By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Into a world of extreme sports, "spicy-loud" snack foods, scandal journalism, in-your-face advertising and what Russell Baker referred to as general "loutishness," comes the delicately gentle prose and verse of A. A. Milne. A new four-CD set featuring the complete Winnie-the-Pooh and When We Were Very Young, read by British actor Peter Dennis, is a restorative tonic for the overstimulated. For children raised on videos and computer games, these pristine stories and poems may seem docile, and the format quaint. But these recordings are worth the effort--and besides, parents may want them for themselves.
The first time I encountered Milne's Pooh stories as an adult, I was sitting in a park in a small Pennsylvania town. My interest piqued from having recently read Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh, I sat on a bench all afternoon with The House at Pooh Corner. During the final story--"In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There"--I found myself wiping tears from my eyes, right there on the sidewalk.
Pulling myself together, I closed the book and went home, trying to understand what had happened. Which was, of course, that I had succumbed to the exquisite melancholy of these deceptively simple stories--the bittersweet sadness of lost innocence that had naturally escaped me as child, especially in the Disney-ized versions to which I had been exposed through television. Milne intended these stories, after all, as much for adults as for children; in fact, he only rarely read them to his son Christopher Robin Milne, who never heard the complete stories until over sixty years after their publication, in recordings by Peter Dennis.
Dennis, who has appeared in America on Murder, She Wrote, Murphy Brown, Knot's Landing, Star Trek: Voyager, Profiler, Seinfeld, and Friends, has been performing Milne's Pooh stories and poems since 1969. Having discovered Pooh at age thirty-nine, Dennis, with the zeal of a convert, assembled a one-man Pooh show, Bother!, which he has been performing on both sides of the Atlantic since 1976. The first actor ever to be granted permission by the Pooh Trustees to perform the complete Winnie-the-Pooh theatrically, Dennis became a close friend of Christopher Milne, to whom these recordings are dedicated.
It may, admittedly, be difficult for those of us who grew up with television to accept, at first, any other voice than Sterling Holloway's as Pooh's--and Dennis's characterization of the Bear of Very Little Brain is markedly different from Holloway's. But besides being an accomplished actor capable of sensitive oral interpretation and virtuoso character shifts, Dennis has also captured the gentle spirit of these stories and poems in a way that is both comforting and beguiling. His characterizations, moreover, are so vivid, and so instantly recognizable, that his own narrative voice stays largely out of the picture--which is fitting, Milne having referred the "the Author" as a "Strange but Uninteresting Person."
The recordings are well produced, with telling, though tastefully restrained, use of sound effects both in the stories and the poems. Don Davis's musical interludes, sparsely composed for piano and clarinet, capture the spirit of the writing in their lively, but unhurried, tempo and their emotionally ambiguous, folksong-like simplicity. They are repetitious, sadly, and one wishes that Davis had written more music, since the recordings--especially the fourth disc, which includes forty-six tracks--require numerous interludes.
Throughout the stories and poems, one notices, besides the incipient melancholy, an indefatigable great-spiritedness. n this way, at least, they resemble the adrenaline-soaked carpe diem-ism of post-modern youth. Though Milne's works incorporate nostalgia instead of angst and ingenuousness rather than cynicism, they are life-affirming to the last. If their pace is slower, why, the better to appreciate the view.
Christopher Milne, in a letter to Dennis, said of his father that "he didn't write for any specific market; he knew nothing about marketing." Nevertheless (or perhaps "therefore,") the thirst for freedom and fulfillment is no more present in calculatedly marketed children's entertainment than in the poem "Spring Morning," from When We Were Very Young:
Where am I going? The high rooks call.
It's awful fun to be born at all! . . .
If you were a bird, and lived on high,
You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by.
You'd say to the wind when it took you away,
"That's where I wanted to go today!"
Where am I going? I don't quite know.
What does it matter where people go?
Down the wood where the blue-bells grow;
Anywhere! Anywhere! I don't know!
Scott Robinson is a frequent reviewer of music forMinnesota Parent.