Moomins: Tove Jansson's Genius

Given the state of the weather in Scotland at present, I posted on Facebook that I wanted to 'fill my tummy full of pine needles' and hibernate for the rest of the winter. To my surprise, many of my friends had no idea what I was talking about, and had never read Tove Jansson's 'Moomin' books. I can understand the reluctance to try them, because if you don't know about Moomins, and have never read the books, you may well assume that they are the usual twee anthropomorphism and leave it at that.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I read my first Moomin book - like so many books that I later came to love - because my father discovered  and enthused about them. My family were great readers. My mum's side of the family (Leeds, Irish, working class) gave me a series of old and magical  'Wonder Books' full of fairy tales and extracts from the classics. They also gave me Noddy and the Famous Five and the Secret Seven and the Faraway Tree. I was pretty obsessive about Noddy, much to my aunt's chagrin. She had to read them to me over and over again, thinking, so she told me when I grew up, what a selfish little pig he was!
Blyton was followed by Just William, The Alice books, the Wind in the Willows and then - later on - Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and an abiding love of Dickens. My Polish scientist dad gave me quirkier reads - well, quirky for the time: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, long before they became popular, the Narnia books, Three Men in a Boat, 1066 and All That - and the Moomins. But of all of them, I think it is the Moomin books that I love most.
It is almost impossible to categorise these books, which means they probably wouldn't have a hope in hell of being published nowadays - a sobering thought. The earlier books in the series, Finn Family Moomintroll, Comet in Moominland and so on, are lighthearted, funny, poetic, imaginative but always with a little thread of what I can only describe as wisdom running through them. No heavy handed life lessons here - just a profoundly reassuring but unsentimental understanding of the power of love and the value of kindness. When Moomintroll wears the magical and dangerous Hobgoblin's hat, and has his entire appearance changed by it, when all his friends don't recognise him, and mock him, and tell him to go away, it is his mother, Moominmamma, who looks into his eyes for a long while, and says 'yes, you are my Moomintroll.'
When he was little, this was my son's very favourite book. His battered copy still falls open at an illustration of a  bridge over a stream, with young Moomintroll and his free-spirited friend Snufkin contentedly dangling their legs over it. I don't know quite why this image exerted such power over him, but I understand it very well. Many of us, I think, like to live our literature if we can!
The books though, do become more reflective and - eventually - somewhat darker. Moominland Midwinter, in which Moomintroll finds that he wakes up from hibernation much too soon and has to learn to adjust to winter, is not only entertaining but an exploration of other ways of living and our tolerance of them. We have all known - and secretly admired - a Little My (brave, difficult, rude, edgy, impulsive) a shy Misabel, an obsessively tidy Fillyjonk. The energetic Hemulen, who desperately tries to organise everyone and make them participate in winter sports whether they want to or not,  is a creation at once so comic, so recognisable, and so ultimately poignant that it's no wonder Philip Pullman calls Jansson a 'genius'.
By the time we get to Moominvalley in November (in which the moomins don't really figure at all) and Moominpappa at Sea, which are both about the acceptance of change and loss and other profoundly adult emotions, as well as beautifully simple and imaginative 'reads' Jansson is displaying awe-inspiring skills.
I dramatised her short adult novel, The Summer Book, a gentle story about the relationship between a little girl and her grandmother, for BBC Radio 4. It was directed by Marilyn Imrie and starred Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson. I had more letters about that production than almost anything else I ever dramatised for radio.
Jansson was a Swedish Finn, an artist as well as a writer, certainly a philosopher. The illustrations are part of the unique charm of these books. But it wasn't till I visited Finland itself, and worked there as a teacher of English for a couple of years, that I realised just how very 'Finnish' these books are, how the changing seasons are so important in the lives of the Finnish people, and just how many of my lovely students seemed to display all kinds of traits to be found in the books themselves. It wasn't necessary but it certainly added another dimension of understanding. I adored Jansson's work before I went to Finland. I admired it even more by the time I came back.


Anonymous said…
Thanks. these books are now on my search list