Yes, another Scandinavian writer of children literature – but what can you do? I was enchanted by the Moomins a long, long time ago, and the enchantment still holds, even when I read them now aloud, to kids. We’re talking about books here, mind you – not that dreadful Japanese-European animated series, nor the gloomy Polish puppet animated show (although I still remember the Groke from this show – with a memory of lingering terrified fascination).
Actually, Tove Jansson wanted to be a painter; she studied art in Sweden, Finland and France, and she painted intermittently throughout her life, both commissioned and private works. The images of the Moomins’ world were also created by her – apparently the prototype for Moomin was Jansson’s caricature of Immanuel Kant. She drew “the ugliest creature imaginable” on the toilet wall and named it Kant after she lost a discussion about the philosopher with her brother. Fortunately, the final image of the Moomin is much more friendly and blobby, with a big, round nose, a big, round belly, short, fat arms and legs, and a thin, slightly incongruous tail. Tove Jansson’s illustrations form the world of Moomins as much as the text – and they are in perfect harmony with each other.
There are eight novels set in Moomins’s world, plus one collection of short stories. There’s also a handful of picture books and a huge collection of comic strips which Tove drew with her brother Lars. I am a dedicated fan of all the novels, although I like some of them more than others. And again, as with every example of children literature worth its name, these books are for children and adults alike. They deal with lots of very serious themes – from catastrophes, including tornadoes, comets, floods, and a magician’s hat, through dealing with complex, ambiguous emotions such as loneliness, fear, tolerance, or a need for independence, to the very real pains of growing up and learning responsibility. Let’s take a close look at the novels, one by one:
The Moomins and The Great Flood (1945)
A very early book, the Moomins don’t look exactly like their later selves. It’s a very simple adventure story, the Moomintroll and his Mom are on a dangerous search for the missing Dad. Written during the WWII it can be viewed as an accurate depiction of the war-related anxiety and the dislocation, as well as a search for a safe place in a dangerous, dark world. Sure, all of it is there. But I’ve also found a different interpretation – the book was intended by Jansson as a positive, intentionally naïve distraction from the reality of war.
Comet in Moominland (1946)
Another catastrophe, even bigger this time – a comet coming right at the Moominvalley, threatening to destroy the world. Moomintroll and Sniff travel through a danger-ridden, wild country to the Observatory in the Lonely Mountains to confirm whether the comet will hit the planet or not. Most of the important secondary characters appear in this book – from Snufkin to Hemulen and to Snorkmaiden and Snork. Snufkin is by far the crucial one – Moomintroll’s best friend, always alone, always outdoors, happy in his loneliness and unrestrained freedom.
Finn Family Moomintroll (1948)
The original title, Magician’s Hat, much better reflects the content. It’s the most popular story about Moomins – and the most fantastical as well. The foreboding magician flying on his black panther in the search for a King’s Ruby is for most of the novel a hidden presence, incidentally shaping the events in the Valley when his tall black hat is found by Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin and brought home. Lots of strange adventures happen before Moomins realize that the hat has magical properties and whatever is put into it changes for a time into something else. The valley is later visited by a strange, reticent pair of small creatures with a big secret – and lots of Freudian interpretations were written on this topic, so there’s no need to repeat them here :). Everything ends happily for everyone involved. Finn Family Moomintroll is also the first book where the Groke appears.
The Memoirs of Moominpappa (1950/1968)
The tongue-in-the-cheek memoirs of Moominpappa can be easily compared to the tales of such mighty braggarts as Baron Münchhausen Davy Crockett or Pantagruel. What isn’t there: sea monsters, submarines, mysterious islands of treasure and fun, a nervous ghost and one very irritating Hemulen who insist on obeying the rules! [shudder]. Moominpappa is a charming rascal – a notorious liar, a dignified braggart full of himself to the bursting, a totally unreliable father figure as well as a great companion. Here we look at him with a loving eye – we can laugh, but it’s an indulgent chuckle rather than sarcastic snigger. It’s a great story, full of self-aware fun and reminiscent of crazy tall tales of old.
Moominsummer Madness (1954)
A catastrophic-theatrical novel. When volcano eruption causes a massive flood which completely covers the Moominvalley in water, the Moomin extended family is forced to flee their home. Fortunately, they board a strange, empty house floating nearby. They soon realize it’s not empty and, more importantly, it’s not a house. As the members of the family get lost in the flood-caused chaos, the new theater crew learns that “the show must go on”. They prepare a new play and when they finally show it to the public they are reunited with their lost family members. The book is mostly a fun and crazy ride through the idea of theatre, but also a strong voice of protest against rules and borders. A small story arc is devoted to Snufkin planning his revenge on the Park Keeper. In a wild case of domestic terrorism Snufkin tears down all the banning notices and attacks the Park Keeper by planting on the Park grounds electrified Hattifatteners. He also sets free over twenty little vagabonds who immediately adopt him as their father. The tortures of unwanted responsibility described by Jansson are both hilarious and painfully accurate.
Moominland Midwinter (1957)
This book marks a turning point in the general mood of the series. It is much more realistic and dark than the previous novels, and deals with more “adult” themes: loneliness, responsibility, fear, the feeling of belonging. This book is more introspective, focused on Moomintroll who finds himself fully awake in the middle of winter, when all of his kind are deep in the winter hibernation. Moomintroll discovers an alien, unfriendly world to which he doesn’t belong, and he feels that pain very acutely. This world is explained to him patiently by Too-ticky, a solid, down-to-earth person inhabiting their bathhouse, and showed to him, much less patiently, by Little My, one of the most popular Moomin characters. Little My is a character, all right. She’s absolutely independent, brash, adventurous and infinitely resourceful. Many girls wanted to be like Little My ;). On the other hand, she is also slightly sociopathic. Emotions of others are a mystery to her; more, they are mystery better left unsolved. Others serve as a background to Little My exploits; she mostly finds them amusing. A modern ascetic, who doesn’t own anything and in need always uses things belonging to others, Little My is in some aspects as egotic as Moominpappa. Nevertheless, we still admire her, daydreaming of a moment when just like her we could get rid of the shackles of what’s socially acceptable or expected.
Moominpappa at Sea (1965)
The darkest and most serious of all Moomin novels, Moominpappa at Sea deals with the troubles of growing up. And it’s not only Moomintroll who needs to evolve and mature and accept change as something inevitable, it’s also both of his parents. The only thing unchanging (except for the sea) is Little My, adopted by the Moomin family. This is by far my favorite novel about Moomins. It’s very poetic, the imagery of the lonely island in the middle of the sea both haunting and mesmerizing. At the same time it’s very deep and full of anxiety as it deals not only with the pains of understanding oneself and the world around, but also with realizing one’s failures and flaws. It’s a very realistic story about accepting one’s responsibility. We also see the Groke here, in a new and more sympathetic incarnation.
Moominvalley in November (1971)
This book deals with loss and loneliness. Set in the same time as Moominpappa at Sea the novel depicts various characters coming to the Moominhouse in the beginning of winter, only to find the Moomin family gone. It’s a psychological portrait of orphanhood, or bereavement, of reconciling the idealized version of the world with the reality. It’s very much an adult book, purportedly written by Jansson as a form of dealing with her mother’s death. It’s an exceptionally mature, melancholy novel that still maintains a bit of wry humor and a guardedly hopeful tone, ending with the Moomins’ boat coming to the shore. Jansson wrote later ”I couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again” [http://www.ew.com/article/2001/07/27/moomin-struck] – and that’s why she stopped writing about them.
Tales from Moominvalley (1962)
A collection of nine short stories, the book tells tales about different inhabitants of the Moominvalley. They belong to the late period, melancholy and guardedly optimistic, and deal with themes such as feminism and obedience (The Invisible Child), being other (The Hemulen Who Loved Silence), fear of unknown (The Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters), or the perils of wild imagination (A Tale of Horror). They are great, and I still vividly remember many of them.
In short, Moomins’ world is a place for everyone. Tove Jansson managed to create a place where fantastical merges seamlessly with realistic, where in-depth psychological portraits flawlessly complement crazy adventures, where otherness becomes everyday and nobody bats an eyelash if you decide that the preferable way out of your room is through the window, by the way of a long knotted line and the preferable way of skating is on the edges of kitchen knives. I simply can’t recommend it enough :).