Moomintroll and Snork MaidenThe Discreet Charm of the Moomins

by Rika Ohara

I’ve just begun reading, for the second time, Moominpappa at Sea at my son’s bedtime. This is the third from the last book of the Moomin series we have read (the other two being Tales From Moominvalley and Moominvalley in November). At Sea is a weird one; it’s not like a children’s book at all. Moominpappa, the patriarch of a family of plump, velvety creatures with round noses, is the author of an autobiography and equally enamored of building and maintaining a house and the idea of sailing into the great unknown. He’s feeling restless, however, on this late summer afternoon. He is irritated when his beloved Moominmamma –– a picture of motherly virtue who can recall in which drawer to find a black armband even in her winter sleep –– puts out a potentially deadly brush fire. He is annoyed when she lights a lamp in the evening, signaling the end of the never-setting sun in this northern climate. Pappa was napping when the fire was discovered and no one called him to the scene. No one consulted him as the Father when to mark the season. He’s having a midlife crisis. So, in her infinite wisdom, Moominmamma decides that the family is going to sail to “Pappa’s island” and start over.

I was introduced to the Moomins when the first Japanese translation of Finn Family Moomintroll by author/artist Tove Jansson came out. It was love at first sight: There was someone who wrote and drew, and she was a woman. Jansson became my first role model, before I even knew of such a concept. (Today, I am a visual artist who writes, and live with a black cat, just like the one Jansson held in the jacket photo on that first Japanese edition.) I devoured every volume that followed: Moominsummer Madness, Moominpappa’s Memoirs, Moominland Midwinter, Comet in Moominland…

Moomins are neither human nor animals, which may explain why they have been slow to catch on in the U.S. (in contrast to Japan, where miniature Moomintrolls and Snufkins vie for shelf space with Miyazaki animé characters and Hello Kitties). There isn’t even a handy explanation of “magic” to explain such creatures (some have tried to categorize them as “fairies”). Moomins and their assorted friends inhabit a parallel world that is Moominland.

The full name of Pappa and Mamma’s son might clue you in to the Scandinavian folklore behind the Moomins: Moomintroll (and he himself meets his troll-like ancestor in Midwinter). But while trolls are often hairy, nasty creatures of the dark, Moomins love the sun, the sand and the sea, are clean, fun-loving and thoroughly decent citizens. They’re folks you might like to get to know –– or already do.

Moomintroll and Hodgkins' Water WheelWe begin with (this is the order I devised when I forced my husband to read the series, but I think most Moominphiles would agree) Moominpappa’s Memoirs. Besides the fact that it is chronologically situated at the beginning of the saga, this book is a good choice for boys because it Snufkin and the Woodiesinvolves the invention of a flying riverboat. Moominpappa was (or so he claims) an infant left at the steps of a home for abandoned children, run by an overbearing, overdressed and insipid Hemulen. He flees this colorless environment and discovers the power of imagination, then meets his first friend in life, inventor Hodgkins –– who, with his round eyes, moplike ears and dry, zen humor, always made me think of John Lennon. Hodgkins’ nephew is an obsessive collector called Muddler who is always apologizing; and their friend Joxster has the let-it-be, anti-establishment temperament inherited by his son, Moomintroll’s best friend Snufkin.

When the boat Hodgkins has created is stuck in the sand, they enlist the help of Edward the Booble –– an oversized dragon with a soft heart and an even softer bottom. They rescue a Hemulen who bears a striking resemblance (in appearance as well as in temperament) to the headmistress of the Moomin orphanage, and get rid of her thanks to a horde of Niblings (creatures who are a cross between beavers and lemmings). The boat carries them to a distant land (with the help of a living cloud) ruled by a joke-loving Autocrat, and come to befriend a real ghost.

We then move on to Comet in Moominland (now a 3D animated motion picture with voices of Stellan and Allexander SkarsgĆrd and theme song by Björk; the film has been released in Finland this summer), because that’s what the chronology dictates. Moomintroll and his friend Sniff set off on a quest to learn more about the fiery comet that’s rushing toward Moominvalley. They sail on the river to the Lonely Mountains to consult the astronomers at an observatory. Along the way they meet Snufkin, a lover of nature and freedom who feels more comfortable playing his harmonica in a tent than sleeping in a house, and the Snork and his little sister Snork Maiden, who captivates Moomintroll even before he sets eyes on her.

Little HemulenCreated way before the Harry Potter era of blockbuster serials (1945-1970), the Moomin series wasn’t written for a single age group. Of all the eight books, Finn Family Moomintroll has the feel and scope most like children’s books: The adventures take place within Moominvalley and its immediate surroundings, and the author tells the readers in footnotes to ask their mothers how to make fake teeth with orange peels. Finn Family also contains the only incidences of “magic” –– wielded by a Baron Samedi-like Hobgoblin, who has searched all the moon’s craters for the King’s Ruby, which happens to be in the possession of the Moomin family’s guests Thingumy and Bob. (Speaking a scrambled language which is nevertheless easy to decipher, they had my son squealing with joy.)

After Finn Family comes Moominsummer Madness, something of a transitional piece, not because of the storyline, quality or excitement, but for the maturity of both the author and the book’s intended audience. Moominsummer is a solid entertainment that appeals to both adults and children. It begins quietly on a muggy afternoon in Moominvalley where Moominmamma is crafting her annual bark boat for Moomintroll. An earthquake jolts the unsuspecting family, sending a tidal wave that floods the valley. The next morning, Moominpappa drills a hole in the floor so Moomintroll can dive to gather pancakes and lingonberry jam from the flooded kitchen. When they realize the water is still rising, they abandon their beloved Moominhouse and, picking up “serious little beast” Whomper and the moaning Misabel on their way, move into a floating theater.

From there to their discovery of the theater, with grudging assistance of old stage rat Emma, to a truly enchanted midsummer eve, Moominsummer just reads like one breathless dream. One learns that those mysterious Hattifatteners grow from seeds –– and are most electric when they are new-grown –– as Snufkin distracts a park-keeper Hemulen in order to take down all signs forbidding something. Lonely Fillyjonk is reunited with her only surviving family Emma, and Misabel discovers her inner tragedienne.

Moominvalley MidwinterMoomintroll is our protagonist in Moominvalley Midwinter, my personal favorite. Moomins had for centuries been going to bed from November to March, but for some reason, Moomintroll wakes up one winter day and can’t go back to sleep. The house, with all its inhabitants asleep, does not resemble the cozy nest that it is in summer. And outside, this new world buried deep in cold, prickly snow is not just empty, it’s full of strange creatures that never show themselves in summer. For one, there is the Dweller Under the Sink, who speaks a language no one else understands, and another is his own ancestor, who doesn’t say anything. By remarkable coincidence, Little My, who by her own admission is “never sad but either happy or angry,” wakes up too, and takes to this world like a natural. She’s soon racing down snowy slopes on Moominmamma’s silver tray and skating out to the frozen sea on dinner knives fastened to her shoes.

To the bewildered Moomintroll, Too-Ticky (said to have been modeled after Jansson’s life partner, graphic designer Tuulikki Pietilä), supplies warm fish soup and advice. But Moomintroll still has to find his own way, because winter is for the meek (who come out when no one is looking) and the mean (the entrancingly beautiful Lady of the Cold)…under the dancing aurora borealis, in the green space that stretches into infinity between the ice and seawater, and around a winter bonfire that celebrates the return of the sun. It’s a story about longing, for warmth, for companionship, for knowledge.

Moominpappa at Sea, the chronologically second but last of the saga (Tales From Moominvalley is a collection of short stories), is also a tale about longing and yearning. Pappa yearns to be an adventurer, a man of the ocean and a lighthouse keeper. Mamma secretly yearns for her garden back home, which she expresses in a mural she creates on the walls of the lighthouse. Moomintroll yearns for the friendship of beautiful and fickle sea-horses (who are literally horses who live in the sea). The Groke, who is feared by all for having the coldest feet on Earth and freezing everything she sits on, yearns for the warmth and light of the Moomin family’s lamp.

The sea is ever-present in this world. It is the bringer of gifts after a storm in Finn Family Moomintroll (the Snork Maiden finds a ship’s figurehead, which enthralls her with its beauty) and in Moominpappa at Sea (a case of whisky). Hattifatteners sail out in little boats trying to reach the horizon. Usually calm and collected, Snufkin wails with misery when the sea has retreated to avoid the incoming Comet’s heat; and when the ice begins to break after a Moominpappa at Sealong winter, the sea sends a joyous cannonade to announce the arrival of the spring.

In Moominvalley in November, the Moomin Family doesn’t even make an appearance. It’s about a world that seems to have stopped functioning without their reassuring presence. Fillyjonk packs her phobias after a life-altering accident and sets off to visit the family. Toft, a small boy who lives alone in Hemulen’s docked boat, hopes to be adopted by Moominmamma. Even the usually anal Hemulen decides to join the waiting party.

What unfolds is a drama of personalities, all of which you would recognize. Thrown into the mix is Grandpa-Grumble, who has forgotten his own name, and Mymble’s daughter –– the big sister of Little My –– always confident because she knows she is a Mymble. Even Snufkin, in pursuit of a tune, returns to the Valley to wait for the Moomin Family to return from the island.

Last but not the least is Tales From Moominvalley. In “The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters,” the fearful Fillyjonk encounters a tornado –– and what a tornado! “The white, majestic column passed her, became a pillar of sand, and very quietly lifted the roof off the Hemulen’s house. The Fillyjonk saw it rise in the air and disappear. She saw her furniture go whirling up and disappear. She saw all her knick-knacks fly straight to heaven, tray-cloths and photo-frames and tea-cosies and Grandmother’s silver cream jug, and the sentences in silk and silver, every single thing!”

In “The Invisible Child,” a little girl named Ninni, who had made herself invisible because she was so very shy and fearful, is brought to Moominmamma by Too-Ticky. The materialist Sniff learns of Snufkin’s aunt who, believing she is going to die soon, gives away all her possessions. She discovers instead that the act of giving has liberated her, even of her supposed illness, and goes on to climb a live volcano as she had always dreamed.

I have read the Moomin books over and over, in my childhood and after, and in Japanese and English translations. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to read them in Swedish (Jansson was a member of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland), but I’ve been told that Little My’s name is pronounced more like myü, and that Snufkin’s real name is Snusmumriken. Reading these books at my son’s bedtime is a peaceful ritual I am not yet ready to grow out of. That's when I get to experience, over and over, the beauty of the land I am yet to see, and be enveloped by Jansson's understanding and compassion for the little neurotic beasts in us all.

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