Thursday, May 7, 2015

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, by David Benedictus with Decorations by Mark Burgess

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of our deep and abiding respect for that extremely difficult art form, children’s literature.  Those who neither understand nor respect this exacting art form do not appreciate just how difficult a task it is.  However, when children’s lit is touched with something like genius, then the result is something that can be savored by children and adults alike.

Critics cite the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne (1882-1956) as the last great contribution to the first wave of children’s classics; a period ranging roughly from the Victorian era through the early 1920s.  Milne approaches something close to the sublime in his stories – they are delightful nonsense that, upon reflection, actually make a great deal of sense.

Milne’s genius was to take the stuffed animals owned by his son, Christopher Robin, and create a whole imaginary world in which they could live.  The animals, Pooh, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, and Kanga and Roo, all have well-defined personalities and (sometimes obsessive) character traits.  There is a distinctly … English flavor to the Pooh books, almost as if Milne brought a child’s-eye view to one long, summer tea party.  In the hands of any other less-gifted author, Pooh would be too sweet and indigestible by half; but Milne creates a world of remarkable charm, gentle kindness and great humanity.  In the simplicity of Pooh and those around him, we often see the best (and most ridiculous) parts of ourselves.

Milne was blessed in his illustrator, E. H. Shepard (1879-1976), who created a series of delicate and subtle drawings to enliven the corpus.  Those who know Pooh only through the sometimes garish Disney interpretation are missing the subtlety and quiet of the originals.  Shepard also drew the definitive illustrations for Wind in the Willows, so he was instrumental in the success of two great classics of the genre.  (Sadly, later in life, Shepard thought Pooh overshadowed his more serious work…)

Milne ended the Pooh books with a beautiful coda of Christopher Robin growing up, and putting aside childish things while promising to always have a special place in both his heart and his memory for the denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It was a masterful way to preserve the integrity of his creation, while assuring that it would also always be alive to anyone who could open themselves to childish wonder. 

So, it is with a bit of surprise that the Trustees of the Pooh Property Trust would think that a sequel, some 80 years after the fact, was either necessary or desirable.  But in 2011 the Trust entrusted the property to author David Benedictus (born 1938), and the illustrations to Mark Burgess (born 1957), who sought to emulate Shepard’s style.  The results were, at best, mixed.

Pastiche is a ticklish thing to pull off.  (Your Correspondent has been guilty of literary pastiche himself.)  While it is possible to imitate a voice, it is nearly impossible to imitate genius.  As a result, the new writer seeks to introduce something new and original to separate the new work from the original; but then … when individuality is introduced, there is no longer any point to the pastiche.

Benedictus is tasked with having Christopher Robin return from boarding school (fortunately, there’s no mention of the 80 year lag; Robin must be the most abominable student!), and beguiling a summer idyll with his old friends at the Hundred Acre Wood.  Now older, he involves his friends in a spelling bee, cricket, and playing school.  This is all right in-and-of-itself, but where Benedictus fails is that his work is Milne and water: sometimes he gets the tone just right, but when he doesn’t the whole enterprise comes crashing down. 

Not that there aren’t moments to savor.  I had a smile for most of the reading, and found much of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood charming.  However, Benedictus bows to contemporary tastes a little too often, and the note is jarring. 

For example, he introduces a new character, Lottie the Otter, clearly as a sop to political correctness, seeing that the only other female in the tales is the motherly Kanga.  Lottie never works for a moment; she is too contemporary a creation to blend seamlessly with Pooh and company, and the character is fairly obnoxious, to boot.

So, despite many inspired moments (Benedictus seems to understand both Owl and Rabbit very well), we often feel that someone is trying to breathe life into a creation not their own.  And while the drawings by Burgess are certainly serviceable, but no one would mistake them for Shepard.

Pooh buffs should stick with the originals; but for the casual reader, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is undemanding fun.

Here is an except from the opening:

Who started it? Nobody knew. One moment there was the usual Forest babble: the wind in the trees, the crow of a cock, the cheerful water in the streams. Then came the Rumour: Christopher Robin is back!

Owl said he heard it from Rabbit, and Rabbit said he heard it from Piglet, and Piglet said he just sort of heard it, and Kanga said why not ask Winnie-the-Pooh? And since that seemed like a Very Encouraging Idea on such a sunny morning, off Piglet trotted, arriving in time to find Pooh anxiously counting his pots of honey.

“Isn’t it odd?” said Pooh.

“Isn’t what odd?”

Pooh rubbed his nose with his paw. “I wish they would sit still. They shuffle around when they think I’m not looking. A moment ago there were eleven and now there are only ten. It is odd, isn’t it, Piglet?”

“It’s even,” said Piglet, “if it’s ten, that is. And if it isn’t, it isn’t.” Hearing himself saying this, Piglet thought that it didn’t sound quite right, but Pooh was still counting, moving the pots from one corner of the table to the other and back again.

“Bother,” said Pooh. “Christopher Robin would know if he was here. He was good at counting. He always made things come out the same way twice and that’s what good counting is.”

“But Pooh . . .” Piglet began, the tip of his nose growing pink with excitement

“On the other hand it’s not easy to count things when they won’t stay still. Like snowflakes and stars.”

“But Pooh . . .” And if Piglet’s nose was pink before, it was scarlet now.

“I’ve made up a hum about it. Would you like to hear it, Piglet?”

Piglet was about to say that hums were splendid things, and Pooh’s hums were the best there were, but Rumours come first; then he thought what a nice feeling it was to have a Big Piece of News and to be about to Pass It On; then he remembered the hum which Pooh had made up about him, Piglet, and how it had had seven verses, which was more verses than a hum had ever had since time began, and that they were all about him, and so he said: “Ooh, yes, Pooh, please,” and Pooh glowed a little because a hum is all very well as far as it goes, and very well indeed when it goes for seven verses, but it isn’t a Real Hum until it’s been tried out on somebody, and while honey is always welcome, it’s welcomest of all directly after a hum.

This is the hum which Pooh hummed to Piglet on the day which started like any other day and became a very special day indeed.

If you want to count your honey,
You must put it in a row,
In the sun if it is sunny,
If it’s snowy in the snow.

And you’ll know when you have counted
How much honey you have got.
Yes, you’ll know what the amount is
And so therefore what it’s not.

“And I think it’s eleven,” added Pooh, “which is an excellent number of pots for a Thursday, though twelve would be even better.”

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