Winnie-The-Pooh Day: Humanity in Animal Tales

A little bear with glossy, golden fur in a red t-shirt… you know who I mean, don’t you? Of all the famous bears in British children’s stories – from the sweet marmalade-guzzling muzzle of Paddington, to the swaggering energy of Yogi bear – arguably the best known worldwide is Winnie-the-Pooh.

 

Dear old Pooh was inspired by a female black bear cub. Canadian soldier Lieutenant Harry Colebourn bought her at a station from a trapper in White River, Ontario in 1914 and christened her Winnipeg, ‘Winnie’ for short, after his hometown. When he was called to the Western Front he gave his beloved Winnie to London Zoo.

 

He visited frequently, unable to fully part with her, and the Zoo found her to be the best-behaved bear they’d ever had, apparently due to the affection with which he’d raised her. She must have been truly friendly, because even children were allowed to enter the bear pit to feed and play with her.

 

Among those children was Christopher Robin, a little boy so besotted with feeding her condensed milk (no limit to what you could do in zoos in the 1910s, apparently), that he changed his teddy bear’s name from Edward to Winnie the Pooh. A. A. Milne, Robin’s father, went on to use the fury friends in his son’s nursery – Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and Roo – as character inspiration for what would become the whole gang. Pooh first made an appearance in Milne’s 1924 book of poetry ‘When We Very Young’, followed by the story, ‘The Wrong Sorts of Bees’, published in the London Evening News on Christmas Eve in 1925. A full volume of stories appeared the year after and became an instant blockbuster.

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Christopher Robin feeds Winnie in London Zoo
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Harry Colebourn, soldier and original owner of Winnie

 

A. A. Milne, prior to his Pooh days, was a screenwriter, humourist and editor who joined the British Army during WWI. The harrowing experience resulted in at least one debilitating illness, shellshock, and a serious enough injury during the Battle of Somme to be invalided back to the UK.

 

Escaping the constant noise, rancid decomposition and filthy misery of the trenches, Milne moved his family into countryside tranquillity near Ashdown Forest. Bodily and mentally he was distancing himself from the war. The book of Pooh bear stories, full of gentle, quintessentially English sensibilities, pulled him into a realm of nature and innocent childhood. It retained, however, a knowing wisdom he had surely come to through his hardships.

 

The Christopher Robin of Winnie-the-Pooh, that central boyhood figure, was based off his own son, with whom he spent hours upon hours of joyful exploration in the woods. But after the popularity of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, the warped way of humanity turned his living son into a sort of idol, thrusting him into the limelight with fans who wanted endless photographs with him and demanded public appearances. It was a harmful amount of attention that resulted in the real Christopher Robin enlisting himself in WWII and breaking his pacifist father’s heart.

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The illustration entitled 'For a long time they looked at the river beneath them' is set in chapter 6 of the second Milne book, drawn by EH Shepard

 

But the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh did not end with his birth family. In 1961, Winnie-the-Pooh was licensed by Walt Disney, the hyphens in his name were dropped, and the books were adapted into an incredibly successful – albeit Americanised – animation series. The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988) changed the story from its native England to contemporary America and Christopher Robin was presented as an 80s kid, not a 20s child. Shepard’s soft pencil sketches of Pooh became the chemical yellow of TV cartoons. Since, there have been video games, rides, movies and in 2006, Pooh Bear received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Disney franchise is believed to be worth between $3bn-$6bn.

 

Curiously, there is also a little-known Soviet adaptation (1969 – 1972), in which Winnie appears as the original chocolate brown bear (the Kamachatka brown bear is the most prevalent on Russia’s territory, and therefore brown is definitely the colour most Russians associate with the animal). 

 

Khitruk, the director, followed Pooh’s love of honey and most storylines, however, Christopher Robin was removed (perhaps he hinted at a sort of hierarchy Communism could not allow to be implied). Khitruk’s Pooh is a singer of pretty catchy songs, a round-body round-eyed exuberant personality. The scenery stands out from most inane, brightly-coloured kid’s TV by being illustrated in the folkloric traditions of Russian art. It is as much of a cultural and creative masterpiece as Shepard and Milne’s English originals.

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Disney's Americanised version
Disney's Americanised version
'Vinni Pukh', the Soviet Union's version

Winnie-the-Pooh was born into a world shaken by wars, but he was uncomplicated and kind. A tenacious, cheerful bear whose geniality is nothing short of admirable. Commercial cogs at Disney, experienced in rinsing remakes, did a good deal to cement his character, and those of his companions, into relatable attributes. The outgoing, troublemaking Tigger; the brave little Piglet; the sarcastic, glum Eeyore; the impatient Rabbit and the wise Owl. Everyone knows one, everyone is one.

 

Yet Winnie-the-Pooh was Milne’s ode to the special bond between parents and children, it was his ultimate gift to his only son. It might well be the bedtime story that encapsulates the concept most, though bedtime stories can be just as soothing for a solo reader. There is plenty of philosophical wisdom in them, and during the height of the coronavirus pandemic we showed just how much adults also treasure calming tales. British illustrator’s Charlie Mackesy’s, book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse following similar themes of love, hope and friendship with pen-and-ink drawings became a breakout bestseller.

 

It difficult times we crave simplicity. That is at the core of this immortal furball, in all his iterations. So to honour this uplifting, familiar and most beloved little bear, our three graphic designers have created their own renditions in homage. 

 

Christian Wust and Anna Kimonova have both reworked the classic Pooh bear in his red t-shirt, while our head designer Margaux Audy has taken another route, transforming the whole cast and creating an animation that plays on Winnie-the-Pooh’s famous legacy of sketching and illustration. We hope you enjoy our playful take, and how our creative team’s individual personalities shine through. That’s the thing with enduring stories; there’s always a new way to look at them. 

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Anna Kimonova's classic Disney style Pooh, served with a smile
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Christian Wust's brightly coloured bear graphic
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Head Designer, Margaux Audy recreates the whole Pooh family

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