A.A. Milne: The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

Never one to shirk a worthy challenge, I decided to venture outside the usual scope of this blog and review a children’s book, one whose characters are so ubiquitous that it might seem a bit redundant — but I certainly don’t believe that. The other day Kevin from Canada had an interesting post on creating a reading legacy. There Kevin puts two dovegreyreader posts together: one on the inner child and one on the outer beauty of books. It came up that I’m a big fan of Winnie-the-Pooh and that Kevin has some story from the sixties that involves Pooh (he’s promised to share). Biased since Pooh himself is Canadian (I learned!) Kevin suggested I review Winnie-the-Pooh here. Happily.

After our marriage but some time before our first son was born, my wife gifted me A.A. Milne’s The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Published in 1994, it compiles the two Winnie-the-Pooh books: Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928).

winnie-the-pooh

This particular edition is beatiful. Hardcover, complete with a ribbon marker, full color original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard (which is a must, as fun as Disney’s permutations are) – it really is a great addition to a home library, espeically one intended to be passed on to the next generation.

In 2006, when Winnie-the-Pooh turned 80, each book was published in another beautiful edition to celebrate, tempting my wife and I to invest more money not just in our library but in Winnie-the-Pooh. These, also hardback, sport a die-cut window in the dust jacket, revealing the art on the cover.

winnie-the-pooh-80

I don’t have these two editions yet, but we have two sons . . . why not two editions of Winnie-the-Pooh? And what am I going to do when they leave? Maybe a beautiful 100 year edition will be available then.

Though after they’ve grown up, after they leave, I might never be able to read the last few stories again. It’s hard enough even while they’re young.

Both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner contain ten stories (perfect for one-a-night or even one-half-a-night routines). Included are some classics, made popular by Disney: “In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place,” “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One,” “In Which A House Is Built at Pooh Corner for Eeyore,” and my favorite “In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There.”

Even though these are children’s stories, they fit all of my criteria for any great book. First, I am fascinated by style.  As a child, I didn’t pay attention to Milne’s technique, but reading it again recently I have several times reread sentences. Milne knew what he was doing, and he obviously took this work very seriously, knowing that even though it was ostensibly for children it could also communicate to adults in profound ways. To do this, Milne adopts a very simple-sounding prose style, but digging into the construction, Milne’s diction and syntax are far from natural. Yet it flows, and it is perfect. Furthermore, Milne somehow creates a range of distinct voices for all of the characters, and reading them interact with each other is much of the fun. For example, Winnie-the-Pooh’s roundabout, humble, self-doubting without being self-depracating way of speaking is inimitable. We get a sense of this in the introductory paragraph:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.

As I’m sure you know, Milne’s characters are each unique and skillfully drawn out over the short stories as they interact. My favorite relationship in the book, the one that resonated the most, is between Pooh and Piglet. Through these two characters Milne shows what it is like to truly love someone exactly as they are. There is confidence in the relationship and joy in mere presence, and in simple sentences Milne portrays a full set of emotions I’ve never been able to put into words.

“I wonder what Piglet is doing,” thought Pooh.

“I wish I were there to be doing it, too.”

As I said, Milne’s sense for sentence construction is superb and on display here.  He could have said — and I think most would — “I wish I were there doing it too.” But the inclusion of “to be” changes the feel, makes Pooh a bit more unique while showing his care for Piglet. Furthermore, read out loud, it is very pleasant in its rhythm and rhyme. It manages, while skirting the line of formal English, to come off child-like but not childish. I’m not sure I’m capable of explaining why, but that’s how it feels to me.

Also, a book, to be great, has to touch on larger themes without shoving them in your face as is all too common in contemporary fiction. Milne succeeds here too. In Pooh, as in life, things like friendship, life, death, etc., are omnipresent, yet somewhat just outside our thoughts most of the time. Without knowing what’s happening, we feel them, and they find a way to influence the quotidian. Simple events, while allowed to remain simple, represent some of the most profound elements of life. This is particularly present as Christopher Robin slowly ceases to be a strong presence in the narrative. One day, there’s a sign on Christopher Robin’s door saying he’s gone to school, be back soon. Innocent at first, but we all know where this is going (and, dear me, it’s so painful — yet beautiful).

Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world, with his chin in his hands, called out “Pooh!”

“Yes?” said Pooh.

“When I’m — when — Pooh!”

“Yes, Christopher Robin?”

“I’m not going to do Nothing any more.”

“Never again?”

“Well, not so much. They don’t let you.”

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

“Yes, Christopher Robin?” said Pooh helpfully.

“Pooh, when I’m — you know — when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?”

“Just Me?”

“Yes, Pooh.”

“Will you be here too?”

To continue on DGR and KFC’s ideas then, here is my contribution to bringing out the inner child. Turns out it’s much more than that.

pooh-and-piglet

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh,” he whispered.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw, “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

33 thoughts on “A.A. Milne: The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

  1. John Self says:

    The Pooh books are superb. I read them for the first time in my 20s and was delighted and disarmed. Indeed in that “Which of these 100 Books have you read?” list which is doing the rounds of Facebook, Winnie-the-Pooh was one of only four titles that I marked up as “I love this!”

    as fun as Disney’s permutations are

    ‘Fun’ is one way of putting it. ‘Sacrilege’ is another. Bah humbug etc!

  2. Trevor says:

    Just curious, John, what were the other three “I love this!” books?

  3. Wonderful, Trevor, and thank you. I don’t have a copy of Pooh, only memories, but your thoughts, the quotes and the drawings certainly refreshed them. Those final two quotes and that last drawing in your post may be as effective a commentary on growing up as there is.

  4. Trevor says:

    I don’t have a copy of Pooh.

    Surely the links on this post can fix that!

    (and we’re all interested in the story you alluded to on your blog, Kevin)

  5. Yes, I think they will and I’ll be investing in a copy. I’m afraid, however, that I told as much of the Pooh story from my university days as I remember in my comment, so you’ll have to wait a while for anything more. Once I have a copy and have reread it, I’ll probably come back to Milne. I don’t think I can say anything that isn’t already said so well in your review right now.

  6. I want to know about the Canadian lineage:-)
    Pooh is timeless and ageless and I loved reading your ‘inner child’ thoughts Trevor. Christopher Robin himself ran a bookshop in nearby Dartmouth here in Devon for many years and BH and I went over there to get a copy of one of his biogs and asked him to sign it. Clearly the whole CR / Pooh magic was wearing a bit thin with the poor man and he was quite brusque which I can completely understand, but we decided we’d have coped given the millions.

  7. PS Apologies for inappropriate “waving” at a baby but I just can’t help it and it has to be allowed on this post surely!
    John can I say Baby Self is looking perfectly lovely gorgeous!

  8. PPS Hope you’re reading to him

  9. Trevor says:

    Clearly the whole CR / Pooh magic was wearing a bit thin with the poor man and he was quite brusque

    I had heard that he felt like his childhood was exploited and was none too happy with the whole affair. I’m sure some people treated him poorly over the years, but I tend to think it was something he just didn’t want to let go of. At least we’ve got this fictional Christopher Robin to keep us company and to never let us down.

  10. DGR: Canadian Pooh lineage is here: http://www.just-pooh.com/history.html. Given the Tinker’s experience, in its own way this is a very sad story (and reminiscient of Three Day Road) — these kids from Manitoba heading off to the Great War adopt a bear. Little did they know what awaited them. It turned out so terrible, because these were the fodder who ended up at the Somme.

    I’ve also heard about Christopher Robin’s later life and will admit that I have chosen to bury ideas about it. Part of me says that he could have gone off and been an engineer, or whatever, so, much like the Kennedy’s in the U.S., he shouldn’t be grumpy about his heritage. Another part of me says that he could not escape it and I should get over my own criticism. I don’t think we should let it get in the way of appreciating such wonderful books.

    And finally Trevor, given that you do poetry every so often, maybe you might have to visit When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I remembered we had four volumes when I was a child — I had forgotten that two of them were poetry. I certainly remember the stories better.

  11. John Self says:

    Thanks DGR!

    Sorry Trevor, there were actually four others. Moby-Dick, The Remains of the Day, Lolita and Madame Bovary.

  12. Trevor says:

    I haven’t yet read Moby Dick (one of those that is perpetually in the plan but persistently pushed back), but of the others I couldn’t agree more. Thanks, John!

  13. I haven’t read Moby Dick either — like Trevor, it is on the shelves but I have never been up to it. I’m surprised that John Self has it on his list. I certainly agree with the other three (well, four, counting Pooh). But everything I have read about Melville says that book is not up to its reputation. Now that I have such an excellent recommendation, I may have to reconsider.

  14. Trevor says:

    I always put off reading Moby Dick for those reasons too until a year or so ago when I listened to a lecture about it which stunned me. I then went and read the first paragraph (not just the first sentence) and was shocked at how excellent it was. Since then I’ve heard many respected sources say it is truly exceptional. I’ve now been putting it off just because it’s long and will require some time.

    I may be far enough ahead in reading this year that I can take it off the shelves and spend a bit of time on it. We’ll see!

  15. John Self says:

    It is one of those books whose reputation is all part of the experience of reading it. It certainly drags in places, after the first hundred pages or so, and there are maddening chapters on everything about whaling and whales that one could ever (or never) wish to read – but somehow that is all part of its greatness. Its subtitle is The Whale, and to me that not only represents the book as well as the subject (it’s a whale of a volume) but also reflects Melville’s desire to write the whale – to reduce a thing in its entirety to writing – rather than just write about the whale – if that makes sense. I was also swayed by an excellent introduction by Patrick McGrath in the edition I read (Oxford World’s Classics hardcover. It may even have enhanced my enjoyment of the book a little to have discovered, a few pages from the end, a line which was incorporated into an episode of The Simpsons (“From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!”, which of course connoisseurs of the series will recognise from the episode ‘Last Exit to Springfield’, where Mr Burns turns off the power to the town).

    As a constitutional pedant, I must also point out that the title Moby-Dick has a hyphen, which many – including the publishers of my Oxford edition – omit, rather like the hyphen in the title of Chandler’s The Long Good-bye, which in some obscure way I consider a material part of the integrity of the book. And no, I am not joking.

  16. Egad. I just looked at my copy of Moby-Dick and indeed there is a hyphen in the title — it’s an Everyman’s Library edition and on their website they are careful to always hyphenate the title. My bad for sure. Thanks John.

    I don’t mean to be a pedant, but I can’t find a hyphen in The Long Goodbye anywhere, including Penguin which is usually pretty reliable. Which in no ways means I’m right.

  17. Trevor says:

    Mine is faulty! Doesn’t have the hyphen!

    Thanks for your comments, John. I’m gearing up for it (still). A lecture I listened to about the book talked about him writing the whale, too. It also said that besides trying to take the measure of the whale he was trying to take the measure of man. A truly ambitious project, which the lecturer thinks he did as well as anyone could.

  18. John Self says:

    Oh yes, the book contains multitudes which it would be futile even to begin to cover here. Not least because I probably missed most of it.

    As to The Long Good-bye, here is the current Penguin UK edition, and a rather nice facsimile of the first edition which it seems will be published in April 09. The reason I say it is part of the integrity of the book is because the hyphen places it, before you have even opened the front cover, in the era of its setting (and publication), when such words were routinely hyphenated. Go a few decades further back and you will also see words like “to-day” and “to-morrow” hyphenated, as well as what seems now like a frantic overuse of periods/full stops in abbreviations (John Wyndham novels are forever referring to “the B.B.C.”). A more deferential and formal age, in other words.

  19. John Self says:

    I should add, in case anyone is interested, that I believe The Long Good-bye to be a masterpiece and, if it had been in the list of 100 books, it would most surely have been tagged “I love this!”

  20. Trevor says:

    Your pedantry is welcome at any time on this blog, John! I’ll have better eyes for this type of detail now, and I definitely appreciate that.

  21. On the hyphen front…

    The very first edition of this book was published in the UK in 1953 by Hamish Hamiton and was titled The Long Good-bye with hyphen. Houghton Mifflin published the first U.S. edition in 1954 as The Long Goodbye. As far as I can tell from alibris all subsequent American editions, and the film, have been without hyphen. I’d suggest what we have here is a difference in UK and US usage of good-bye/goodbye, although I too am familiar with the former UK practice of to-day and to-morrow — I think I could find Canadian examples of those (and certainly good-bye), I doubt I could find American ones.

    Three further oddities. Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, wrote a book about his Alzheimer’s called The Long Goodbye, no hyphen. And the cover of the Penguin edition John links to is all in caps — Penguin calls the book The Long Good-bye in caps and lowers (which would be my Canadian version of the hyphenated word), alibris has it as The Long Good-Bye, with the extra capital. Finally, search alibris with the hyphenated spelling and you will get only British editions — with no hyphen, you see only American ones. Versions of either signed by Elliott Gould from the movie are available for $3,400 (UK version) or $2,400 (US version).
    Which in the final analysis confirms John’s opinions that hyphens are important and have meaning — it’s just that the meaning is different in the UK and the US and we Canadians get to take our pick.

  22. I too am being a pedant with that last comment, so I’ll try to explain why (this has little to do with Pooh, but is an interesting stream). At The Calgary Herald, our style on “-or” words was to end them in the US “-or” rather than the UK “-our” fashion. Would you like to guess in the 20 years that I was in editorial management how many times I had conversations with dedicated readers trained in the traditional English about this “travesty”? Trust me, you don’t want to know — although I certainly met some very interesting people in the process. All of whom, I must report, felt that I was part of a process to destroy the language. People who live in New Jersey have it so easy on that front.

  23. Trevor says:

    Kevin, thanks for all the leg-work! I enjoy this type of stuff immensely. I have worked in both newspaper and academic journal publications (the latter as an editor-in-chief). Though I have it easy here in New Jersey, I believe I have some sensitivity to the way a punctuation mark casts an aura over the sentence or word, and conversations of this type fascinate me. Of course, sometimes I need to have it explained to me first and I’d love to keep developing my sensitivity to it all, so I appreciate all comments on this thread!

  24. John Self says:

    Of course I have just realised that it was apt – but coincidental – that I started this discussion on the thread for a book which very frequently is mistakenly dehyphenated: Winnie-the-Pooh.

    Your analysis and investigations are very interesting, Kevin. This now reminds me of the debate I once read over whether Douglas Adams’ most famous novel should be called The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Hitchhiker’s Guide or indeed The Hitch Hiker’s Guide. Adams himself had used the variants unwittingly.

  25. John Self says:

    And for my next trick: unnecessary apostrophes incorporated into literary titles such as Finnegans Wake and Howards End.

  26. Trevor says:

    Of course I have just realised that it was apt – but coincidental – that I started this discussion on the thread for a book which very frequently is mistakenly dehyphenated: Winnie-the-Pooh.

    And I tried hard to make sure all in this post was hyphenated. Well, I thought about trying anyway. Even realized that the post’s title didn’t have them and was going to insert them.

    I have to say though, the hyphens don’t bother me as much as those unnecessary apostrophes, John, though I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone. (Please, no one go through and edit my blog :) ).

  27. Trevor says:

    Here’s an interesting op-ed piece in today’s New York Times about Obama’s misuse of the first person as an object of a verb or preposition. It bothers me quite a bit when I make the mistake and use “I” as an object, as in “invited you and I,” and I never consciously accepted it in any writing I went through as a professor or an editor. But apparently if Shakespeare and Byron did it that way, Obama can too, and I’m subjecting myself to a false rule based on English’s false ties to Latin.

    I don’t think this argument is one I’m going to buy into too much, though. I don’t mind breaking English’s strange rules based on Latin construction (like no split infinitives or no ending a sentence with a preposition) because they are formal rules that people use despite the substance of what they’re saying; adhering to them is often for no further purpose than showing an adherence to them. But the objective/subjective tense is a good clear rule that makes sense because it clarifies meaning. Misusing it can actually make a sentence confusing. I like to use “who” and “whom” correctly too and wish I could do so perfectly at all times, even at my most colloquial.

    (So, moving beyond book titles, I hope I have opened the way for anyone holding out to be a bit of a pedant! Let your gripes fly! Worry not about those who say, “This is the kind of errant pedantry up with which I will not put!”)

  28. 1. You “try to do” something, you don’t “try and do” something. Grates like fingernails on a chalkboard for this pedant.
    2. “Like fingernails would on a chalkboard” would be equally grating. As you might suspect.
    3. I’m definitely with you on “who/whom” and objective/subjective.
    4. And I know there is a proper sense to use “that” and another sense for “which” and I never did learn the distinction.

    Kevin the Pedant

  29. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Still don’t believe in deleting frivolous comments? OR does that only count if the comment isn’t trying to sell something?
    As a silver lining, this doesn’t appear to be particularly sexual. At least your blog promotes more wholesome spam. :)

  30. Trevor says:

    For some reason today spam my spam-catcher usually catches is getting through. grumble . . . grumble

  31. Trevor says:

    Kevin, I’m afraid that I got two more pieces of spam after you left this comment and in my rush to mark them as spam I accidentally marked your last comment “I don’t write spam” as spam. Sorry! Hopefully it doesn’t mark the rest of your comments as spam!

  32. Simon T says:

    Lovely to see someone taking Milne’s writing seriously – as you say, he certainly did, even for children. He’s also one of my favourite writers – extremely prolific, with plays, novels, short stories, sketches, essays, a wonderful autobiography and even some pacifist literature. If you ever read plays, do give his a go.

    And appropos of nothing, based on reading some of your other reviews, I think you’d really like Barbara Comyns – NYRB do The Vet’s Daughter, and that’s one of her best.

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