Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (1957)

Moomins hibernate from November to April, but not this winter. A stray moonbeam wakens Moomintroll and he can’t get back to sleep. He tugs at Moominmamma, but she is dead to the world. Thus he is condemned to go exploring the mysterious and rather scary, silent, snow-covered world of winter, beginning with the mysterious pair of eyes under the cold sink in the kitchen. The Dweller Under The Sink.

He meets Too-tickey, a plump practical person in a red-and-white striped jumper, who lives in the Moomins’ bathing house during the winter, with a suite of shrews who are so shy and retiring they have become completely invisible. When they serve dinner it looks like the plates and bowls are floating.

Little My is woken by a brainless squirrel nipping at her sleeping bag, gets up and quickly adapts to the new conditions. She cuts holes in a tea cosy and borrows a Moomin tea tray to go tobogganing. Little My emerged in the last book, Moominsummer Madness, as a favourite character. Very small, very feisty, she looks forward to disasters and embarrassments with relish. A canny contrast to the timid, over-polite Moomintroll.

Back in the cold, empty Moomin house, a spooked Moomintroll discovers random objects have disappeared, including a tea cosy and a tray. Outside he discovers someone has built an enormous snow horse with a broom for a tail and small mirrors for eyes, which disconcert the young Moomin. Too-Ticky refuses to be worried or upset, and tells Moomintroll about the Great Cold that is coming, and begins to sing a winter song.

Suddenly Moomintroll snaps and starts bawling out a song of summer. He is so lonely, so wants someone to talk to, someone from the summer world to share memories with. At that moment there’s a swoosh and out of nowhere flies a high-speed tea tray which knocks him over into the snow. He hears cackling laughter which can only come from one person, Little My!

He gushes with relief at having a friend from the summer days but, characteristically, Little My doesn’t give a cuss for his sentimental maunderings – she wonders whether greasing the tin with candle wax will make it go faster. Too-ticky immediately joins in with suggestions. Moomintroll looks at them both and reluctantly realises he has to join their world.

Too-ticky warns all the snow animals, namely the brainless squirrel, that the Lady of the Cold is coming.

Too-ticky, Moomintroll and Little My retreat to the bathing house and fuel up the stove, then go out to scan the horizon. There is one among many, many beautifully simple and evocative descriptions of this mysterious midwinter landscape.

They went out onto the landing-stage and sniffed towards the sea. The evening sky was green all over, and all the world seemed to be made of thin glass. All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold. (p.46)

Descriptions which transported me as a child and which I still find powerful and evocative as an adult.

They retreat inside the bathing house as the Lady of the Cold walks by, beautiful and terrible, shedding freezing rays in her path. They watch her stop to tickle the brainless squirrel under the chin and he drops, frozen solid. Moomintoll is upset; Little My wonders if she can make a muff out of its tail!

They hold an impromptu funeral procession for the brainless squirrel, laying its frozen body at the feet of the snow horse. To their surprise, the snow horse comes to life, chucks the squirrel onto its back and goes cantering and neighing over the frozen lake and into the distance. Moomintroll feels oppressed by a strange magic he doesn’t understand. He asks Too-Tickey to get his old blue bath gown out of the cupboard in the bathing house. Too-Tickey makes him turn his back and promise never, ever, ever to open the cupboard door himself. She hands him the gown and Moomintroll rummages in it for some memory of happy summer days. He finds a pebble from the beach, perfectly round and smooth.

He closed his paws round the pebble. Its roundness held all the security of summer. He could even imagine that it was still a little warm from lying in the sun. (p.50)

The Moomin books are full of unexpectedly poignant and moving moments like this, unnecessary to the plot, but bathing them in a wonderful sense of human feeling, depths of feeling and oddities of feeling, which you don’t often encounter even in supposedly ‘adult’ fiction.

Moomintroll goes along to the great Midwinter Fire. Too-tickey explains that this ritual marks the return of the sun. Hosts of strange creatures dance and frolic round an enormous bonfire but Moomintroll, once again, feels left out, a spectator at other people’s festivities. The Dweller Under the Sink is there and Moomintroll tries to make friends with it but the little furry thing doesn’t speak his language and becomes progressively more irritated by Moomintroll’s clumsy attempts at friendship. ‘Radamsah!’ it exclaims. ‘Radamsah! RADAMSAH!’ and scuttles off.

Then the Groke comes. The Groke wanders the world trying to be warm but takes with her everywhere her eerie, extinguishing cold. She sits on the fire to warm herself but there is a great ssssssss and when the Groke gets up the fire has frozen. She ambles over to Moomintroll’s lamp, goes to hold it and puts it out.  The winter creatures disperse. The fire ceremony is over.

It’s worth pointing out how many of these characters are female. Little My is a feisty, fearless little tomboy. Too-ticky is an imperturbably practical female (apparently based on Jansson’s female partner, the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä). The Groke in her bewildered search for warmth, is female. And so too is the tall and terribly beautiful Lady of the Cold. And underpinning the whole narrative is the calm, accepting figure of Moominmamma who occasionally mutters reassurance to her son, even in her deep winter sleep.

I love this femininity of the books. I love the way that, if in doubt, chances are a new character will be female, and interesting. With no special pleading or fussing, Jansson offers a bewitching array of female types and possibilities.

Next day Moomintroll finds Too-ticky fishing beneath the ice. Sometimes the sea level sinks and leaves a space between water and the frozen ice sheet. She loves to sit on a rock there, quietly fishing and enjoying the view of miles of spectral green under-ice seascape.

I say ‘day’ but one of the things depressing Moomintroll has been the way the wintertime ‘day’ means only a sort of grey smudgy light which appears briefly and is gone. Now, for the first time, actual daylight appears and a thin sliver of red sun crosses the frozen horizon. He dances and sings and slides about on the ice. Little My watches him with disdain. Then the sun disappears back below the horizon. ‘Well, you wouldn’t expect it to come all at one, would you?’ says Too-tickey.

Angry and frustrated Moomintroll storms off to the bathing house and does what he’s been told not to, wrenches open the cupboard door. Is there some terrible monster behind it? No. A little grey thing is sitting there staring at him, then scuttles for the door. A remorseful Moomintroll tells Too-tickey what he’s done, she tuts and explains that the wizened old troll is his ancestor, the Moomin ancestor from 1,000 years ago.

It is another one of those breathtakingly odd and imaginative moments which fill this (and the other) books. Wow.

Moomintroll is appalled by this wizened old spectre and rushes home to leaf through the family album for reassurance. Yes, there they all are, generations of fine upstanding Moomins, big-snouted and formally dressed. Surely their ancestor can’t have been that funny little hairy thing. But then he hears a jingling in the chandelier.

When Moomintroll approaches, it scoots into the cold stove and slams the door behind it. Discombobulated, Moomintroll climbs out of the attic window and down the rope ladder he’s arranged over the surrounding snowdrift, to go see the others. Little My is waiting with a caustic word, as usual.

‘Well, how d’you like Grandfather!’ Little My shouted from her sledge-slide.
‘An excellent person,’ Moomintroll remarked with dignity. ‘In an old family like ours people know how to behave.’ Suddenly he felt very proud of having an ancestor. (p.73)

Dry humour. Character-based humour.

That night the ancestor rearranges every single item in the Moomin house to suit its tastes, hanging all the pictures upside down. In the morning Moomintroll finds this strangely reassuring and makes a new base for himself in the cosy space behind the stove. Maybe they are more closely related than he first thought.

Although the sun rises a little higher each day it is still bitterly cold and the frozen valley starts to see the arrival of refugees from the cold. Sorry-oo the dog comes howling along with a Little Creep, a distressed Fillyjonk and many others. Little My lets on about the big supply of jam stashed in Moomin house and the starving creatures beg Moomintroll for food. Reluctantly, Moomintroll excavates a tunnel through the snow to a window of Moomin house and finds himself doling out provisions to an ever-growing horde of visitors.

Brashest of all the new arrivals is a loud sporty Hemulen, who arrives skiing, blaring on a trumpet and wearing a jazzy, striped yellow jumper. He tries to organise everyone for winter sports, insists on early starts and cold baths in the frozen river. All the other creatures hate him; they want to curl up next to fires.

The Hemulen teaches Little My to ski. She is of course a natural, learns everything she can, and then goes off by herself to the highest mountains to take insane risks. By contrast the Hemulen only manages to get Moomintroll onto skis once and he has a disaster, his legs getting all criss-crossed and crashes into a deep snowdrift.

The creatures all skulk away to hide with Too-tickey under the ice. The Hemulen tries to recruit Sorry-oo but even the sad dog slinks away. Sorry-oo dreams of running with the wolves he hears howling every night.

In a comic but typically touching sequence, Too-ticky and Moomintroll agree that they’ve got to get rid of the sporty Hemulen who is driving everyone nuts, and suggest they tell him the Lonely Mountains are the best place ever for skiing. ‘But the Lonely Mountains are all crags and precipices,’ Moomintroll wails. ‘He’ll love it,’ Too-ticky replies in her no-nonsense way.

So a bit later Moomintroll stiffens his nerve and, as agreed, sets about telling the Hemulen what fabulous skiing there is in the Lonely Mountains. But as the Hemulen gets more excited, Moomintroll feels more guilty about lying to him until he snaps, abruptly reversing his story, back-tracking and telling the Hemulen how dangerous it would be in the mountains, and in his gushing guilt goes on to tell him how much they all like him and they don’t want him to go, anyway. The Hemulen is touched and promises to stay. Moomintroll is humiliated at his failure and wanders off into a snowstorm which, to his surprise, he finds rather bracing and lifts his mood.

Eventually making it back to the bathing house, Moomintroll finds all the creatures gathered round the fire and Too-ticky gently mocks him. They’ve heard about his miserable failure to persuade the Hemulen to leave.

More importantly, Salome the Little Creep has got lost in the snowstorm. (They don’t know it but Salome had overheard Too-ticky and Moomintroll conspiring to send the Hemulen to the Lonely Mountains. She set off to warn him not to go, but is too small and got caught in the snowstorm.)

They set off to find her but it is the Hemulen who, now he stops to think about it, realises that she often pestered him for a chat and for advice on winter sports but he was in too much of a hurry to listen. Now he feels guilty and pads over the snow in his tennis-racket snowshoes seeking her trail. Hemulens are good at this kind of thing and so he quickly comes to the spot where she’s buried in snow and gently excavates her, tucking her up in his warm jumper and taking her back to the bathing house. All is well.

And you know what? He tells Moomintroll he’s going off to the Lonely Mountains anyway, yes yes they’re dangerous but the snowstorm will have filled in the crevices and, besides, think of the fresh air! Off he sets, blowing his Hemulen horn, while Moomintroll and Too-ticky exchange glances.

Meanwhile the little doggy Sorry-oo has decided to make his fantasy come true and has set off for the woods at dusk determined to join the wolf pack. It gets dark. The howling of the wolves gets closer. Yellow eyes appear in the black under the trees. He realises he’s made a terrible mistake.

Just at that moment, as the danger is drawing near, he hears the blowing of the Hemulen horn and the big yellow-jumpered Hemulen yomps into the clearing on his snow shoes, as the wolf eyes disappear. ‘Ah, nice doggy,’ he says, ‘waiting here for me. Coming to the Lonely Mountains with me?’ and the Hemulen yomps off with Sorry-oo scampering behind him.

This extended sequence, starting with the little creep’s unrequited devotion to him and then the big blustering Hemulen realising he’s ignored her and, almost carelessly, saving her life, and then – again without realising it – blundering into the clearing and saving Sorry-oo’s life – is not only sweet and touching but feels like it’s telling you something quite profound about the confusions and unintended complexities of life, all cast in a happy mood but none the less moving for that.

The creatures celebrate by having a wild winter olympics.

Then they all pack up and start drifting home. Too-tickey turns her red cap inside out to mark the approach of spring. Moomintroll surveys the Moomin house – what a mess! He struggles with the snowed-in front door and finally manages to open it against the weakening snowdrift. A big night cold gale sweeps in the door and through the house. ‘The room was filled with the smell of night and firs.’

In the final chapter spring slowly arrives. Every day the sun rises a little higher. Jansson’s observations of the changes in the natural world are quite marvellous. How the red bark of the birch trees slowly becomes noticeable through their snow covering, how the sun melts the drifts creating intricate dripping honeycombs of ice.

Little My is out skating at top speed over the ice when Too-ticky and Moomintroll, standing on the shore, hear far out at sea the first reports of the ice cracking and breaking up. On the horizon are angry white waves. Black cracks spread over the thick ice. Little My, the devil, skates right out to the outermost extent of the ice sheet, where the sea is lapping, just to see it and then turns and skates at top speed towards the shore. The description of ice cracking and fissuring as Little My skates away from it is thrilling.

She’s nearly at the shore when the entire ice sheet disintegrates into little floes. Moomintroll goes jumping out from floe to floe to rescue her. Little My climbs on his head and clutches his ears as he jumps back towards the shore. At the very last jump he slips and falls into the freezing sea (Little My, of course, skipping free to land at the last moment – her sort always come out on top).

Too-ticky helps pull Moomintroll out and takes him to the bathing-hut but Moomintroll bad-temperedly refuses her ministrations and insists on going home. He snuggles down under duvets and sneezes loudly.

And it is the distressed sneeze of her son, not the howling storm or the winter snows nor the cracking ice, but the sound of her son in distress, which wakes Moominmamma.

She quickly takes everything in hand, not minding at all about the mess, fixing Moomintroll a cold cure and, while he sleeps, tidying up. When he wakes he feels better, and notices everything is back in its proper place, the pictures have been rehung and there is the cosy sound of washing dishes from the kitchen. Little My and Too-ticky have told Moominmamma what a hero Moomintroll was to save her. She is glad the jam was all used to feed hungry people. She is an unflappable, calm, accepting force of nature.

Next day the rest of the Moomin clan are woken up by the sound of Too-ticky playing an old-fashioned barrel organ. One by one they come to life and set about their habitual occupations, mother making food, father off to fix something, the Snork maiden finds the first crocus of spring. Moomintroll is so overcome with happiness that he breaks into a run down to the now-completely-defrosted bathing house and sits watching the waves of the sea, remembering when it was all solid ice stretching to the horizon.

Deeper style

All the books have magical marvellous moments but I remember as a child being that much more entranced by Moominland MidwinterAll of it is strange and uncanny.

In the previous books the extended Moomin family or Sniff or Snufkin are there to reassure Moomintroll and give him courage. Here, he has to survive by himself in an alien landscape. None of it is genuinely scary or threatening; but it is strange and uncanny throughout. If children’s fiction is meant to teach anything, this book presents numerous scenes in which Moomintroll learns to overcome his fears and nervousness, to be sensitive to the wishes and personalities of other people very different from himself (Too-ticky, Little My, the Hemulen), to make his own decisions, to become a person.

Which is why the final chapter about the return of spring contains paragraphs of real wisdom, paragraphs which could come from a grown-ups’ book.

Now came spring but not at all as he had imagined its coming. He had thought that it would deliver him from a strange and hostile world, but now it was simply a continuation of his new experiences, of something he had already conquered and made his own. (p.118)

And a little later, when Moomintroll asks Too-tickey why she wasn’t more sympathetic to him when they first me:

Too-tickey shrugged her shoulders. ‘One has to discover everything for oneself,’ she replied. ‘And get over it all alone.’

Marvellous Moominmamma

Moominland Midwinter is dedicated to Jansson’s mother. Her avatar in the stories, Moominmamma, even though she doesn’t much appear and certainly doesn’t wake up until the very end – hovers over the whole story, a protecting guardian for lonely Moomintroll, the wisdom of the house, the wisdom of countless female ancestors.

This female inheritance is brought out more explicitly than in any previous book. When Moomintroll creeps up to his mother’s sleeping body and asks her where the things they’ll need for the squirrel’s funeral are, even in her sleep Moominmamma is wonderfully helpful and reassuring:

Then Moominmamma answered, from the depths of her womanly understanding of all that preserves tradition… (p.52)

When, right at the end, Moominmamma has woken up, she not only swiftly restores the house to complete order, rehanging the paintings, putting the furniture back in place, sweeping, dusting and tidying up, she makes a special traditional remedy for Moomintroll, who caught a cold rescuing Little My from the breaking-up ice.

She found a few sticks of wood from behind the slop-pail. She took a bottle of currant syrup  from her secret cupboard, as well as a powder and a flannel scarf.
When the water boiled she mixed a strong influenza medicine of sugar and ginger, and an old lemon that used to lie behind the tea-cosy on the topmost shelf but one.
There was no tea-cosy, nor any teapot. But Moominmamma never noticed that. For safety’s sake she mumbled a short charm over the influenza medicine. That was something her grandmother had taught her…. (p.129)

A bit later Moominmamma comes out to join her son and the other little ones playing snowballs. As she makes one she casually mentions that she’s not upset about her entire store of jam having been eaten by the guest, nor the furniture being rearranged or having gone missing. The house will look a lot less cluttered without it! Moomintroll watches and listens to her and a great feeling wells up in his chest to have such a wonderful wonderful mother.

Moominmamma scooped up a handful of snow and made a snowball. She threw it clumsily as mothers do, and it plopped to the ground not very far away.
‘I’m no good at that,’ said Moominmamma with a laugh. ‘Even Sorry-oo would have made a better throw.’
‘Mother, I love you terribly,’ said Moomintroll. (p.134)

And it’s hard, at the end of this short but quite intense, wonderfully imaginative and sometimes quite moving story, not to feel that this is Jansson’s heartfelt tribute to her own mother. Did any mother ever have a better tribute than the Moomin books?


Related links

The Moomin books

1945 The Moomins and the Great Flood
1946 Comet in Moominland
1948 Finn Family Moomintroll
1950 The Exploits of Moominpappa
1954 Moominsummer Madness
1957 Moominland Midwinter
1962 Tales from Moominvalley
1965 Moominpappa at Sea
1970 Moominvalley in November

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