June 22nd, 2017 .

Oh, To Write Like Milne

Pat Morden

 

I was thrilled to learn that a new movie, “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” tells the story of author A. A. Milne and his son, Christopher Robin. It’s a story worth telling, because Milne’s stories have introduced millions of children to the joys of books and reading.

Some people aspire to write like Dickens or Austen or Munro. I long to have the sure and subtle touch of A.A. Milne.

I just hope “Goodbye, Christopher Robin,” gets it right. It has been noted that the movie’s release coincides with the 40th anniversary of the first Walt Disney Pooh movie. But let’s be perfectly clear here – the Disney organization took a book filled with sly humour and very British restraint and turned it into sticky sentimentality. And that made the company a(nother) fortune.

So much of what makes Milne a brilliant writer is what he doesn’t say. Consider this, the beginning of Chapter 1, which purports to explain the mystery of the famous teddy bear’s odd name:

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?”

“I don’t.”

“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.

Or how about this utterly on-point and very adult evocation of the kind of person (okay, donkey) who revels in his own sadness.

Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood by the side of the stream, and looked at himself in the water.

“Pathetic,” he said. “That’s what it is. Pathetic.”

He turned and walked slowly down the stream for twenty yards, splashed across it, and walked slowly back on the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.

 

“As I thought,” he said. “No better from this side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.”

It’s very funny and incredibly tragic at the same moment. How does Milne do that?

Or how’s this for the perfect way to reassure a friend in a worrying situation.

The wind was against them, and Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners as he fought his way along, and it seemed hours before he got them into the shelter of the Hundred Acres Wood and they stood up straight again, to listen, a little nervously, to the roaring of the gale among the treetops.

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

By contrast, the Disney version has given rise to hit-you-over-the-head sweetness, such as:

“How do you spell love,” asked Piglet.

“You don’t spell it, you feel it,” said Pooh.

Surely the earth tembles as A.A. Milne rotates violently in his grave. Certainly, my back teeth ache.

Remember the moment in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” where P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, picks up a Disney-version stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh, and mutters, “Poor A.A. Milne”?

Similarly, E.H. Shepard’s almost impressionistic line drawings, which so perfectly convey well-loved toys, were replaced in the Disney version—plump, colourful, always brand new, and in the case of Pooh, wearing an entirely unnecessary and annoying red shirt.

(Oops, did I let my feelings get away with me for a moment? Very un-British.)

Being a passionate believer in plain language, I end with a passage in which the erudite Owl discusses flood conditions with Christopher Robin.

“I say, Owl,” said Christopher Robin, “isn’t this fun? I’m on an island!”

“The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately,” said Owl.

“The what?”

“It has been raining,” explained Owl.

“Yes,” said Christopher Robin. “It has.”

“The flood-level has reached an unprecedented height.”

“The who?”

“There’s lot sof water about,” explained Owl.

“Yes,” said Christopher Robin. “There is.”

“However, the prospects are rapidly becoming more favourable. At any moment-”

“Have you seen Pooh?”

 

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