The Middle of Things
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Some stories begin ‘in media res’ – in the middle of things. Just right when the action sets in, no explanations, no set-up. Harry Potter (1997) is such a story, so is Alice in Wonderland (1865). They take us right down the rabbit hole. But what, I wonder, happens in the literal middle of things? We are, of course, always very interested in the beginning of stories: the creation of a world inside our heads, the question of whether it will be able to enthral us, the anticipation to meet characters to love and loathe. The endings, too, are fascinating. Has everything worked out for our heroes? Have they grown, their foes been defeated, their lovers won? But the middle? Some readers don’t even bother with it. And, yet, it’s where everything happens.
Let’s take a random example: right in the middle of my bookshelf sits A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926). Strictly speaking, of course, it’s a collection of stories – but they are loosely connected, so we should be fine. In the beginning chapters, we are introduced to Christopher Robin and Pooh and all of his friends and that’s all “rather exiting” (118). By chapter five, roughly the middle of the book, we know our way around the Hundred Acre Wood and “Piglet meets a Heffalump” (51). Finally. We have, after all, been promised a story about “That day when Pooh and Piglet tried to catch the Heffalump” (17) in chapter one. The middle, then, seems to be a place to return to the beginning. With the slight difference that we now know a great deal about those two friends and their (in)abilities. More anticipation follows; not anticipation of the unknown, of what is yet to come, but of the familiar and the present. We are in the now of the story (world). Middles, it seems, are where we are most immersed in the story and maybe that is exactly why we pay so little attention to them.
Back to Heffalumps. The creature is pretty much the result of one of Christopher Robin’s many whims:
One day, when Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet were all talking together, Christopher Robin finished the mouthful he was eating and said carelessly ‘I saw a Heffalump to-day, Piglet.’ ‘What was it doing?’ asked Piglet. ‘Just lumping along,’ said Christopher Robin. ‘I don’t think it saw me.’ ‘I saw one once,’ said Piglet. ‘At least, I think I did,’ he said. ‘Only perhaps it wasn’t.’ ‘So did I,’ said Pooh, wondering what a Heffalump was like. (51-52)
“Carelessly” mentioning things is Christopher Robin’s trademark. It usually leads to chaos. Piglet, on the other hand, takes everything very seriously. And Pooh mostly just plays along with everything without really understanding what is going on. But he does do things. Where Piglet is a worrier, Pooh is a warrior. In this particular story, he “decide[s] to catch a Heffalump” (52). A creature that has sprung from the imagination of his best friend – as indeed he himself has. If we take Christopher Robin to be an alter ego of Milne’s son who animates his toy animals in play. But this might be going too far. Anyway, it’s Milne at his best: in the middle of the book, he lets his characters encounter the power of the imagination. It’s not about whether the Heffalump truly exists, it’s about whether you believe in it (and in Pooh) – and Piglet certainly does:
‘Help, help!’ cried Piglet, ‘a Heffalump, a Horrible Heffalump!’ and he scampered off as hard as he could, still crying out, ‘Help, help, a Herrible Hoffalump! Hoff, Hoff, a Hellible Horralump! Holl, Holl, a Hoffable Hellerump!’ And he didn’t stop crying and scampering until he got to Christopher Robin’s house. (63)
In the end, though, the Heffalump turns out to be no more than an illusion:
‘What did it look like?’ ‘Like – like – It had the biggest head you ever saw, Christopher Robin. A great enormous thing, like – like nothing. A huge big – well, like a – I don’t know – like an enormous big nothing. Like a jar.’ (63)
As Piglet has to experience, familiar things in unexpected places make for wonderful ‘no-things.’ The Heffalump is Pooh – but Pooh is also a Heffalump. An imaginary thing sprung from the mind of a ‘carless’ boy that we are as engaged with as Piglet is with the alleged monster. At the beginning of the story, we might not have been ready for this kind of meta-immersion; now, at the heart of it, we are.
The middles of stories are often neglected, but as this small experiment shows, they shouldn’t be. They might have the disadvantage of not being ‘fresh,’ they may even hark back to the beginning or anticipate the ending, and they are not necessarily climactic game-changers – though they can be – or providers of (un)happy endings. But they are where we are most comfortable – or pleasantly uncomfortable – with the story and its characters. We are settled, ready for more. We are immersed. What more could you possibly want from a story?
Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. 1926. Egmont, 2004.