Many years ago, I was an undergraduate studying maths at Trinity College, Cambridge. There is an annual prize for public speaking at Trinity, called the Hooper Declamation Prize. I entered the competition twice, and won it once. I believe that was in 1996. The rules that year were to talk on one of the supplied quotes from famous Trinity alumni. I chose “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother Me” written by A. A. Milne.
For a long time I believed that the text of my speech was lost – or at least buried deep in the Mono BBS which I used to spend a lot of time on. Tonight I found a copy of it on a now-defunct Poohsoc home page, captured by the Wayback Machine, and thought it worth resurrecting here.
I haven’t edited it beyond replacing a “1” with “I” and removing a couple of spaces before colons. There are almost certainly further typos, missing words and worse, but they were presumably in the original text file I typed out all those years ago.
I wrote this over half a lifetime ago, but I can still easily recognise my own writing and speaking style in the text. I leave it to the reader to consider whether this is a good thing or not.
In writing the phrase, “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother Me,” I feel A. A. Milne summed up his whole world view as seen through the ideas of Pooh Bear. However, only in the context of the rest of his slightly paranoid but nonetheless beautiful parody of our world does it achieve its full potency.
Many take this to be just a rather sweet little line for Pooh to say whilst visiting Owl – in fact, it bears the weight of Milne’s view of the world and its intellectual class struggles. This is by no means the first of his references to this struggle, but it carries the most impact.
I shall outline for you what I believe Milne’s view of society to be, and hopefully it will become obvious that Pooh’s line is at the crux of an intricate web of intellectual one-upmanship.
The first glimpse we have of this web happens even before the first chapter of Winnie the Pooh, in the introduction. Milne says that although “can’t take Pooh to school without everybody knowing it”, “Piglet is so small that he slips into a pocket, where it is very comforting to feel him when you are not quite sure whether twice seven is twelve or twenty-two.” I think this may in fact be accidental, for by putting it under his own name and not as said by a character, he is already taking the attitude at he ridicules and fights against throughout the two Pooh books.
However, in the very same paragraph, he states that “[Piglet]… has got more education than Pooh, but Pooh doesn’t mind. Some have brains, and some haven’t, he says, and there it is,” emphasising the lack of importance of intellect to Pooh. So, straight away we have a contradiction between Milne’s patronising nature and his wish for an end to intellectual bigotry. Perhaps Milne’s aim in writing these books was to confront his own prejudice, as consistently the narrative highlights such behaviour in a discouraging way, but Christopher Robin is almost the most patronising of all the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood. Milne clearly puts himself in the part of Christopher Robin, at least during the main narrative sections, as the sole human, and often the only character interested in actually learning as opposed to merely demonstrating knowledge.
The characters are introduced to us fairly gradually in “Winnie-The-Pooh”, possibly so we can fully realise what each is meant to represent before the next is brought onto the stage, as it were. Obviously, the first animal we meet is Pooh himself, who, along with Piglet, is very easy to understand. Pooh and Piglet form a pair, and represent the working class masses who take little or no pleasure from thinking. Indeed, the very phrase “I am a Bear of Very Little Brain” underlines this – and, I believe, Milne’s idea of the inferiority complex that he perceives the working class as having. They are constantly confused by any writing, and both Owl and Rabbit (on whom I shall elaborate later) often treat them with disdain. Milne seems to go to any length to display their stupidity: Pooh following his own footprints, and Piglet thinking Pooh is a Heffalump form the basis for two whole chapters. However, the narrative itself is never unkind, only the characters. Eeyore, Owl, and Rabbit chide Pooh the most, although I personally find no offence in Eeyore’s scoldings as firstly he has more justification, due to his greater intelligence, and secondly he is miserable with everyone for most of the time, irrespective of their education.
Christopher Robin comes out with variations on “Silly old Bear” any number of times, but usually qualifies it with a statement of how fond he is of Pooh. Indeed, at one stage Pooh becomes quite dejected, proclaiming that “I have been Foolish and Deluded… and I am a Bear of No Brain at All,” and Christopher Robin retorts that he is the best bear in all the world. However, I find Christopher Robin’s attitude condescending in general, and he never denies Pooh’s claims of stupidity.
Rabbit, one of the more complicated characters, is introduced in the second chapter, when Pooh visits him and becomes stuck in his entrance after eating too much. This chapter not only shows Rabbit for what he really is, but is an absolute stroke of genius which could have saved millions from misery had they only taken its lesson to heart.
Rabbit is clearly meant to represent the politicians of this world. He is permanently busy, he lies in his very first words to Pooh, and throughout the books he is the natural leader out of the animals – if Christopher Robin isn’t involved, but a plan is required, it is Rabbit who is usually in charge. This chapter gives us a gentle introduction to him, but also predicts an event perhaps sixty years ahead of its time. Wells predicted the laser, amongst other things, and Verne’s visions have also been uncannily accurate in several cases, but I think it is a mark of Milne’s genius that he was able to predict mass overspending on credit and its effects, demonstrating it with a simple homily in the world of the Hundred Acre Wood.
To remind you of the chapter, Pooh visited Rabbit, and ate the honey and condensed milk that Rabbit offered him. This is, I believe, the equivalent of the government encouraging increased spending, without considering the possible problems of families living on credit and counting the cost too late. In Pooh’s case, “too late” came when he tried to leave, and found he was too plump to get out. Despite being pushed and pulled, he couldn’t budge – just as families in debt find they can’t get out of the credit hole they dig for themselves. Pooh just had to stay there without eating, whilst Christopher Robin read stories to him. Rabbit himself was very little help, and ended up using Pooh’s legs as a towel-horse, much as the government will still try to squeeze whatever taxes it can out of those living in poverty. Fortunately, this story has a happier end than real life, and after only a week, Pooh manages to extricate himself (with a little help from his friends and Rabbit’s relations) and live a normal life again. If only the real world were so kind.
We are introduced to both Eeyore and Owl in the next chapter, which is a touching irony when one realises the quite opposite ideas they represent. At the start of the chapter, Pooh comes across Eeyore thinking quietly to himself, as usual. Pooh spots that Eeyore’s tail is missing, and decides to do his best to find it. Here Eeyore reveals his nature in two speeches: when Pooh tells Eeyore of his tail’s mysterious absence, Eeyore says, “Someone must have taken it. How Like Them.” A couple of paragraphs later, when Pooh has pledged himself to find the tail, he says, “Thank you, Pooh. You’re a real friend. Not Like Some.” Taken with the other hints given about Eeyore, we now have enough evidence to suppose that Eeyore in fact represents the concept of Truth. He is wise, quiet (for truth rarely if ever advertises itself – to access it, one must be patient, humble, and ready to listen), and, unfortunately, sad. I cannot help but feel that Milne must have taken a fairly dim view of the world. Whether through frustration at his attitudes so hateful to himself, or possibly his ideas about what a grind the world is for everyone both high and low, he comes through as being depressed at the state of living in his time, despite the general gaiety of life in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Pooh, in his blissful idealism thinks that if anyone knows where Eeyore’s tail is, it’ll be Owl. He goes to visit Owl, and here we catch a glimpse of Owl’s character before we even meet him – we learn that Owl “wise though he was in many ways, able to read and write and spell his own name (WOL), [ … ] somehow went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTEREDTOAST [sic]”. However, it is a good job that we are told that by the narrative, as Owl himself would never deign to admit defeat when it comes to writing. Indeed, in another chapter, he misspells “A Happy Birthday” and lies to Pooh by saying it says “A Very Happy Birthday with love from Pooh”. Predictably enough, what he actually writes is garbage… although whether he realises this himself could be argued both ways. When we meet Owl, we find he is an intellectual snob of the first order. He reels off long words (which, one presumes, he knows will Bother Pooh) and our amiable Bear gently nods off. On waking, he is shown Owl’s bell-rope, which, unsurprisingly, is Eeyore’s long lost tail. By now we have already, and regrettably, realised Owl’s place in Milne’s world. Much as it saddens me to say it, I believe Owl is Milne’s perception of how his academic superiors were at our very own beloved College. I suspect he thought himself superior to them, as he was still learning whereas he viewed their knowledge as limited, stale, and dwindling. It is not until we reach the climax of the story, however, that we realise quite how bitterly Milne feels about them. Owl explains that he didn’t realise it was Eeyore’s tail, and that it “came off in his hand”. Here we see Milne’s idea that teachers take Truth wherever they can find it, in incomplete sections, from possibly immoral sources, and often without realising it. They parade it under false pretences, all for the benefit of their own image. Of course, it is Milne, in the guise of Christopher Robin, who puts Eeyore’s tail back. I cannot fully express my sadness at the unfortunate state of Milne’s obviously highly gifted mind – had he more willingly accepted the ideas from his mentors how much greater could he have been?
My theory about the subtext within Milne’s work was, after the first six chapters of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, that the whole book was simply a comment on intellectual prejudice. However, when I carefully read chapter seven, “In which Kanga and Baby Roo come to the Forest, and Piglet has a bath,” I discovered that Milne was expanding his initial attacks to any kind of bigotry. From the first line in the chapter, which reads, “Nobody seemed to know where they came from, but there they were in the Forest: Kanga and Baby Roo,” it is clear that racial tension is the next issue he is tackling. Rabbit emphasises the point: “[ … ] we wake up one morning, and what do we find? We find a Strange Animal among us.” Of course, to mirror the racism in the real world, the animals of the forest plan to drive Kanga and Roo out as soon as they can, by any means necessary – Rabbit’s plan involves the kidnap of Roo. Of course, Kanga turns out not to be a Strange Animal after all – she is a devoted mother, who is intelligent and has a good sense of humour. As I have already mentioned, the narrative appears to have no prejudices, and attempts to show that this is the correct attitude to have.
After the first episode involving Kanga and Roo, Milne seems to lose interest in racial affairs. When Tigger comes to the forest, in “The House at Pooh Corner”, Pooh is initially wary but after less than a page is quite happy to sleep in the same room as him. In fact, in this, the second book about Pooh, there are far fewer statements about the way Milne views the world. As most of his insights are fairly pessimistic about life in general, perhaps this is a sign of his having been of a cheerier disposition whilst writing about the further adventures of Pooh. Indeed, as opposed to the plethora of negative, almost angry emotions we feel coming through the subtext of “Winnie-the-Pooh”, “The House at Pooh Corner” seems to contain far more humour about life, and where it is sad about the state of things, it feels more like nostalgia than bitterness. Maybe Milne had learnt that although money can’t buy you happiness, a best-selling book can bring one satisfaction. Hopefully he had been able to put behind him the sadness that Trinity seemed to have unfortunately bestowed on him, and was now not so paranoid about the educational ratrace.
Only four points come to mind from “The House at Pooh Corner.” The first is about the nature of Tigger. When I was considerably younger than I am now, which is to say somewhere between being old enough to listen but too young to read – my old and battered copy of “The House at Pooh Corner” has an inscription on it saying, “One of these days you’ll be old enough to read this yourself!” – Tigger was always my favourite animal. He was full of vitality, and seemed more brightly coloured to me than any of the other characters. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that Tigger, to me at least, represents mass entertainment and humour. He is the “Fantasy Football League” of the Forest. Always having silly ideas, he makes a fool not only of himself, but of those around him. When he climbs a tree, he preys on the innocence and ignorance of young Roo, who never appears to realise either the danger of his predicament or his foolishness for trusting Tigger in the first place. There are any number of ways we can interpret this tale: perhaps it represents gambling, maybe drugs, or possibly the ever more extravagant rumours of the popular press, taking the general public further and further up the tree of scandal. Only Milne knew for sure, but I think the lesson holds, however we may view it.
The second event of importance is when we learn of Christopher Robin’s education. I think it is best put in Milne’s dialogue between Eeyore and Piglet:
“Do you know what A means, little Piglet?”
“No, Eeyore, I don’t.”
“It means Learning, it means Education, it means all the things that you and Pooh haven’t got. That’s what A means.”
And later, from Eeyore…
“What does Christopher Robin do in the mornings? He learns. He becomes Educated.”
This, together with Christopher Robin’s improved spelling, demonstrates that Milne believes the hard work involved in real learning, to be the true mark of a healthy mind and not just knowledge without understanding.
The third incident involves Tigger, and is of great importance in reinforcing Milne’s ideas of how misleading entertainment may be. A small matter in the Forest’s eyes, Tigger’s bouncing Eeyore into the river takes on a whole new perspective when we remember Eeyore’s place in things as Truth. Clearly it is reflective of our shunning of reality, and needing to escape into a fantasy world for recreation.
The final point I draw from “The House at Pooh Corner” always fills me with a certain nostalgia and wistfulness for my real childhood. Again, the first few lines of the final chapter in the book sum up what is to come: “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.” I suspect everyone here has had that feeling – either about their friends, themselves, or possibly their own children, and it is a sad feeling. Childhood can never be recovered, and although the book ends ostensibly cheerily, I always feel the picture on the final page, with Pooh and Christopher Robin skipping into the distance, is a lie, trying to hide the loss of innocence and wonder. I miss my childhood – I miss being able to read charming books such as these without seeing metaphors everywhere, whether intended or not.
I will finish with a short dialogue which I believe to be the most touchingly funny little section of the whole Pooh history. It occurs at the end of the first book, and Pooh and Piglet are walking home together.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.