SO OFF THEY WENT TOGETHER. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing." Many grown people cannot read the end of The House at Pooh Corner without crying. The words fly in the face of reality, but the man who wrote them and his readers who weep are moved by the loss of their own imagined innocence. For the little boy himself, known to millions as Christopher Robin, remembering childhood is not so simple. He well understands that the we in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six signifies not only himself but the child his father remained, in large measure, long after he had grown up to be a writer of light verse and essays, mysteries, plays and four children's books.
Indeed, as Christopher Milne told us in The Enchanted Places , his first book of memoirs, written as an almost passionate apologia for his father, A. A. Milne hardly knew his little boy. Until Christopher was 10, this only child of rather old parents (Milne was 38 when he was born) knew and loved his nanny far better than either mother or father. Yet his mother was a presence: She gave his nursery toys their voices and must have helped create the personalities the writer gave to the stuffed bear, pig, donkey and kangaroo. Christopher describes her as a cat person, like himself: neat, capable with her hands, a lover of solitary night walks and of flowers; she even liked serious music when she happened to hear it. His pipe-puffing, dog-like father played a much smaller part, although the poem about the disappearance of James James Morrison Morrison's mother suggests to a reader of A.A. Milne's own autobiography that he would have liked to abolish women from the scene and resume with his son (always described not as "my son," but "my boy," as if to say, the boy I am) the camaraderie he had enjoyed years before with his brother.
But of this the child Christopher was unaware. He knew he was famous and liked it at first, though long before nanny was gone and he had been sent off to school, he had come to hate this double called Christopher Robin. Something else he resented in silence was his girlish haircut and the funny little frocks he wore instead of pants. He arbitrarily lays the blame for this on his mother, yet -- though of course he knows Milne's autobiography -- he fails to tell us that his father too suffered torments, described in great detail, at being forced to wear a Lord Fauntleroy hairdo. The father's visiting the same humiliation on his son is acknowledge by neither.
After the loving nanny was deposed, Milne suddenly craved Christopher's love and company, and so began a dependence, for boy and man too, that was not to end for over 15 years, if then. Christopher was totally submissive to his father's charm, leniency and manipulation. They shared a love of mathematics, they played cricket and word games, they did crossword puzzles; but Milne drew the line at his son's writing light verse and told him not to think of being a writer. How wrong he was; or, perhaps, being a jealous man, how right.
The Path Through the Woods takes up thelife that the real Christopher lived after quitting the forest where the other boy and the bear play forever. He says little about school, where he had to face not only taunts about saying his prayers, but something much worse. In the first book he scarcely mentions the agonizing stutter that seized his tongue when he was eight, but in the second, where pain is more openly dealt with, he describes the full hell of it, and does not conceal the fact that it began about the time his father entered his life, and left him when Milne died in 1956.
His university education was cut short by the Second World War. Though he failed his army physical (excitement made him tremble), his father, as he had done before and was to do many times again, pulled wires to right the wrong. "He never left events to take their course if he could help them on their way; and helping them on their way meant going straight to the top." (The funny thing is that A.A. Milne vigorously resented and derided his own father's attempts to intervene for him on high.) Milne's planning and wire-pulling got Christopher into the Engineers as a carpenter (his early delight in a toy carpenter's set has remained a wholehearted passion for a majestic style of carpentry pre-dating power tools); but he resisted his father's wishes in choosing to be and enlisted man. On the "wrong" side of the class line for the first time, he delighted in being called Robin and in the new freedom from family. He even delighted in war itself. Sharing his father's views in all matters, he was a pacifist, yet the war years brought him lasting satisfaction.
One of its benefits was to speed up his own development from a shy, immature, rather "wet" youth into a resourceful and courageous officer who could handle putrefying corpses, get a ferry built under shellfire, and defuse mines with perfect sangfroid. He traveled far from the Forest: In Iraq he marveled at the desert's momentary burst of bloom in spring; in Egypt he watched the Germans and Italians surrender; in Italy ("on the eve of my father's birthday") he fell in love with the orchards and vineyards and people even while mines, shells, death and the fear of death were always close. Like his mother, he was happy in the dark, and while he marched at night, knowing German guns as well as olive trees were at hand, he felt the presence of Italy, "both powerful and benevolent" -- a religious experience. During holidays year after year he has continued to seek that beloved tutelary presence.
A serious head wound put him out of action for a while. He was naively proud of the wound, something graver than his father had suffered in the first war; and before he left Italy he finally, at 24, fell in love for the first time. Up to then he had resisted meeting women: He couldn't dance; he "didn't fancy females." His love for this bright, attractive Italian girl overwhelmed him, but she perceived in him what his uniform couldn't conceal, the lack of disinvoltura , an ease and freedom that Christopher Milne was never to achieve, though the courage and integrity that mark him so strongly are worth more than cool self-possession.
After the war he floundered in jobs that didn't work out, the last as a trainee furniture salesman. He was condemned as "gauche," though he learned practical skills like upholstery and, better than that, began to study and appreciate good design. By the time he was fired he had found a wife. He is reticent about this episode and about the woman with whom he has obviously had an extraordinarily close and satisfying marriage for some 30 years, though he poignantly conveys the joyful sense of two solitudes meetin and touching and greeting each other. What he does tell may explain part of the mystery of his attitude toward his mother, who he unconvincingly dismisses as stupid. Lesley, his wife, is Christopher's first cousin, the daughter of a maternal uncle to who his mother had not spoken for years. He is mum about what his parents thought, said and did to bless or prevent his marriage, but after this time it is plain that the bond was broken. When he and Lesley decided to escape from London and his father's fame, to attempt life as booksellers in Dartmouth, a remote seaside town, his father once more pulled strings, but for the last time.
Christopher's success and happiness as a bookseller has been entirely his own doing, owing nothing to A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin or royalties. The Harbor Bookshop provided the Milnes a living for 21 years and the chapters amply describing these years are fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. The ways in which he supplemented profits from books with prints, picture framing, cards and secondhand books; what people buy as opposed to what they read; the vagaries of his assistants (people who must care more for people than books); his houses and gardens; his work for the preservation of Dartmouth; his espousal of the new education; his fearless speechmaking on behalf of his causes with a tongue at last unshackled; his delight in townscape and landscape, in Italy and wildflowers and the night; his perceptive appreciation of animals; his deeply pondered humanism -- all are aspects of a life that has been made rich by the painstaking substitution of his own goals and values for those of his father.
But bitter mysteries remain. His mother died in 1971; he had not communicated with her for 15 years. The reader can't help noticing that the silence began with the birth of the Milnes' only child, a daughter, Clare, who is severely disabled and confined to a wheelchair. Christopher knows all too well what it is to be different, and his sympathy for his daughter is intense, if unsentimental. Her singular needs have been a welcome challenge to his ingenious skills. Remarking how unfair it is that the rest of us have all sorts of graceful chairs to sit on while people like Clare are stuck with a single hideous one, he has designed and made for her a large choice of comely wheelchairs.
The death of his mother gave him his frist share of the Pooh spoils, an income that made bookselling no longer necessary. He was dismayed. "No, thank you, I perfer to walk. How often have I said this. To be offered a lift by anybody would therefore have been bad enough . . . But to be offered a lift by, of all people, my fictional namesake, to have to travel the rest of my way in his company -- this was the final insult to my injured pride." Yet for the sake of his daughter, who could never walk, he has accepted the income. It has brought the further boon of freeing him to be the writer he once wanted to be -- and a substantial, good one.
He is a good man too. A while ago he met someone in the lane carrying a jar. "I didn't know him, but even before he showed me, I knew what the jar held -- the caterpillar of the elephant hawk moth." They chatted and parted. A little later Lesley, on her way to the bookshop, met the collector and greeted him. "I gather you've just been talking to my husband." "Oh, yes, . . .I thought he looked like the sort of person who would be interested in my caterpillar." The fact that Christopher Milne thinks that high praise is one of the nice things about him. CAPTION: Illustration, From "WINNIE THE POOH," Copyright (c) A. A. Milne