Pooh, Christopher Robin reunited in new book
Friday, October 2, 2009
LONDON -- When we left them, Christopher Robin was going away, and Things were going to be Different.
Now, more than eight decades later, a rumor is sweeping the Hundred Acre Wood. According to Owl, who heard it from Rabbit, who heard it from Piglet, the adventures are about to resume. It falls to the bear to pass on the news to Eeyore.
"It's Christopher Robin," said Winnie-the-Pooh. "He's coming back."
The drama (and for the Hundred Acre Wood, where life is lived gently, this qualifies) unfurls in the first authorized sequel to A.A. Milne's classic children's tales. Called "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood," the book by author David Benedictus goes on sale Oct. 5 and picks up where Milne's "The House at Pooh Corner," first published in 1928, left off.
Pooh purists are surprised anyone thinks there's a need for a new book, arguing that Milne's work should be left to stand alone. But the Trustees of Pooh Properties -- which manages the affairs of the estates of Milne and illustrator E.H. Shepard -- had long wanted to carry on with the books first published in the 1920s.
"When I first mentioned it there was sort of a shocked silence, and the people to whom I spoke said, 'ooh, you can't do that. Oh, no no no. That wouldn't do at all,"' recalled trustee Michael Brown, when he first raised the possibility of a sequel.
It wasn't until the trustees read an early version of the story that Benedictus sent them that they felt there was an appropriate successor, Brown said.
This is a classic-looking Pooh. In the illustrations by Mark Burgess, Christopher Robin seems a little older, but Piglet returns to his traditional green outfit, and the bear hasn't dropped any weight. But there is a new addition to the Wood's residents, according to advance publicity: Lottie the Otter, a stickler for etiquette who is also a keen fan of the very English game of cricket, joins the crowd.
Benedictus said it seemed right that a new friend arrive for new adventures. He said he was careful to keep the spirit, tone, and language faithful to Milne -- though he didn't feel any particular pressure in taking up where the classic left off.
"If I did it badly, it wouldn't be like I'd destroyed the originals," said Benedictus, a novelist and playwright who was responsible for the audio adaptations of several Pooh stories. "I hoped I could do it well. But no, I don't think I felt a weighty responsibility -- that would have been a bit pompous."
Pompous, perhaps, but understandable. In Britain, Pooh is "an intrinsic part of our culture, terribly English, a national treasure and all that," Brown said. The manuscripts are held by Cambridge University, the British Library has important Pooh items -- correspondence and small figurines of the characters, for example -- and Milne's work is held in high esteem by fans and academics alike.
"It's absolutely the best book ever written, and I mean it," said Maria Nikolajeva, a professor of education at Cambridge University, who has taught Milne's work for 30 years.
"All the primary things that are necessary for human life are there," she said. "It's a philosophical book, it's a book with incredible depth, and it's a pity if it's misinterpreted as light entertainment."
In fact, Winnie the Pooh inspired a runaway best-seller in the 1980s called "The Tao of Pooh" which used the beloved bear to explain the basics of the eastern philosophical tradition of Taoism.
In the final chapter of "The House at Pooh Corner," Christopher Robin asks for understanding, "whatever happens," and makes Pooh promise he won't forget about him, ever. Pooh does, and Milne then makes a promise of his own to the reader: Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them, there will always be a little boy and his bear playing in an enchanted place.
The book addresses topics such as the necessity of growing up and moving on, Nikolajeva says, and she believes that if Milne had wanted a sequel to the books, he would have written it himself.
"The whole point is that the boy has to go away from his childhood, from this very idyllic pastoral world of his childhood," she said. "This is an absolutely perfect ending, and doing anything beyond this is pointless."
Benedictus disagrees, suggesting that Milne was turning his attentions to a more grown-up audience. "I think he always rather resented the fact that he'd had so much success with his children's books," he said, adding that Milne, who died in 1956, might have run out of ideas or have been finished with his characters.
Milne had written books and plays for adults pre-Pooh, and also worked at "Punch" magazine as a writer and editor. Post-Pooh, he continued to write for grown-ups but remained best known for his works for younger readers.
Brown said the book, which is published in Britain by Egmont Publishing and in the U.S. by Penguin imprint Dutton Children's Books, tried to be sensitive to the original works.
"The good professor and other great lovers of Pooh will have to form their own conclusions," Brown said. "And they may say, 'oh, it's not quite as good, it's not quite the same.' I can't help that. All I can say is we tried very hard to do something that's not offensive, shall we say."