Now there’s another character to keep track of in the 100 Acre Wood.
The Best Bear in All the World, a new book just published and timed to celebrate Pooh’s 90th anniversary (that would be today), contains four new stories, including one by Brian Sibley, about a penguin. The story was inspired, Sibley has said, by a photo of a stuffed penguin in the Milne household that presumably came from Harrod’s, the London department store that furnished the other stuffed animals that inspired A.A. Milne’s classic stories about a boy and bear and their friends and relations in the Sussex countryside.
“The thought of Pooh encountering a penguin seemed no more outlandish than his meeting a kangaroo and a tiger in a Sussex wood,” Sibley said in one interview, “so I started thinking about what might have happened if, on a rather snowy day, Penguin had found his way to Pooh Corner.”
I have not read the penguin story, and I doubt I ever will. I have nothing against the people who created the book in which it appears. Not much anyway. I don’t think it was a wise decision, but we live in the age of franchises, where popular authors do not die so much as pass the baton to some other writer who goes on cranking out books about Sherlock Holmes, Jason Bourne, Philip Marlowe, or, now, Winnie the Pooh. Because I know how hard it is for writers to make a living, I do not begrudge them the money made by trying to fill the shoes of Conan Doyle, Chandler, Milne, or whoever. Just don’t ask me to read those books.
Quaint as it seems, there is still a lot to be said for the individual author’s voice. If A.A. Milne had not been such a singular storyteller, I would not be writing this article. To create an indelible, not to say immortal, character, be it a private detective or a portly bear, is a rare thing. Only a handful of writers have managed that. To my way of thinking, we should respect that achievement, and the best way to show respect is to insist that no one else can touch it. Yes, it’s sad when authors die and the wonderful stories quit coming, but can’t we be a little grown up about this?
Apparently not. Because not only do we live in the age of franchises but also in the age of remakes, sequels, sanctioned tie-in novels, and fan fiction where Luke Skywalker and Elizabeth Bennet and now Pooh get to do lots of things they never did on screen or in the books where they first appeared. The most generous interpretation of this would be to say that these characters, larger than life to start with, are also larger than their creators. By this logic, Pooh does not belong to the long dead Milne or his estate or any other handlers. Pooh belongs to his fans—who are indeed legion: a recent poll found that Pooh is the world’s most popular children’s book character, outranking even Harry Potter. So in spirit if not legal fact, he is in the public domain.
All I can say to that is you can’t crowdsource everything. The only text I know of that was successfully written by a committee was the King James Bible, and that was a translation.
But against that thought presses the considerable weight of publishing, television, and movies, which depend on creativity without necessarily exalting it. Indelible characters in the minds of these people are not unique things to be treasured and protected so much as they are products to be sold and licensed. Pooh is great because he makes the cash register ring.
Somewhere in all this, the author is forgotten or ignored. Milne never wrote a story about a penguin, but in today’s mindset, that doesn’t matter. He might have written such a story, or maybe he was about to write a penguin story and dropped dead before he got the chance. And anyway, why should we let a dead man have the last word?
Asked if he worried about his books being ruined by bad movie adaptations, William Faulkner said, no, his books were still intact and sitting on the shelves just as he wrote them. Hollywood couldn’t change that. But we live in a coarser time, when children grow up not knowing whether Winnie the Pooh was created by A.A. Milne or Walt Disney or, most recently, Brian Sibley. As a result, they never learn the value of a unique imagination or treasure what few wonderful books an author may have left us. Why should they when there’s always another story in the pipeline?
When my kids were kids, they preferred the Disney version of Pooh to the stories in the Milne books. I could live with that, grudgingly, not because I thought there was no difference between the two versions (Disney’s version in this instance is one of that corporation’s more harmless adaptations) but because my children knew the difference. They knew where the stories came from, that somebody wrote them and without that somebody, there would be no stories. Can children today make the same distinction? I’m not holding my breath.