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As the story goes, a young lieutenant travelled east from Winnipeg in August 1914, at the start of World War I. Harry Colebourn, a veterinary surgeon, was on his way to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force when he saw a young bear cub at a train station in White River, Ontario. The hunter who had killed the mother bear sold him the cub for $20, and Colebourne named her Winnipeg, after his hometown.
Upon reaching Valcartier, Quebec, Harry embarked on a Royal Navy vessel and sailed across the Atlantic with “Winnie,” as the bear was affectionately called. Winnie was a female black bear and became known for her playful but gentle behaviour. Black bears, unlike grizzlies, are very timid in nature, lacking the territorial aggression of other bears. They tend to be curious and relatively quiet—which isn’t to say that wild black bears should be considered cuddly and playful! Winnie was unique in that she was raised among humans, and it wasn’t long before she became the unofficial mascot of Harry’s regiment.
When Harry was informed he was to leave for France to serve near the front lines, he left Winnie at London Zoo. She quickly became the star attraction. When visitors knocked on her door, Winnie would come out. Children were permitted to ride on her back and she would eat from their hands. The zoo handlers had complete trust in Winnie’s gentle nature (“The History of Winnie The Pooh, White River Ontario.” WhiteRiver.ca, 2018). Initially, Harry intended to take her back to Winnipeg, but after his service in France and upon realising the public’s love for Winnie, he changed his mind and left her at the zoo. This is where Christopher Robin enters the story.
Christopher Robin Milne, the son of the famous author A. A. Milne, was born in London, England in 1920. On his first birthday he was given a teddy bear named Edward. After frequent visits to London Zoo, Christopher decided to rename Edward “Winnie-the-Pooh,” as both he and his father had great fondness for the playful bear.
On weekend trips to the tranquil surroundings of their country house, Christopher ventured from the garden at the family cottage to explore the woods beyond the garden gate. As an only child, his various stuffed animals were the friends who accompanied his explorations in what became known as the “Hundred Acre Wood.” In his book, The Enchanted Places, Christopher Milne later described how the bridge he played by was “Poohsticks Bridge” and a walnut tree was designated as “Pooh’s House.” His stuffed toy kangaroo became “Kanga” and his toy tiger became “Tigger.” Christopher’s father noted his son’s imaginative and joyful interaction with both the woods and his toys and was inspired to write his famous stories of Winnie-the-Pooh.
“It’s not much of a tale, but I’m sort of attached to it.”
On the surface, the story and its background appear idyllic. However, over time, the publicity that came from the overwhelming success of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories caused strife in the Milne family. A. A. Milne became indignant that these stories, out of all of his writings, received such acclamation. Christopher Milne reportedly came to resent his fictional namesake. When he went to boarding school, the other children bullied and teased him, and the public wanted to know the boy behind the story, so his parents took him around the world to book signings and press conferences. An article in The New Yorker states that he “wanted an anonymous boyhood to play in the woods, free of the exploitative public appearances, whirlwind media interviews, and fan mail that followed him throughout his life” (Robin Wright. “On Christopher Robin, War, and P.T.S.D.” NewYorker.com, October 25, 2017).
Christopher became estranged from his parents, and after his father died in 1956, he never saw his mother again. However, over the many years that followed, he became more at ease with his part in the children’s stories. Though he had initially refused any royalties from the books, he eventually accepted them and, in his bookstore, would sometimes talk to customers about his childhood and fondness for Winnie-the-Pooh (Gyles Brandeth. “I knew Christopher Robin—the real Christopher Robin.” Telegraph.co.uk, October 14, 2016).
“I’m just a little black rain cloud.”
Today, it seems almost impossible to have a good story without a dark underbelly, or to hear good news without also hearing the bad. Yet by now, generations of children around the world have enjoyed dropping Poohsticks from bridges and have been entertained by the illustrated and animated renditions of Pooh Bear and his friends. Compared to most entertainment today, even children’s entertainment, the stories are harmless and innocent tales.
In 2014, Ryerson University in Toronto held an exhibition called Remembering the Real Winnie, noting that “The World’s Most Famous Bear” had turned 100. The four enduring and charming Winnie-the-Pooh books that A. A. Milne wrote reflected happy times in the lives of the real-life characters upon whom they were based, and the legacy of Winnie-the-Pooh was neatly summed up by exhibit director Doina Popescu when she was interviewed by The Globe and Mail. Popescu said, “Winnie was a symbol of peace and love in a time of horror, a symbol of survival, and I think we still have a need to gravitate toward these kinds of mascots” (Mark Medley. “Remembering the real Winnie-the-Pooh.” TheGlobeAndMail.com, November 4, 2014).
We live in a society full of corruption, struggle and disappointment. Yet, this magazine’s purpose is to focus not only on the challenges of today’s world, but also on the silver lining of tomorrow’s. The Apostle Paul wrote that “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8). In a world such as ours, this advice is essential if we are to rise above and overcome the negativity all around us.
The good news is that one day we will have uplifting stories without the sadness and turmoil of this present age. Christopher Robin’s happy childhood will not be the exception but the norm, as we are told that, one day, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).