When it was announced that there would be an authorised sequel to Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, I was rather sceptical. It seemed doomed to failure from the outset, and previous attempts to cash in on Milne’s talent (notably the horrendous Disney adaptation, and resultant filling of the world with the hideous illustrations that were mangled into being) weren’t encouraging. But I read the first story online and was pretty impressed; Verity gave me a copy of Return to the Hundred Acre Wood (thanks Verity!), and… 15 months later, quick as a snap, I read it.
I don’t know why it took me so long, other than because it almost always takes me an age to read the books on my shelves, however much I’ve been looking forward to them. But it seemed the perfect choice for my sickbed last week, undemanding and jolly, and so I took it down.
My thoughts could be summed up by saying: “It’s pretty much as good as it could be.” We all knew it would never be as good as the original – how could it be? – but it could have been a lot, lot worse.
The right people wrote and illustrated it, for a start. David Benedictus, the writer, had already dramatised the Winnie-the-Pooh books for the radio, and Mark Burgess (stepping into E.H. Shepard’s shoes as illustrator) was the colourist for Shepard’s illustrations in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. These are clearly men who have a great awareness of, and fondness for, the genius of Milne and Shepard. Whatever results they come up with, they have written and illustrated with respect and caution. Not for them, the slap-dash “Wouldn’t it be funny if Rabbit looked like he was off his head on drugs, and Eeyore were an alcoholic?” stylings of Disney.
The stories in the book take place during one of Christopher Robin’s school holidays. I’ll write a little bit about the ending of The House at Pooh Corner in another post, soon, but it’s clear that Christopher Robin hasn’t forgotten his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood. He’s changed a bit, but he’s still delighted to see them – and they organise (or should that be organdise?) a speshul welcum home party for him, complete with speshul invitations. Roo has his eye on a green jelly, and is trying to convince everyone else that the red and yellow ones look better. Kanga successfully diverts Owl’s story about Uncle Robert. Pooh gets drowsy and dreams about honey. “Jollifications and hey-diddle-diddle,” comments Eeyore, and who are we to disagree with him? Of course, Christopher Robin eventually turns up, and all is well. It is a gentle, auspicious start to the collection.
Things continue pretty well. As we go through the book, the events are chosen well. Owl wants to write a book. They start a school – Eeyore is headmaster. Cricket is played. Rabbit tries to take a Census…
“I thought I was a sensible animal,” Rabbit said, shuddering.
“Of course you are,” said Pooh, “everybody knows that.”
“And it was such a sensible idea, the Census.”
“It’s almost the same word,” agreed Pooh.
It’s all very much in keeping with the gang’s original adventures, which is great. Benedictus does, though, add another character. A drought dries up the river, and there emerges (possibly indignant from years of having pooh-sticks dropped on her head), Lottie the Otter. She wears pearls, says ‘darling’, and has gumption. She certainly isn’t a replication of any other characters – it’s impressive the Benedictus has found a gap in the seemingly-comprehensive gallery of personality types invented by Milne – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Lottie never quite works as a character. Benedictus cannot rely on the charm that Milne has already built up in Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore et al – and there is a lot of looking-over-the-shoulder at events and expressions from previous books, which is better than if they’d been ignored altogether.
And there lies the problem, the inevitable problem, with Return to the Hundred Acre Wood. The charm is missing. Or, rather, it is less. The same goes for Mark Burgess’s illustrations – the spark of genius which characterised both Milne’s writing and Shepard’s drawing is absent from their imitators. That indescribable something which brought Shepard’s illustrations so charmingly alive, and gave Milne’s prose a subtle undertone of wry wit and affectionate knowingness – it has not been bestowed upon Burgess and Benedictus, at least not in these guises.
The main emotion I have, when closing the very enjoyable but ultimately, of course, inferior tales of the Hundred Acre Wood? To re-read the originals, naturally. What fun!