“Silly Old Bear!” Almost every child and adult has heard this phrase before which comes from the Winne the Pooh series written by A.A. Milne. In this series of books written about Winnie the Pooh, the “silly old bear,” his friends, and their adventures together in the Hundred Acre Wood Forest, Milne captures the “incomparably and enduringly, the frolic and indolence, the sweetness and foolishness, of animals which are also people(Discovering Authors).” Many critics and people agree that Pooh is simply an ignorant little bear who is only interested in self-indulgence and is literally a “silly old bear.” This statement, however, is not true. Through the use of his characters in the Winnie the Pooh stories, Milne is able to present both the good and bad qualities of people that make up the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. One may even say the Pooh is a master of Taoism.
Born a Scotsman, Alan Alexander Milne spent most of his childhood in London where he grew up to be one of the most well known British authors of his time(Dennis). Today Milne is praised for his “accurate and sympathetic observations of child behavior, his wit, and his skill with language, especially wordplay and dialogue” which are easily recognizable in his famous Winnie the Pooh stories(Discovering Authors). Although people today regard Milne’s stories as children’s stories, Milne did not intend them for children, but rather for the child within every person(Dennis). As Barbara Novak puts it, Milne’s work “captures the gaiety of a child’s mind and suggests a positive attitude to life and a fresh appreciation of the smallest things(Novak).” Not only does Milne show the positive attitudes of people, but he also shows the negative attitudes and characteristics of people which, combined, come to make up the philosophy of Taoism.
What is Taoism? Taoism is and ancient Chinese philosophy that began during the 300’s B.C. The word tao originally meant way or road. The general idea behind Taoism is that reality consists of all the individual ways and that the characteristics and behaviors of each thing in the universe make it what it is(World Book 26). In terms of Pooh and his friends, the concern of Taoism is a particular way of appreciating, learning from, and working with whatever happens in everyday life. If one has mastered these simple ways of life, he or she will live a harmonious and happy life(Hoff 5).
Now, how does Pooh, a simple-minded bear, become a master of a Chinese philosophy? The answer, to put it simply, is just by being simple. Pooh is able to accomplish what he does by being simple-minded. In a Taoist’s mind simple-minded does not mean stupid. Simplicity, called the Uncarved Block, to a Taoist is the very essence of natural power(Hoff 10,12). Working with the Uncarved Block, a person is able to enjoy the simple things in life and is able to do things spontaneously and having them work (Hoff 21). Pooh may do silly things and may say silly things, but they always turn out right. Knowing this, it is easy to see how Pooh is made the hero of the stories, while the thinkers,
like Owl and Eeyore, remain unhappy and don’t seem to accomplish any real goal.
Eeyore, the continually miserable gray donkey, never finds real happiness in his life because he is constantly thinking of the worst that can happen or is trying to give himself credit for something good that has happened only to be let down when the credit is given to someone else, like Pooh. A perfect example of this is when a party is thrown in honor of Pooh for his bravery and assistance in saving Roo from drowning, saving Piglet from being surrounded by water in his own house, and finding the North Pole. Eeyore believes that the party is for him because he thinks that he is the one who had saved Roo and starts to give a speech. All of a sudden he is let down by Christopher Robin who gives the present to Pooh instead of him.
Another character that is just the opposite of Pooh is Owl. Rather than follow the Taoist principle of learning through direct experience, Owl learns intellectually from books(Hoff 25). As one critic says, “Owl’s obscure learning is to spread a veil of confusion over the doings of the rest of the Forest(Crews 23). According to Taoist principles, the knowledge of the scholarly, such as scientists or in this case Owl, always wants to blame the ignorant or, using the term previously mentioned, the simple-minded(Hoff 31). When Owl’s house falls down, Owl immediately asks Pooh if he had knocked down his house when, in fact, it is Owl’s own fault for building his house in a place where it could easily be blown down.
Another simple principle of Taoism is Inner Nature. This means that everything has its own place and function, or that everything has its limitations(Hoff 40). When one learns to respect his or her own Inner Nature, he or she knows where to belong and what he or she can do. This principle is demonstrated in Pooh’s “Cottleston Pie” song. “Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,/ A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly./ Ask me a riddle and I reply:/ Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie (Milne Winnie the Pooh 74).” The line about the bird and flying seems very obvious. A bird’s function, so to speak, is to fly. According to Taoism, however, many people do not understand and violate this simple concept(Hoff 39). Many people do not listen to their Inner Nature and, therefore, do not understand themselves(Hoff 57). One character in the Winne the Pooh stories who does not know his limitations is Tigger.
Tigger believes that he can do anything and everything that anyone else can. For example, when Roo asks Tigger if Tiggers can fly like Owl, Tigger answers yes, but that they just don’t want to. Then Roo asks if they can climb trees, and Tigger, once again, replies with a yes. Soon, however, Roo and Tigger find themselves stuck in the tallest tree in Hundred Acre Wood. Once he can face and understand his limitations, he can work with them rather than have the limitations work against him. Taoists believe that limitations can often times be a person’s strength(Hoff 49).
Wu Wei, another principle of Taoism, literally means ‘“without doing, causing, or making(Hoff 68).”’ When someone learns the concept of Wu Wei, he is able to work with the natural order of things and use a minimal amount of effort. According to Taoists, Wu Wei doesn’t try. If a person tries too hard, it doesn’t work. Wu Wei doesn’t think; it just does and everything seems to work out(Hoff 75). That is what makes it so effortless. At its highest level, Wu Wei is indefinable and practically invisible(Hoff 85). What character in Winnie the Pooh epitomizes this principle? Why, it, of course, is Pooh. Pooh seems to be the most effortless character of the whole series(Hoff 69).
A perfect example of this idea is when Piglet is surrounded by water. After raining for many days, Piglet gets trapped in his house because the entire ground around him is surrounded with water. Piglet writes a message in a bottle and throws it in the water in hopes that someone will find it and come to rescue him. The bottle floats to Pooh’s house, but Pooh can not read the message. He then decides to go find someone like Christopher Robin to help him read the message. Since he sees that a bottle can float, he decides that a jar can float as well. He climbs on top of an empty jar and heads towards Christopher Robin’s house in his new boat. When he reaches the house and they read the message, Christopher Robin and Pooh need a way to get to Piglet’s house in order to rescue him, for they both can not fit on top of Pooh’s jar. Pooh then has an idea to go in Christopher Robin’s umbrella. That is how Pooh rescued Piglet. This little story shows how effortlessly Pooh came to rescue Piglet. Pooh really did not think about an elaborate plan, he just did whatever came to him and everything worked out.
Wu Wei does not have any accidents. Although things may go wrong at first, things will work out if a person just lets Wu Wei work them out. Eeyore’s birthday is an excellent example of this. Pooh only knew that it was Eeyore’s birthday because he had told him. Pooh then decided to go and find Eeyore a birthday present. On the way home he talked to Piglet who also decided to find something for Eeyore. Piglet found a big balloon and was very excited to give it to Eeyore. But Piglet was too excited, for when he was running to give the balloon to Eeyore, he tripped and the balloon burst. Pooh had found a jar of honey that he would give to Eeyore. But on the way to Eeyore’s, Pooh finished all the honey inside. Things did not look so good for Eeyore’s birthday. All of a sudden, however, Eeyore realized that the balloon was now small enough to fit inside the useful jar that Pooh had brought him. This way he could bring the balloon where ever he wanted. Eeyore was very happy and content with his two gifts and was busy putting the balloon into the jar and then taking it out of the jar. It all worked out.
Rabbit, on the other hand, does not let his Wu Wei work with him. Take for example when Kanga and Baby Roo move into the Hundred Acre Wood Forest. Rabbit does not like the fact that they have come to the Forest and comes up with a plan to get rid of them. Rabbit plans an eleven step scheme to kidnap Baby Roo and writes each step down. He gets Pooh and Piglet in on the plan as well. One critic says that Rabbit is “altogether a bungler and boaster, bent upon imposing his will on everyone around him(Crews 21).” The plan was to capture Roo so that Kanga would want him back desperately. Because Rabbit, Pooh, and Piglet would know where Roo was, Kanga would ask them to help her find Roo. In order for Rabbit and the others to help find Roo, Kanga would have to promise to leave the Forest. The plan at first worked well. But, once Roo was with Rabbit, they actually became good friends and, from then on, spent every Tuesday together. This just goes to show that when someone thinks too hard and plans out too much, things do not turn out how they are supposed to.
Taoists also believe that everyone is special, but that it takes some people a while to recognize their own value(Hoff 117). In order to achieve something and take control of life, people need to believe in themselves. They need to believe in the power within themselves and learn to use it. Once they do, things will begin to work in their favor(Hoff 120). Another thing that Taoists believe in is Tz’u which means caring or compassion. According to this principle, courage and wisdom come from caring(Hoff 128).
Piglet is a very small animal who never really thinks that he is special or of any value. When Rabbit plans to kidnap Roo, he says that Piglet would be very useful because he is so small. Piglet becomes so excited that he forgets that he had been frightened. Then Rabbit goes on to say that without Pooh, the scheme would be impossible to carry out. Piglet, once again, becomes disappointed. Despite this, however, Piglet had Tz’u. Piglet, as everyone knows, was a very small animal who was not very brave. One critic called him “fearful Piglet(Swann 1931).” But when Owl’s house fell down, he discovered that he had more courage than he had thought. Owl, Pooh, and Piglet get trapped in Owl’s house when it is blown down by the wind. Piglet was the only one out of the three small enough to fit through the letter box. Owl and Pooh decided that they would pull on a piece of string that would act like a pulley to get Piglet up to the letter box. Piglet was, of course, very frightened, but because there was no other way for them to get rescued and because he had compassion for his friends, he decided to do it. Once Piglet got out, he, all of a sudden, became very courageous, and said that he would get Christopher Robin and that they would move a branch that was blocking the door. Piglet said that it would be quite dangerous, but that he could do it.
Everyone thinks of “nothing” as nothing. But to a Taoist, “nothing” is something. This is what Taoists call T’ai Hs, or the Great Nothing(Hoff 143). An empty mind is good for finding things because it can see what is in front of it. An overstuffed mind, however, can not. A mind full of knowledge and intelligence tends to go chasing after things that do not matter and do not exist rather than appreciating and making use of what is right in front of it(Hoff 147). “Emptiness,” as Hoff says, “cleans out the messy mind.”
When Eeyore lost his tail, who found it? It wasn’t the knowledgeable Owl or the clever Rabbit. It was the simple- minded Pooh. Pooh decided to go look for Eeyore’s tail, but first stopped at Owl’s house. While Pooh was listening to Owl tell him the right way to go about looking for something, Pooh looked at Owl’s knocker and the bell rope attached to it. Pooh knew that he had seen this bell rope some place before. He asked Owl where he had gotten it and Owl replied that he just came across it in the Forest. Pooh realized that the bell rope was, in fact, Eeyore’s tail. Pooh, the empty mind, was able to see what was right in front of him unlike Owl, the overstuffed mind, who was more concerned with who the “bell rope” belonged to.
‘“Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life(Hoff 108)?”’ This saying by Henry David Thoreau is the very same thing that a Taoist would say. Everyone wants to save time in order to get more things done. According to Taoists, however, people can not save time. They can only spend it. The question is how people spend their time. They can spend it wisely or spend it foolishly. People who feel the need to keep busy in order not to waste time, are only wasting time by trying to save it(Hoff 108).
Rabbit is the only character in the Winnie the Pooh stories who finds the need to always keep busy. One critic says that Rabbit “is a bungler and boaster” and he always needs to “toil and busy himself,” but that “Rabbit never quite succeeds(Crews 22).” This is the very essence of the principle of time saving.
Taoist immortals have been traditionally known for their young attitudes, appearances, and energies(Hoff 109). It is not the adult that achieves the highest level of development. It is the “clear-minded, all seeing Child. The wise are Children Who Know. Their minds have been emptied of the countless minute somethings of small learning, and filled with the wisdom of the Great Nothing, the Way of the Universe.(Hoff 151).” Pooh has been called the bear with little brain, but this is not a bad thing. Taoists believe that the brain can often send people off in the wrong direction. A brain can do all sorts of things, but the things that it can do are usually not the most important things. The masters of Taoism, like Pooh himself, listen to the voices within themselves, the voices of simple-mindedness and wisdom. These voices go beyond knowledge(Hoff 154). Pooh may be a simple-minded, childish bear, but his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood Forest have demonstrated that knowledge and cleverness can often lead to no accomplishment. All people possess an Owl, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, and Rabbit within themselves, but it is the “Silly Old Bear” that they must choose to follow.