War, pandemic and Christopher Robin

By Jill Segger
October 1, 2020

It can sometimes be advantageous to arrive late. I did not pay much attention to the film Goodbye Christopher Robin when it first appeared in 2017. But because it was recommended to me by a friend whose judgement I trust and because I am attracted to the eloquent and warm-hearted writing of Frank Cottrell Boyce, I recently made good the omission.

The film which – despite occasional slips into sentimentality and over-lush photography – is far better than its defects might suggest, tells the story of the relationship between AA Milne and his small son, Christopher Robin, known in the family as Billy Moon. The tale of Winnie the Pooh and the cast of distinctive characters which make up one of the best known of all children’s stories has endured for almost a century. Its origins and the damage it caused to the father-son relationship are less well known.

Alan Milne returned from the Western Front in 1918 physically unscathed, but like many thousands of young men of that generation, grievously maimed in his psyche. His post-traumatic stress disorder was not something to which a society wanting to forget the war was sympathetic. These desperately damaged men were expected to pick up where they had left off four years earlier and to refrain from rocking the social and emotional boats of those who had not shared their experiences.

Milne’s wife Daphne was one of those who held such expectations. Her husband had been a rising young writer in 1914 and she was unable to deal with the change trench warfare had wrought in him, or with his consequent desire to write a treatise on the futility of war. She spent an increasing amount of time in London among society which she found more congenial, leaving her husband and young son alone in a country house close to Ashdown Forest which was to form the setting for the Pooh stories.

The damage that had been done to Alan Milne was in some part ameliorated by his growing relationship with ‘Billy Moon’. But because this relationship was founded in response to trauma, and played out in fame-giving fantasy, its fault lines were to impact on the child, and later, the man. In late adolescence, Christopher Milne wrote: "It seemed to me almost that my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with the empty fame of being his son.”

In later life, Christopher Milne, who had gone to war in 1939, explaining to his pacifist father, “I don’t want to be Billy Moon or Christopher Robin any longer. I want to be Private Milne”, wrote a book about his childhood, ‘The Enchanted Places’. This seemed to have been the instrument through which the damaged child and the traumatised father were able to achieve some understanding. The author felt himself lifted “from under the shadow of my father and of Christopher Robin, and to my surprise and pleasure I found myself standing beside them in the sunshine able to look them both in the eye."

This painful personal account of the manner in which the damage done by war may be passed down the generations as surely as hair colour or stature, might give us pause to reflect not only on war, but more generally on trauma and how we attempt to handle its effects upon ourselves and others. We are living through traumatic times right now, and although for most people, the difficulties of existing with a pandemic can not be put alongside lying wounded in a mud-filled shell hole on the Somme, there are thin boundaries for those who have lost people dear to them, and have not been able to be with them in their final hours. The experiences of front-line medics are deeply harrowing while the stress levels of people facing eviction, unemployment, ongoing isolation, poor health and diminished educational opportunities will have long term effects.

How we emerge from this time of profound anxiety, loss and dislocation is going to ask vision and determination of us. The all too understandable desire to ‘go back to how it was before’ must be resisted if we are not to make the error of so many in 1918 who simply wanted to move on without considering causes or seeking change. We have to listen to the traumatised rather than putting their experience behind us when the post-pandemic times arrive. Failure to do so can only push suffering on to the rising generations. This is the time for us to be resolute in listening and learning. I hope Christopher Robin might still be saying his prayers somewhere.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.