Ridiculous and sublime: Richard Bauckham’s “The Pooh Community”

 

More and more I am finding satire the proper vehicle to address some of the more foolish antics of both the church and the academy.  So I was delighted to come across Richard Bauckham’s delicious deadpan savaging of his own guild in his lecture “The Pooh Community,”  in which he employs some of the methods of contemporary New Testament scholarship to analyze A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.”
His careful sifting leads him to posit the existence of several “communities” behind the final redaction of the text.  Here’s a sample:

“The very distinctive nature of the Pooh community can be further appreciated when we compare it with other children’s literature of the period, such as the Noddy books or the Narnia books (though it may be debatable whether these were already written at the time when the traditions of the Pooh community were taking shape). Words and concepts very familiar from other children’s literature never appear in the Pooh books: the word school, e.g., is completely absent, as is the word toys, even though the books are ostensibly about precisely toys. Conversely, the Pooh books have their own special vocabulary and imagery: e.g. the image of honey, which is extremely rare in other children’s literature (not at all to be found in the Narnia books, e.g., according to the computer-generated analysis by Delaware and Babcock), constantly recurs in the literature of the Pooh community, which clearly must have used the image of honey as one of the key buildingblocks in their imaginative construction of the world.

The stories afford us a fairly accurate view of some of the rivalries and disputes within the community. The stories are told very much from the perspective of Pooh and Piglet, who evidently represent the dominant group in the community – from which presumably the bulk of the literature originated, though here and there we may detect the hand of an author less favourable to the Pooh and Piglet group. The Pooh and Piglet group saw itself as central to the life of the community (remember that Piglet’s house is located in the very centre of the forest), and the groups represented by other characters are accordingly marginalized. The figure of Owl, for example, surely represents the group of children who prided themselves on their intellectual achievements and aspired to status in the community on this basis. But the other children, certainly the Pooh and Piglet group, ridiculed them as swots. So throughout the stories the figure of Owl, with his pretentious learning and atrocious spelling, is portrayed as a figure of fun. Probably the Owl group, the swots, in their turn ridiculed the Pooh and Piglet group as ignorant and stupid: they used terms of mockery such as ‘bear of very little brain.’ Stories like the hunt for the Woozle, in which Pooh and Piglet appear at their silliest and most gullible, probably originated in the Owl group, which used them to lampoon the stupidity of the Pooh and Piglet group. But the final redactor, who favours the Pooh and Piglet group, has managed very skilfully to refunction all this material which was originally detrimental to the Pooh and Piglet group so that in the final form of the collection of stories it serves to portray Pooh and Piglet as oafishly lovable. In a paradoxical reversal of values, stupidity is elevated as deserving the community’s admiration. We can still see thepoint where an anti-Pooh story has been transformed in this way into an extravagantly pro-Pooh story at the end of the story of the hunt for the Woozle. Pooh and Piglet, you remember, have managed to frighten themselves silly by walking round and round in circles and mistaking their own paw-prints for those of a steadily increasing number of unknown animals of Hostile Intent. Realizing his mistake, Pooh declares: ‘I have been Foolish and Deluded, and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’ The original anti-Pooh story, told by the Owl faction, must have ended at that point. But the pro-Pooh narrator has added – we can easily see that it is an addition to the original story by the fact that it comes as a complete non sequitur – the following comment by Christopher Robin: “‘You’re the Best Bear in All the World,” said Christopher Robin soothingly.’ Extravagant praise from the community’s major authority-figure.”

To see the entire lecture go here.

Richard Bauckham is a theologian and biblical scholar who was Professor of New Testament at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   His web site is here.

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