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Famous bears in literature


October 2016 marked the 90th anniversary of the publication of the original A. A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh stories. As this most famous of fictional bears celebrates his milestone birthday, we take a look at Pooh bear and eight other bears from literature.

1. Winnie-the-Pooh

Pooh Bear first appeared in the book Winnie-the-Pooh, a collection of stories by author A. A. Milne, in 1926, followed by The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. A poem about the bear was also included in the children’s verse book When We Were Very Young and more in Now We Are Six, all of which were illustrated by E. H. Shepard. The character was named after a teddy bear owned by Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, on whom the character Christopher Robin was based. Christopher Milne had re-named his toy bear (originally called Edward) after Winnie, a Canadian black bear he often saw at London Zoo and ‘Pooh’ a swan they had met whilst on holiday. 

Canadian Lieutenant Harry Colebourn had purchased the bear cub from a hunter for $20 in White River, Ontario while on route to England during the First World War. Colebourn named the bear ‘Winnie’ after his adopted hometown in Winnipeg and surreptitiously brought the cub to England where she gained unofficial recognition as the The Fort Garry Horse regimental mascot. Whilst Colebourn’s unit were in France Winnie was left at London Zoo – she was officially donated to the zoo after becoming a much-loved attraction. 

2. Paddington Bear

The friendly bear from deepest, darkest Peru first appeared in Michael Bond’s 1958 story A Bear Called Paddington. In the first story he is discovered by the human Brown family in Paddington Station, London, sitting on a suitcase with a note attached to his coat that reads ‘Please look after this bear’, having arrived by lifeboat as a stowaway from Peru, sent by his aunt Lucy. The Browns adopt him, naming him after the station at which he was found and the stories then follow Paddington Bear’s mishaps and adventures in England. Famous for wearing an old hat, duffle coat and having a penchant for marmalade, Paddington went on to become a classic character in children’s literature.

Bond, who was once a BBC cameraman on Blue Peter, has said that his memories of newsreels showing trainloads of child evacuees leaving London during the Second World War, with labels around their necks and possessions in a small suitcase, prompted him to so the same for Paddington. Paddington Bear books have been translated into 30 different languages and sold more than 30 million copies worldwide; their popularity has also spawned stuffed toys (first produced by Jeremy Clarkson’s parents!), several animated TV series and a recent film adaptation.

3. Baloo

The ‘sleepy brown bear’ Baloo, whose diet consists of only ‘roots, nuts and honey’ (and ants as a special treat), is a fictional character in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895). Believed to be a sloth bear, Baloo is the strict teacher of the cubs of the Seeonee wolf pack, whose most challenging pupil is the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli. Baloo and Bagheera, a panther, endeavour to teach Mowgli the ‘Law of the Jungle’ and save him from Shere Khan the tiger.

Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories were first published in magazines from 1893-94 and some contain illustrations by the author’s father, John Lockwood Kipling. Having being born in India and spending the first six years of his childhood there, Rudyard Kipling later returned to work there for a period of six-and-a-half years. He wrote the stories when he was living in Naulakha, a home he built in Vermont in the United States and there is evidence to suggest that the collection of tales was written for his daughter, Josephine, who died aged six in 1899 from pneumonia. All the tales in the books are fables, using animals in an anthropomorphic manner to give moral lessons. Several films inspired by Kipling’s stories have been produced, most famously Walt Disney’s animated musical comedy The Jungle Book (1967).

4. Iorek Byrnison

Exiled armoured bear Iorek Byrnison appears in Philip Pullman’s epic His Dark Materials trilogy, a series of fantasy novels consisting of Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass which follow the coming of age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a series of parallel universes. Armoured bears, or panserbjørne in Norwegian, are mythical polar-bear like creatures that have opposable thumbs on their front paws, giving them remarkable dexterity. This, together with their innate gift for metallurgy, makes them exceptional metalsmiths. 

Iorek Byrnison possesses incredible strength and follows a very strict code of conduct – he will not betray any promise he has made – and he proves himself to be a comrade and great friend to both Lyra and Lee Scoresby, a skilled ‘aeronaut’ balloonist, throughout the course of the series. Having been banished from his kingdom for killing another bear in the heat of passion, we are first introduced to Iorek shaping metal for humans in an Arctic port town. By bloodline, Iorek would have become King of the bears in his homeland of Svalbard had it not been for this exile, but after leading his bears on a voyage to more hospitable lands, he regains his rightful place and reigns as King of the Bears.

5. Rupert Bear

First created as a comic strip character in 1920 by English artist Mary Toutel, Rupert Bear appeared in the Daily Express to try and win sales from the rival Daily Mail and Daily Mirror. The comic strip was, and still is, published by the Daily Express, with many of these stories later appearing in books and in the Rupert annual, which has been released every year since 1936. In 1935 the mantle of Rupert Bear artist and storyteller was taken over by Alfred Bestall who continued to produce Rupert stories and artwork into his 90s.

In the tales, Rupert is a bear who lives with his parents in a house in Nutwood, a fictional idyllic English village, who goes on fantastic and magical adventures in faraway lands with his animal friends, including Bill Badger, Edward Trunk the elephant, Willie the mouse, Podgy Pig and Freddie and Ferdy Fox. Originally he was depicted as a brown bear, but his colour was soon changed to white to save on printing costs. He is famous for wearing a red jumper with yellow checked trousers and matching scarf. 

6. Aloysius

Aloysius is Lord Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. Sebastian, the younger son of Lord and Lady Marchmain is haunted by a profound unhappiness brought on by a troubled relationship with his mother and turns to alcohol to numb his pain. Sebastian carries his treasured teddy bear with him everywhere, and although he is an adult he talks to his bear and treats him as a real person – Aloysius is his constant companion. 

The model for Aloysius was Archibald Ormsby-Gore the beloved teddy bear of poet and writer John Betjeman, Waugh’s friend at Oxford, and is likely named after the catholic saint Aloysius Gonganza, the patron saint of youth.

Aloysius, and in particular his representation in the 1981 television adaptation of the novel, is credited with having triggered the late-20th century teddy bear renaissance, as he struck a chord with the millions who watched the series. The teddy bear used for filming was one from actor Peter Bull’s personal collection, named Delicatessen – so famous did Delicatessen become after his television exposure that he eventually changed his name by deed poll to his stage name Aloysius!

7. Old Bear

Old Bear and Friends was a popular series of children’s books written by British author and illustrator Jane Hissey from 1986 onwards. In the stories, a group of stuffed animal toys in a playroom remember that Old Bear disappeared a long time ago. They discover he has been put in the loft and rescue him, bringing him back down to the playroom. As the oldest, and wisest, Old Bear becomes the most respected toy and guides the others on their many adventures. In the 1990s the books became the basis for a BAFTA award winning stop frame animation children’s television series called Old Bear Stories.  

8. Gentle Ben

First introduced in 1965 by author Walt Morey, the children’s novel Gentle Ben told the story of the friendship between a large male brown bear named Ben and a boy named Mark. Based on Morey’s own past experiences working and travelling in Alaska, many of the characters and the interactions between humans and bears were based on real Alaskan people he had met. In 1967 a television series based on the book, but featuring a black bear instead, aired on US television.

9. Shakespeare’s Bear

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale contains one of the most famous Shakespearean stage directions: ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, presaging the offstage death of Antigonus. Antigonus is a Lord at the Sicilian court and husband to Paulina. Right after dumping baby Perdita in the middle of nowhere he is mauled and eaten by a bear.

In the original staging of the play, it is not known whether Shakespeare used a real bear from the London bear-pits, or an actor in bear costume.

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