“Return to the Hundred Acre Wood” by David Benedictus (2009)

With Ewan McGregor’s recent Christopher Robin film, it seems all the rage to wonder what happened to the boy-with-a-bear after the stories were over. The real Christopher Robin Milne famously had a poor relationship with his father, blaming him for commercializing his childhood and causing him embarrassment in his later years. Of course, that didn’t stop Disney from producing hundreds of hours of additional stories. My son has recently gone through a “Winnie the Pooh” phase, spurred on in part by our recent trip to the “real” Hundred Acre Wood in the Ashdown Forest, and I’ve been reading him Pooh stories before bed. It is in that spirit that I have now read the two official sequels to the Milne originals. But before we talk about that, I suppose that I have to explain how a series that has a dozen or more movies and television series could have only “two” sequels. Read on!

The original “canon” of Winnie-the-Pooh, if you can call it that, is a series of four books by A. A. Milne. The character first appeared in 1924 in a book of poetry entitled When We Were Young, as a toy of Mr. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin. In this first poem, Pooh’s name is “Edward Bear”, but his more famous name would first be applied in the short story collection, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). The introduction to that work revealed that Christopher Robin renamed his prized bear into the Winnie-the-Pooh that we know today. This was followed by a second book of poetry, Now We Are Six (1926), and a second book of short stories, The House at Pooh Corner (1928). By the conclusion of this second book of short stories, the characters have largely taken on the form that we know them by today. Tigger, the character that would come to dominate so much of the Disney era, hadn’t even arrived until the final story collection. Whether it was because the real life Christopher Milne had aged out of further stories, or for other reasons, the elder Milne did not write any additional books about his son’s adventures with Pooh. He remained a prolific writer until nearly his death, but the canon of Winnie-the-Pooh had been set in 1928.

Disney acquired the rights to Winnie-the-Pooh in 1961, a few years after Milne’s death. The exact situation with the rights is a complicated one and doesn’t seem to be fully resolved yet. Since I want to keep to the book-canon (whatever that means), I won’t go over it in detail, but Disney produced the first Pooh short feature in 1966, with follow-ups in 1968 and 1974. Those were consolidated into a theatrical film in 1977, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Note the lack of hyphenation! Disney-produced material is not hyphenated, while the original Milne materials almost universally are. Since then, Pooh has exploded with four more theatrical films (plus the recent live-action one), one more theatrical short, nine direct-to-video films, and four television series. I did a quick tally, and there are 140 hours of Winnie-the-Pooh content produced since 1966. That is a lot of Pooh! While there have been many sequels to Pooh stories, there have been no official sequels to the original four books. Milne’s work stood alone.

That brings us to David Benedictus. A writer and playwright, he produced an official full-cast audiobook version of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories in 1995. This was not a Disney production, rather done in conjunction with the “Trustees of the Pooh Properties”, the foundation that retained the rights to the original stories. Inspired by his time with these characters, he wrote two more original Pooh stories and sought to have them published, only to be told by the Trustees that Disney owned all of the sequel rights. The stories had to be shelved. Around 2005, the Trustees contacted Benedictus again: they had regained the sequel rights and had remembered his two stories. They only liked one of them, but that was enough to commission him to write a new collection of official Pooh stories, the first new “Milne-official” sequel since 1928.

And that’s where we come (at last!) to the book. Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is what it says on the tin: a return. Taking place perhaps a year or more after the original stories, Christopher Robin has returned to the Hundred Acre Wood for another summer. He’s older and the games that he plays with his friends are older-kid games, but this is still the same characters playing in the same forest. Benedictus does a fantastic job at this, not just aping the original stories but lovingly bringing them forward into new adventures. Christopher Robin rides a bicycle, he plays cricket, and he arranges his woodland friends into a spelling bee. At one point, he even arranges his menagerie into the image of a school, with Pooh as a “Prefect”. Everything I know about “prefects” I learned from Harry Potter, but Pooh seems enchanted by the idea. Rabbit conducts a census and the Wood undergoes a drought. The stories are also completely grounded in their original timeframe, the early 1930s. This older Christopher Robin enjoys older-kid things. He spins period-appropriate records (on his gramophone!) for his forest friends. I appreciate the artistry that was required to bring a slightly older Christopher Robin to life. Much like the book before it which introduced Tigger, this one adds a new character: Lottie, the Otter. Lottie is certainly one of the most fun characters, being simultaneously playful and formal, and quite clever. She has adopted a tad of Rabbit’s stiffness, but does so in a unique and playful way. I’m not doing justice to her characterization, but she is one of my favorite elements of the new book.

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the book for what it was, it failed one key test: my son. After reading the original Pooh stories with him from cover to cover, I moved on to the stories in this collection. My son is five years old and loves those ones, but he had too much difficulty with the ones in this book. They do not flow as well when read aloud, nor do they have the little moments that made Milne so charming. I struggled to keep his interest. He liked them, but they were completely outclassed by the Milne originals in his mind. After Benedictus worked so hard to retain the original prose style, my son picked up on differences that I did not and rejected the book. I had to read the rest on my own.

This is a great book with well-written stories, but they aren’t Milne’s originals. They don’t quite sit on the same level. I suppose this book get one thumbs up and one down: up from me as I enjoyed what Benedictus was trying to accomplish, while one down from my son who just couldn’t get into them in the same way as the older ones. I may talk about my adventures in the “real” Hundred Acre wood plus there is one more “official” Winnie-the-Pooh book to cover.  More on those soon.

Previous posts in this series:

  1. “Captain  Vorpatril’s Alliance” by Lois Bujold (2012)
  2. “The Storm Before the Storm” by Mike Duncan (2017)
  3. “The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck” by Don Rosa (1994)
  4. “Crystal Phoenix” by Michael Berlyn (1980)
  5. “The Original Hitchhiker’s Guide Radio Scripts” by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd (1978, 1980)
  6. “Rose” novelization by Russell T. Davies (2018) & “The Day of the Doctor” novelization by Steven Moffat (2018)
  7. “Shada” by Douglas Adams and Gareth Roberts (2012)
  8. “Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen” by Douglas Adams and James Goss (2018)

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