An important theme in Milne’s stories and poems is the relationship between adults and children. Adults appear fairly often in the poems, seldom in the stories. When they appear, they are shown as perceived by the children or by the animals, who are, with one exception in the Pooh stories, themselves children. Having apparently lost the sense of being a child (a loss which Milne himself clearly avoided), adults in Milne’s books fail to understand children. They ask tiresome questions about their wellness, which children must take pains to answer, as in the poem “Politeness,” while secretly wishing that the adults would discard the habit. Children do not rebel against parents in Milne’s work so much as express displeasure while acknowledging the inevitability of adults’ ascendancy.
The one exception to adults’ exclusion in the stories is Kanga, the diligent mother of Roo. When this little family of kangaroos comes into the Hundred Acre Wood, the other animals immediately object to the “Strange Animal.” Part of Kanga’s strangeness is her habit of carrying her son in her pocket, which they see as an excessive way of maintaining adult oppressiveness. Kanga is extraordinarily watchful when Roo is out of the pocket trying to enjoy himself. She is constantly insisting that it is time for them to go home and that Roo must be given two things which children are inclined to dislike: medicine and a bath. The other animals quickly decide to take action against Kanga. Their plan to steal Roo away from her avoids the starkness of real rebellion, they think, because they sneak a substitute, Piglet, into her pocket. However, Kanga’s mastery of adult watchfulness foils the plot. She takes Piglet home, pretends that he is Roo, applies the bath and the medicine, and adds withering criticisms of Piglet. Fortunately for the little pig, Christopher Robin appears and insists that Roo is back with animal friends but apparently cannot recognize the newly bathed Piglet.
Christopher, however, is for all the animals a gentle version of adulthood. He represents the kind, helpful, unassuming presence for which the animals long. He regularly appears when his assistance is truly needed. At the end of the first Kanga and Roo story, of course, the other animals and the new residents become friends. There are intimations, however, that Christopher is destined for the role of adulthood. He is away from home much of the day, for he is being educated, being prepared for adulthood.
In some of the early poems children play at being adults or, as in “Nursery Chairs,” scaring adults. The speaker of the “second chair” scares her nanny by pretending to be a lion in a cage. In “Disobedience” the child tells of a mother who has sinned in the manner of a child by running off “to the end of the town” and getting herself lost. A mother who runs away from home is a humorous and impossible situation to the young spirits of the Hundred Acre Wood.
For the most part Milne’s children and animals simply behave like children. They live in a world fashioned by adults, but they make it their own by imposing convenient regulations on themselves beyond the imaginative capacities of adults. They imagine that a “bear” will get them if they step on the lines between sidewalk tiles, or they sit “halfway down”a stairway because it is not the top or the bottom but a place that “isn’t really anywhere.” An even better escape is the journey to places in the natural world left unappropriated by adults: uninhabited islands, hills, and—especially in the Pooh stories—the forest. These places are children’s territory where exciting things can happen, like the appearance of the Heffalump, a mythical being that Milne knows needs no description because every child can imagine his own Heffalump. They are enchanted places, but the chief enchantment is the absence of adults and the conviction that these places are made for children and animals and in part by them, such as their dwellings, chiefly in hollow trees that conveniently incorporate remoteness and domestic necessities.
Many other themes have been discovered in the Pooh stories. Milne’s animal characters exaggerate, almost caricature human traits, somewhat like those in the characters of Charles Dickens’s novels, often with characteristic sayings. For instance, Pooh is a creature of “very little brain,” as he freely admits. He is struggling to succeed in the face of a formidable personal limitation—as is the typical reader. Eeyore, the melancholy donkey, needs constant cheering up but in the process cheers the reader with his humorous self-deprecation. On his birthday, for instance, he offers thanks for his nonexistent birthday cake and the candles that are not there either. Tigger has an eating problem. He knows just what he likes until he tries it, in the way of many children, and discovers that he does not like it after all. Piglet, as with many children of small stature, is inclined to feel inconsequential.
As friends they help each other compensate for their deficiencies. They are presexual, preadult creatures who appeal to children not yet bewildered by these later problems, whereas adult readers are transported back to the time when their world also was one of birthday parties, unfailing friendships, and exciting adventures in which threatened catastrophes are regularly circumvented.
The style of Milne’s stories and poems is simple, humorous, and, like the characters, playful. The characters wrestle with words and their permutations and confront polysyllables such as “expedition” and “resolution,” which insist on coming out in the animals’ mouths as “expotition” and “rissolution.” The stories have a large proportion of efficient dialogue that moves the action along and reinforces the characters’ traits. Milne was also very fond of nonsense words of the type that Dr. Seuss later perfected: expressions such as “woozle,” “squch,” and “mastershalums.” In the poems, Milne achieves little surprises with unexpected rhymes of the sort later associated with Ogden Nash: “Copses” leads to “wopses”;...
(The entire section is 2536 words.)