh’s house – he never changed the signage from the previous tenant) and cautiously go searching for a Heffalump. The stories of Winnie the Pooh and his menagerie of cotton-filled friends are still a valuable tool in connecting children with the value of independent play and imagination. Further they are an idiot’s guide to friendship (‘idiot’ being the operative word, as Winnie never attends school, because, unlike Piglet, he does not fit in Christopher Robin’s pocket), which even a few adults could refer to for guidance.

Until visiting the Ashdown Forest (the original woods), I’d not paid any close attention to A.A.Milne’s masterpiece. I’d merely encountered his bear through promotional toys that accompanied fast-food burger meals, a bombardment of plush Poohs in my sister’s possession, and the sheet music for the theme music of the Disney film version, despite not having seen the film either to know how the tune sounded.

As a sucker for seeing notable inspirations for authors, I was at first taken by the cosiness of Hartfield and the surrounds where A.A.Milne had raised his young family. In my usual obsessive fashion, I began reading through the two books of the titular character. As an educator, it struck me how this bunch of misfits negotiate the difficulties of social interaction and friendship. Without broad stroking these characters too much with a stereotyping paintbrush, you’d be within reason to match them to the following conditions: Winnie the Pooh – developmental delay; Tigger – hyperactive attention deficit disorder; Owl – autism; Christopher Robin – dyslexia; Rabbit – egocentricity; Eeyore – depression etc.

Keeping this in mind, it begs the question: what chance does such a group, with broad social and academic needs, have of solving problems and getting along?

Indeed, quite a good chance, and we’d be sensible to pay closer attention to these old stories in helping our children resolve problems:

“Taking people by surprise. Very unpleasant habit. I don’t mind Tigger being in the Forest,” Eeyore went on, “because it’s a large Forest, and there’s plenty of room to bounce in it. But I don’t see why he should come into my little corner of it, and bounce there.”

This complaint from Eeyore is as relevant to children as ever, despite it being a disagreement from near to ninety years ago between a donkey and a tiger (or rather tigger). In the same churlish semantics used by young children in the playground, Tigger disputes Eeyore’s use of the word ‘bounce’ and says crossly, “I didn’t bounce, I coughed”. (How many times have we heard a child say, “I didn’t push them, I just touched them”?).

In reality, they are probably both at fault, because Eeyore ought to be less of a miserable loner and Tigger should improve his spatial awareness to be more considerate. Therein we can all learn the art of compromise. Whether all this sinks in when a child reads these books, I’m unsure. But it was certainly an enlightening read for me at the age of thirty to see how timeless the breakdown and subsequent mending of friendships can be. We can all hear ourselves in Christopher Robin’s words when he finally intervenes:

“Well,” said Christopher Robin, not quite sure what it was all about, “I think–”

“Yes?” said everybody.

“I think we all ought to play Poohsticks!”

With this newly developed admiration for Christopher Robin’s conflict resolution skills, I was keen to continue fuelling my fascination with Winnie the Pooh by visiting the current V&A museum exhibition Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic.

The pictures of E.H.Shepard mount the walls and Milne’s words dangle from the ceiling. It’s the closest you’ll come to stepping into the woods, while remaining in South Kensington. Scenes from E.H.Shepard’s illustrations are realised with actual furniture to recreate some of the most iconic scenes in the stories. The centrepiece is Christopher Robin’s bedroom window and bed albeit too small for an adult (the only thing missing are the original toys, which are held captive in the New York Public Library – a near-to-satisfactory substitute are the replica toys, produced for the film Goodbye Christopher Robin, enclosed behind glass). The original manuscript, usually housed in the Wren Library, Trinity College Cambridge, is also there with numerous original pieces of artwork. You can sit in an upturned umbrella. The exhibition is full of whimsy, befuddlement and rich language, making it as appealing as a visit to the real-life locations. Through its simplicity, it reminds us of the strong yet understated messages of friendship and co-operation from the books, that is sometimes lost in the flashy re-imaginings of Disney and others:

“After all, one can’t complain. I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’ The Social Round. Always something going on.” (Eeyore)

We can learn a lot from the contentment of the Pooh bear and his friends. We can learn from Christopher Robin’s diplomacy. We can learn from Owl’s reserved dissemination of knowledge. We can learn an entire social skillset from these creatures who “haven’t got brains, any of them, only grey fluff that’s blown into their heads by mistake”.

For even without brains, we will be okay if we look after ourselves and each other. A fact wisely observed by Piglet, when worrying about his friends during a downpour:

“Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right. There’s Owl. Owl hasn’t exactly got Brain, but he knows things. He would know the Right Thing to Do when surrounded by water. There’s Rabbit. He hasn’t learnt in books, but he can always Think of a Clever Plan. There’s Kanga. She isn’t Clever, Kanga isn’t, but she would be so anxious about Roo that she would do a Good Thing to Do without thinking about it. And then there’s Eeyore and Eeyore is so miserable anyhow that he wouldn’t mind about this.”