Mythicism, Mimesis, and Pooh Studies

Mythicism, Mimesis, and Pooh Studies July 24, 2013

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:


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.

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