I love the Moomins. It’s been a long-term thing. The strange thing is that I became a fan despite the actual material being very difficult to access. The television series was barely screened when I was growing up and even now I have only seen two or three episodes. Even the more recent film adaptations have not had a wide release in the United Kingdom. I borrowed Finn Family Moomintroll from the library repeatedly during my childhood but the other books were incredibly difficult to get hold of. Despite their iconic status, it is surprising how few people seem to be familiar with them – walking around with a Moomin handbag, I have been complimented on the nice hippos. Maybe that is part of it, the fact that so few of my friends knew what I was talking about may have played into that feeling that Moominvalley was somehow ‘mine’. What was it about the Moomins that first captured my imagination though? More than that, what is it that has kept me coming back two decades later?
The first thing I remember being struck by was the map. I have always liked books which included these but the map of Moominvalley is particularly beautiful. There are the mountains, the woods, the caves, the sea and of course, Moominhouse itself. Despite the passing threats of comets, floods and tidal waves, the world of Moominvalley feels like a safe haven. Aside from Moominland Midwinter, it is a land of perpetual summer, where adventure is always possible and everyone is welcome. Visiting the Southbank Centre’s Adventures in Moominland exhibition last year, I finally got to set foot there myself and it was a magical experience.
So much of children’s literature is predicated on familial dysfunction. Orphans set off to seek their fortune, wicked stepmothers plot destruction and even respectable families can have their children swept off to Neverland or Narnia with parents unavailable for accompaniment. There is something very comforting therefore about the way that the Moomin family always sticks together. Moominpappa is always ready to lead the family on their next adventure and Moominmamma can not only be relied upon to have something helpful in her handbag but she is also one of the most nurturing parents in fiction. Indeed, although Moomintroll is their only child, they are both very laid-back about the constant stream of house guests who flit in and out of their home, even seeming to adopt Little My.
Long, long, before I ever fell in love with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I was mesmerised by the fantastical beasts of Moominvalley. Between the Ant-lions who could attack at any moment (just stick the hobgoblin’s hat over it) or the Fillyjonks (terribly anxious creatures) or Hattifatteners (incredibly disturbing when I was a child), the wide variety of creatures passing through the Moomin stories gave the stories a feeling that absolutely anything was possible. It is like a trip to Wonderland minus the barbarity. What always struck me was the bland acceptance of the Moomin family towards every being who crossed their path, no matter how unusual.
Thingumy and Bob were two of my favourite characters. I loved their secret language and liked trying to come up with sentences of my own. The two of them are tiny, travel hand in hand and hide in small spaces. They carry a suitcase which contains a precious secret. They are a metaphor for Tove Jansson’s own whirlwind relationship with married theatre director, Vivica Bandler, which took place in a time when homosexuality was illegal in Finland. Another character Too-Ticky represents Tuulikki Pietilä, Jansson’s long-term romantic partner. Then there are the Hemulens who always wear dresses, regardless of their gender. Nobody ever questions the behaviour or choices of any of their neighbours; the inhabitants of Moominvalley are all universally tolerated and tolerant. There is a subversive quality to the Moomin stories, a feeling of adult worries and responsibilities being on hold. You can be whoever you want to be and people will like you the better for it.
As a child, you are always in search of more stuff. Maybe it’s the varying forms of plastic merchandise which are pitched price-wise to hoover up your pocket money or perhaps you’ve specialised to a particular area – a number of years ago, we found my partner’s very extensive album of Pokemon cards which he collected during childhood, although unsurprisingly for me it was always books. Children are primed from an early age to become consumers. I remember being surprised by the consistent message of the Moomin stories which is that ‘stuff’ will not make you happy. Whether it’s Snufkin rejoicing in not being tied down by personal possessions or the Hemulens working themselves up to a state of agitation over their imperfect collections, Jansson was very clear. The pursuit of materialism is not where we will find contentment. This is an incredibly useful lesson to hear at a young age.
Strong Female Characters
One of the most wonderful things about the diversity of representation within Moominvalley is how many significant female characters are included. Moominmamma is far more than just Moomintroll’s mother, she is the lodestar for all the characters. Eternally calm, her handbag comes to the rescue on many occasions and her domesticity is never belittled or dismissed as unimportant. When Moomintroll is transfigured by the Hobgoblin’s hat, she is the only character who recognises him – Moominmamma is very special. Then there is the Snork Maiden who is also allowed to be feminine without giving up her autonomy. This is not one of those series where the women show their strength by embracing masculinity. Little My is another fantastic creation, always ready with a sharp comment (or indeed a sharp set of teeth) and not someone to allow her small size to mean that others can walk all over her. The women in Moominvalley are all distinctive and define their own narratives – they are also generally drawn from real people. As her niece Sophia explains, Tove Jansson may never have used the word feminist to describe herself but it was clear that she acted as one throughout her life.
Mental Illness Embraced
As a nervous child and anxiety-prone adult, I really appreciate fiction which allows space for sadness. With Tove Jansson herself suffering from depression throughout her life, she has a real gift for depicting mental illness sensitively and with feeling. Moominpappa is often morose but this is an accepted part of his character and he remains beloved by his family. The Fillyjonk is at times consumed by anxiety and this is treated with respect and gentleness by those with whom she comes into contact. The ultimate though is the Groke, the personification of depression. Desperately lonely, she freezes everything she comes into contact with; in Moominland Midwinter, she even extinguishes the campfire by sitting down next to it. Still, the other characters express only sympathy for her lonely state and she even seems to reach a sense of peace with her identity. Characters are never blamed or made to feel unworthy for their sadness and the ultimate message is of self-acceptance.
The Desire to be Solitary
While loneliness and the battle to overcome it is a theme across the series, Jansson also celebrates the positive aspects of solitude. Again, this was a revolutionary thought for me as a child, used to constant supervision. Snufkin can love the Moomins and still feel the need to go travelling by himself. The chapter in Tales of Moominvalley which describes him walking in the woods alone is exquisite, expressing the beauty of solitary reflection. But it’s not just Snufkin. Moominland Midwinter is all about Moomintroll learning to be independent and survive in a new environment. Tove Jansson particularly appreciated the joy of being alone, living much of her life in a cottage on a remote island and it is so wonderful that she was able to express this so vividly to her readers.
Jansson turned down Walt Disney’s lucrative offer to buy her characters and instead set up her own company along with her brother. I can’t help but think that this was the best decision for the characters. While I love Winnie the Pooh in both its Disney and Classic form, the two are very separate entities and one can see how the brand has been unavoidably diluted. By keeping things ‘in the family’ (even now the company board holds several Jansson members), the Moomin characters have remained close to their original inception. Even though the artwork and merchandise have really exploded over the past few years (the Moomin shop in Covent Garden is always worth a visit), it all still feels rooted to the dreaminess of Jansson’s stories.
Aside from books, collecting postcards is my particular vice, particularly when Moomin-related. Philip Pullman describes the Moomin stories as ‘a perfect marriage of word and picture’ and indeed, the illustrations have been a huge part of the series’ success. From the watercolours of The Moomins and the Great Flood to the subsequent ink images of the later books, they lend a huge amount of life to the stories. Jansson illustrated the Finnish edition of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and she lent a similar otherworldly quality to that project. I have really enjoyed exploring Jansson’s non-Moomin-related art over the past few years – she was just so exceptionally gifted. There is a reason why I own Moomin socks, several Moomin-cushions, a Moomin phone cover and a Moomin candleholder. The images around the series are beautiful and make me feel happy whenever I look at them.
Wit and Language
This probably deserves a higher entry on the list – the books are very, very funny. I love the episode in Finn Family Moomintroll where the Dictionary of Outlandish Words is used to trap the ant-lion in the Hobgoblin’s Hat, leading to the dictionary crumpling and the outlandish words escaping and crawling up the walls to cover the ceiling. Twenty years later, I still think it’s comic genius. The dialogue between the characters is full of dry wit and deadpan observations – I would love to be able to read Finnish to catch it in the original language, but it is still terrific fun in English. A more recent discovery has been Moominsummer Madness which not only had the chaos of Snufkin taking up parenting but also the drama and melodrama as the rest of the Moomins tried to put on a play. Another fantastic set piece comes in Tales of Moominvalley when the Moomins awake from hibernation to discover everyone fleeing in terror from Christmas. Jansson had an eye for the absurd aspects of human nature and that is a big part of what makes the Moomins such terrific company.
Celebration of Kindness
If the Moomins could offer but one word of advice to their human readership, I think it would be ‘Kindness’. They are invariably polite to anyone who crosses their threshold. Moominmamma and Moominpappa simply fold out another leaf of the table and set another place for the new visitor. Unlike other series, there is no over-arching story arc, no villain to be overcome but also there is no human character like Christopher Robin who serves as interpreter; the Moomins themselves are our guide. The common thread across the benign chaos of the series is to embrace the outsider. Perhaps the best example of this comes in The Invisible Child, where Ninny is brought to live with the Moomins having been treated without care by an ironic adult whose mocking words has rendered the poor child invisible. It is the unconditional love shown by the Moomin family which brings Ninny back into full existence. Tove Jansson wrote about a fantasy world but the emotions of her characters were deeply and recognisably human.