In Which Winnie the Pooh Helps Explain the Gospel
Full disclosure – I am a Winnie the Pooh purist.
My mother used to read me A.A. Milne’s books, beautifully illustrated by E.H. Shepard, when I was a child. I owned a set of all the stories. I read them myself when I was old enough. Our first cat was named Tigger. My Mum had made a set of Christopher Robin’s toys before I was born so I literally grew up with Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore (with a tail that was attached with a button for removal and reattachment), Rabbit, Kanga, and Roo. Owl was purchased for an ‘exorbitant price’ some time later so the collection was complete. I can still hear my mother’s voice as I read the words today.
The world of Christopher Robin, and his adventures with a ‘bear of little brain’ in the 100 Acre Woods, made complete sense to me as a child. Of course you would use a blue balloon to get honey from the top of a tree, only to find that they were the ‘wrong sort of bees’ and need Christopher Robin to shoot the balloon so you could get down safely. The consequences of eating too much honey and condensed milk (without the bread) are obviously getting stuck for a week in Rabbit’s front door with Christopher Robin reading a ‘Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness’ in order for you to get ‘slenderer and slenderer’. And going on ‘expotitions’ to find the North Pole are just par for the course.
Winnie the Pooh first appears as Edward Bear in a poem in the children’s verse book When We Were Very Young (1924). He gets his own book in 1926 called Winnie the Pooh, more poems in Now We Are Six (1927) and a second collection of stories called The House at Pooh Corner (1928). All four volumes were illustrated by E.H. Shepard. Early in 1930, Stephen Slesinger purchased US and Canadian merchandising, television, recording and other trade rights to the ‘Winnie the Pooh’ works. After his death in 1953, his wife, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, continued to develop the character herself. In 1961, she and A. A. Milne’s widow, Daphne Milne, licensed certain rights to Walt Disney Productions. Four books have expanded into animated feature films and television shows, radio broadcasts, theatre productions, computer and board games and countless plush toys. Winnie the Pooh is a multi-billion dollar a year franchise with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Slesinger’s purchase created the modern licencing industry. What resulted, however, was what Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist, Bill Watterson, observed in Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (1995). Despite the popularity of his comic strip, also about a young boy and his toy (or is it?) tiger, Watterson refused to licence his creation, despite much pressure. His problem with licencing has several facets. Firstly, licencing ‘cheapens the original product’ due to saturation and public boredom. Secondly, it fails to respect how the original creation works. Winnie-the-Pooh was designed to work as a series of children’s stories and poems. A jigsaw puzzle or a computer game where Pooh is teaching maths, don’t communicate the subtlety of language or the joy of relationships present in the original stories. Thirdly, it takes a massive amount of staff and logistics, in which the vision of the original creator can get lost. Finally, there is the corruption of the story’s integrity. Characters have to become profitable, celebrities in their own right, rather than portrayers of a narrative. The ‘Disney-fication’ of Winnie the Pooh resulted in saccharine stories, shallow characters, the loss of Milne’s clever turn of phrase, and cartoonish images. It wasn’t the Pooh I knew and loved. As my sister observed, the Disney Pooh had been infantilised – suitable for babies, but had lost his ability to speak to children and adults alike.
The Gospel According To Winnie the Pooh
As an adult I still enjoy reading those original Pooh stories. But there is much more wisdom to be found in their pages than I ever gleaned as a child. Other adults seem to have found this to be the case. Frederick C. Crews published The Pooh Perplex (1979) and The Postmodern Pooh (2001) as humorous critiques of the schools of literary criticism of the twentieth century using Winnie the Pooh as source material. Benjamin Hoff wrote The Tao of Pooh (1982) and The Te of Piglet (1992) to explain the Eastern Way of Lao-Tse. John Tyerman Williams added Pooh and the Philosophers in 1995 to demonstrate that all ancient and modern philosophy ‘is best considered as a long preparation for Winnie the Pooh’. Most recently, Bruce G. Epperly has penned The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh (2016), a Christian reflection on the residents of the 100 Acre Wood and how they reflect Christ in their world.
Epperley uses process theology, defined as ‘the movements of God; it’s about change, growth and relationship. It’s about a world in which everything flows’ (p 88-89) to create a conversation between the residents of and experiences in the 100 Acre Wood and the workings of God in the world. Several chapters are dedicated to each of the characters and how their idiosyncrasies can represent ways humans interact with Christ. ‘Winnie the Pooh is that simple live-in-the-moment bear, transparent, guileless, and rejoicing in this holy unrepeatable now’ (p 31). Pooh trusts that the adventure will always work out and that honey will always be found, much like the child that Jesus encourages disciples to be. Christopher Robin is the beloved disciple, the Christ-bearer who ‘brings the storyteller’s message to the 100 Acre Wood. He is the mirror of love and wisdom that animates Winnie and his friends…’ (p 40) and shares what he is learning with them. Piglet is the small creature who is beautiful and brave, more so for the fact that he is often anxious about the adventures he goes on with Winnie and Christopher Robin.
The Christian adventure can be scary too, but believers are encouraged to be anxious about nothing. Rabbit is the character who loves order and familiarity but is xenophobic. In his interactions with the aliens, Kanga and Roo, and the irrepressible Tigger, Rabbit discovers that ‘others’ can bring joy and balance to the community. Eeyore is the reality tester knowing he is not the centre of the universe, but who appreciates even the smallest of blessings. Owl’s ‘wisdom’ often confuses the others but they love him still, concerned that he may be just as ignorant as the rest of them. Together, this family of explorers and adventurers, see wonder and joy in all they do.
Disney is about to release Pooh’s first live action film with Ewan McGregor playing the grown up Christopher Robin. He has lost his way, a very real fear of the child in the last story of The House at Pooh Corner who is about to leave the Wood. Perhaps, as Epperly suggests, the adult Christopher (as well as all grown-ups) will need to embrace the child-like wisdom of Pooh and his friends in order to truly live.
Perhaps Christ was truly present as I played snap with my three year-old niece and Alzheimer’s-affected grandmother, or as my niece and I rescued sheep from the midnight zone of the ocean playing Octonauts on the drive home today.
Dr Katherine Grocott