As a child, most of us experienced A.A. Milne’s beautiful storytelling, whether our parents read his collection of stories to us by nightlight or we used them as one of the first books we were able to read. Pooh Bear stories really are intrinsically linked with childhood, early development and younger years. Look at any baby store or child’s clothing website and there are cots, babygros and milk bottles with pictures of Milne’s characters all over them. Nice, isn’t it? You’d be forgiven for taking the calm pastels and cuddly characters as all very twee.
Recently I re-read Milne’s 1926 initial volume of stories, Winnie-The-Pooh. As an avid reader, (and never one to miss a metaphor) I spotted something wonderful about Milne’s characters. Something I think he did on purpose. Something I think he hid from a child’s young eyes. Something I think he intended for the parents.
The idea is this: each character represents a disorder, illness, disability or overriding trait. Think about it….
Here are the characters, broken down:
1. Pooh – Obesity/ body dismorphia/bulimia.
He regularly checks his appearance in the mirror and tries to diet as a result of what he sees. He repeatedly fails to cut back on his beloved ‘Hunny’ and his delightful binges are a recurring scene. His symbolic red T-Shirt is slightly too small for him, leaving space for his burgeoning belly to be affectionately rubbed and patted.
2. Tigger – ADHD/bipolar.
He is hyperactive for most of the time, bouncing up and down on his tail to the disturbance of other characters. He experiences severe highs of manic behaviour and then switches to prolonged sadness and sobriety.
3. Piglet – Anxiety/low self esteem.
Piglet is worried about everything and seeks solace in Pooh. He needs reassurance about the smallest detail and has little or no confidence in acting independently. Piglet often assumes a worst case scenario in difficult situations and as a result often trembles or cowers in fear.
4. Eeyore – Depression/melancholia.
Possibly the most obvious connection, this character is even coloured a ‘moody blue’ or ‘depressive grey’ to echo his dark moods. He rarely attends social occasions but when he does, he is negative and pessimistic. Bad things happen to Eeyore regularly, such as his wooden house falling down, and his reaction is always of sombre melancholy. His eyes are always downcast, and his facial expressions, especially in the films, are of dejection and despair.
5. Owl – High intelligence /possibly Alzheimer’s.
Owl is the elder of the group, and enjoys the implication that the other characters come to him for help or guidance. It is assumed that Owl knows the answer to everything, and he is sometimes described as in deep study or difficult research. His intelligence is significantly superior, but, possibly as a result of this, his memory and retention suffers. This could be an allusion to forgetfulness in old age, or possibly Alzheimer’s disease.
6. Rabbit – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
His obsession with cleanliness and order means he does not, and can not, relax. He is often tidying or organising, and this trait is repeated throughout descriptions of Rabbit. Often when he is gardening, (in an outside, communal space) he is meticulous in his attention to detail, and when he is at home ( in an underground, secluded rabbit-hole) he keeps his home sparce and ordered.
7. Kanga – Obsessive overprotective maternal instinct.
She is shown to worry about her son when he leaves her to play with friends, and can be said to almost suffocate him. She worries about him when he is away from her, and exaggerates her maternal duties when he returns. Often she is cleaning, grooming, teaching, warning, interrogating, dressing, feeding, and generally tending to her son Roo in an obsessive way which Roo does not reciprocate.
8. Christopher Robin – Schizophrenia/Hallucinations.
As the only real human of the text’s characters, Christopher Robin is seen differently. It is very possible that all the characters mentioned above, and indeed their personalities and dwelling grounds, are figments of Christopher Robin’s imagination as an excitable child. When you realise that all of Christopher Robin’s friends are stuffed toys living in a fictitious forest, you begin to question who he really is. His interpretation is perhaps the most intriguing, possibly because out of all of the characters he is seen as the most rational and responsible. His vivid imaginations of the other characters, or possibly wild hallucinations, have created detailed accounts and representations of real life (the disorders) through the body of fictional life (the characters). This faulty perception and withdrawal from logical human existence draws links with schizophrenia. But it could, on a more innocent level, portray a young inquisitive mind imagining all the colours of human emotion through the medium of play and interpretation.
These are probably all the main characters, before Milne wrote in other characters in other stories. However, one is missing: Kanga’s baby Roo, the little son who she is so protective of. There have been little, if any, claims that Roo has any form of disorder or personality fault. The reason? He is just a child. I would say that Milne saw fit to leave him be, in his perfect state of youth and innocence. Roo, fundamentally still a child, has not yet the time nor life experience to acquire a defining personality trait or disability. Of course, if he grows up…
What is Milne saying here? That, as we grow older and experience more of the real world, we become tainted? That, as a result of this tarring, our personalities express this by way of disorders and faults? Has Milne taken his inspiration for his Pooh Bear stories from Blake? Does this reading of the classic text show an allusion to Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience of 1789? It very nearly could do, because the youngest child in the texts is left unharmed by the author’s pen, where the older characters’ experiences with life leave them marred via disabling personalities. A dark and pessimistic view, granted. However:
It could also be said that the Winnie The Pooh series is written as an allegory for real human life, where the The Hundred Acre Wood is a microcosm, with each character alluding to a specific trait of human being. In essence, Milne is educating the reader of the whole spectrum of human emotion. Because these stories are specifically written for a younger audience, we can assume that Milne actively wanted children to develop a greater emotional understanding, a sense of empathy towards others, and an acceptance that everybody is different (and that that’s OK).
The Pooh Bear stories are essentially innocent children’s reading, even before this more mature revelation. But even so, once this concept is grasped, the stories keep their original sense of innocence because all of the disorders are seen, projected, and interpreted through a child’s eyes. That is to say, the characters’ disorders do not stop them from living, making friends, or generally getting on in life. These conditions are universally accepted within the group. They are rarely questioned, attacked, or bemoaned. They just are. If there is any lesson which Milne wanted to teach through his Pooh Bear stories, I think this is it.
So when we see a scene with all of the characters, what we are really seeing is all of the human mind.