“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” – Winnie-the-Pooh
I discovered England through books as a child as most of us do, and of course the very earliest I recall were the enchanting poems and stories of a little boy called Christopher Robin and his small animal friends who lived forever in an enchanted forest. Somehow I came to memorize many of the poems. I can’t remember most telephone numbers, passwords, etc., but tucked in my head are these verses.
It was only a few years ago I discovered that the real little boy spent many of his adult years wishing that his father had never written them.
How did the books and poems come to be?
|A.A. Milne, his son and the bear|
(The fictional Hundred Acre Wood of the Pooh stories derives from the Five Hundred Acre Wood in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Milne and his son who lived on its edge often went walking there.)
|The original stuffed animals in the NY Public Library|
The boy was comfortable only with his father and unable to break away; boy and man found themselves increasingly isolated and trapped by the fame of the world A.A. Milne had created. The audience for A.A. Milne’s adult books and witty plays died away; his beloved wife abandoned him. Father and son drew closer. During World II, the sales of the books rose so steeply that the publisher found it difficult to obtain enough paper to print them.
Years later I too discovered the books and truly believed in my heart that there was even in that moment a little boy playing all day in the forest, being cared for by his nanny, living in this enchanted place in England. I knew that Christopher Robin lived in a far more enchanted place than me and was more loved. I wanted to knock on the door of a tree and be invited in for honey by Pooh. I wanted as loyal a friend as Piglet. (In fact when I began my second very happy marriage, my husband and I collected Pooh and Piglet Christmas ornaments; as my husband was then heavy and towered over me he was Pooh and I, very small and then rather slender, was Piglet.)
But like Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys, the real Christopher Robin could not easily shake off the identity created around him by his adoring father. By the time he was twenty-five, he was searching for himself; he tried unsuccessfully to write and failed at several other jobs until he married and opened a bookshop. He became bitter and communications between father and son almost ceased.
The books continued to draw countless readers while A.A. Milne no longer had a career or a wife, and his son foundered. Later Christopher wrote, “It seemed to me, almost, that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders… he has left me with nothing but empty fame by being his son.” Not true at all: the poems were written out of great love. Some people can walk away from the world-wide fame which fell upon them as a five-year-old; others cannot.
In his last years, A.A. Milne had mercifully reconciled with his wife but during his final crippling three-year-illness, Christopher visited him only twice.
|The little boy grows older|
When I look at Amazon ranking right now for the combined four Pooh books, it was about 5000. That is a very good rate for a new book; for one which first saw light a hundred years ago, it is miraculous. And heaven knows how many more are sold in bookshops and toy stores. Forbes magazine ranks Winnie-the-Pooh the most valuable fictional character; in 2002 Winnie the Pooh merchandising products alone had annual sales of more than $5.9 billion.
Four books, a lonely aging father, a little boy grown up who could not quite find his way.
And all of us who love the stories and poems? What have they meant to us? Books go on to a life beyond life, as the poet Milton said. In the final Chapter of The House at Pooh Corner, the whole little world of woods and toys and the little boy are about to change for the boy is going off to school. “But wherever they go,” says the book,” and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each others' dreams, we can be together all the time,” writes A.A. Milne. He had no greater love than that for his little son. That love has not ceased to shine for nearly a century.
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Stephanie is currently finishing two novels, one on the love story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and the second about the year Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and all the troubles he had! Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com