Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson (1965)

Moominpappa went and sat on the lighthouse-keeper’s little ledge and thought: ‘I must do something different, something new. Something tremendous.’ But he didn’t know what it was he wanted to do. He was quite bewitched and confused. (p.114)

This is a sad and troubling book. Moominpappa mopes about the house because everything in Moomin Valley is fixed and everything is taken care of.  Little My says he needs to get angry and let off steam, and indeed he bickers with Moominmamma in a way unimaginable in the earlier, innocent books. A little fire starts in the wood and he is irritated because his family puts it out before he even gets there. The Groke slides up to the house and Moominpappa likes to think of himself as the manly protector of his family, even though he joins the others in locking and bolting the door and hiding under the table.

He needs to ‘get away’, and decides to take his family to a remote island to start again. There’s a tiny dot on the map in the middle of sea. An island, reputedly with a lighthouse. Yes, they’ll go there.

A reduced Moomin family

Apart from the prevalent sad, middle-aged storyline, another way in which this book is very different from the earlier ones is that the family is massively reduced. The only people who sail with him to the new island are Moominmamma, Moomintroll and Little My. My has to be in the book to provide her own brand of malicious mischief, otherwise it really would just be the story of a man having a sad, mid-life crisis. Luckily she’s there to burst everyone’s balloon with the most cynical, quick, heartless attitude imaginable. Always bracing, sometimes really funny.

Little My was sitting on the steps, singing one of her monotonous wet-weather songs.
‘Hallo,’ said Moominpappa. ‘I’m angry.’
‘Good!’ said little My with approval. ‘You look as though you’d made a proper enemy of someone. It always helps.’ (p.102)

But whatever happened to Sniff, Moomintroll’s babysh companion? Or Snufkin? Or the Muskrat or the Mymble, the Whomper, Gaffsie, Too-ticky and all the other friends they’ve acquired in the previous books? They have all disappeared, are not mentioned – everything is subsumed to Moominpappa’s unhappiness.

The Groke

I was particularly struck by the way that the Groke – the big sad lonely figure which radiates deathly cold wherever she goes – previously a strange and ominous and fleeting figure – is handled in this book. Previously she appeared and disappeared for no reason, adding to the eerily wonderful sense of magic about Moomin Valley. But now Jansson dwells on her character and her immense loneliness at some length. She is attracted to the lamp back in Moomin Valley and when she sees the family sailing away with the lamp tied to the mast she determines to follow it and she does, by placing one foot in front of another on the restless sea, making it freeze solid at her touch. Thus she creates an ice bridge all the way to the island, following the little Moomin family like some kind of avenging angel or bad conscience.

The laughing children of the earlier books have all been swept away. Sad middle-aged characters are centre stage.

Compare and contrast the small, human-scale, comedy Moominhouse which Moominpappa builds back in The Exploits of Moominpappa.

with the way the tiny Moomin figures are intimidated and overwhelmed by the enormous, bare, bleak lighthouse they find when they arrive at the barren island in this book –

And what was often left powerfully unstated in the previous books is now made brutally explicit. Previously we were told that grass or flowers where the Groke passed were instantly frozen, in a rather wonderful fairy-tale way. Now Jannson makes it brutally clear that wherever the Groke sits for any length of time is killed stone dead and nothing will ever grow there again. This is a small but significant example of the way the tone has shifted from things withheld and, so, magical – and things stated explicitly and so become much more human and upsetting.

Moominpappa’s desperate enthusiasms

Again and again Moominpappa finds a project – lighting the lighthouse lamp, setting nets at sea, fishing in the black pool, building a breakwater out of big rocks – which fire and invigorate him but which, somehow, in the event, fizzle out in failure and disappointment.

Again and again he tries to assert his authority over his tiny family, declaring there is a fixed order to unpack the boat, to decorate the lighthouse, that only he knows about the sea or fishing or nets, or anything. And the others listen politely, then go about their business regardless, and on more than one occasion a frustrated Moominpappa is driven to declaring that he hates family life.

One such failure is the great effort to take out the old lighthouse-keeper’s nets and set them in just the right place off the coast. A huge storm blows up. Next day Moomintroll rows Moominpappa out and they both feel how heavy the nets are – boy, they’re going to be full of fish!

But as they struggle to drag the nets aboard their little dinghy it becomes clear the nets are full of nothing but seaweed; there isn’t a single fish. Fail.

Moominpappa felt quite deflated. This seaweed had come right after that wretched business of the lamp, it wasn’t fair. One toiled and toiled and nothing worked. Things just seemed to slip through one’s fingers. (p.91)

Moominmamma is endlessly supportive with her ‘Yes dear’, with her stoic agreement to leave her whole household and life behind her and settle in the unfriendly, damp surroundings of the half-ruined lighthouse, and Moomintroll is puzzled and confused. Neither of them can help the unhappy middle-aged man at the centre of the story.

Keeping bad thoughts at bay

What comes over from the text is the sense of someone deeply troubled by life and constantly looking to find a safe haven, a home, a secure place where the ‘black thoughts’ won’t start up and take over.

They come across a deep black pool among the rocks, which Moominpappa ends up being attracted to and fishing in for hours at a time, in quiet desperation.

Moominpappa was convinced with a kind of desperate certainty that at the bottom of [the pool] secrets were waiting for him. And there might be just anything down there. He thought that if he could only get everything up he would understand the sea, everything would fall into place. He felt he would fit in, too. (p.122)

This desperate search to ‘fit in’.

When Moominmamma decides to collect all the driftwood and timber she can find on the island and uses it to build a snug in the lee of the lighthouse and then starts sawing it all to the same length – this activity sort of has the reassuring feel of her quiet domestic tasks back in Moomin Valley – but it also feels slightly mad, a kind of obsessive compulsive behaviour designed to keep things at bay, the ‘things’ being doubts and worries about the future. She does it to fill the long empty days. She does it to avoid feeling ‘so much alone.’ (p.118)

They are both stricken.

Island mysticism

With most of the childish comedy stripped away, and putting on one side the middle-aged depression, the other strain which emerges most strongly is the strange and eerie, the almost mystical strain, in Jansson’s writing. The island they sail to is said to be ‘watching’ the little boat. The abandoned lighthouse is looking at them.

Moomintroll wanders off and discovered a secret dell amid the stunted little trees of the island. He also discovers a silver horseshoe on the beach and waits and waits until one magical evening he sees the sea horses dancing on the sand, kicking up rainbows from their hooves.

But more than these rather obviously magic moments, there are lots of quiet paragraphs where one or other character really communes with the strange, alien, intractable but deeply magnetic island.

Now that he was alone Moomintroll could begin to look at the island and smell it in the right way. He could feel it with his paws, prick up his ears and listen to it. Away from the roar of the sea the island was quieter than the valley at home, completely silent and terribly, terribly old. (p38)

It isn’t a pleasant place. It isn’t a friendly environment. It isn’t a sunny Greek island. It’s a hard, barren, stony, inhospitable place with a few patches of stunted wind-battered trees, with hardly any soil to grow anything in, and a derelict lighthouse with mud floors and dripping ceilings and a lamp which won’t light.

But this makes the moments when the rain stops and the sun comes out, or the sudden quiet when the wind drops, all the more impermanent, fragile and important.

The lighthouse-keeper

… isn’t there. That’s the point. No one knows who he was or where he went or why. His absence drips from the rainy eaves of the abandoned lighthouse. Moominpappa discovers poems the lighthouse-keeper had scribbled in charcoal on the walls of the lamp room. Still others he’d written and then feverishly scribbled over. Why? What drove this lonely man in his high house overlooking the never-still grey sea? Moominpappa discovers the lighthouse-keeper’s old notebook and skips though it looking for clues, but it only has records of wind speeds and directions. Moominpappa starts keeping his own diary.

Moominmamma starts painting on the lighthouse wall all the flowers and shrubs she left at home in Moomin Valley. In one hallucinatory moment, as the others are coming into the room, she steps smartly into her painting, hiding behind a painted tree and watching her family from inside the wall. In fact, she curls up and goes to sleep inside her mural and the others get so concerned they set off on a search party for her round the island.

By the time they get back Moominmamma has stepped out of the mural and is calmly making a towel. From then on she starts painting copies of herself into the mural of an increasingly large and brightly coloured garden.

‘Well, that really is the last word in madness,’ says Little My, and it’s hard not to agree that madness, a really genuine insane paranoia, fear and anxiety – stalk all through these pages.

The old fisherman

There is one inhabitant of the island, though – an old fisherman who lives in a concrete hut right out on a point at the extreme other end of the island. His boat goes past while Moominpappa is fishing and he tries to engage him in conversation but the old boy just mutters and won’t reply. Towards the end of the novel, a really massive storm blows up and the sea sweeps away the old man’s hut leaving him quivering under his upturned boat. Moomintroll and Moominpappa rope themselves together and one swims out to the point, once he’s safe the other swims out too. It gives both the Moomins a reassuring sense that they have somehow overcome the sea, which Moominpappa generally finds so troubling and incomprehensible.

They fetch the old man to safety, give him a tot of whiskey and some hot coffee but he refuses to stay in the lighthouse. Then they find out his birthday is coming up and Moominmama sets about making a cake and presents.

In the end

I haven’t yet mentioned a slightly nightmareish element of the story which is that Moomintroll wakes one night in his secret glade to find that it is moving. The entire glade, the woods, the trees, have pulled up their roots and are slowly moving up away from the sea. In a freakish moment Moomintroll thinks he sees the very sand of the beach moving upwards. They are all scared of the Groke. Every living thing is moving up closer to the lighthouse, for safety. The others notice it, too.

A juniper was moving slowly through the heather like an undulating green carpet. Moominpappa scrambled out of its way, and stood stock-still, frozen to the spot. He could see the island moving, a living thing crouching on the bottom of the sea, helpless with fear. ‘Fear is a terrible thing, Moominpappa thought. ‘It can come suddenly and take hold of everything…’ (p.192)

When Moominpappa puts his ear to the ground, he believes he can hear the beating heart of the island palpitating with fear.

Fear.

In the last ten pages several things happen. Moominpappa goes to the steepest cliff and tells the sea off for terrifying the poor little island. Doesn’t it give the sea pleasure to break and crash over its rocks? Well, stop being such a bully! Almost as if in apology, out of the chastened sea come some rather lovely planks, good for making shelves out of. He and the family quickly rescue them from the waves.

Moomintroll has been going down to the beach to confront the motionless, unspeaking Groke, not in aggression but in eerie silence, taking with him the lit lamp which she so worships. Now the family have run out of paraffin to light it. One nightfall Moomintroll goes down to the beach anyway and an odd thing happens: the Groke dances with delight. It wasn’t the lamp, she is just happy that someone wants to see her. After she has drifted away in the usual spooky manner, Moomintroll goes stands where she was and discovers the sand isn’t frozen as it usually is. Has she… has the Groke… stopped killing things with her coldness? Was all that was needed a little love?

Lastly, they find the old fisherman hiding and – much against his will – persuade him to come up to the lighthouse for a party. He has to close his eyes and take Moominmamma’s hand to enter the lighthouse, which he clearly has a great aversion to. He doesn’t want to go up the stairs to the main room.

But once there, he begins to thaw. He sips and then drinks a whole cup of coffee. He accepts the presents they’ve wrapped for him. He notices the bird’s nest they’ve taken out of the chimney. He spots the jigsaw puzzle they’ve been struggling with for months on a table, goes over and completes it in a few swift moves. He asks for the lighthouse-keeper’s hat – which Moominpappa has been wearing – back. In fact in the last few pages we watch him metamorphose back into the lighthouse-keeper because… that is who he is!

Somehow things have clicked back into place. The sea, if not tamed, has been understood. The lighthouse-keeper has, somehow, been cured and restored. The Groke, of all creatures, somehow seems happy. Moominpappa walks down to the sea feeling wonderfully alive. And as he stares at the ever-restless sea, communing with it, the lighthouse lamp suddenly comes on.

Thoughts

This is very clearly intended as a Happy Ending and maybe it ties up enough loose ends to please children readers. But I think it is forced.

Towards the end of his life my father developed dementia. You and I may be puzzled and unhappy and blocked and frustrated by something, but we have the mental wherewithal to think it through, discuss it with others, and find solutions or just move on. What I saw in my father – and in some other people I’ve known who’ve developed mental illness – is they lose that ability to work things through. They become stuck or trapped by even simple things, and then terrified because they think they’ll never get out.

In my experience, even seriously depressed people can be shown a way out by modern medication and once they’re out you can develop techniques to make that roadway out of unhappiness as wide and easy as possible. Just knowing there is a way out immediately reduces the level of stress they experience when they next go into a black depression.

But the really ill, or demented, can’t find a way out and are caught in a bewildering and terrifying series of traps with no hope of escape. Hence the wailing, the panic attacks, the desperate need to share their burden, even though they can’t put it into words any more.

Maybe I’m overdoing it, but on every other page of this 200-page book there are words like fear, terror, anxiety, small, worry, helpless, and prolonged descriptions of the characters – especially Moominpappa – trying to grasp the situation, trying to act the hero or strong family man or expert on the sea, in order to properly, fully become himself – and failing, failing, failing. And the more Moominmamma and Moomintroll indulge him and say ‘Yes, dear’ the worse it gets. Nobody understands!

Taken along with the disturbing story in the previous book, The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters, this novel goes a long way to eclipse the happy, carefree impression given by the earlier, genuinely happy Moomin stories.

Illustrations

None of the illustrations are as clean and crisp as those in the earlier books; but then they aren’t as sketchy and half-finished as those in Tales of Moominvalley. Somewhere in-between. And some – if you identify with the rather tortured, anxious mood of much of the writing, as I certainly did – have an unprecedented intensity.


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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