“Deep in the hundred acre wood
Where Christopher Robin plays
You will find the enchanted neighbourhood
Of Christopher’s childhood days
A donkey named Eeyore is his friend
And Kanga and little Roo
There’s Rabbit and Piglet
And there’s Owl
But most of all Winnie the Pooh”
A. A. Milne was likely unaware of just how touching and instrumental his stories about a little teddy bear would end up being. On page or onscreen, Winnie the Pooh captures a unique sense of innocence and draws all ages to the timeless tale of a scrappy bunch of odd friends. But Milne’s story was not born out of innocence.
After returning from World War I, Milne sought to rededicate his life to his family upon the birth of his son Christopher Robin Milne. The trauma of war, particularly the Battle of the Somme in 1916, led to intense PTSD throughout Milne’s life, and he struggled to connect with his son. Father and son bonded over trips to the London Zoo to see their beloved black bear Winnipeg, or “Winnie” for short. Christopher fell in love, and his nursery quickly collected a variety of stuffed characters that would soon create idyllic inspiration for A. A. Milne’s writing.
Milne wrote Winnie the Pooh for his son, and each character was the animation of Christopher’s stuffed toys. But, each character also serves to animate something much deeper. As a veteran suffering from PTSD, many theorize that Milne attempted to teach his son about real-life experiences through these colorful creatures. The most popular concept is that each main character in the stories is the personification of a mental disorder, and that is why everyone should be reading Winnie the Pooh.
A National Institute of Health (NIH) study proposes that this theory is damaging because it portrays illnesses that are never remedied or controlled, leading to an apathetic viewpoint. Personally, this is where I disagree. Here is a breakdown of each character based on NIH’s study:
The concept of allowing these disorders to go unchecked seems negative from a medical perspective, but by letting them simply “exist” in their raw form, there is great potential for psychological and sociological study. Children who watched the cartoons or read the stories might grow up to have a better understanding of people who exhibit behaviors similar to that of the characters in their childhood storybooks.
Unfortunately, while viewers may think someone like Piglet is sweet in theory, a living person with anxiety will not be “cute” to the average human. And this introduces the gap between fiction and reality–it’s easy to say that we would be welcoming and understanding if what happened in a fictional universe happened to us, but the reality is that we rarely carry that empathy with us on a daily basis despite our best intentions.
I like to believe that Milne thought that these stories would seep into the hearts and minds of children and foster change as they develop into adults, but I also believe that he did not intend them to reach worldwide audiences.
Milne was bringing mental disorders to the front lines of entertainment before many illnesses were well known or researched, whether he meant to or not. But, I urge you to read his work. Read it and take time to understand each character and how they influence their world and are influenced by the world. Humans are complex beings, and if you can understand how a pink piglets struggle, perhaps over time, that can develop to a bigger and broader scale until one day you have a snippet of understanding for real people with wars waging between their ears and behind their eyes.
Photo Credits: Google