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Too Much Bother About a Bear

Whisper, whoever dares: Winnie-the-Pooh is actually (write this very small) NOT REAL.

There, I've said it.

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And now I can't help wondering, in a funny sort of way, if the world will ever be quite the same again. Or, to put it another way, will Gwyneth Dunwoody MP stump off disillusioned into a corner of the disenchanted forest, muttering to herself in an Eeyorish sort of voice: "Not at all. Don't apologize. Merriment and what-not. It's just what would happen."

The thing is, although Mrs. Dunwoody is a longstanding member of the British Parliament, and although she is chairman of the Transport Subcommittee and a lady of considered opinions, it seems she nevertheless believes that Pooh and Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, and Tigger are real. She has been quoted as saying: "I saw them recently, and they look very unhappy indeed."

Now, while one doesn't like to shatter the harmless delusions of childhood innocence, a greater degree of realism than this, surely, is called for on the Transport Subcommittee and the like. It must be time for Mrs. Dunwoody to be told - gently and understandingly - that Pooh and Co. are actually fictional.

What prompts these musings is the now well-publicized question Mrs. Dunwoody has reportedly put to the British House of Commons after seeing Pooh and pals displayed in a glass case in the children's section of the New York Public Library.

This is how the Associated Press put it: "Labour minister Gwyneth Dunwoody has introduced a question in Parliament to ask what plans Britain's culture secretary has to arrange for their repatriation. 'They are part of our heritage and they want to come home,' Mrs. Dunwoody said."

She then (reportedly) had the apolitical temerity to equate the stuffed toys with the Elgin Marbles, those consummate fragments of ancient Greek sculpture from the Parthenon that reside in the British Museum, London. Britain has consistently refused to listen to any and all demands from Greece that they be "repatriated." Similarly, on a more local stage, the English have refused to return the marvelous ivory Lewis chessmen (also in the BM) to the Scottish island where they were found. The world is full of museums housing parts of the heritage of just about every other country.

The Mona Lisa is Italian but is the most precious possession of the Louvre in Paris. The Uffizi in Florence, Italy, owns one of the greatest masterworks of 15th-century Flemish painting, Hugo van der Goes's "Portinari Altarpiece." And where do you go if you want to see that storm-laden masterpiece, "The View of Toledo," by El Greco? It is not in Toledo. It is nowhere in Spain. Or Greece. Or even on the Greek island of Crete where Domenikos Theotokopoulos (to use El Greco's original name) was born. You go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

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Clearly, if a principle of repatriation were to be established, a veritable can of worms would be opened. There is little doubt that many artifacts have rich provenances, and came to their present homes in ways that were not always respectable. But I think even those should mostly stay where they are, as long as they were not acquired illegally in recent decades and do not contain the valued bones of tribal ancestors. Multiculturalism is what museums are about. What a dull thing a visit to the British Museum would be if it were only stocked with British objects.

AS for Pooh and friends, several other factors come into play. First, the two Pooh books were just as popular and successful in the United States, right from the start (1926 and 1928), as they were at home.

Second, the toys (minus Roo, sadly lost in the apple orchard) actually languished, forgotten, at the home of their author, A.A. Milne, for years. Then they were lent, in 1947, and went, with Milne's blessing, on a very popular 10-year tour of the US under the auspices of E.P. Dutton, his American publisher.

Third, Milne's son's toys were indeed the inspiration for some of the characters in the Pooh stories (Owl and Rabbit were total inventions), but what the Pooh-loving world really loves are the characters he wrote about and the pictures E.H. Shepard drew. And the famous honey-adoring, brainless, humble, hopeful bear we all know so well was actually drawn from a bear in Shepard's house called Growler, and not from Winnie himself at all.

Then, finally, the adult Christopher Robin was by no means sentimentally attached to these relics of his childhood - even if they were obviously love-worn by him as a small boy. The fame they had brought him he came to find both welcome and wearisome. (In 1987, when the toys were given to the library, he approved, on the condition that they be publicly displayed.)

Here is CR's assessment of the matter in his 1974 autobiography. After expressing himself not at all disturbed that they are now American citizens, he adds: "If you saw them today, your immediate reaction would be: 'How old and battered and lifeless they look.' But ... they are only toys and you are mistaking them for the real animals who lived in the forest."

Ah (said Pooh) so those are the real animals, then. I always wondered....

Perhaps Mrs. Dunwoody should have followed Piglet's dictum when he was in a tight spot: Ask Christopher Robin.

" 'It's Christopher Robin!' said Piglet. 'He'll know what to do.' "

And he wanted his toys to stay in New York.

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