Theology for the Long Haul

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reconstructing The Pooh Community: Richard Bauckham

This essay from Richard Bauckham is hilarious. If you’re a Biblical Studies buff you must read it....

New Testament research is a field which has much to learn from comparative study—
from observing the trends and results of research in parallel fields of study. So I begin
my lecture this evening with an excursion into just such a parallel field—an excursion
from which we may be able to return to recent trends in research on the Gospel of
John with a fresh angle of vision.
Probably most of you will be familiar with the Winnie-the-Pooh stories—the
popular children’s books traditionally attributed to A A Milne. But you may not all be
familiar with recent developments in Winnie-the-Pooh scholarship, which has been
revolutionized in recent years as a result of one major methodological breakthrough
which virtually all Pooh scholarship now takes for granted. This is the seminal insight
that the Winnie-the-Pooh stories can be read on more than one level. Ostensibly, of
course, they are the story of a group of animals living in a forest, who are in some
sense identified with the soft toys belonging to Christopher Robin. But on another level
they are the story of the community behind the books, that community of children for
which the books were written. In the Winnie-the-Pooh books one specific community
of English children early this century—now generally known to scholars as the Pooh
community—has encoded for us a wonderfully revealing account of itself. With this
methodological key it is possible to a large extent to reconstruct that community: its
character, its history, its passions, its factions. For example, this community of children
is clearly situated in a rural and rather isolated context—a small English village, one
should assume. All the action of the story takes place in a forest, and the small caste
of characters seems to live entirely in a world of its own. The outside world never
impinges. Awareness that other children exist beyond the inward-looking circle of
the Pooh community is indicated only by the very generalized and vague references
to Rabbit’s friends and relations.
Clearly the Pooh books were written for a specific community with a strong sense
of its distinctive identity—a closed, one might even say sectarian group which prided
itself on its special insider knowledge. We can see this in features of the writings which
would have baffled any outsider but provide the insider with confirmation of their
special status as privy to a kind of esoteric knowledge. Several times we find alleged
explanations which to the outsider would not be explanations at all. For example:
When I first heard his name [Winnie-the-Pooh], I said, just as you are going to say,
‘But I thought he was a boy?’
‘So did I,’ said Christopher Robin.
‘Then you can’t call him Winnie?’
‘I don’t.’
‘But you said—‘
‘He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what
“ther” means?’
‘Ah, yes, now I do,’ I said quickly; and I hope you do too, because it is
all the explanation you are going to get.”
[London: Methuen, 1963] p 1)
Or again:

Nobody seemed to know where they came from, but there they were in
the Forest: Kanga and Roo. When Pooh asked Christopher Robin, ‘How
did they come here?’ Christopher Robin said, ‘In the Usual Way, if you
know what I mean, Pooh,’ and Pooh, who didn’t, said ‘Oh!’ Then he
nodded his head twice and said, ‘In the Usual Way. Ah!’
In that passage, Pooh, the bear of little brain, fails to understand, but the readers can
pride themselves on their own superior understanding. Clearly we are dealing with
sectarian literature which not only belongs within the group but bolsters that group’s
sense of superiority to the world in general—the general reader who cannot begin to
understand what ‘the usual way’ would be. Click below to read the rest!

The very distinctive nature of the Pooh community can be further appreciated
when we compare it with other children’s literature of the period, such as the Noddy
books or the Narnia books (though it may be debatable whether these were already
written at the time when the traditions of the Pooh community were taking shape).
Words and concepts very familiar from other children’s literature never appear in
the Pooh books: the word ‘school,’ for example, is completely absent, as is the word
‘toys,’ even though the books are ostensibly about precisely toys. Conversely, the Pooh
books have their own special vocabulary and imagery: eg the image of honey, which
is extremely rare in other children’s literature (not at all to be found in the Narnia
books, for example, according to the computer-generated analysis by Delaware and
Babcock), constantly recurs in the literature of the Pooh community, which clearly must
have used the image of honey as one of the key building blocks in their imaginative
construction of the world.
The stories afford us a fairly accurate view of some of the rivalries and disputes
within the community. The stories are told very much from the perspective of Pooh and
Piglet, who evidently represent the dominant group in the community—from which
presumably the bulk of the literature originated, though here and there we may detect
the hand of an author less favorable to the Pooh and Piglet group. The Pooh and Piglet
group saw itself as central to the life of the community (remember that Piglet’s house
is located in the very center of the forest), and the groups represented by other characters
are accordingly marginalized. The figure of Owl, for example, surely represents
the group of children who prided themselves on their intellectual achievements and
aspired to status in the community on this basis. But the other children, certainly the
Pooh and Piglet group, ridiculed them as swots. So throughout the stories the figure
of Owl, with his pretentious learning and atrocious spelling, is portrayed as a figure
of fun. Probably the Owl group, the swots, in their turn ridiculed the Pooh and Piglet
group as ignorant and stupid: they used terms of mockery such as ‘bear of very little

Stories like the hunt for the Woozle, in which Pooh and Piglet appear at their
silliest and most gullible, probably originated in the Owl group, which used them
to lampoon the stupidity of the Pooh and Piglet group. But the final redactor, who
favors the Pooh and Piglet group, has managed very skillfully to refunction all this
material which was originally detrimental to the Pooh and Piglet group so that in the
final form of the collection of stories it serves to portray Pooh and Piglet as oafishly
lovable. In a paradoxical reversal of values, stupidity is elevated as deserving the
community’s admiration. We can still see the point where an anti-Pooh story has been
transformed in this way into an extravagantly pro-Pooh story at the end of the story
of the hunt for the Woozle. Pooh and Piglet, you remember, have managed to frighten
themselves silly by walking round and round in circles and mistaking their own
paw-prints for those of a steadily increasing number of unknown animals of Hostile
Intent. Realizing his mistake, Pooh declares: ‘I have been Foolish and Deluded, and
I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’ The original anti-Pooh story, told by the Owl faction,
must have ended at that point. But the pro-Pooh narrator has added—we can easily
see that it is an addition to the original story by the fact that it comes as a complete
non sequitur —the following comment by Christopher Robin: ‘“You’re the Best Bear
in All the World,” said Christopher Robin soothingly.’ Extravagant praise from the
community’s major authority-figure.
Such insight into the tensions between various factions in the Pooh community
could easily be extended into more debatable territory (the identification of the Eeyore
faction eg is still debated—some recent scholars have argued that Eeyore is best seen
as representing the adults of the village). But I move on to give you an example of the
way in which various crises in the community’s history have left their mark in the
traditions. One such crisis, we can be sure, was caused by the arrival in the village
of an Australian family. This was a highly disturbing event for such a community of
rural English children—otherwise isolated from the rest of the world. Rabbit (in the
book) voices what must have been the general reaction of the community: ‘We find
a Strange Animal among us. An animal of whom we had never even heard before!’
While Rabbit voices the indignation, Piglet expresses the community’s fear of the newly
arrived Australian children: ‘Generally Regarded as One of the Fiercer Animals.’ The
Australians are represented in the story, of course, by Kanga and Roo. The story of
the plan to capture baby Roo, which must have its basis in some rather nasty prank
played by the Pooh and Piglet group on the Australians, should probably be read as
the final redactor’s attempt to surmount this crisis in the community by advocating
the full and friendly integration of the Australians. The paradisal picture with which
the story ends (‘So Kanga and Roo stayed in the forest. And every Tuesday Roo spent
the day with his great friend Rabbit, and every Tuesday Kanga spent the day with
her great friend Pooh, teaching him to jump...’ and so on) is obviously idealistic, but
brings to expression the final redactor’s ideal for the community. This is a case where
the social function of the story can be readily understood, as a means of defusing the
tensions in the community caused by the arrival of outsiders, and promoting integration
and cohesion. Successfully absorbed into the community, the characters of Kanga
and Roo now function to reinforce the community’s self-image as a friendly, mutually
supportive group. Even the threatening oddity of the Australians—Kanga jumps—is
transformed into a positive enrichment of the community, as Kanga teaches Pooh to
jump. The community’s sharp definition as a group of insiders over against putative
outsiders is not breached, but reinforced as Kanga and Roo, initially perceived as
intruding outsiders, are redefined as insiders.
Well, I hope you can begin to see how remarkably fruitful for Winnie-the-Pooh
research has been this seminal, methodological insight that, whatever the stories may
or may not tell us about the shadowy figure of Pooh himself, let alone Christopher
Robin, primarily they tell the story of the Pooh community. This is their real value. They
take us into the very concrete social context of a small community of English children
struggling with the conflicts in their community, struggling to define their identity.
Of course, every element in the reconstruction I have offered to you is contested by
some scholars; research and debate continue; the picture will undoubtedly change
radically. But that is the excitement of research. There are dozens of PhD theses still
to be written before the time is ripe for someone to retrieve (affecting a kind of third
naivety) the words of the little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story.

This essay was published in the Biblical Studies Bulletin issue 58 Dec 2010

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