In the Winnie the Pooh books, half the jokes
are based on the simple-minded nature of the characters. The idea of confusing
the word "elephant" until you get "heffalump", or turning
"Jaguar" into "jagular", or following one's own tracks
around and around a thicket while remarking upon the increasing number of
tracks joining your path, is a means of poking gentle fun at the characters
without calling them stupid outright. The stories of the Hundred Acre Wood
resemble that particular genre of literature exemplified by the Village of
Chelm tales, wherein the overarching joke is that everyone's a bit of an
idiot. The most well-known example is the Simpsons, whose hometown of
Springfield is 100% populated by goofballs, doofuses, and morons.
The inhabitants of the Hundred Acre wood are
altogether too nice to be called such mean names, and it's probable that A.A.
Milne was trying to emulate the way young children talk about the world. A
villager of Chelm would not get the word for "Elephant" wrong, nor would
a citizen of Springfield, but a child might very well do so, and construct an
imaginary creature out of the bits and pieces they hear about elephants.
Everyone living around the Hundred Acre Wood acts like this -- even Owl, whose behavior
greatly resembles the know-it-all attitude of a child who has JUST learned to
Whereas the other characters clearly haven't,
which leads one to wonder where the heck the "Sanders" over Pooh's
door came from. And for that matter, what about the sign that says
"Trespassers Will"? Anyone who is familiar with the phrase would
recognize it as short for "Trespassers will be prosecuted." For that
matter, where are Christopher Robin's parents, and why is he living in a tree?
A reading of the text based on an assumption of realism leads one to wonder if
the Forest and the Hundred Acre Wood exist amidst the remnants of a land abandoned by humans.
And yet, the illustrator of the scene where
Piglet points out the "Trespassers Will" sign didn't make the sign
look like it would say "Trespassers Will Be Proesecuted." The broken
part of the sign only has enough space for a few extra letters. It's almost as
if the sign used to actually say "Trespassers William." And who would
build a house in a space beneath the roots of a large tree? And who would stick
an entire house up in the branches of another tree? The story doesn't fit a
post-apocalyptic genre, nor, indeed, does it fit any literary genre that is
widely read by children over the age of ten. Children's Literature is a genre all its own, in which things happen that one might call
fantastic, or not, but either way they a given about as much explanation as the
events of Fairy Tales. A cat in a hat comes marching in the door, and it's not
important that he's a cat, what's important is that he's messing everything up
while trying to help. A bird tries to find its mother, and it doesn't matter
why or how the bird can talk to dogs, what matters is that the bird's mother is
missing. A girl gets carried to a magic land by a tornado and meets a talking
scarecrow who wants a brain, and the important thing as the scarecrow gets a
brain, never mind how the scarecrow talks in the first place. A bear lives in
the forest in a house under the name "Sanders" and it doesn't matter
how he got there or why the name is over the door, what matters is that he
wanders around being silly. In Children's Literature, "why" is much
less important than "what happens".
Which is strange, because children are well-known
for wanting explanations for every dang thing. But if they're the ones telling
the story, well, then the explanation is much less important than getting the
plot moving forward. When kids play with dolls there's no time to waste trying
to explain why the porcelain cat can fly and the stuffed bird likes to eat
gumdrops. That stuff just is. Explanations distract from play. Little of my
childhood I remember, but I certainly remember playing with Beanie Babies in
ways that offered no explanation as to why they could karate-chop each other or
leap twenty times the length of their own bodies. There was no time to explain.
Winnie the Pooh reads very much like a
codification of the stories that Christopher Robin Milne told while he was
playing with his stuffed animals, filtered through the adult perspective of his
father. Mr. Milne based the characters of the books on the personalities that
Christopher had given his toys. If Pooh is a Silly Old Bear, it's because
Christopher Robin meant him to be that way. If he lives under the name Sanders,
it is possible as well that Christopher Robin meant him to be that way. If the
characters all live in houses despite being in the middle of the woods, well,
where else woud they live? Holes? No! Everyone lives in houses, even stuffed
animals. If an owl lives in a tree, well then, he must live in a house in a
tree. If a rabbit lives in a hole, well, the hole must be decorated on its
interior like a house. A house is a home, therefore any home must be a house,
whatever else it also is.
The work of A.A. Milne is an adult's attempt to
get this attitude down on paper. Perhaps that is why it has endured so long.
Unlike kid's books that set out to be didactic, or ape the style of children
while forgetting how they operate, Winnie the Pooh is told in a manner that
actually represents the attitude of a child. As a result, the stories move
along fairly quickly and the book is fairly short, which makes it the kind of
thing a parent would be willing to read to their kids over the space of a few
nights, and the kind of thing a kid getting used to chapter books would enjoy
reading without feeling daunted.
That is not to imply that "Trespassers
Will" requires no explanation. The sign has meaning. The meaning of the
sign is that Piglet thinks it means "Trespassers William". The
meaning is contained within the attitudes and the actions of the characters, as
opposed to getting sidetracked on backstory.
Sometimes that leaves the plot a little thin, and
the world of the story itself a little threadbare; that is my main gripe about
reading the Winnie the Pooh books. Yet it is an approach that has worked for
numerous children's authors whose work has long endured the test of time. Dr. Seuss, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Janson, L. Frank Baum, and James Barrie remain beloved authors of children's literature for front-loading plot at the expense of exposition.
Where does the Groke come from? Where does Tinkerbell come from? Where did the
cat get that hat? Why does Oz have four witches? How does Pippi lift a horse one-handed?
Never mind, never mind. The adventure awaits.