2017 has been the year of my Moomins Renaissance , inspired in no small part by my visit to the exhibition in the Southbank Centre which really helped to put the background mythology of the series into context. Like all of the best literature written for children, it can be just as easily enjoyed by adults. As long as you can actually get hold of it of course – despite being the first story written, The Moomins and the Great Flood was not translated into English until 2005 and this edition was only released by Sort Of Books in 2012. Having finally tracked down a copy, it was with delight that I settled down to actually read it. I was not disappointed.
Beautifully illustrated with Jansson’s original full-colour watercolours, The Moomins and the Great Flood showcases Jansson as an artist more so than any of its sibling stories. It also had a greater fairytale feel, even opening with the words ‘Once Upon a Time’ and telling the story of a little Moomintroll and his mother looking through the woods for his lost father. Moominmamma feels incomplete without her spouse and the figure of the always self-centred Sniff does not yet seem quite like himself, referred to as ‘the little creature’.
With many of the most familiar characters not introduced until Comet in Moominland, this story has the note of a prelude, of Jansson still finding her story. Even the illustrations themselves show subtle differences, with the snouts of the Moomins being slightly narrower. There is also none of the typical humour or satire, but Jansson was in a very different place emotionally when she first sat down to create the Moomins.
As with all Moomin-related media, a darker tale lurks beneath the surface. First published in 1945 and written during the war period, The Moomins and the Great Flood is a tale of displaced people, divided families and the desperate yearning to find a home. Jansson was herself deeply anxious and very depressed during this time and it is natural that this should be expressed through her work. Even as a child, I always found the Hattifattener figures to be very unnerving and here, their first canonical appearance, they appear almost like zombies. Even the usually level-headed Moominmamma grows frustrated with their blank lack of expression. What does the Hattifattener figure really mean? Are their blank inert faces the depiction of trauma? Or do they represent people who shut their eyes and ears to what was happening to those around them?
Despite the melancholy, Great Flood is still taking the reader towards a good place and we get the ending that we expect and deserve – the family is reunited and all ready to set up home in Moominhouse, which is built in the shape of a round stove, a reference to the stoves that moomintrolls used to live in until the advent of central heating. Despite the suggestions of despair through the story, there is still a consistent thread of reassurance in the shape of Moominmamma – her handbag will nearly always have a solution and her arms are always open to any creature in distress. There are times when even as an adult I would love to have someone like her to turn to.
I adored the Moomins as a child but with with so few of the books in print in English back then, I was reduced to reading Finn Family Moomintroll repeatedly and always with the vague feeling that some part of the story was missing, with so many references to past events that I felt I was supposed to understand. It has been a lot of fun this year going back through to find the missing pieces of the Moomin puzzle. On every level, the books are beautiful – Philip Pullman describes them as ‘the perfect marriage of word and picture’ and that is such an apt description. Without the words, this is a cartoon strip about a group of tiny hippos going on an adventure. Without the pictures, we have an incomprehensible jumble of made-up words behaving eccentrically. United, we have magic.
With the cast not yet quite gathered, Great Flood is not peak-Moomin material – I particularly missed Snufkin – but it nonetheless a lovely addition to the canon. Perhaps Comet or Finn Family may serve as a better introduction for new fans but established followers of the story will not wish to miss out on the Moomin origin story. There is always something deeply comforting about returning to Moominvalley and it is reassuring to know that this feeling was present in the stories from the moment Jansson first put pen to paper.
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Published by Sort of Books on 2012
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