‘A Lost Masterpiece’ by A. A. Milne: Short Story Analysis
‘A Lost Masterpiece’ is a modernist subtle humorous piece penned in 1920 by British writer A. A. Milne. A. A. Milne’s full initials are Alan Alexander Milne, and he published this piece titled ‘A Lost Masterpiece’ in his collection If I May in 1920. This tongue-in-cheek humorous piece is more profound than it seems, for the so-called ‘lost masterpiece’ is not the essay that Milne was supposed to write on the topic ‘The Improbability of the Infinite’. It is also not the true example or answer to the question of the improbability of the infinite. But the word ‘Teralbay’ is an answer because you can make no other word from this cluster of alphabets. Thus, the word ‘Teralbay’ is the prime example in the English language that there is indeed something called the infinite, and there is no improbability about that. Remember that ‘A Lost Masterpiece’ is one of A. A. Milne’s earlier works before his Winnie the Pooh books made him famous. Indeed, he was a great humorist before being overshadowed by his teddy bear character Winnie the Pooh.
‘A Lost Masterpiece’ begins with Milne’s disappointment that he would not be able to write the invaluable short essay on the topic of ‘The Improbability of the Infinite’ because a wicked friend of his mentioned just before he could go to bed the riddle in the phrase or concoction in the word ‘Teralbay’. The wicked or rather intellectual friend made sure that Milne would spend the whole night without sleep breaking his head over the word, trying to find at least one grammatically correct word from it. Apparently, as English history claims, the word was given to Queen Victoria by her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, her close friend and chief political adviser during the early years of her reign. Naturally, he told her about the word ‘Teralbay’, and rumor has it that it kept her majesty, Queen Victoria, up all night puzzling over it. It should not have kept her majesty awake because it is evident that the eight-letter word that can unscramble from this anagram is the word ‘BETRAYAL’. Milne’s inability to crack the anagram must indicate a delicacy to the word and this piece’s theme, ‘A Lost Masterpiece’.
If you remember, the title of the essay Milne was supposed to write was ‘The Improbability of the Infinite’. Now, literary history has it that Milne was silent on faith and religion, but this piece makes us realize that he was somewhat agnostic. This is because he knows there is something called ‘the infinite’. Still, with proper reasoning, one realizes that this ‘infinite’ can sometimes be a ‘betrayal’ of things precise and specific, something we easily miss because we allow others to dictate what we should think and what we should infer from it. In this otherwise humorous piece, Milne dodges the real answer creating humor and a sense of mystery in his readers, who, like me, may not be alert. He indicated that he pretended not to pay attention to the word in heightened subtle humor because her highness had not solved the anagram in one night, and he did not want to be disloyal to her. Therefore, while deciding on the correct word, he draws back and extends the time to answer until he feels unequal to the task. This is because those who rule us ‘betray’ us and our cognitive thoughts, which are not based on religion, caste, creed, and race. These ‘rulers’ whom we have set to rule over us trick us or ‘betray’ us into believing that their actions and worldview should be everyone else’s worldview. They are out to create disharmony in similarity rather than maintain harmony in diversity, and the complexity of our many realities.
Thus, Milne, with, as he mentions, ‘Quixotic’ loyalty to Queen Victoria, does not decipher the word immediately and so causes many restless hours of waste for himself. Note that:
- There are two exact anagrams of ‘teralbay’, namely ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Ratebaly’, and 196 other words one can make by using the letters. ‘Ratebaly’ is usually written as ‘rateably’ meaning that which can be appraised, assessed, or adjusted by applying a formula or percentage.
- Quixotic could refer to Don Quixote, which means exceptionally idealistic, unrealistic, and impractical. Following the herd is not Quixotic but observing what is right and what you believe in is truly Quixotic. Milne demonstrated that when he wanted Adolf Hitler to be defeated for his brutal acts of world domination.
- He makes silly errors to fox the reader of the text like ‘alterably’ and ‘laboratory’, adding plain humor should a child be reading the piece.
- He mentions that Lord Melbourne would not discuss food with Queen Victoria. This is highly suggestive of the rumored love affair between the two, so they would hardly discuss food. Another more probable reason could be that since Queen Victoria was obese, talking about food in her presence was not the done thing.
- An Anagram is a word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of a different word or phrase, typically using all the original letters exactly once.
Milne pokes fun at his idiocy in a comical way, and the possible happenings between Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne after he gave her a sleepless night make the essay quite a laugh riot. Milne extravagantly mentions writing ‘Teralbay’ upon his heart, making it his telegraphic address, making the word a patent for fresh breakfast food, cursing the word when he misses jumping over a putt, etc. This is to add conclusiveness to his obsession with the word and how he no longer thinks well of the so-called friend who introduced the anagram to him. By suggesting these examples, he is poking fun at the breakfast food making business and people’s behavior on the sports field.
Milne is obsessed with the word and wonders how Queen Victoria could keep loving Lord Melbourne after this challenge. In due course, Milne feels sure that he will solve the puzzle but might by then be found in the nursing home recuperating from insanity. Therefore, he plots openly against his wicked friend, saying that he will phrase together anagrams that will be so confusing to decipher that the so-called friend will also need a bed in the nursing home. Milne mentions if we solve the anagram puzzle to send the information not to him but:
- The postmaster general probably because he deals in so many letters.
- The Geddes, persons with a Scottish surname.
- To Gladys Marie Smith, known professionally as Mary Pickford, a Canadian-American film actress and producer with a career spanning over five decades.
That line is said to add a contemporary scene to the piece. Milne explains in convoluted mathematics that if one spent one hour every day and every six seconds constructed a new word from ‘Teralbay’, by the 303rd day, one would have around 181,439 to 181,440 words in all. This is not exactly true at all but adds further humor to the piece. Someone who writes in a similar style is Mark Twain. I recently analyzed a humorous short story by Mark Twain titled ‘Hunting the Deceitful Turkey’, which you can check out here.
The piece ends by showing how the mind of an obsessed person works. Milne tries to write about the infinite but repeatedly thinks about the anagram showing how once smitten by a puzzle, a human being does not rest until he finds a solution to the issue. This could indicate someone with a nervous, obsessive condition, but we will not get into that.
I enjoyed reading and reviewing this short story penned by British writer A. A. Milne. I have always recommended his Winnie the Pooh books to my students, and I have succeeded in making them read them to a large extent. A. A. Milne is a classic writer par excellence. If you are a teacher or a parent and are trying to get your ward to reading the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on my blog’s products page. I hope to review more works by A. A. Milne soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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