Posted by Gay
In our last post for 2020 before Covid overtook all other concerns, we talked about what children’s books might offer their readers during the pandemic: the comfort of escape into happier settings, the companionship of beloved characters, and the encouragement of heroes surviving dark times.
A recent peek at Goodreads tells me that some readers have turned to the perennially popular Moomin series, written and illustrated by Finnish cartoonist Tove Jansson between 1945 and 1970. Despite having lived with two of the Moomin books since the late 1960’s, I’m still struck by the surprising, original flavour of the series, which springs from a confident and independent artistic vision expressed in what Philip Pullman calls ‘a perfect marriage of word and picture’. The genius of Jansson’s illustrations is shown by the fact that they have never dated. Her drawings are fantastical designs, at times reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts, some completed with a few simple lines and others with rich textures and contrasts, but always beautiful and containing areas of open space that mirror the open spaces in her writing.
Tove Jansson’s initial motivation for creating the Moomins was to escape the darkness of World War II by writing ‘fairytales’, and the name ‘Muumi’ (translated into English as ‘Moomintroll’) is deliberately soft-sounding to represent the gentle roundness of her characters. In this post I’ll talk about two Moomin books that fulfil quite different roles. Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) was the third book of the series, but the first to be published in English and as such the introduction to the Moomins for many Australian children, including myself. Moominland Midwinter (1957) was the sixth. By the time it was written, Jansson had moved on from the ‘hackneyed’ charm of the Moomins’ summer veranda and wanted to express something entirely different. Accordingly the two books are diametrically opposed in mood. Finn Family Moomintroll will always be my favourite, but Goodreads reveals that many other readers like Moominland Midwinter best, even finding in it a metaphor for the pandemic with its hard-won insights into loneliness, confinement and endurance.
Jansson might have wearied of her earlier, sunnier books, but I never did. I still have my original copy of Finn Family Moomintroll, coloured in and stuck together with tape. Central to its charm is the Bohemian spirit of Moominhouse, a haven of freedom, warmth and community. Set in a green valley, it’s a true home where Moomintroll’s loving parents accept and embrace Moomintroll and a gaggle of live-in friends and eccentrics, along with the inevitable strange adventures accompanying them: ‘Moomintroll’s mother and father always welcomed all their friends in the same quiet way, just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining-room table. [This baffled me. A leaf?] And so Moominhouse was rather full – a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing.’
Moomintroll and his friends express a full range of emotional states: joy and laughter, contentment, love, fear, pride, courage, envy, loneliness, sorrow, anxiety and boredom. Characters are individual and imperfect. While Moominmamma represents home and stability, Snufkin is the original nomad, a harmonica-playing tramp who lives to be free. Both are loved intensely by Moomintroll. The Hemulen wears his aunt’s dress and is an obsessive collector. The Muskrat is gloomy and over-sensitive. Sniff is greedy, the Snork Maiden is vain, Moominpappa is egotistical, and Thingumy and Bob exist beyond conventional morality or manners. Moomintroll himself is sometimes brave, sometimes foolish, always good-hearted and affectionate.
Finn Family Moomintroll is a summer idyll, a book of carefree innocence, togetherness, order and abundance. Pear and plum trees burst with fruit; the sea offers up treasures; those who love gold and jewels receive them. Despite excitingly-described adventures including storms, enchantments, the frozen soulless Groke and the manic, electrically charged Hattifatteners, no problem is so great that it can’t be solved. At centre stage is the calm, placid figure of Moominmamma, who holds everything together and knows Moomintroll even when he is changed horribly by the Hobgoblin’s hat. When Moominhouse is magically transformed into a tropical jungle, she escapes from her bedroom and rescues Moominpappa with an axe. As the children roar Tarzan-like and swing from the chandelier, Moominmamma is ‘quite unperturbed. “Well, well!” she said, “it seems to me that our guests are having a very good time.”’
In initially terrifying contrast, Moominland Midwinter explores winter, solitude, chaos, primitive forces, pathos and scarcity. It’s clear that order has broken down from the very start, when Moomintroll awakes from hibernation and can’t get back to sleep. When, overcome by fear, he shouts and shakes Moominmamma, she simply curls into ‘an uninterested ball’. This abandonment sets the stage for a book that remains uneasy and edgy almost to the very end. Where Finn Family Moomintroll eschews the concept of a ‘character arc’ and leaves everyone much the same at the end as in the beginning, Moominland Midwinter sends Moomintroll on a psychological journey from denial and defiance to embracing what winter brings.
Despite this, I still find the book incredibly disturbing (unlike some reviewers who found it ‘cosy’ and ‘magical’). Moomintroll’s attempts to make friends with the motley crew of winter eccentrics are rebuffed repeatedly. Too-ticky, presented as a wise philosopher, gives Moomintroll a kind of tough love. When Moomintroll complains that somebody is stealing things from Moominhouse, she replies cheerfully, ‘That’s nice, isn’t it. You’ve got too many things about you.’ This moralising sounds more like rationalisation when Too-Ticky takes the family’s peat and sofa to build a bonfire. The hint that Moomintroll has become too cushioned by comfort and needs to experience his primitive side is underscored by the hairy ancestor hiding in the cupboard. But there are few people to really like in the book. Little My, supposedly a friend, is motivated almost entirely by self-interest, and the winter refugees never really form a community but stick around for shelter and the contents of the jam cellar. When order arrives, it’s of the wrong kind, superimposed by a loud and sporty Hemulen who plays the bugle, has a suspect love of torches and campfires, and alienates others by trying to organise them.
There’s still a lot of magic in Moominland Midwinter. The descriptions of a snowy winter, the aurora borealis and the breakup of the ice at sea in spring are a marvel, especially to one who’s never experienced such things. But the intent of this book is not to entertain or give pleasure. Rather, it’s a vehicle to explore different aspects of life’s dark seasons and show that spring and warmth can be trusted to return. The author’s overt philosophy has changed from ‘Strange adventures, and getting wet, and carrying on alone and that sort of thing are all very well, but they’re not comfortable in the long run’ to ‘One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.’