21 December, 2009Issue 10.6FictionLiterature

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Almost As If

Emma Park

Return to the Hundred Acre WoodDavid Benedictus
Return to the Hundred Acre Wood
Egmont, 2009
216 Pages
ISBN 978-1405247443

Our concept of inspiration derives from the ancient belief that a poet’s best compositions were breathed into him by the gods. Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is a step further removed from divinity. The book is an official sequel whose author, the writer and director David Benedictus, has been inspired not by his own genius but by A. A. Milne’s, as communicated through Milne’s imaginative, brilliantly successful invention, Winnie-the-Pooh.

Films which claim to have been inspired by books or historical themes often stray far from their source as their makers adapt a basic plotline to new constraints of time, technique, and audience appeal. In striking contrast, Benedictus and his publishers’ aim to produce precisely the sort of stories that Milne would have written had he decided to revisit his Pooh’s world. To this end, they have spared no efforts in their attempt to present the new Hundred Acre Wood as a perfect continuation of the old. Publication of the Return was accompanied by the simultaneous republication of Milne’s books in matching editions, and its cover, like Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, is adorned with those familiar animals. The back cover promises “a few more treasured hours” with Pooh and his friends, while the book’s blurb rests its recommendation of Benedictus’s stories almost exclusively upon praise of Milne’s, “loved by generations of children and their parents”.

In other words, at the heart of the anticipated success of the Return is its appeal to nostalgia, or power to play on generations of readers’ rosy memories of Milne’s world and stir up a sentimental longing to re-experience it. The question is whether this fictional world can survive a transfer of authorship.

Anticipating the inevitable charges of “heresy”, Benedictus has defended his publisher’s presentation of him as a second Milne, using his research and previous experience as producer of an audio retelling of Pooh to justify his claimed ability to imagine himself into Milne’s mind. For Benedictus, the measure of his book’s success will be how far it reads “almost as if the great man had been at work again.”

This claim encapsulates a fundamental problem with the whole enterprise of the Return. Writers from Virgil onwards have been well aware that, in claiming to be the new Homer (or Shakespeare, or Douglas Adams), they, like all perpetrators of hubris, run the risk of falling short through comparison with their model. The best of these writers succeed in reinventing their predecessor’s ideas, infusing them with a new style, new associations, and the concerns of a new age.

Judging by Benedictus’s description, however, his own book may be closer to fan fiction. This genre, more parasitic than parody, is epitomised by the sequel. Its aim is the perpetuation ad infinitum of the author’s memories of another author’s world, as far as possible in the same style, right down to the same words and phrases. It is conceived under a pretence: that the fan-author is the author whose work he or she is continuing. Benedictus is apparently claiming that he shares not only Milne’s imagination and talent, but also his background, personality, and view of the world in which he lived. The task of reproducing the idiosyncratic storyteller’s voice which resulted from these ingredients is a daunting one, even if Benedictus is a more skilled fan-author than those visible on groupie websites.

Benedictus’s failure to sustain Milne’s style in practice is evident from the start in his disappointing “Dedication”, addressed to Milne, which ends with the rather vapid cliché, “your dreams are mine”. A second obstacle, however, has come between Benedictus and his Milnian dreams: the publishers and trustees of the Pooh estate. Their concerns to make the Return publishable for a 21st-century audience—in which Benedictus is de facto complict—have introduced jarring notes into Milne’s gentle harmonies.

Benedictus (and presumably most of his publishers) was not even born when Winnie-the-Pooh was first brought to print in 1925-1926. The intervening decades have left their mark. Since the 1960s, Disney has laboured tirelessly to assimilate Pooh and his world to the bland, repetitive, junior-school culture characteristic of so many cartoon series, while spin-offs in Pooh’s name have appeared on every topic from Buddhism to management consultancy. This commodification has ensured a continuing audience of Pooh-lovers, but also makes it very difficult for a modern writer to think back to the original books, unaffected by the characters’ intervening makeover.

While Benedictus and his publishers have tried, despite this, to adhere to Milne’s original world, it is telling that their one significant innovation, the creation of a new character called Lottie the Otter, was an attempt to mitigate the “serious gender imbalance” of Milne’s books. This betrays a craven—and ill-executed—submission to the culture of political correctness, of which Milne, not to mention his all-but-sexless characters, was unaware. Lottie is “slinky” and “bossy”, and wears a pearl necklace. Altogether, she is a “a pastiche of unflattering stereotypes of female behavior”, apparently to compensate at one fell swoop for poor Kanga’s one to seven minority. Ironically, Lottie’s addition has been counterbalanced by a Christopher Robin more masculine than Milne and E. H. Shepard’s nursery child with golden locks. Not only does the new Christopher play cricket and ride a bicycle, he also, like his Disney precursor, has boyish brown hair and wears a polo shirt.

Judging by these details, the primary audience of the Return, modern children, would not be able to identify with the characters of the original stories without the literary equivalent of digital enhancement. Modern girls must have female characters who care about their appearance, and modern boys must have male ones who play sport. Moreover, the echo of Disney, even if it is fortuitous, contributes to the uneasy sense of 21st-century ideological baggage being imposed upon a 1920s world.

In a similarly anachronistic vein, the characters of the Return conclude their final picnic with a dance in which they are portrayed by illustrator Mark Burgess as capering about as if at a disco. While the pattern of ending with a wild dance is typical of modern children’s films, it is certainly not of the stories of Milne’s time. The picnic in the last chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh, on which the new picnic is modelled, concludes in a much quieter fashion, with the animals politely saying “Good-bye” and “Thank-you” to Christopher Robin.

For some flaws, it seems, Benedictus’s publishers were alone responsible. They, for instance, considered his use of “convolvulus” too intellectually challenging, and replaced it with “bindweed”. One might have thought most children would be perplexed by either. Convolvulus, however, has a musical shape to it which bindweed lacks. Had Milne’s publishers had equally little faith in his readers’ feeling for language, they would have deprived many childhoods of such elegant phrases as “delphiniums blue and geraniums red”. The censorship of Benedictus’s melodious Latin noun, which one can easily imagine in one of Milne’s verses, indicates that the publishers are more sensitive to the pressure to dumb down than to the spirit of Pooh.

Much of the charm of the Milne books lies in their whimsical use of language in contexts like the Dormouse poem, which give words a memorable imaginative depth even before they are understood. This is surely a key reason why Disney’s Pooh, for all its success, has not made Milne’s redundant. For some readers at least, bright colours cannot compensate for beautiful words.

The fundamental problem of the Return is that it is directed at two incompatible goals: to be a book from another age, and simultaneously to be an updated version in line with anxieties and commercial pressures alien to its model. Whatever the book’s intrinsic merits, it is only one person’s—or publisher’s—imagination of how Milne’s story would continue. As such, it may inhibit the most important effect of the original, which is to stimulate each child to create his or her own imaginary world. This can only be achieved through the subtle humour and verbal beauty of Milne’s unique style.

The “enchanted forest” where “a boy and his bear will always be playing” with which The House at Pooh Corner ends is an invitation not to the professional writer of sequels but to the creative child. In the inimitable words of Eeyore: “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me.”

Emma Park is reading for a DPhil in Classics at University College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.