Grin and bear it

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Winnie-the-Pooh is 70 years old this week. Elaine Williams looks at bearmania past and present. On a fateful day in 1902, President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear cub on a hunting expedition. A toymaker, Morris Michtom, seized the moment and asked the president if he could call his new line of toy bears Teddies. Would it ever catch on?

In fact, the birth of the teddy heralded an age of bearmania. By 1908 millions had been sold. In 1926 Methuen published A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and the teddy bear was established as a potent symbol of childhood. We have been besieged with bears and bear books ever since.

Milne's anthropomorphic bear was not without its antecedents. The bear has played an important role in folklore and popular culture for hundreds of years and has appeared in literature since the 12th century when Bruin the Bear first featured in the tale of Reynard the Fox.

The bear was the king of beasts to medieval scholars - an emblem of power in feudal heraldry, the wild creature of romances, the dweller in the untamed forest, all natural appetite and ferocity. But as bears have lost touch with the wilderness, they have also begun to lose their reputation for savagery and their affinity with humans has become more marked in fiction.

The faces of bears can easily take on human features. Like us they stand on two feet; like us they are omnivorous, loving honey as much as meat. Adults bestow them as comforters upon children in the form of soft toys and stories, to soothe fears of the unknown wilderness. You can even buy "distressed" teddies that look as if they've already been cuddled for years.

Pooh, 70 years old this week, is the supreme comforter. In Christopher Robin's imaginative world of floods and woods and forests, representing for adults the bitter-sweet innocence of childhood, he reigns supreme. He is lovably foolish, although he can muster his own peculiar wisdom when faced with life's calamities. A A Milne's inspired use of irony saves these stories from too much saccharine, but the hundreds upon thousands of bear stories that have followed in Pooh's tracks over the past 70 years have not all been so blessed.

Bears are protectors from the dark forces constantly assailing childhood - but they also represent those same dark forces. Literature succeeds in reminding us of this when the emphasis is on the bear's power rather than its cute and cuddly nature.

The best of today's bear stories carry an inner tension, reconciling us to that wilderness of our subconscious, explored by Jung and manifest in childhood fears and anxieties. We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury (Walker Big Book Pounds 11.99) is a supreme example.

Martin Waddell's classic tales of Big Bear and Little Bear, published by Walker, are concerned with the same balancing act. Barbara Firth's illustrations are sweet and adorable but her bear and cub have a strong physical resemblance to the real animals, while their relationship is that of a human parent and child. They live in a cave in a forest and confront real fears: the terrors of the night in the first book, Can't You Sleep, Little Bear?, and those of the great outdoors in Let's Go Home, Little Bear.

The latest title, You and Me, Little Bear (Walker Pounds 8.99) is a much more domestic story - Little Bear wants to play but Big Bear is busy with the chores. The unsettling nature of the world outside is more vague; the tension present in the earlier stories has lost its edge here. It has vanished altogether in another new Waddell book for Walker, Small Bear Lost (Pounds 8.99). This is little more than a cute story of the adventures of a toy bear left behind on a train, although the pictures, by Virginia Austin this time, are fresh and delightful.

The monstrous teeth and savage claws of Raymond Briggs's The Bear are a welcome relief. The story of the polar bear who comes to stay with Tilly (Red Fox paperback Pounds 4.99) is witty, touching and terrifying. Though the child is entranced by the bear's huge softness, one is aware as she nestles up to him that he could annihilate her with one blow.

Philip Pullman also escapes from cuddliness when he explores a girl's relationship with a polar bear in his novel Northern Lights, which won this year's Carnegie Medal. When Lyra rescues Iorek Byrnison from a life of servility and drunkenness, he rewards her with a cold, ferocious loyalty in stark contrast to the parents who have betrayed her. "Iorek is a ferocious killer," says Pullman, "but he is noble."

Perhaps the tide of honey and saccharine is on the turn.

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