The Military Grace Notes of Winnie-The-Pooh

Winnie-The-Pooh was not written to explain shell shock to a son. (Photo by Ethan Imaap)
A.A. Milne did not write the Winnie-The-Pooh books to explain PTSD to his son, Christopher Robin. That was a grace note from God. (Photo by Ethan Imaap)

The thing about writing is that often the author is consciously operating at both a surface story layer and a subtext, but subconsciously, God can take the writing to a place the author never envisioned. Obviously, God is the author of all, and those of us who write are merely conduits for whatever particular thing He might want to convey to a certain audience. He doesn’t take over to the point where there’s nothing of the author present in the work; he works within the author’s true loves and interests. The partnership makes the author feel like the work is uniquely his while God uses the work to speak to a reader in a way that’s perfectly suited to him. Like when a combat veteran writes a children’s book for his son, and 95 years later psychologists and combat veterans come away with a whole different story.

Yep, “Winnie-The-Pooh.” No, there’s no evidence that A. A. (Alan Alexander) Milne crafted the classic as a means of explaining his post-traumatic stress disorder to his son. He was simply creating an imaginary world, based on a nearby forest, in which a young boy, based on his son, enjoyed adventures with his stuffed animals come to life. The idea that each character represents a different aspect of PTSD, from which Milne did indeed suffer, is just a grace note from God.

A grace note in music is a small note that fills a gap just before a longer note. It’s not necessary, but it’s not decoration either. It’s a side note, so to speak, that adds beauty in the transition. The first time I heard the expression, believe it or not, was in reference to a scene in “Born On The Fourth of July.” After a scene in which paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, played by Tom Cruise, has sex with a prostitute, you can see tears in his eyes. The director explained that it was not in the script. It happened naturally as Cruise played the character, a grace note. And in it, so much was conveyed. Obviously, the viewer empathizes with the character’s pain of not being able to physically feel but also the deeper sense of longing to be with a wife in the future, and how sad the rest of his life must have seemed in that moment.

The grace note of Milne’s work is that his PTSD unintentionally leaked out into every character in “Winnie-The-Pooh” and “The House at Pooh Corner.” If you have a subscription to Audible, both are included free, and make sure you listen to the versions narrated by Peter Dennis. According to Christopher Robin Milne, the author’s son, only Dennis can make the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood come alive in the old-school, British way. Those of us who grew up on the Disney cartoon version will enjoy it just as much, if not more, than what we remember. Although, nothing beats that “I’m just a little black rain cloud, hovering over the honey pot” song. Trouble is that ditty is way too fully formed for Pooh to have made up.

So, where did this Pooh-as-PTSD narrative begin? Apparently, a group of Canadian doctors, led by Sarah E. Shea, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in pediatric behavioral medicine, wrote a paper in the Dec. 12, 2000 edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal entitled “Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A.A. Milne.” The intent was to poke fun at her profession and to call attention to the ease by which psychologists labeled people, especially children, and then reflexively prescribed medication or a cocktail of medicines. The “exhaustive review of the works of A. A. Milne” concluded that “these are in fact stories of Seriously Troubled Individuals, many of whom meet DSM-IV3 criteria for significant disorders (Table 1)” and that “there is a dark underside to this world.”

The whole thing was a joke, but readers took offense—those thin-skinned psychologists. It was too pro-medicate, and it made fun of cherished literary characters from childhood. And here we are 20 years later, claiming we knew Pooh back in the poo—good guy, dumb as a box of rocks, but fun around the campfire. Sucked at PT.

What is true is that Milne did suffer from shell shock, or what we now refer to as PTSD. On Feb. 1, 1915, he was commissioned a second lieutenant into the 4th Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. On July 7, 1916, he was seriously injured at the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in history. Of the 3 million men involved in that engagement, over 1 million were killed or wounded. When Milne recuperated, Military Intelligence capitalized on his writing abilities to craft propaganda for M17 from 2016 to 2018. On Feb. 27, 1920, he resigned, or relinquished as the Brits say, his commission, retaining the rank of lieutenant. Christopher Robin was born to Milne and his wife, Dorothy “Daphne” (de Sèlincourt) later that year. “Winnie-The-Pooh” was published in 1926.

If you re-read the books—under the guise of reading them to your kids or grandkids, of course—you cannot help but see patterns of PTSD within each resident of the Hundred Acre Wood. I found Rabbit to display anti-social tendencies, hiding when Pooh comes to visit and even lying, pretending not to be Rabbit. Eeyore is clearly depressed, but he’s been through major trauma—losing his tail, or perhaps his “tale” and therefore his story of himself. He assumes nobody likes him and then nearly cries with appreciation when he gets a honey pot—with no honey—and a broken balloon for his birthday. He’s the “we’re all gonna die” guy, but there is also wisdom in his perspective. Kanga is a helicopter parent, and Tigger is an adrenaline-junkie manic.

Pooh self-medicates with food, his drug of choice, and it shows in his physique, but he’s happy and good-natured. Of course, he’s got that traumatic brain injury from being bumped off each step when Christopher Robin carries him downstairs by the leg each morning. Pooh feels good when he helps others, like finding Eeyore’s tail for him, but interestingly, his constant companion is Piglet, who is perpetually anxious and afraid. Having your life threatened, in combat or otherwise, real or perceived, will do that do you, which is why having a friend like Pooh helps. Pooh doesn’t overthink and he’s always singing happy little songs, which would annoy me, but Piglet tolerates.

Eric Milzarski, writing for We Are The Mighty, got even closer to the symptoms of PTSD in his article, “‘Winnie the Pooh’ was created by a vet explaining war to his boy.” He theorizes:

“Piglet is paranoia, Eeyore is depression, Tigger is impulsive behaviors, Rabbit is perfectionism-caused aggression, Owl is memory loss, and Kanga Roo represent over-protection. This leaves Winnie, who Alan wrote in for himself as Christopher Robin’s guide through the Hundred Acre Woods—his father’s mind.”

And there are the grace notes, those little things, subordinate to the whole, that add beauty and depth between the lines. Both A. A. and his son longed to escape the “Winnie-the-Pooh” series, the elder to return to his adult writings as a playwright, poet, and article writer, and the younger to be a man and not a perpetual boy carrying around a teddy bear. But, as much as children love the stories—and adults can’t help but smile when reading or listening to them—veterans will find parts of themselves in many of the characters, whether we suffer from PTSD or not.

If you opt for the books, make sure you get the ones illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard. He, too, bemoaned the success of his Pooh illustrations thinking they overshadowed his other drawings. Shepard was a veteran too, by the way, and was also at the Battle of the Somme. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the Royal Garrison Artillery then assigned to the 105th Siege Battalion, which crossed into France in May, 1916. Later that year, you guessed it, he, too, was working for Intelligence, sketching the combat area from his battery position.

Sundays are for rest and pleasure, play for grown-ups, as it were. Or, if you’re a literature and military history fan, you might read a children’s book, field manuals for life in which character and virtue still matter. Or maybe watch a movie the family can enjoy. In 2008, the director of “Finding Neverland,” Mark Forster, made “Christopher Robin,” staring Ewan McGregor as an adult Christopher Robin who gets a lesson in what’s important in life from his childhood friends.

Sundays are also a time to reflect on all the many ways people contributed in times of war, their writings, their drawings, and how those art forms in turn helped them on the other side of war.

Milne only ever wanted peace after World War I. It was not to be and he served as a captain in the British Home Guard during World War II. He died in 1956 at the age of 74. Pooh, however, is bearing down on 100. If you want to know how the near-centenarian bruin got its name, it’s all due to another veteran, a Canadian officer, and Winnipeg apparently really did love honey.

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