At, Bagehot suggests that Pippi Longstocking, the Swedish children's character who lives alone with a monkey and a bag of gold, reflects her home country's embrace of individual autonomy: should perhaps know that the French—a conservative and statist lot—have a very complicated relationship with Pippi Longstocking as a children's book. For many years, the only French translation available was a bowdlerised version, that played down Pippi's wilder, anti-authoritarian side. There is a moral in there somewhere.

I've been thinking about English and American bears. Both countries have a couple of prominent bears: Winnie-the-Pooh, Paddington Bear, and Rupert Bear on the English side; in America there's Baloo, Corduroy, the Care Bears, Fozzie Bear, and so on.  Although the sample set is small, we can spot some differences. Let's look at the English bears:

Winnie the Pooh. Winnie the Pooh is a plump bear who loves honey. At one point he lived by himself in the forest under the name of Edward Sanders, but now he lives with the boy Christopher Robin. Winnie-the-Pooh is a peaceful bear who is apparently content to make up songs, look for honey, and do his daily stoutness exercises, but he often gets swept into adventures with friends like Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger, and Roo.

A. A. Milne's creation is perhaps the world's most well-loved bear. Sadly, however, Pooh struggles to love himself. I blame Christopher Robin for this. The boy is occasionally kind to the bear; when Pooh gets stuck a tunnel, Christopher Robin reads him a comforting book until Pooh loses enough weight that he can be pulled out. More often, however, Christopher Robin undermines Pooh in a way that is nearly abusive.

Pooh is first presented as highly imaginative, if somewhat absent-minded. In the first story he tries to fool a hive of bees by disguising himself as a small black cloud in the sky. But he is worried that he still looks like a bear covered in mud and holding a blue balloon, so he asks Christopher Robin to help by holding an umbrella. "Well, you laughed to yourself, 'Silly old Bear!'" says the narrator, addressing Christopher Robin, "but you didn't say it aloud because you were so fond of him."

Soon, however, Christopher Robin loses any reservations about calling Pooh a silly old bear. Sadly, Pooh internalizes the characterization. Their eventual dynamic is summarized when Christopher Robin is dragging him down the stairs by one paw:

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there is really another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.

Paddington Bear is a small brown bear who is originally from "Darkest Peru." He arrives in England as a stowaway after his Aunt Lucy, who has to go to the Home for Retired Bears in Lima, sends him packing with nothing more than a suitcase, a hat, a jar of marmalade, and a note taped to his clothes saying "Please look after this bear. Thank you." As we all recall, an American woman recently tried that with a boy she adopted from Russia. Child abandonment is really not as cheerful as these books make it out to be.

In any case, on arrival Paddington is, as you would expect, desperate to be liked. He lifts his hat, he waves at passersby, he tries not to disturb people, and his knees wobble when he has to meet the housekeeper, who grudgingly approves after he lifts his hat ("Well, he has good manners, I'll say that for him.") Although Paddington occasionally makes a mess, he's always trying to do what he's been told: "Then he used Mr Brown's shaving cream to draw a map of Peru on the floor. It wasn't until a drip landed on his head that he remembered what he was supposed to be doing."

In fact, partly because of Paddington's obvious desire to fit in, he has been adopted by some British street artists as the friendly public face of that country's immigrants.

Rupert Bear. Rupert Bear hasn't crossed over to the United States as Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington have, so I'm not familiar with him. But from what I can gather, Rupert Bear has lived with his parents in a small country village since 1930. From there he goes on adventures, which are recorded every day in the Daily Express. At first glance, I thought Rupert Bear must be a departure from the bourgeois norms embodied by other two bears. Just look at him jumping over his logo there. However, there is circumstantial evidence that Rupert Bear has been appropriated as a more conservative symbol. Maybe it was inevitable, since he's been appearing on Britain's breakfast tables for more than 80 tumultuous and confusing years, that people would look to him as a familiar friend. A 2008 obituary of the cartoonist Giles discusses how that artist, apparently frustrated by the rightist politics of the Express, took it out on Rupert Bear by hanging him in a cartoon panel.

American bears are, for the most part, more assertive and autonomous than English bears. The bear to the left is Corduroy, a stuffed bear who was languishing on the shelves of a department store until a little girl called Lisa came and bought him. Although he has some of the same concerns as Paddington--he wants a home and a friend--he's somewhat more proactive. After Lisa's mom vetoes his adoption by pointing out that he's missing a button, Corduroy sets off through the department store searching for a spare and tries to wrestle one off of a mattress. (Paddington, by contrast, is discovered sitting quietly in front of the Left Luggage office.)

In contrast to Winnie-the-Pooh, we might point to Yogi Bear or Baloo the bear (Baloo as depicted by Disney, not Kipling). They also live in forests, and although neither are hostile to humans, both are distinctly anti-authoritarian. Baloo, in the song "The Bare Necessities," teaches the man-cub Mowgli that if he just relaxes and doesn't worry, everything will be fine. "The bees are buzzin' in the tree, to make some honey just for me," sings Baloo, much less fretful than poor Pooh.  Yogi Bear, meanwhile, earns his daily bread by stealing picnic baskets in Jellystone Park. He, too, has a lot more confidence than the "silly old bear": "I'm smarter than the average bear!" says Yogi.

Also (overly?) self-confident is the muppet Fozzie Bear, who is pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian, despite the fact that people often throw rotten tomatoes at him. And we can't forget the Care Bears. Although they live separately from humans, in the cloud Kingdom of Care-a-Lot, they monitor the levels of caring on Earth via the Caring Meter. They take a realist approach to foreign policy: 

Ideally, the Caring Meter should be all the way towards the rainbow side. Whenever the Bears see the meter drop towards the raincloud side, they try to prevent it from getting worse by going on "caring missions" to try to get more people to care or for the Bears themselves to do caring deeds. If the meter drops near zero, Care-a-lot will suffer disasters, such as thunderstorms, buildings and rainbows crumbling...or the bright colors of Care-a-lot gradually turning into black and white.

This isn't to say that all American bears are so autonomous. The entire Berenstain Bears series is basically designed to get American children toeing the line, complete with a summary page of "Brother and Sister Bear's Rules for Cubs" at the end of each book.  Talk about false consciousness, Brother and Sister Bear. But for every law-and-order idyll, there's a countercultural counterpoint.

An afterthought: English bears have crossed over into America, but it doesn't seem to go the other way. Paddington and Pooh are both popular here (although, interestingly, Pooh and his friends don't spend much time with Christopher Robin over here). Are there any American bears that are big in Britain? It may be that we have room for all kinds in the chaos and diversity of American life, but English culture is more narrowly defined.

Bears not discussed here: Teddy Ruxpin always has a lot to say for himself. Also, Garfield has a teddy bear called Pooky, which may be the only thing he likes except for trays of lasagna. Thanks to Wendy for her thoughts on this post. If any readers are in the market for a bear of their own, she may be able to put you in touch with one via the Stuffed Animal Rescue Foundation.

02/06/2011 21:52

Dont' forget Lots-o-Huggin Bear!

02/07/2011 07:49

Another important American bear is Smokey the Bear, featured for decades as the voice of forest safety. His catchphrase: "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires!"

02/09/2011 08:54

Bear Grylls is one tough English bear.

02/09/2011 18:42

Being English myself, I believe that our bears are for indoctrinating children; instead, I recommend our foxes and rodentia.

02/10/2011 09:25

What about the Berenstein bears?

02/10/2011 10:37

I didn't mind the Bernstain Bears when I was younger. The "moral of the story" pattern to them was akin to Aesop's fables and the lessons were usually smart ones about being nice to your siblings and cleaning up after yourself and other things kids ought to be learning.

Interesting notes about Pooh and Christopher Robin. I never would have picked up on that.

Al M
02/10/2011 21:05

02/11/2011 10:59

Interestingly, The Muppet Show was actually British - financed and filmed in the UK. So Fozzie is every bit as popular in England as he is in the States.

05/03/2011 01:14

perhaps you want to know more


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