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Many people will recall that Winnie-the-Pooh was brought to life in children's stories by AA Milne, but how many have stopped to think where his inspiration came from? Did you know that the bear and Christopher Robin really did exist?
Winnie the Mascot
In the later years of the First World War, troops from Canada were called upon to help out in Europe. One soldier from Winnipeg who answered this call was Lieutenant Harry Colebourn, who, during his journey east, bought a young black female bear for $20. He named the bear Winnipeg, after his home county, and later shortened this to Winnie. The bear became the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade's mascot, and even travelled with the Lieutenant to England. However, when he became Captain, he was called upon to be stationed in France. As a result, Colebourn loaned the bear to London Zoo in December, 1919.
From Real Life to Page
One boy lucky enough to view Winnie in London Zoo was Christopher Robin Milne, along with his father, Alan Alexander. The bear proved to be so popular with Christopher Robin that he changed the name of his own teddy bear from Edward to Winnie. 'Pooh' came from the name given to a local wild swan, which appeared in the children's book When We Were Very Young. Released in 1924, this featured Milne's poetry illustrated by Ernest Shepard, who had previously worked with Milne on Punch magazine. At first, Milne was not keen on Shepard, describing his style as 'perfectly hopeless'; similarly Shepard was nervous about getting it right, as he had based his illustrations on his own son's Steiff bear, called Growler. However, neither needed to have worried, for the book, which also featured Pooh the bear's unofficial debut, sold in excess of 50,000 copies in just eight weeks.
It is anxious work making pictures of an author's written words, and when I took my first sketches to show Alan Milne, I had some nervous moments while he studied them. It was clear he was pleased and, when he had seen them all, he said, 'They are fine, go right ahead', then added, 'There will be about fifty altogether, you know'.
— EH Shepard
In 1925, Pooh received his official debut in the Christmas Eve edition of the London Evening News. The Wrong Sort of Bees, was originally created as a bedtime story for his son, and would have stood alone if it hadn't had a good reception. However, it was so well received that it became the first chapter of the book Winnie-the-Pooh.
As work on the tales of Pooh continued, Milne deemed it necessary for Shepard to visit his home, Cotchford Farm in East Sussex, and see for himself the conservation area of Ashdown Forest, which inspired the stories' settings. These would include 100 Acre Wood, Galleons Leap, The North Pole, the Gloomy Place and Poohstick Bridge, where the game of poohsticks was invented.
Shepard's visit to Milne's farm also enabled him to become acquainted with the characters that inspired the tales. Winnie (a teddy bear), Tigger (a tiger), Kanga (a kangaroo), Eeyore (a donkey) and Piglet (a little pig) are all cuddly toys, while Owl and Rabbit were wild animals that lived in the forest. Each of these characters became known for their personality traits, with which both child and adult readers could identify.
But above all, and quite simply, the characters are all people we know: bossy Rabbits, pompous Owls, bouncy Tiggers, nervous Piglets, motherly Kangas, irrepressible Baby Roos, desperately gloomy Eeyores and, of course, often muddled but always loveable Poohs...
- Brian Sibley, an author and broadcaster.
Of course it is the 'silly old bear' that takes centre stage in all these tales.
Fictional bears are known for their love of sweet things. Paddington, for example, has a penchant for marmalade. Winnie-the-Pooh is no exception in that he finds time for a little something sweet, honey, that he believes the bees make just for him. Due to his appetite and lack of exercise, he has become somewhat curvaceous in shape. This has led to him losing some of his stuffing, as well as getting stuck on the way out of Rabbit's house. He lives in a tree, which has a sign on it that intriguingly reads 'Sanders'1.
Despite being of very little brain, he is the inventor of poohsticks, and has been on many adventures, including discovering the North Pole, finding Eeyore's lost tail, saving Piglet in the great flood, finding breakfast for Tigger and laying a trap to catch a heffalump. Having shown bravery for such an old bear during his adventure, Christopher Robin knighted him 'Sir Pooh de Bear'.
Here are some quotations from Pooh and his friends:
Oh yes, I'm rumbly in my tumbly.
It's more friendly with two.
I'm a little black raincloud, of course.
Well, from the moment the fluff got in my ear.
I like Rabbit because he uses short, easy words like 'how about lunch?' and 'help yourself, Pooh'.
No hurry, take your time.
Now would you aim me at the bees please?
As Gloomy as Eeyore
Despite Shepard's visit in March 1926, he and Milne never became close friends, with Shepard being noted as saying I never knew him intimately. It was difficult to get beyond the facade. Nevertheless, they continued to work with one another and had further successes with the books Now We Are Six and The House at Pooh Corner. The latter introduces readers to Tigger, and acts as the second volume of tales concerning Pooh. These books were published by Methuen; today over 20 million copies have been sold worldwide in over 40 different languages.
Towards the end of their lives, both Milne and Shepard grew to dislike Pooh. Both would rather have been associated with the political satirical cartoons that they devised for Punch than 'that silly old bear'. Today, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London houses Shepard's drawings of Pooh and his friends in the 'Word and Image' section, alongside the work of John Tenniel2 and Quentin Blake. The cuddly toys are displayed in The Donnell Library Center in New York.
Another person who grew to dislike the stories was Milne's son, Christopher Robin, who once said his father had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son. However, he was later to take advantage of his fame by saving Ashdown Forest from becoming an industrial oil site.
From Page to Screen
In 1929, Milne sold the rights to Stephen Slesinger, who enabled Disney to use the imagery from 1961. Originally, Disney wanted to create a film about Pooh, however he later broke with this idea, as he felt that featurettes would help gain an American audience. The first featurette, entitled Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, focussed upon two stories from the first book. The second, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, gained Disney an Oscar, and by the time the third, Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, was created, Pooh and his friends were well known worldwide. In 1977, these featurettes were turned into a full length film, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Other films followed, based on the characters, including Pooh's Grand Adventure in 1997 and The Tigger Movie in 2000. Disney, who had added the character Gopher, an animal that is keen on demolition, also cast a red-haired tomboy as Christopher Robin for Pooh's 80th birthday, upsetting some fans. They also helped the Woodland Trust, the organisation that preserves conservation areas like Ashdown Forest, and Pooh was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame alongside other popular Disney characters.
Despite Disney's success with Pooh, not everyone is happy. Stephen Slesinger's company that loaned Disney the imagery feels that it has been underpaid, and continues to seek court action against Disney. Clare Milne3, AA Milne's granddaughter, tried to regain ownership of the rights in 2006, so that she could give them to Disney, but when the rights were signed over at the very beginning, AA Milne had made a pact with Slesinger for his family never to have permission to own the rights again. AA Milne was bitter that he would be remembered for writing the tales concerning Pooh rather than his plays and novels. So, the war over the rights continues.