He was born a century ago, on Jan. 18, 1882, into that sentimental Victorian world where proper little English boys in proper nurseries wore their hair in long curls and were dressed in Little Lord Fauntleroy suits.
A. A. Milne was young during an age of romantic, even sentimental, childhood. He was the third son of a schoolteacher who adored his boys, playing with them, teaching them, reading Uncle Remus to them in nightly segments.
The father created a world for his children. The son, who grew up into a less safe century, created a fictional world for all of our children.
To this day, on his hundredth birthday, A. A. Milne's Forest is a benign place, where Tiggers and Owls and Pooh Bears, Eeyores and Rabbits, Kangas and Roos coexist in tolerance and friendship.
His own family lived in this Forest. The father whom he worshipped in childhood and criticized in adulthood ("if Father knew everything, he knew most of it wrong") reappears here as the illiterate intellectual, Owl. The mother he knew as a preoccupied woman, "restfully aloof," lives in the Pooh plot as the busy Rabbit.
The elder and more lovable brother, Ken ("If you knew us both, you preferred Ken. . . . 'Poor old Ken' or 'dear old Ken' had his private right of entry into everybody's heart") was the model for the kindly Pooh. His son, Christopher Robin, plays the gentle leader.
But in another way, all of us are related to the fussiness of Kanga, the gluttony of the Bear of Very Little Brain, the gloomy sensitivity of Eeyore, the blithe recklessness of Tigger.
All of us have longings for the Forest of childhood.
Milne grew older and went to a school where he was, like Pooh, constantly hungry. He studied mathematics and, instead, became an editor of Punch, a playwright, a poet, a novelist. He served through the searing experience of his generation, World War I.
By 1926, when he took on the double role of father and writer, he must have been eager to fantasize a lost garden of pre-war innocence for Christopher Robin and, undoubtedly, for himself.
Milne's Forest is a kind of protectorate of childhood, alive with adventures rather than dangers. Its inhabitants are full of childhood egotism and innocence, malaprops and insights. Its problems are the result of foolishness or bad luck instead of evil. Its adventures end happily. Every Pooh comes out all right from every pot and every hole.
This Forest also shelters that gentler moment in human history between the fierceness of Grimm fairy tales and the unrelenting sophistication of Freud. Reading among its wistful literary trees, adults and children alike can imagine a place of utter ease and spontaneity, a place to indulge in Christopher Robin's favorite pastime:
"What I like doing best is nothing. . . . It's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it. 'What are you going to do, Christopher Robin' and you say, 'Oh, nothing,' and then you go and do it."
For me, the books have always had an aura about them, even a premonition. Milne understood what all parents know and all children suspect: sooner or later, the world interferes with childhood, knowledge complicates innocence.
At the very end of "The House at Pooh Corner," Christopher Robin has begun to learn things. About the letter A, about Factors, about Kings. He has to leave this Forest for school, the business of knowing and growing up.
"Pooh," he calls to his bear. "I'm not going to do Nothing any more."
"Never again?" asks Pooh.
"Well, not so much. They don't let you."
There is a longing in this goodbye that we share, a longing for a lost idyll of childhood, whether it is our own or our sons' and daughters', or the world's.
"But," as Milne wrote consolingly, "of course it isn't really Goodbye, because the Forest will always be there ... and anybody who is Friendly with Bears can find it."
This is the gift he left us on his birthday.
(c) 1982, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company