Christopher Robin's life Breaking away: Separating the famed Winnie-the-Pooh's fictional friend from his own quieter reality occupied the real Christopher Robin Milne for much of his lifetime.

April 24, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Christopher Robin Milne was an author's character who searched during most of his years for his own real life. He found it about 14 years before his death, which occurred last week in England.

Resolution came with the publication in 1982 of the final volume of his autobiography, "The Hollow on the Hill." Only after that was he able to separate what was his, and real, from what belonged to the fiction of his father. Only then was he able to reconcile his own life with the one he never lived, though much of the world seemed to think he had.

His two lives criss-crossed and confused him. He often had difficulty remembering what he had actually done himself -- separating that from what had been done by his fictional counterpart, the Christopher Robin created by A. A. Milne in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

"Pooh-sticks," for instance. Did he invent this game that involved throwing twigs in a stream? Or was it that little boy who numbered among his friends a bear cub, an exceptional tiger, a dour donkey and a variety of other forest creatures who, since their creation, have entertained millions of the world's children?

The Milne who died last week at age 75 fought determinedly to break loose from the fame his father had burdened him with.

Perhaps it would have been more readily tolerated had there been some affection between the two. But according to Christopher Milne, there was none. The boy spent much of his youth sequestered in a nursery in the company of a nanny. He was allowed into the presence of his parents only three times a day.

The English middle class, especially at the turn of the century, seemed not to like their children very much, or at least their company. So they invented the ruse of quality time.

A. A. Milne plundered his son's life, exploiting it to perpetuate his own.

"When I was 3, my father was 3," wrote the son. "When I was 6, he was 6 he needed me to escape from being 50."

Thus, the only son of A. A. Milne was one of those men who had fame thrust upon him, fame of a sort. He apparently didn't really want it, possibly because he knew that any light coming from him was only a reflection of his father's greater glare. Maybe that's why he called himself Billy Moon. Maybe he realized that even when his own life ended, he would be remembered as an asterisk to the chronicle of his father's achievements. Which is how it was.

The great man, of course, never noticed any of this.

"The publicity which came to be attached to 'Christopher Robin,' " wrote the father, "never seemed to affect us personally. "

Going his own way

Despite everything, Christopher Milne managed a certain autonomy. At boarding school, he took up boxing instead of cricket, which was his father's favorite sport. He went off into the army, like his father, but unlike his father, saw action and was wounded. He left London, against his father's wishes, and set up a bookshop in the village of Stoke Fleming. He married a woman his father disapproved of, his cousin, Lesley de Selincourt. She gave him a daughter.

And like his father, he turned to writing, but not until he was in his 50s. The autobiographies began to appear in 1974, with "The Enchanted Places," followed five years later by "The Path Through the Trees." The books were about his childhood. They contained all his pain.

Whether A. A. Milne merited the bitterness his son cultivated toward him is something only thetwo could know. What is known is that the father's glow continues, almost undimmed. And all the characters he created enliven and instruct children even today.

Elizabeth Spires, a poet and former teacher of children's literature at Goucher and Loyola colleges, remembers that when she was making up the syllabus excluding Milne was never a question. He is one of the constants in children's literature.

Reassuring

"I think those Winnie-the-Pooh books are reassuring to younger children, partly because in Winnie books there is this hierarchy of characters," she said. "No matter how little one animal knows, there is always some other animal who knows less."

Ms. Spires points out that the only objections to A. A. Milne she has noticed come from those who think his work is too precious. Dorothy Parker thought that way. After five pages of "The House at Pooh Corner," she wrote in her "Constant Reader" column for the New Yorker: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up."

Ms. Spires is convinced that writing literature for children is not easier or less of an art than writing anything else. She also thinks much of it is created out of adult neurosis.

Maladjusted writers

"A lot of time the writers of children's books are not what you'd call very well-adjusted people," she says.

That was certainly the case with Lewis Carroll, the author of "Alice in Wonderland," and J. M. Barrie, creator of "Peter Pan." Carroll had unhealthy relationships with little girls.

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