I’ve asked some of my friends and favourite bloggers to write about their favourite books from childhood. There’ll hopefully be a few posts like this – if I can convince other people to take up the challenge. If you’d like to join in, email me.
Today Dr Meg Barker, author and professional clever person, talks about character identification, relationships and getting the metaphorical jar off your head.
Trigger warning: discussion of relationship conflict and brief mention of abusive situations.
Tigger warning: not mentioned at all, sorry Tigger.
Some of my favourite stories from childhood were the Winnie-the-Pooh collections by A. A. Milne. Particularly I remember being read these tales by my Gran when she visited. They were an important part of our relationship.
I like the fact that different family relationships are linked, in my memory, to different stories. The stories both defined the storyteller, for me, and passed on something that shapes who I am today. My other Gran made up her own stories (rather like A. A. Milne did), whilst I associate my Mum with Beatrix Potter and my Dad with Sherlock Holmes. Both of these latter figures continued to resonate through my later life, Beatrix Potter through the wonderful Bryan Talbot graphic novel about survival, The Tale of One Bad Rat, and Sherlock Holmes as the characters of Holmes and Watson provided models, for me, of what it was possible to become, and what was important in a relationship. I love seeing the ways in which these characters are reinterpreted through each new movie, story, or TV programme, all of which capture something of them however different they are. Winnie-the-Pooh, however, only seems to work for me in the original.
As a child I think I enjoyed Winnie-the-Pooh particularly because in those stories a solitary kid was able to have an exciting life and lots of great relationships. Whist the stories of Enid Blyton, for example, left me feeling lonely and different for not having a wonderful gang of friends to go off on adventures with, Christopher Robin (in the books at least) was able to manage it for himself with his toys and his imagination. Perhaps for that reason they are a good set of stories for any kid who doesn’t fit.
The stories haven’t stopped being useful to me as I’ve grown older. Rather they’ve stayed alongside me, offering me something new at each stage. With several partners the tales have been a comforting mutual place to return when life becomes scary. There can hardly be a safer place for me than curled up under a duvet with a soothing voice telling about the hundred acre wood, haycorns, and expotitions.
But, as many writers have recognised, Winnie-the-Pooh is a lot more than a collection of sweet and funny stories. In their simple way, the tales have as much of importance to say about people and their relationships than some of the great works of philosophy, and in a way that is accessible to any age. Hence, several authors have used the stories as ways into explaining western philosophy, psychology, taoism, and a number of other topics.
The characters in A. A. Milne’s stories continue to appeal because they are so recognisable. We can all think of people who rush around as busily as Rabbit or who overintellectualise to hide their ignorance like Owl. As a psychologist I’m not keen on the idea that the different characters represent different personality types, or even pathologies (as suggested in Pooh and the Psychologists). Rather I think most of us can recognise, in ourselves, the capacity for Roo-ish enthusiasm, Piglet-ish anxiety, and Eeyore-ish gloom (“We can’t all and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”). Perhaps there’s a value to cultivating the characters who come least easily to us – something that psychotherapists Andrew Samuels suggests (if not explicitly in relation to Winnie-the Pooh).
But this is not what I find most useful about the stories today. For me, by far the most helpful thing in the books is what they have to say about our relationships with each other. And the stories that best capture this are the ones which I loved most as a child: the stories about heffalumps and woozles.
Heffalumps and Woozles are the two scary creatures in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, suspected of being fierce (perhaps, like Kangas, particularly during the Winter months and towards smaller animals). In the first Heffalump story, Pooh and Piglet determine to catch a Heffalump by digging a deep pit and luring it in with a jar of honey. In the Woozle story, Piglet joins Pooh in tracking a Woozle by following its footprints in the snow.
The important thing about these stories is that Pooh and Piglet never meet either a Heffalump or a Woozle. In the Heffalump story Piglet is sure that he has. He returns to the pit they have dug in the early hours of the morning and there is a terrifying animal in there bumping around and making loud roaring noises. He runs off to Christopher Robin crying out “Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, Hoff, a Hellible Horralump! Holl, Holl, a Hoffable Hellerump!’. In the Woozle story, Pooh and Piglet soon find that the Woozle they are tracking is joined by further Woozles (or, perhaps, Wizzles), and Piglet suddenly has to run off to do something that he forgot to do yesterday and shan’t be able to do tomorrow.
But when Christopher Robin and Piglet return to the Heffalump trap they discover that the creature in there is just Pooh who, becoming hungry in the night, came along early to lick the honey out of the bottom of the jar and got it stuck on his head. All the roaring is just him trying to free himself. In the Woozle story, sitting on a branch above them Christopher Robin observes that Pooh and Piglet have been walking around a spinney following their own footprints.
What has this got to do with relationships?
What I notice is that, when I find myself in a bad conflict with a partner, friend or family member, I am often convinced that they have turned into a monster. Instead of the loving person I am familiar with, they have been replaced, in my mind, by a fierce, roaring terror. They say things that sound cruel and uncaring and they don’t seem to be fond of Megs at all. All I want to do is to run away.
At other times of conflict I find myself stuck in a horrible conversation that I don’t want to be part of. I look at myself through the other person’s eyes and don’t like what they are seeing: it seems monstrous, not the cuddly, gentle person I like to think of myself as being. I struggle desperately to extricate myself from the situation but only seem to become more trapped. Eventually I find myself making noises of Sadness and Despair.
I think the Winnie-the-Pooh stories have something important to say about everyday relationship conflicts. If we look closer at the situation we may find that the monsters we have been fearfully tracking are actually ourselves. The person who seems to have suddenly become a horror is somebody we love who has got stuck in a trap (often of their own making). Or our own pain is being heard as a threat by somebody else and we are scaring them away when we really want them to help.
This is not to say that we should stay in situations which are actually dangerous. Piglet’s strategy of running to safety can be a very sensible one both to keep us unharmed and to buy some time for the conflict to cool down. I’m not talking here about abusive relationships where, despite the light that empathy might shed on the pain of the abusive person, it is still not a good idea to remain in close proximity to them.
But in other kinds of conflict, which are so common in our relationships with those around us, it is worth remembering that there is likely a Christopher-Robin perspective on the situation whereby somebody disconnected could see how we have bounced off each other to escalate an argument to the point where we are seeing monsters. If we can see that we have been following ourselves round and round perhaps we can stand still for a moment. And if we can hear the despair in the frightening roaring noise our friend is making, perhaps we can help them to get the jar off their head.
Meg Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and has recently written a book on relationships called Rewriting the Rules, which will be out in Summer 2012 published by Routledge.