By Tom Anderson
’Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now...ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But I thought he was a boy?”
“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.
“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”
“But you said—”
“He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ‘ther’ means?”
“Ah yes, now I do,” I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is all the explanation you are going to get.’
– Opening lines of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, 1926
It is clear, on even the most cursory inspection, that some literary characters have been responsible for extraordinary influence on the world. The works they influence go on to influence other works in turn. Sometimes the more obvious of these chains of consequence can obscure subtler ones. For example, it should be apparent to everyone that Ian Fleming’s James Bond was the single biggest influence on spy fiction and thrillers in history, with later works either emulating the model or reacting against it for a more gritty and realistic feel. But James Bond also changed how cinema worked by being a long-running action film franchise that could perpetually reinvent and renew itself, keeping audiences coming back for more. Despite the lack of similarity of the characters, plots and settings, Indiana Jones was originally pitched as ‘James Bond in the 1930s’, thinking of this franchise model rather than those things. The success of Indiana Jones and the influence of those films on fiction then in turn becomes obvious, meaning we can miss the subtler things; early video games like Pitfall were heavily inspired by Indiana Jones, Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame was envisaged as ‘a female Indiana Jones’, then became so popular in her own right that Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series was pitched as ‘a male Lara Croft’.
None of this has much to do with the subject of today’s article, but it is an illustration in how chains of influence can be both readily apparent and more subtle. The Winnie-the-Pooh franchise (today owned by Disney, which usually spells it without the hyphens) has brought joy to generations since its original appearance, almost a century ago, in the works of A. A. Milne. These were inspired by the adventures and imaginings of his son Christopher Robin, someone who had a rather more mixed experience with the books—their very popularity led to him being bullied at school and being defined by them in later life. Winnie-the-Pooh, a bear of ‘very little brain’ but a very big heart, lives in the Hundred Acre Wood with his disparate animal friends—whose diversity stems from them being derived from the real Christopher Robin’s collection of soft toys. The Winnie-the-Pooh stories are far from the only works of fiction to be ultimately derived from the toys of an author’s children combined with storytelling and childish imagination: a recent example from the 2010s is Axe Cop, in that case the result of two siblings with a very great age gap playing together.
Milne created archetypes which resonate with us as much today as they did in the 1920s; the stuffy and pompous know-it-alls who actually know rather little, Owl and Rabbit; the rambunctious and excitable Tigger; the cantankerous and pessimistic donkey Eeyore, who managed the Shakespearean feat of gifting the adjective ‘Eeyorish’ to the English language; and, of course, the humble and bold would-be poet Pooh and his timorous sidekick Piglet. Christopher Robin also appears in the stories himself, whose childhood wonders and humour eventually take on a more serious and poignant tone. There are only two collections of Pooh stories (a fact which surprises many when they learn of it), Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, and the final story involves Christopher Robin and Pooh reflecting on the fact that he will soon grow up and have to leave their adventures behind, but a memory will always endure.
Some might critique the very influential 1960s Disney cartoon adaptations, which Americanised the trappings of the setting; the characters have US voice acting, a suitably North American animal was added in the form of Gopher, and the iconic theme song includes the line ‘the enchanted neighbourhood’, a phrase more American than shooting apple pies out of a gun to ensure an uncontested state legislature election. Joking aside, the 1960s cartoons do nonetheless authentically capture a lot of the charm and childish logic that makes the original stories appeal. It is later Disney works that played about more with the setting and led to more criticism. A newspaper cartoon strip rather randomly added the characters of ‘Sir Brian and the Dragon’, although to be fair these were ultimately derived from Milne’s poetry, which already had considerable crossover with the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. The Disney depiction of Pooh wearing a red shirt—which he doesn’t in any of the actual Winnie-the-Pooh stories—is derived from an illustration in the poem ‘Teddy Bear’ in the collection When We Were Very Young, although the illustrations were black and white originally; the red colour was first added on an RCA Victor picture record in 1932. Later Disney works controversially replaced Christopher Robin with a young girl and featured a Heffalump (a childish pronunciation of ‘elephant’), which in the original stories is a purely mythical beast. Some, such as J. R. R. Tolkien (who wrote to Milne to complain that he had RUINED The Wind in the Willows with his stage adaptation Toad of Toad Hall, and that his children had been in tears as a result), might argue that Milne deserved everything he got.
However, Disney won back the crowd with the live-action film Christopher Robin in 2018—not to be confused with Goodbye Christopher Robin in 2017, which is about the real person. The Disney film uses a similar gimmick to what the 1991 film Hook did with Peter Pan; the fictional Christopher Robin has grown up, started a family and has a dull office management job at a company that makes luggage. When he accidentally encounters his childhood toys again and they come to life, Pooh and company must help him solve a financial crisis that will otherwise lead to many workers being sacked. The film shifts the setting back to the UK in an appropriate era, and the toy characters’ depiction is influenced by the real Christopher Robin’s original toys (which are now displayed in the New York Public Library) as well as the classic Disney cartoons. Incidental music from the latter is also used, and the film’s opening is inspired by the aforementioned final Winnie-the-Pooh story in which Christopher Robin says goodbye. The film was a financial and critical success, illustrating the continuing appeal of the stories for children and adults alike almost a century after their debut.
Nor is this appeal limited to the English-speaking world. Streets are named after Pooh in Poland and Hungary; Kenny Loggins wrote a song titled ‘The House at Pooh Corner’, the title of the second book, and an Estonian metal band named itself for the character. Three Soviet cartoon film adaptations, sometimes called Vinni Pukh to reflect the Russian transliteration, first came out in 1969 and are still well-remembered. In contrast to this rising above the political divides of the Cold War, in recent years Pooh has received bizarre censorship in the People’s Republic of China, due to popular memes mocking PRC leader Xi Jinping by comparing him to Pooh.
Once again, the immediate visibility and success of the Pooh franchise itself is only the most obvious example of influence, and there are many subtler ones. The aforementioned term ‘heffalump’ has entered the language; political journalists use ‘heffalump trap’ to mean a trap intended to catch an opponent but which ends up trapping the trapper (as happens to Pooh in one story); Sweden’s Expressen newspaper awards a Heffalump Award for best children’s fiction; the programming language BCPL includes a ‘heffalump operator’ and ‘heffalon particles’ is a term used by some physicists for fictious discoveries for April Fool’s. Other scientists named the ‘Woozle Effect’, referring to nonexistent facts being popularly believed due to repeatedly citing papers which do not contain that information and nobody checking them—named for the fictional ‘Woozles’ which Pooh and Piglet believe they are following, when they are actually seeing their own footprints going round and round a larch tree. Pooh’s invented game of ‘Poohsticks’, involving dropping sticks from a bridge into a river and seeing which one appears on the other side first, has been defictionalised and is now played in real life.
References to Pooh have appeared in the most unexpected of places. The Warhammer 40,000 tabletop gaming setting feels like the antithesis of what we are discussing, ‘in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war’. Yet the Ciaphas Cains eries of stories in that setting by Sandy Mitchell feature repeated Pooh references, such as Cain and his soldiers sitting down to eat ‘cottleston pie’ (from a poem by Pooh) and the appearance of a starship called the Trespassers William (based on Piglet’s belief that this was his grandfather’s name, due to him living under a broken sign reading ‘Trespassers W—‘). Nor is this the only appearance in science fiction; in the Star Trek novel Q-Squared by Peter David (a writer known for his humorous references), the childlike but powerful being Trelane hears the stories and brings the characters to life. Lieutenant Worf is confused when he tells Commander Riker that a bear is rampaging through the deck and a blasé Riker explains to him not to worry, as he is a bear of very little brain.
Despite those examples, probably the single most bizarre appearance of the Winnie-the-Pooh franchise is in the Kingdom Hearts series of videogames. This began as a crossover between the popular (but very, very Japanese) RPG series Final Fantasy by Square Enix, and Disney’s properties—originally mainly meaning its cartoon universes, but this has grown more diverse over the years as Disney has grown to own what feels like everything. One remarkable thing about that franchise is that its defining property in modern popculture is not even the bizarre nature of this crossover, but the fact that the games have grown to have a confusingly complex timeline full of contradictions, and have many side games with obtuse and parodically ridiculous names such as Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. Winnie-the-Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood appear as early as the very first game, as a self-contained ‘breather’ chapter between more heavy action, appropriately given the restful childhood refuge which the stories provide to many. Dimension-hopping main character Sora has to restore pages to the original book, which have been torn out by the villains, to reunite Pooh with his friends. The sequence ends with Sora appearing on the cover of the book in Christopher Robin’s place, done in the style of the original book’s illustrations by Punch artist E. H. Shepard (but with the Disney character designs).
Can we stop for a moment to reflect on how interconnected our world is that a game released in 2002 features anime-esque characters from a Japanese fantasy franchise created in 1987 interacting with British children’s characters from a book from 1926 as re-envisaged by an American animator from 1966 but in the style of a British illustrator who was as successful as early as 1906?
With all this in mind, it’s interesting to reflect on the exact origins of Winnie-the-Pooh to close this article. Fortunately for posterity, A. A. Milne went into this in detail in the introduction to the first book. Christopher Robin’s teddy bear was initially named Edward Bear, likely a simple reference to ‘Teddy’ (the toy and name, of course, stem from Teddy Roosevelt). The strange compound name ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ stems from the fact that the young Christopher Robin once met a swan named Pooh on holiday, and added that name to the name of a bear at London Zoo named Winnie. As A. A. Milne noted in the first chapter quoted at the start of this article, ‘Winnie’ is a girl’s name (usually short for Wilhelmina or Winifred) which was popular in the early 20th century, but with childish logic Christopher Robin was unmoved by this argument and applied it to his male bear. (The author of this article, who as a child (among others) had a female soft toy named ‘Horis’ due to hearing ‘Horace’ as a girl’s name, can sympathise). Ironically, the success of Winnie-the-Pooh probably helped drive that name out of fashion as a name for girls, although it has seen some pushback lately as with many other names formerly thought to be archaic.
The provenance of that Winnie the Bear at London Zoo is itself interesting, and shows the impact of the zoo’s policies on pop culture – as we already saw with Jumbo the Elephant and Guy the Gorilla in an earlier article. That Winnie (1914-1934) was a Canadian black bear and indeed female, but the name was an abbreviation for Winnipeg. On the outbreak of World War I, Harry Colebourn (who lived in that city, though he had emigrated from Birmingham) enlisted in the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps and travelled east. On the way, he purchased a young black bear cub (a hunter had killed her mother) and named her for his adopted home town. Winnie became the unofficial mascot of the Fort Garry Horse, a local regiment for Winnipeg, and was later donated to the Zoo. It was there that the young Christopher Robin encountered her in the 1920s, and was so taken with her that Edward Bear was summarily renamed. The city, incidentally, is named for the nearby Lake Winnipeg, which in term is thought to come from a Cree name meaning ‘Muddy Waters’ and was first used by Europeans in 1690.
Once again, consider the chain of consequences: a name we take for granted as that of a childhood favourite stems from a decision taken to adopt that name by fur trader Henry Kelsey, who was born in East Greenwich in 1667—a year after the Great Fire of London. Little is known of his early life, but we can imagine that his family’s decision to apprentice him to the Hudson’s Bay Company, which sent him out to the wilds of what later became Canada, was influenced by the economic fallout of that disaster. And so once again we can see the example of a subtler impact behind the dramatic and obvious ones. No-one would say the Great Fire of London or the assassination of Franz Ferdinand did not change history—but who would have expected that the existence of a bear named Winnie-the-Pooh in modern film and video games is demonstrably and specifically contingent on those events?
With that reflection on how our every action reshapes the future, perhaps it is just as well that we can always return to the Hundred Acre Wood to seek sanctuary from the real world of adulthood.