Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
Existential Eeyore: Part 1

The prompt for this essay and the next one comes from my having been told at various times by various people that I have an Eeyore strain, meaning (I think) that I am a glass-half-empty person, dysthymic if not depressed, lacking a certain fizziness.  This nudged me to read Milne's two Pooh books, which I had never done -- and Eeyore's gotten a bad rap.

But before I get into that, some groundwork first because I found A.A. Milne's two Pooh books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, really odd.  Not charming odd or make-me-half-smile odd but odd odd, and not as bright as their surface appears.

A few academic writers have recognized this with tongue-in-cheek, such as the "Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne," with this daunting abstract: "Somewhere at the top of the Hundred Acre Wood a little boy and his bear play. On the surface it is an innocent world, but on closer examination by our group of experts we find a forest where neurodevelopmental and psychosocial problems go unrecognized and untreated." 

(Another such article, though completely serious, is "The beast within:Winnie-the-Pooh reassessed," where the author sees the books as depicting "the raw brutality of the supposedly peaceful English countryside.")

But one doesn't have to do such tunneling to still notice how strange is the Hundred Acre Wood. No one has parents — the occasional mention of an uncle or a grandfather, but no parents, even with Christopher Robin.  (And though Roo has Kanga, we know nothing about a father, and who knows anything about Rabbit's interspecies "relations" that trail behind him). 

There's a social hierarchy demonstrated by geography, with Christopher Robin's house high enough to avoid being flooded and Eeyore's hovel down in the swamp, illustrating their relative worths in the community.  (Everyone goes to Christopher Robin for advice because he has learning; no one goes to Eeyore for advice, even though he, too, has learning.)  The newcomers in the forest -- Kanga, Roo, and Tigger -- though tolerated, are encouraged to live together (and thus separately from everyone else).

The material conditions of life in the Hundred Acre Wood are also strange.  Pooh always seems to have honey in pots -- how?  And Kanga gives extract-of-malt to Roo and Tigger -- where does she get it?  Rabbit has condensed milk and bread -- again, how?  (Piglet eats acorns and Eeyore thistles -- unprocessed foods -- and it's not clear what Owl takes in.)  Who built the houses?  Why is Eeyore the only one with a house not in a tree?  And so on.

Maybe the author of "The beast within" has a point.

The Pooh characters, as Milne has drawn them, are also quite, well, odd.

Milne calls Pooh a bear of little brain but then has him compose poetry all the time and makes him quite capable of planning and organizing (such as when he sets up the rescue of Piglet from the flood by using an over-turned umbrella as a boat).  Milne also makes him quite capable of completely misreading situations (the Woozle, the Heffalump), but no more so than Rabbit, Owl, or Christopher Robin.

But the oddest thing I find about Pooh is how selfish and gluttonous Milne has made his little bear — and how adept Milne becomes in getting his readers to accept these unflattering attributes as charming foibles. 

For instance, in the tale about Eeyore's birthday, Pooh is bringing the donkey a gift of honey — but it never gets there because Pooh eats it enroute, showing up instead with an emptied pot.  He gives Eeyore the empty vessel as the gift and never expresses any misgivings about the fact that it is an after-thought, a make-do gift, and that he has lied to his friend.  Eeyore happily accepts it, and Pooh goes off satisfied — and the tale ends with a lie when Milne, as the narrator, tells his son Christopher Robin that he, Christopher, had given Eeyore a set of paints and prepared a big birthday party for Eeyore, which is a complete fabrication designed to make the little boy feel better about his forgetfulness.

In another chapter, Pooh goes off to visit Rabbit and more or less forces himself as a visitor upon the reluctant Rabbit, who, courteous nevertheless, feeds Pooh honey and condensed milk.  Finally satisfied (though he does pry a bit to see if Rabbit has anything more to feed him), he leaves Rabbit's house, only to get stuck half-way-in/half-way-out the door because he has grown too fat.  It takes a week of starving him, while Christopher Robin reads him stories, to finally pop him free, at which point Milne has him go his merry way without so much as expressing a concern about the inconvenience his unrestrained appetite has caused his fellow creatures.

Given the nature of the world in the Hundred Acre Wood, perhaps Eeyore can be forgiven his grumpiness since it seems filled with unreliable or overbearing creatures doing many pointless things (such as the expedition to the North Pole).  For Eeyore, any one day can bring about the following:

    loss — Pooh and Piglet, in a snowstorm, transfer Eeyore's house from one side of the swamp to the other without telling him.

    assault — Tigger bounces him into the river or falls on him out of a tree (without thanking him for the rescue).

    abandonment — The search for Small, one of Rabbit's many relations, is over for two days before Rabbit bothers to tell Eeyore, who had continued to look all that time.

    being ignored — No one remembers his birthday.

At this point I have to think that Milne is up to something, either consciously or not, that is not only about writing a book for children that will give the warm fuzzies to generations of parents and children (not to mention oodles of money to movie studios).

Of all the characters in the two books, Eeyore is the only contrarian: he sees rain when it's sunny, he predicts calamity when success looms.  He is the only character who gets angry (at the end of Chapter 5 of Pooh Corner, about the letter A and learning) -- not just peeved or irritated but enraged.  He admires Christopher Robin but also fears what education will do to the lad (note Chapter 10 in Winnie the Pooh when Eeyore says that writing is over-rated).

All of this takes a bit of the piss out of the sentimentality of life in the Wood, making sure that the story does not become over-sweetened.

Milne also makes Eeyore hungry for the kind of recognition that so easily falls into Pooh's lap (which Eeyore resents, thinking very little of Pooh and feeling that Pooh is undeserving of the honors) — recognition for his learning, for his intentions and his deeds (such as on the expedition to the North Pole, when he sits with his tail in the water to save Roo) — and Milne has no one satisfy or even notice this hunger (except for perhaps Christopher Robin) and skews Eeyore's spirit toward the curmudgeonly and distrustful.

Why does Milne have such a character on his roster?  What is he trying to tell his readers through such a presentation, especially when that presentation is so at odds with the rest of the books' timbre?  And why would someone finger me as an Eeyore?


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©2010 Michael Bettencourt
©2010 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives


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September 2010

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September 2010

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