Although I read a number of Moomin books as a child, I never came across Tales from Moominvalley, a short story collection featuring the Moomins and their friends. During my recent trip to Adventures in Moominland at the Southbank Centre however, the host mentioned a few of the stories and so I succumbed to temptation while in the centre shop. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be an excellent decision. Tales from Moominvalley has all of the whimsy any pensiveness of the better-known Moomin books but also, partly because of how recently I visited the exhibition, but more likely because I am now an adult, I felt that I had a fresh understanding of the subtext to Jansson’s writing. Wandering through the forest and hearing the hooting of the birds overhead, I saw these stories as exquisite expressions of solitude, pain, anxiety, loneliness and a search for understanding, but yet Jansson manages to capture these themes without ever plunging her writing into darkness, taking these complex emotions and rendering them beautiful.
Comprised of nine independent chapters, the stories are disconnected so that I had the feeling of wandering from one character to another. With “The Spring Tune”, Snufkin longs for solitude so that he can compose a tune in piece and is unable to achieve it. With “The Last Dragon in the World”, Moomintroll discovers that just because you love something, you cannot make it love you back. With “Cedric”, Sniff bewails the loss of his stuffed toy while Snufkin attempts to explain to him about meaningless of material possessions. The story that was most familiar to me was “The Invisible Child”, which was featured on one of the very few episodes of the TV series that I ever saw. Other stories such as “The Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters” and “The Hemulen Who Loved Silence” make no mention of the regular characters and do indeed feel rather separate.
The seventh book in the series, I had the feeling that Tales from Moominvalley was an experimental piece on the part of its author, with the distinct impression that Jansson was testing her wings outside of the Valley. The stories featuring the anxious Fillyjonk and the quiet-loving Hemulen could have operated equally well with human characters and knowing that chronologically, this was around about when Jansson began to lose faith the happy valley of the Moomins, I did wonder what precisely the book represented for its creator. What was it that she was trying to say? Did using her familiar Moomins as her tools help her or was it a hindrance?
We have whisperings of Jansson’s own battles with mental health through the stories, with the Fillyjonk’s story offering a very vivid and simply explained account of how anxiety can impede one in attempting to lead an ordinary life. The Fillyjonk tries to explain her predicament to Gaffy who is left nonplussed and uncomfortable, pointing out that none of these disasters had ever truly happened, none of which was found helpful by the Fillyjonk. Most tragic of all is Ninny, the invisible child who became so due to her treatment from the ‘cold and ironic’ woman who was supposed to be looking after her. Brought to the Moominhouse by the kindly Too-Ticky, Ninny has lost her voice and her whole identity. Again, Jansson manages to convey abuse with few words and no unnecessary drama – these are child-friendly stories which capture the darker elements of the human experience. I remember talking over Ninny’s story with my mother after I watched the episode as she explained how this could affect someone in real life – I have never forgotten her.
I welcomed too the further exploration into the mythology of the Hattifatteners – my boyfriend bought me Moomin cookie cutters for Christmas but when I saw one of them was shaped like a Hattifattener, I cried out that those were scary. Still, there are no true villains within Moominvalley and as Moominpappa walks amongst them, he comes to see that they are not so dark as they have been painted. Tales from Moominvalley is like a patchwork piece, featuring all of the seasons of the year as it moves from Snufkin’s springtime inspiration to the final comic story ‘The Fir Tree’, where the Moomin family wakens briefly from hibernation and wonder what on earth this Christmas monster is that everyone is getting so scared of. This was definitely one of my new favourite fictional depictions of Christmas.
Tales from Moominvalley is, exactly as the title describes, a collection of sweet snippets from the world of the Moomins. With welcome appearances from all of the regulars, Snork Maiden, Little My and the rest, it makes for a lovely comfort read. Jansson’s writing is never saccharine, never feels patronising or condescending and Moominvalley is a place to return with relief whether one be old or young, confident of a warm welcome from all (with the possible exception of Little My).
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Published by Puffin Books on February 27th 1973
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