My dirty little secret as a pretentious English-major is that most of my favorite books are typically classified as children’s literature. In fact, my favorite book of all time is The Phantom Tollbooth. But this post has nothing to do with The Phantom Tollbooth, so don’t get distracted. This post is about Winnie-the-Pooh.
Through a whole undergraduate career of English literature courses, I’ve made a game of finding out my classmates’ pet theme or motif. Everybody has one. Usually it’s gender or feminist theory; Freudians are the most fun, and Deconstructionists deserve to die. My pet theme is childhood. (And its close cousin: nostalgia.) Childhood and the pain of its erosion impact me in a way that few other themes can.
And that’s what I found in A.A. Milne’s collections of stories, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. That Silly Old Bear and his adventures capture the wonder, imagination, and naivety that we so adore in young kids. But Pooh is also notable because he’s very often petty and selfish–the characteristic of children that so often drives us insane. In the same way, Rabbit annoyingly demands control of the most insignificant things, Eeyore mopes constantly, and so on and so forth. The Hundred Acre Woods is a land where childhood exists eternally in all its most wonderful and frustrating forms.
My return to The Hundred Acre Woods brought a realization. Milne’s stories aren’t really children’s stories at all. No, they’re really stories about childhood. A.A. Milne himself was never able to decide whether his stories and poems were meant for children or adults; and in fact he very rarely read his own work to Christopher Robin.
This perspective has particular importance when reading the last chapter of Pooh’s adventures.
Chapter 10 of The House at Pooh Corner, “In which Christopher Robin and Pooh come to an enchanted place, and we leave them there,” is utterly heartbreaking. I’m not too proud to admit that it made me cry.
Milne opens with a beautiful series of observations:
CHRISTOPHER ROBIN was going away. Nobody knew why he was going; nobody knew where he was going; indeed, nobody even knew why he knew that Christopher Robin was going away. But somehow
or other everybody in the Forest felt that it was happening at last.
The chapter ends with Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear sharing a private moment and saying a very confused goodbye. It doesn’t take an English degree to understand that the Hundred Acre Woods is a metaphor for Christopher Robin’s childhood; that the little boy is saying goodbye not to Pooh, but to the enchantment of kid-dom. Adventures are replaced by geography, history, and somebody named Factors.
But that’s just the narrative level. We can picture the author crying as he pens this farewell. In reality, Christopher Robin probably never had a definitive moment of growing up like the book’s final scene. Instead, this can be read as the moment A.A. Milne comes to terms with his son finally growing up. He doesn’t know why he’s grown up, or even why he knows Christopher Robin has grown up. But somehow or other he knows it has happened at last.
What a tragic way to end a magical series. And what a beautiful way to express the particular loss of paradise that growing up demands.