Sunday, February 1, 2015

Winnie the Pooh and the Transience of Childhood

 
        Arguably the most tear-jerking ending of a classic children's book is that of A. A. Milne's The House at Pooh Corner, in which the Winnie the Pooh stories come to an end. Of course, any time someone makes a claim like I just have, most peoples' instinct is to cry foul and to offer their own clearly-more-tear-jerking substitute. What about all of those books whose characters die?! (Dumbledore, anyone?) What about all those books with animals that die?! What about the books with bullying, poverty, and unrequited puppy love?! Yes, yes, those are all brutal but also beautiful, much like the ending of Pooh, so let me clarify.
 
      Many children's books are devastatingly therapeutic for the children who read them, but I would argue that The House at Pooh Corner is more devastating for the parents and other adults who read it. Renowned children's lit critic Jack Zipes has argued that there, in fact, is no such thing as children's lit per se because the entirety of the canon is produced by adults either remembering childhood through the filter of experience or applying to the text their impressions of what children and childhood should be. I'm not here to endorse or challenge Zipes's assertion. I bring him up merely to illustrate that the final scene of The House at Pooh Corner, indeed much of the content of the Winnie the Pooh books, falls into the category of those works of children's lit (which Zipes might argue is, to an extent, all of them) that are more for the adult readers than for the children.
 
     For two books, Winnie the Pooh and the other residents of the Hundred Acre Wood have many fun adventures with their favorite playmate Christopher Robin, but the time of doing "Nothing," their favorite thing to do, must come to an end because Christopher Robin announces that he must go away to school soon. Without being told, Pooh and company sense that their time with him is ending, as these things naturally do, and the final Pooh chapter ends on a melancholic, nostalgic note:
 
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?"
 
"Yes, Pooh, I will be, really. I promise I will be, Pooh."
 
"That's good," said Pooh.
 
"Pooh, promise you won't forget about me, ever. Not even when I'm a hundred."
 
Pooh thought for a little. "How old shall I  be then?"
 
"Ninety-nine."
 
"Pooh nodded. "I promise," he said.
 
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh's paw. "Pooh," said Christopher Robin earnestly, "if I - if I'm not quite --" he stopped and tried again - "Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won't you?"
 
"Understand what?"
 
"Oh, nothing." He laughed and jumped to his feet. "Come on!"
 
"Where?" said Pooh.
 
"Anywhere," said Christopher Robin.
 
         *   *   *
 
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
 
The final illustration (by Ernest Shepard), which appears under the above text.
 
 
     I mean ... I find this ending to be so heartbreaking! Especially as I watch my small daughter rapidly growing up before my eyes. But, I don't think I understood the significance of this particular leave-taking when I was a child. Christopher Robin's voice here is actually the voice of Milne lamenting the necessary loss of childhood to make way for maturity and adult responsibility, echoing classic characters like Peter Pan and Wendy and Jo March. Children rarely themselves mourn the loss of childhood innocence. Adults are the ones who feel that pang most severely as the ones blessed (cursed?) with hindsight.
 
      The "real" Christopher Robin (pictured below) was famously uncomfortable (to put it mildly) with the immortalization of his childhood image and the resulting fame which accompanied it. To be fair, well ... the book wasn't really about him, was it? It was about a father's attempt to preserve a rapidly disappearing, ethereal phase of his son's youth, something I think any parent can sympathize with. So, I say again - while nobody dies, and the only real loss is a natural part of growing up, the final scene of The House at Pooh Corner is one of the most tear-jerking moments in all of children's literature.  
    


11 comments:

  1. Wow, I always thought it was just me. Now I've found this article by accident and I couldn't agree more. I can't read this ending without becoming dewy-eyed. Ever.

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  2. I just finished reading this story to my son and unexpectedly found tears streaming down my face on the last 2 pages. My almost 5 year old, on the other hand, thought it highly amusing that his mum had suddenly been reduced to a blubbering mess.

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  3. My daughter, who will be 25 this month, had Pooh as my nickname for her as a little girl from the time she was 2 and over the years she received many Pooh gifts and cards.
    She had a set of Winnie the Pooh plaques on her wall by her bed as a child that I put on a framed board and gave to her for Christmas last year. I cannot read this ending of the Winnie the Pooh books without completely dissolving into teats. I am haunted by a video I made of her when she was just 3 and she excitedly said to me "Come on...let's go for a walk" and only wish I had that little girl to walk with again.

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  4. https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/01/16/sherlock-holmes-john-watson-boy-bear-endless-adventures/

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  6. My dad used to read Winnie the Pooh - a Sunday night, post-bathtime routine - to me and my sister and he always cried reading this. So I read it at his funeral - it was the last thing before the blessing. How I got through it, I still don't know.

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  7. I just started crying. I hate when mybfav characters die. When dumbledore died i cried. I hate when pooh and robin had to say goodbye. I hate that peter and wendy were not together. Sigh

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  8. Yes. This ending gets me every time. My kids and I listen to the audio version of the stories in the car, and I can't listen to the end of this book while driving because it makes me cry. My youngest two (twins) will be starting kindergarten tomorrow, and this speaks to me on such a deep level.

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  9. At 72 I have never forgotten, nor failed to keep, the promise at the end of this story

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