Saturday, 15 August 2009

Tove Jansson: The Moomins

Strange wistful tales of odd little creatures – Tove Jansson created in some ways a very adult world and yet in the same breath it was endearingly childlike. It centred on a family of Moomins – and in my young mind I tried to place them in the real world – were they walking hippos? Still, it didn’t matter what they were – their adventures were so familiar and yet fantastic that I was completely swept into their story.

There was Moominpapa with his fondness for boats, Moominmama who liked to sleep when it was raining outside, and their son Moomintroll, who once tried to capture an Ant-lion. There was the vain Snork-Maiden with her blonde fringe, Snufkin who smoked pipes, Little My who could always find amusement in anything, and a whole host of other strange characters that would wander in and out, but were mostly independent of each other. There were also darker characters – such as The Groke, who made everything cold, and wanted nothing more than to stare longingly at lamps. The characters often verge on the borders of melancholia, and it is this, and their independence of each other, that really attracted me as a child, as I strongly identified with both feelings.

There are nine books in all (as well as various comic strips), and out of the nine I own five, pictured here. My favourite without a doubt is Moominpapa at Sea, and the poor state of the book pays testament to this. It has been many years since I last read the story, but I remember the obsession that Moominpapa has about understanding the nature of the sea, the way Moominmama tries to grow a garden in unyielding earth, and the way the Groke slowly encroaches on the island, making the trees shift shape in their bid to escape. It is an amazingly engrossing story, filled with treasure and sea-horses and lighthouses and danger – perfect for children who like to ‘think’.

‘It’s strange,’ thought Moominmama. ‘Strange that people can be sad and even angry because life is too easy.’
That was how it had been with Moominpapa. He had been feeling unnecessary, out of things. The only thing to do was to make a fresh start. Somewhere out to sea there was a tiny rocky island and a lighthouse, just waiting for him.
‘I’ll capture the lighthouse,’ thought Moominpapa. ‘I’ll present it to my family and say ‘this is where you’re going to live. When we are safe inside, nothing dangerous can happen to us’.

I also very much enjoyed Moominsummer Madness – the family are flooded out of their home and find a floating theatre in which to live, although they have never seen a theatre before and have no idea why things seem different. Eventually they realise and decide to produce a play to keep everyone’s spirits up, not realising the theatre has a spirit or two of its own. This book showcases the ‘comic/tragic’ nature of the theatre, the split personality and the glamour.

Whomper hunted for marmalade. ‘Perhaps jam will do just as well,' he said and tried to take the lid off a jam-pot.
‘Painted plaster,’ stated the Mymble’s daughter. She took an apple and chewed at it. ‘Wood,’ she said.
Little My laughed.
But Whomper felt worried. All the things around him were false. Their pretty colours were a sham, and everything he touched was made of paper or wood or plaster. Their golden crowns weren’t nice and heavy, and the flowers were paper flowers. The fiddles had no strings and the boxes no bottoms, and the books couldn’t even be opened.
Troubled in his honest heart, Whomper pondered over the meaning of it all, but he couldn’t find any solution. ‘I wish I were just a tiny bit more clever’, he thought. ‘Or a few weeks older’.

Although the Moomins have appeared in many guises over the years – mainly in TV shows – I never felt they captured the original essence of the books, that strange ethereal spookiness that makes the books so completely compelling to both children and adults.


Rose said...

I thought you got the essence of the Moomins beautifully there. I love the Wombles and those kinds of books in a child like way- and because I can remember being an innocent child. I can still enjoy the Moomins now and it's on a different level to the way I enjoy other children's books.

The Moomins are magical and the illustrations are so so beautiful. The books are a bit like Harry Potter in that you can return and return to them and they feed the soul a little bit- not in the same way but there is a restorative quality.

Blissful Moomins.

Rose said...

also have you seen the Moomin china? I want it ALL

Jayne said...

I haven't seen the Moomin china! But I know that the Moomins were musch-loved in Japan and appeared on everything (bags, fabric), and a quick dive into google reveals a china Moomin love-plate. Aw!

Thank you for your comment above as well! My Moomin books are so battered that I don't dare re-read them, but I do have to replace them one day, and perhaps read them by the sea somewhere. I love books that make me dream.

Rose said...

the Moomin china is very lust worthy- I've just posted about it and referenced your lovely post actually!

Jayne said...

Ooo - how lovely!

*Runs to your blog*

a cat of impossible colour said...

I LOVE the Moomins. There's something eerie and sinister about the books, as well as the whimsy. Just love them.

Jayne said...

Eerie and sinister - gosh yes. I actually did re-read Moominpapa At Sea, and it really says more about adult emotions than it does about children, yet it is so well written that children get their own complete story from it as well. Fab book!