- Not Only, But Also:Entwined Modes and the Fantastic in A. A. Milne’s Pooh Stories
In The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews used Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner to parody critical theory. That the Pooh stories were unworthy of serious critique was taken for granted; the theory was trivialized by association. Dismissal of Milne’s stories as beneath the dignity of critical analysis has been roundly rejected by scholars of children’s literature, who have called attention to the stories’ complex layers of framing narratives and argued as to the stories’ literary modes. Nevertheless, when literary complexity is identified in the Pooh stories, it is often viewed either as proof that the books are not really for children (as if the book could be rendered respectable if only it were saved from the children, much as some people have sought to “save” Huckleberry Finn or Lewis Carroll’s Alice books by declaring them to be really for adults) or else as a stylistic flaw—a failure to properly address the child audience. I argue here that the tangled narrative paths of the Pooh stories are not flaws but features, central to the stories’ lasting appeal for children as well as for adults.
As Mike Cadden observes of other classics of children’s literature, perceptions of the nature of a story and even its main character may vary not only for different audiences but also for the same reader at different times (287). Milne’s construction of multiple possible points of reader identification helps to support such shifting of modes: the Pooh stories may be read as comic or tragic, depending on which character the reader focuses on. Observing the widely divergent assessments of the very nature of the Pooh stories— for instance, the fact that some critics have observed nostalgic tendencies while others have concluded that they are ironic works that make fun of children—this essay will go on to argue that those contrasting viewpoints are not merely a product of differing critical lenses. Rather, the structure of the Pooh stories actively supports multiple modes of reading. Indeed, [End Page 63] the enduring appeal of the Pooh stories may result precisely from interplay of literary modes, a characteristic that Cadden refers to as “entwining.”
Moreover, I would assert, the narrative structure of the Pooh stories offers readers—children as well as adults—a number of potential viewpoints, including that of Pooh (and occasionally the other toys), of Christopher Robin (the character), of Christopher Robin (the listening child), of the narrator, or of a reader fully external to the text. Further, the text’s support for so many and such diverse modes of reading appears to go even deeper than entwinement, venturing into the realm of simultaneity and uncertainty that Tzvetan Todorov identifies as the heart of the fantastic. Todorov explains that the fantastic is a genre that lies between what he terms “the marvelous”—where supernatural events are real—and “the uncanny”—where quotidian explanations emerge for what had seemed to be impossible events. As Todorov emphasizes, the genre of the fantastic is not at all synonymous with fantasy. Rather, the genre of fantasy as it is typically understood would fall into the category that Todorov terms “the marvelous,” which either “end[s] with an acceptance of the supernatural” (52) or in which “supernatural elements provoke no particular reaction either in the characters or in the implicit reader” (54). In turn, the marvelous is defined in contrast to “the uncanny” (44) in which the seemingly supernatural event turns out to be only “the fruit of a deranged imagination (dream, madness, the influence of drugs)” or else a matter of “coincidences, tricks, [or] illusions” (Todorov 45). Describing the fantastic as “located on the frontier” between these two genres, Todorov observes that it “leads a life full of dangers, and may evaporate at any moment” (41).
While Milne’s Pooh stories feature supernatural events, most obviously including the very animation of the toys themselves, some critics have argued that the stories’ extensive system of narrative frames “endangers” that fantasy, dismissing the marvelous elements as childhood imaginings and threatening to collapse...