In 2016 Winnie the Pooh turned 90. To commemorate the happy event, dozens of articles were written as well as one fan fiction piece by Jane Riordan, entitled Winnie-the-Pooh and the Royal Birthday, a story in which Pooh Bear, Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore and friends go to Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen, who, as it happens, was born in the same year as Winnie-the-Pooh.
Since being published in 1926, A. A. Milne’s two books – Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – have sold 50 million copies, and four generations of children have had the animals of the Hundred Acre Wood downloaded into memory. All their personality traits; the kindness, the pessimism, the endearing self-interest, and also the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – are the moral underpinning of that world.
Mathew Walther writing for the National Review, described the Pooh stories as, ‘…among the ten or so finest novels in our language’. Whether you agree with Walther or not, most people would admit that Milne is a masterful storyteller. His whimsical humour alone should win him a place among the best writers of English comedy in the 20th century;
‘Small’s real name was Very Small Beetle, but he was called Small for short, when he was spoken to at all, which hardly ever happened except when somebody said: “Really, Small!”’ (The House at Pooh Corner – Chapter 3)
The Pooh stories have provided rich fodder for moral and socio-political commentary; from Christian and Feminist critiques to Postmodernist scholars who view all children’s literature from the golden age of children’s stories as an ‘adult construction’ of childhood. Most famously, they have been analysed from a Taoist perspective in Benjamin Hoff’s book The Tao of Pooh.
If stimulating thought is a mark of classic literature, like the plays of Shakespeare, then the Pooh stories are classics. But why do works from the classical cannon of literature stimulate thought? Why do they give rise to further writings like sparks leaping from a blaze which start new creative fires? Books that have stood the test of time deal with the deeper, unchanging aspect of human nature; in Jungian terms, the archetypes of the collective unconscious. These seem to be perennially attractive as well as inexhaustible. Peter Brook, the famous Shakespearean director, described the works of Shakespeare as infinite, meaning that no matter how many times we go back to his plays there is always more to see.
In Pooh and Piglet go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle, it is the archetype of the Hero’s journey, or the journey of self-realisation, which is described. In the terms of Classical Antiquity, this was the journey of the philosopher. In ancient Greece and Rome, the practice of philosophy was aimed at personal improvement through a process of self-examination more akin to Buddhism than the study of Western Philosophy which was, and is, more often a purely intellectual exercise.
The personal qualities required for the pursuit of philosophy were described in detail in book VI of Plato’s Republic. The aim of philosophy was to rid one’s self of delusion, and two characteristics regarded by Socrates as indispensable for this pursuit are courage and the love of truth.
‘Then the cowardly and mean nature has no part in true philosophy?’ (Book VI, The Republic)
‘Truthfulness: they [the true philosophers] will never intentionally receive into their mind falsehood, which is their detestation, and they will love the truth.’ (Book VI, The Republic)
Both of these characteristics are demonstrated by Winnie-the-Pooh, albeit framed in a tale which is both irresistibly sweet and hysterically funny.
Milne begins the story with Piglet clearing snow from the front of his house. He looks up and sees Pooh staring at the ground.
‘”Hallo!’ said Piglet, ‘what are you doing?
“Hunting,” said Pooh.
“Tracking something,” said Winnie-the-Pooh very mysteriously.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?“
“What do you think you’ll answer?”
“I shall have to wait until I catch-up with it,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.
“Now, look there.” He pointed to the ground in front of him. “What do you see there?“
“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a— a—a Woozle.“
“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw-marks.“‘
And so, the problem is posed, and the two friends set off to solve the mystery, but there is soon a problem, as another set of tracks has joined the first.
‘”It’s a very funny thing,” said Bear, “but there seem to be two animals now. This—whatever-it-was—has been joined by another—whatever-it-is—and the two of them are now proceeding in company. Would you mind coming with me, Piglet, in case they turn out to be Hostile Animals?”‘
Because Piglet is a helpful and obliging sort of animal he agrees to help.
‘”Piglet scratched his ear in a nice sort of way, and said that he had nothing to do until Friday, and would be delighted to come, in case it really was a Woozle.”‘
But the stakes are raised again as two more ‘Hostile Animals’ join the group.
“Winnie-the-Pooh stopped again, and licked the tip of his nose in a cooling manner, for he was feeling more hot and anxious than ever in his life before. There were four animals in front of them!”
This is too much for Piglet who starts to make excuses,
“I think,” said Piglet, when he had licked the tip of his nose too, and found that it brought very little comfort, “I think that I have just remembered something. I have just remembered something that I forgot to do yesterday and shan’t be able to do tomorrow. So I suppose I really ought to go back and do it now.”
Piglet is torn between his desire for self-preservation and his loyalty to Pooh, but help is at hand in the form of Christopher Robin who has been sitting in a tree watching them the whole time. Pooh looks up,
‘”It’s Christopher Robin,” he [Pooh] said.
“You’ll be quite safe with him. Good-bye,” [Piglet said] and he trotted off home as quickly as he could, very glad to be Out of All Danger again.’
And now Christopher Robin helps Pooh realises the truth.
‘”Silly old Bear,” he said, “what were you doing? First you went round the spinney twice by yourself, and then Piglet ran after you and you went round again together, and then you were just going round a fourth time.”’
Of course, the footprints were his and Piglet’s all along. But even though the evidence has been clearly laid out before him, there is another quality beyond courage and the love of truth, which is necessary before Pooh can be free of false belief, humility.
“I have been Foolish and Deluded,” said he, “and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”
The moral of the story is clear, only those whose loves of truth outweigh their fear of will reach the end of the journey and discover that fear is an insubstantial bogey man. And just as importantly, those who give in to fear are condemned to live out their lives believing in phantasms.
Pooh demonstrates his love of truth by not accepting Piglet’s explanation at face value, ‘I shall have to wait until I catch up with it’, and his courage by persisting despite feeling, ‘more hot and anxious than ever in his life before’.
The inclusion of humility, the willingness to be wrong, in the story is telling. How many times have we presented incontrovertible evidence to another person which contradicts a belief close to their heart and listened to them try to justify the unjustifiable, or done the same ourselves only to realise later that we were wrong?
Socrates said that the purpose of philosophy was to cleanse the mind of error and the heart of conceit, so rationality alone is not sufficient to reach the final goal. This is a lesson that is just as applicable to an intervention by Dr Phil as it is to the rarefied moral world of the stoic philosopher.