Mythicism, Mimesis, and Pooh Studies

I previously suggested that Thomas Brodie’s work on the composition of the Gospels is problematic because it has no controls, and it is easy to imagine parallels are present where none are likely to have been intended by the author or perceived by ancient readers/hearers of the work. His claim that the entirety of the Gospels results from taking earlier Scriptural texts and weaving words and ideas from them into new stories is simply not supported by the evidence as a whole – although it may well be what occurred in the composition of some stories.

Brodie’s work has led him to mythicism – the idea that there was no historical Jesus, but that the Jesus of the early Christians was created entirely through a literary compositional process of reshaping stories in the Jewish Scriptures. And other mythicists have made not dissimilar claims or approached the Biblical texts in similar ways.

As a tribute to the classic article “New Directions in Pooh Studies: Überlieferungs- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien zum Pu-Buch” by David Clines, I thought I should illustrate my criticisms of this approach by “demonstrating” that A. A. Milne used the same method that Brodie and others like him attribute to the Gospel authors.

Here is the opening section to the first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh:

…IN WHICH WE ARE INTRODUCED TO WINNIE-THE-POOH AND SOME BEES, AND THE STORIES BEGIN

HERE is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.

When I first heard his name, 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.

Sometimes Winnie-the-Pooh likes a game of some sort when he comes downstairs, and sometimes he likes to sit quietly in front of the fire and listen to a story. This evening–

“What about a story?” said Christopher Robin.

“What about a story?” I said.

“Could you very sweetly tell Winnie-the-Pooh one?”

“I suppose I could,” I said. “What sort of stories does he like?”

“About himself. Because he’s that sort of Bear.”

“Oh, I see.”

“So could you very sweetly?”

“I’ll try,” I said.

So I tried.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.

(“What does ‘under the name’ mean?” asked Christopher Robin. “It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and lived under it.”

“Winnie-the-Pooh wasn’t quite sure,” said Christopher Robin.

“Now I am,” said a growly voice.

“Then I will go on,” said I.)

Careful readers will already have begun to pick up on the Biblical allusions and resonances in a text so ripe with intertextual echoes.

To begin with, we have Christopher Robin, who is obviously not a historical figure (despite what you may have heard from Christopher Robin historicists, whose stance is clearly just a faith position of those who have been brought up with the stories of Pooh since childhood and are unable to evaluate them in a truly critical manner). Christopher means “Christ-bearer,” while Robin is an allusion to the two passages in the Bible in which reference is made to the family of bird that the modern robin belongs to, namely the thrush. The prophets of ancient Israel were viewed as proclaimers or bearers of the Christ in advance of his coming, and it is no coincidence that the two texts in question are from prophets who were particularly popular in early Christian circles. First, Isaiah 38:14 reads:

I cried like a swift or thrush, I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am being threatened; Lord, come to my aid!

Jeremiah 8:7 reads:

Even the stork in the sky knows her appointed seasons, and the dove, the swift and the thrush observe the time of their migration. But my people do not know the requirements of the LORD.

The use of animals as symbols in these texts clues the reader of Winnie-the-Pooh in to the fact that not only the bear but the “robin” mentioned in this text are symbols in parables, rather than being based on anyone or anything historical. And the fact that both texts mention the thrush, the swift, and the dove would have reinforced to Milne that they are related, and should be used in conjunction with one another in composing his work.

We can further see how the narrative is based on these two texts. The image of the migration of the birds is taken up in the descent of “Robin” down the stairs. The narrator, watching Robin and the bear come down the stairs, is symbolically turning his eyes upwards towards the heavens, from which the Christ-bearer descends; while the weakening of the eyes mentioned in Isaiah 38:14 is transferred to the bear through the reference to his inability to think clearly due to the bumpy descent. And just as the people in the Jeremiah passage are said to be ignorant of the requirements of the LORD, the narrator is depicted as ignorant of the demands of the Christ-bearer with respect to the story which he should tell.

The dual name of the bear should not be overlooked. He is first introduced as Edward, a Christological allusion both in the fact that this is a royal name in England (the context in which Milne wrote his Biblical midrash), and its root meaning has to do with the guarding of fortune or protecting of treasure. No one familiar with the Bible will miss that this is an allusion to a major Biblical theme, articulated in the words attributed to Jesus about storing up treasure in heaven, and made particularly explicit in 1 Timothy 6:19 and 2 Timothy 1:14. It is surely no coincidence that the most explicit use of this language is found in the letters supposedly sent to one named “Timothy,” a name which denotes the honoring of God, a literal statement of that which the guarding of treasure in heaven points to in more symbolic terms.

But the bear has a second name, more titular in nature, much as one finds only in mythic royal figures and in the New Testament. The highlighting of the definite article “the” (through the emphatic childish pronunciation “ther”) forces the reader to think of the royal titles which have this form, and in the Biblical tradition most notably Jesus the Christ. Thus the bear who is brought by the Christ-bearer is (if this was not already obvious) none other than the Christ.

The name “Winnie” is likewise obviously symbolic, as the narrator takes pains to indicate by emphasizing its gender-inappropriateness. Such incongruities are intentional, and should prevent anyone from believing the tale one will find on Wikipedia and other such unreliable sources, to the effect that the name comes from an actual historical bear in an actual zoo, bearing this name in allusion to the city of Winnipeg, which was supposedly the bear’s owner’s hometown. The meaning of Winnipeg, “muddy waters,” cannot be the symbolism that Milne wanted associated with his baptist or his Christ in this scene! Rather, Winnie is a diminutive form of Edwin, “rich friend,” indicating that the previously-given name Edward and this one are both symbolic of the spiritual riches which are to be found in the imaginary Christ-friend of the mythical Christ-bearer.

The descent of the stairs points clearly to the fact that both figures are thought of as celestial rather than historical. They may appear in a dream or vision to the narrator, but they are not thought to actually reside at any point beneath the firmament (upon which the remainder of the action in the story will take place). Indeed, the only references to stairs in the Bible are in the story of Jacob’s famous dream of a stairway to heaven, and in descriptions of the temple or of the palace of the king. And so the stairway imagery in the Pooh story brings together through allusion a series of Biblical texts, which together emphasize divine revelation, and the dwelling places of the divine king and his earthly counterpart. These themes are themselves closely interwoven in the Biblical narrative, since Bethel, the site of Jacob’s dream, is said in Amos 7:13 to be a royal temple.

The secret meaning of the titular name of the bear – “Pooh” – is not revealed. The narrator thereby indicates that the account is mystical nature, through the leaving of key details esoteric. The telling of stories is mentioned in the second part of the passage, alluding to Jesus’ parables with their meanings hidden from the crowds but made known to the initiated. The reference to explanation likewise alludes to the role of Jesus the storyteller in making known the hidden meaning of his stories to his disciples. The reference to Pooh dwelling alone alludes to Mark 4:10,34, which emphasizes that Jesus explained the parables to his disciples when they were alone.

(The reference to his living under the name of Sanders may be a jibe at those who would mistake the narrative for history, alluding to the New Testament scholar E. P. Sanders who wrote so much about the historical figure of Jesus.)

The growly voice, even though this is not explicitly stated, is clearly supposed to be that of the bear himself, even though it is well-known that bears cannot literally talk, and so any historicist explanation is excluded in principle. His “I am” statement, coupled with the eschatological “now,” makes clear that the bear represents the heavenly redeemer, having descended to earth for revelatory purposes, but not in any sense to dwell there as a historical figure. That we are dealing with mythical figures existing in mythical rather than historical time is highlighted by the fact that “once upon a time” and “a long time ago” are coupled with “last Friday,” which therefore cannot be intended to denote an actual historical Friday, but rather brings into the story the resonance of Good Friday, when the knowledge of the death of the celestial redeemer is made known in the world, not as a historical event, but through the act of storytelling.

The fact that the story which follows will be told “sweetly” (the word is repeated twice for emphasis) foreshadows the prominence of bees and honey in the narrative. Bees in the Bible regularly represent foreign nations or other enemies who threaten the LORD’s anointed. We see this most clearly in Psalm 118:12, a text which does not merely provide the bees that feature in Winnie-the-Pooh (in the section heading and the story which follows), but also the burning thorns which are alluded to in the fire next to which Christopher Robin is said to like to listen to stories.

Honey also features in the story of the heroes Samson and Jonathan, both of whom have messianic resonances, and who thus would have been presumed by Milne to be types of the later Pooh. But more importantly, honey is a symbol of the words and commands of the LORD in Psalm 19, which connects us back once again to Jeremiah 8:7. While in the introduction to the narrative, the people are ignorant of the requirements of the LORD, and honey is not yet present, honey will be provided by Pooh, at great risk to himself, symbolizing that he is indeed the long-awaited celestial redeemer who brings divine revelation.

Given the great wealth of correspondence with earlier Biblical texts at the level of words, concepts, and imagery, often deliberately bringing together elements found only in precisely those passages with the words in question, can anyone seriously doubt that this passage from Winnie-the-Pooh was composed not (as some have claimed) on the basis of the author’s historical experience with his own child and his toy bear, but as a midrashic rewriting of Scriptural texts to compose a new one which features a mythical central figure and his forerunner? Only those stubbornly and irrationally closed-minded to a mythical and literary approach would insist that there must be allusions to people and entities beyond the text, when the simplest explanation for its contents is that the text was composed by drawing on details and terminology from the Bible in creative ways.

  • http://dilettante-exegete.blogspot.com/ Rick Sumner

    heh. I used to like a similar exercise with The Wizard of Oz. It even has a Hebrew original, where Dorothy lived with her mother, since the maternal figure is named Em, which is of course Hebrew for mother.

    I expect Casey to release a monograph on its Hebrew source any time now

  • TrevorN

    Love it. Of course Cline wasn’t the first to do a Pooh-based parody of biblical scholarship: there’s some theological (sic) material in the brilliant Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews.
    But I’m really just commenting because my current avatar belongs on any Pooh thread.

  • http://mythicpizza.blogspot.co.uk/ Paul Regnier

    I prefer to see Winnie the Pooh as a mimetic parody of Homer’s Odyssey.

    You have Pooh Bear (a bear of very little brain) as the antithesis of the cunning Odysseus, who was told by Kalypso to navigate using the constellation of The Bear. Both Pooh and Odysseus are fond of using stratagems, (Trojan horse vs Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees), and both use false names (Aithon, cf Sanders) and disguises (Odysseus disguises as a begger, Pooh as a cloud). Kanga and Roo are Penelope and Telemachus, Tigger is Achilles, Eeyore a paradoy of Nestor.

    Another sign of the interplay between the two texts is that Odysseus has a close relationship with Athena, while Pooh has a close relationship with Owl, clearly Athena in her symbolic form!

    Once you’ve understood this, it’s easy to see Pooh’s fruitless search for Heffalumps as a straightforward reworking of Odysseus long wanderings.

    I disagree with you over Milne’s use of honey and bees as a biblical reference. There are numerous references to honey and bees in Homer – e.g. the beeswax that blocks Odysseus’s crews’ ears when the sirens sing. I also read Pooh’s visit to Rabbit’s hole as a clear reference to Odysseus’s visit to the undersworld. Note particularly the honey, condensed milk, and bread offered by Rabbit, echoing the honey, milk, and barley meal offered as a libation by Odysseus.

    • http://dilettante-exegete.blogspot.com/ Rick Sumner

      You are clearly the next Dennis MacDonald. Note as well the parallel of Christopher Robin and Sinon, both convincing the enemy that the gift/cloud is authentic. Tut tut it looks like rain indeed.

  • http://en.gravatar.com/jkgayle J. K. Gayle

    Wonderful essay here! Clearly the hyphenated “Winnie-the-Pooh” (which you retain in your post) is biblical a la Brodie. Recall this bit from his “Genesis As Dialogue” -

    “The Less-Than-Sovereign God: The Unity of I:I-4:I6

    The two panels of disharmony (2:25-4:I6), apart from forming a diptych of their own, are part also of a larger unity–from the first creation account to the departure of Cain (I:I-4:I6). As already indicated, the variations in the divine name–the move from ‘God’ to ‘Yhwh God’ to ‘Yhwh’–suggest a pattern of increasing divine involvement in humankind and in human distress.

    This change in the divine name–from ‘God’ to ‘Yhwh’–is linked to a change in the divine word: like God’s name, God’s word comes more and more down to earth.”

  • x x

    Robins are only thrushes in North America, whereas Pooh is a British creation. Typical Mythicist mistake!

  • Joe Wallack

    The only thing funny about your post is that you think it is funny. While your proof-texting above that Pooh is in the Christian Bible is somewhat better than Paul’s proof-texting that Jesus is in The Jewish Bible, the main thing you are illustrating is how much better Brodie’s criteria for parallels are than you give him credit for. For starters Paul, the earliest significant Christian author, tells us explicitly and repeatedly that his Jesus is in The Jewish Bible. So too “Mark”, author of the original Gospel narrative, gives his Jesus as transitioned from The Jewish Bible. For finishers, we don’t need to wonder much about Pooh sources since the author is well known to us and the work went immediately to the Children’s story shelves and not the Christian books section.

    Brodie has criteria, you have just ignored them. Since you and yours seem determined to conclude the worst let me say for the record that where you are right here is that if Brodie has given evidence that there are good parallels to some Bible stories that does not prove that all stories are paralleled and he has not provided any quality evidence for MJ, he has just disputed evidence for HJ.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      People rarely find jokes funny when they are poking fun at their own beliefs.

      If mythicists cared about which shelves literature belongs on, as determined by those with expertise in such matters, then illustrations involving Winnie-the-Pooh would be unnecessary.

      • Joe Wallack

        J. McCrathy:

        “People rarely find jokes funny when they are poking fun at their own beliefs.”

        JW:
        I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Mythicist party.

    • spin

      Joe, I don’t think you should begrudge the historicists a bit of a laugh. They don’t seem to have much joy from their ideological choice. Here’s something Jacob Neusner perceptively wrote twenty years ago to demonstrate their need for a little levity:

      The quest for the historical Jesus is monumentally irrelevant to the study of history, in which those who pursue that quest are not engaged and by which they are not even motivated, or history of (a) religion, in which many of us are engaged, even when we come to Christianity in its initial century. The quest for the historical Jesus forms a brief chapter in Christian theology of our own times. That field of learning supplies data for the history of Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–that alone, and, as we now know that quest, precious little information of high consequence about the first century.

      Give’m a break, Joe.

      • spin

        - Neusner, ‘Who Needs “The Historical Jesus?”: An Essay-Review’, BBR 4 (1994), 125f.

        • http://dilettante-exegete.blogspot.com/ Rick Sumner

          What a strange coincidence, I posted a quote from that very paper on my blog just two weeks ago!

          Once you get past Neusner’s ceaseless tirades against Smith he is, in that discussion, so very, very right.

          • spin

            Yo Rick! I found his footnote #8 almost hysterical in retrospect, when his efforts at greater historical rigor seem to have caused him not to be published in America for 20 years. Better even was the invitation for him to participate in the 50th anniversary (1984) of the journal, Tarbiz, though, after saying he found everything it printed on “Talmudic history” historically worthless, the invitation was rescinded. All described with a gentle irony. Dig it.

            • http://dilettante-exegete.blogspot.com/ Rick Sumner

              Hey spin! Did you catch Evans’ reply in the same volume? It was so sad it was funny.

              “Neusner is too pessimistic because scholars talk to each other and…stuff. Oh, and some people love Jesus!”

              • spin

                Loved it. Two things especially noteworthy for their entertainment value. First, the ad hom against Neusner in three parts: a) “Neusner is not himself a Jesus scholar”, b) “he exaggerates when he says that ‘the results of the quest have produced nothing short of chaos’”, and c) “From the point of view of non-experts there may be a chaos of sorts.” Whoop, but he didn’t mean Neusner!

                The second is the insightful name of the article: as a reaction to Neusner’s “Who Needs ‘the Historical Jesus’?” Evans creatively responds with “The Need for ‘the Historical Jesus’”, expressing the historian’s need of a need. While Neusner appeals to a cliched rhetorical question form with the title “Who Needs X?” (think of Zappa’s “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”), Evans is earnest with his title, answering Neusner’s question at the end, So, “Who needs the ‘historical Jesus’?” Everyone who holds beliefs about him. Yeah, right. We’re doing history here. Does he do standup or would he be too subtle for the audience?

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  Here’s a link to the article online: http://www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/BBR_1994_08_Neusner-HistoricalJesus.pdf

                  I can understand why the very conservative Evangelical “Institute of Biblical Research” would like what Neusner had to say. But anyone reading the article will understand why mainstream secular historians will find its affirmation of faith over against historical study problematic and ultimately irrelevant to the secular pursuit of historical knowledge.

                  And Neusner is simply misinformed about the Secret Gospel of Mark. Morton Smith was not the only person who saw the manuscript (not only photos). Guy Stroumsa and several other scholars went and looked at the pages, before they were misplaced or made to disappear by the orthodox church authorities that took charge of them.

                  • spin

                    Adding to the entertainment, here we have an attack on the publisher in order to imply a devious motive for Neusner’s article appearing. We may as well put a metaphorical knife in the backs of Larry Hurtado, Edward Cook, Anthony J. Saldarini, J.J. Collins, Stanley Porter, Martin Hengel and all those other fools publishing with this evil conservative Evangelical “Institute of Biblical Research”, especially Bruce Chilton for editing the journal.

                    Then we come to the stirring claim that Neusner was “simply misinformed about the Secret Gospel of Mark”. Great knife work. One should be interested to know, of course, Neusner’s article was published in 1994 and the news of Strousma’s visit to Mar Saba seems first to have been published in Ehrman’s 2003 Lost Christianities, 83-84. Ehrman was researching the book when Strousma told him about the visit. Interesting stuff.

                    • spin

                      Slight correction. Ehrman first announced Stroumsa’s story in 2002 at the Toronto SBL meeting.

                      Naughty Neusner.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      I was merely trying to counter the posting of the quote as though it indicated something decisive about the field in question.

                    • spin

                      Yes and you did it with all the accuracy and objectivity we’ve come to expect from those who believe in the historical Jesus.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      Can you kindly clarify your point? Is it that IBR is not a conservative Christian organization? Is is that Neusner was correct? I did not complain that Neusner was not prescient, I merely stated that he was misinformed. Nor did I state that Neusner’s view of how people of faith should approach Jesus is necessarily wrong – but it certainly is telling that mythicists claim that secular historians are too influenced by Christianity when it suits them to do so, but mythicists will also gladly cite faith perspectives when it suits them to do so. If you are not a mythicist, as you previously claimed, then surely you can see this and comment on it in a manner that a mythicist probably would not?

                    • spin

                      My point? Creative selectivity can be so expressive. Consider when Joni Mitchell sets a scene at a diner describing the waitress with fishnet stockings and a bow-tie, you instead might note her over-sized breasts and dermatitis. It may be literally true if you work it, but the waitress served you cold coffee anyway, so why not give it to her?

                      Then we get the lovely pavlovian mythicist tirade which I gather is left over sweet-talk from your tete-a-tete with Steven.

  • Steven Carr

    McGrath really doesn’t care about his reputation does he?

    Rather than getting on with his brazenly announced Wiki pages, where mythicists are slain, he has decided to leave these empty pages on TalkWiki as a symbol of his progress in slaying mythicists, while he gets on with producing so many strawmen that he is one bit of hay away from being cast for a remake of the Wizard of Oz.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      It truly says something about mythicists that they think that what one does or does not do on a Wiki is what determines one’s reputation. :-)

      • Steven Carr

        If only McGrath had found something to write on his TalkWiki that refuted mythicists.

        But he could not even find something to meet the standards of a Wiki….

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I am always grateful when Steven Carr illustrates just what despicable trolls mythicists can be. To try to suggest that my failure to copy my own stuff into a Wiki I set up mainly for others to use suggests that I am not meeting the only standards on that Wiki, which are of course my own, is bizarre. But mythicists are bizarre, and it is always nice to have convenient illustrations of that!

          • spin

            This has the charisma of pillow talk from a pair of zimmer framers locked in a fruitless marriage.

            • arcseconds

              whereas of course your interactions with James are full of warmth and charm!

              I think I can see what’s really going on here. You want James for yourself, you think Carr isn’t good enough for him, and you get jealous when he spends time with his (former? hope springs eternal) arch-nemesis.

              • spin

                I think there’s enough baby fat for everyone to gently pinch.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X