Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)

It is the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois, population 26,349. Douglas Spaulding is 12, his brother Tom is ten, they live with mum and dad and in the house opposite live Grandpa and Grandma. Dandelion Wine is a rich, lyrical, sometimes sentimental, sometimes visionary description of this long summer and its events – from the humdrum to the horrifying – which mark it.

The book consists of twenty or so incidents, ranging from short dialogues between Doug and Tom, to lengthy descriptions of specific incidents, with two or three longer self-contained stories about people not related to the Spaldings. It’s quite easy to guess that a lot of these were originally published as separate stories, though Bradbury wrote linking passages incorporating them into Doug and Tom’s world – and also wrote half a dozen or so stories – specifically for this, the book version.

However, there are no chapter breaks or numbers or titles: the text just flows on in one great seamless flood. Breaks between stories are only indicated by white spaces between blocks of text. This is a good idea, it adds to the sense of everything being seen in one continuous stream of consciousness by an excited, questing, thoughtful 12-year-old boy, the centre of the text and hero of most (but not all) the stories, young Doug Spaulding.

The best way to convey the wide-eyed lyrical and visionary worldview of the book is to quote the opening passage in which Doug conjures the summer of 1928 into being.

It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in his third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town. At night, when the trees washed together, he flashed his gaze like a beacon from this lighthouse in all directions over swarming seas of elm and oak and maple. Now . . .
‘Boy,’ whispered Douglas.
A whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day. Like the goddess Siva in the travel books, he saw his hands jump everywhere, pluck sour apples, peaches, and midnight plums. He would be clothed in trees and bushes and rivers. He would freeze, gladly, in the hoarfrosted icehouse door. He would bake, happily, with ten thousand chickens, in Grandma’s kitchen.
But now—a familiar task awaited him.
One night each week he was allowed to leave his father, his mother, and his younger brother Tom asleep in their small house next door and run here, up the dark spiral stairs to his grandparents’ cupola, and in this sorcerer’s tower sleep with thunders and visions, to wake before the crystal jingle of milk bottles and perform his ritual magic.
He stood at the open window in the dark, took a deep breath and exhaled.
The street lights, like candles on a black cake, went out. He exhaled again and again and the stars began to vanish.
Douglas smiled. He pointed a finger.
There, and there. Now over here, and here . . .
Yellow squares were cut in the dim morning earth as house lights winked slowly on. A sprinkle of windows came suddenly alight miles off in dawn country.
‘Everyone yawn. Everyone up.’
The great house stirred below.
‘Grandpa, get your teeth from the water glass!’ He waited a decent interval. ‘Grandma and Great-grandma, fry hot cakes!’
The warm scent of fried batter rose in the drafty halls to stir the boarders, the aunts, the uncles, the visiting cousins, in their rooms.
‘Street where all the Old People live, wake up! Miss Helen Loomis, Colonel Freeleigh, Miss Bentley! Cough, get up, take pills, move around! Mr. Jonas, hitch up your horse, get your junk wagon out and around!’
The bleak mansions across the town ravine opened baleful dragon eyes. Soon, in the morning avenues below, two old women would glide their electric Green Machine, waving at all the dogs. ‘Mr. Tridden, run to the carbarn!’ Soon, scattering hot blue sparks above it, the town trolley would sail the rivering brick streets.
‘Ready John Huff, Charlie Woodman?’ whispered Douglas to the Street of Children. ‘Ready!’ to baseballs sponged deep in wet lawns, to rope swings hung empty in trees.
‘Mom, Dad, Tom, wake up.’
Clock alarms tinkled faintly. The courthouse clock boomed. Birds leaped from trees like a net thrown by his hand, singing. Douglas, conducting an orchestra, pointed to the eastern sky.
The sun began to rise.
He folded his arms and smiled a magician’s smile. Yes, sir, he thought, everyone jumps, everyone runs when I yell. It’ll be a fine season. He gave the town a last snap of his fingers.
Doors slammed open; people stepped out.
Summer 1928 began.

Doug goes on the first expedition of the summer, taken by his Dad to the woods along with brother Tom to pick fox grapes and wild strawberries. Tom boasts that he caught a snowflake in a matchbox in winter and put it in the freezer. Tom has a new hobby which is counting everything e.g. he’s brushed his teeth ten thousand times in his lifetime and washed his hands 16,000 times. Behind all the usual start-of-summer chatter Doug feels something massive looming and then realises – he is alive! It  hits him in a profound way he’s never thought of before, and the wonder of it lasts through the rest of the book.

Between Doug’s house and Grandpa and Grandma’s house is a lawn which is, by now, covered with dandelions. Grandpa and Doug, as they have time out of mind, collect the dandelions to make wine.

Doug begs his father for a new pair of tennis shoes and goes into raptures about the springy feel of them. He goes to see old Mr Sanderson who keeps the shoe store, offers to become his odd job boy in return for a new pair.

Doug buys a notebook and a new Ticonderoga pencil in which to write down his thoughts and observations. He tells Tom he’s going to set things down under two headings, Rites & Ceremonies, and Discoveries and revelations.

The annual family ritual of setting up the front porch swing, so that all the adults can sit around smoking and chatting on the long summer evenings. Friends drop by or say hello as they walk past. One is Leo Auffmann, the town jeweller, who also fancies himself as an inventor. Doug jokingly suggests that Leo build a Happiness Machine but Leo takes the suggestion very seriously and his efforts dominate the next thirty pages or so of the book.

An atmospheric sequence in which Doug goes missing, seen through the eyes of brother Tom who’s at home with their mum and, as teatime comes and the evening draws on and Doug doesn’t turn up, becomes increasingly worried, then agitated. Eventually she walks, Tom with her, out to the big deep dark ravine on the edge of town, mum calling out louder and louder with real anxiety. Then with a whoop and a cry Doug and his mates, John Huff, Charlie Woodman, come running shouting and perfectly safe out of the darkness. They lost track of time, were having too much fun etc.

Young man Bill Forrester as a gift digs up a lot of Grandpa’s lawn and plants it with a new-fangled variety of grass which stops growing when it’s short. Politely, Grandpa tells him to dig it back up again and replace it with the kind that grows long because one of the pleasures of summer is the sound of the mower and the smell of new-mown grass.

Back to Leo Auffmann slaving day and night over the Happiness Machine, wandering the town, scouring it for ideas, staying up late, working his fingers to the bone, working so hard he loses weight and eventually faints. When it’s ready he asks his sceptical and long-suffering wife, Lena, to try it: she gets into the eight-foot-high orange contraption, presses the Go button and emerges minutes later sobbing with misery. The machine had played romantic music and shown footage of romantic places like Paris. But all it served to do was awaken longings in Lena to go to those places, longings she knows can never be fulfilled. Hence the tears.

Leo is mortified. The reader reflects that this is a reflection on the idea that machines can make us happy, that machines can replace human love and affection. The Happiness Machine overheats and bursts into flames. Lena restrains the family from calling the fire brigade till it’s definitely too late. In a deeply moralistic coda, Grandpa, Doug and Tom watch a defeated Leo go up the steps and into his house and then watch him move between mother in the kitchen, daughter drawing at the table, son playing with a train set on the floor. That is the real, enduring, timeless Happiness Machine – the loving Family.

Doug helps Grandma beat the immensely dusty old rugs.

A beautifully humorous and touching story about old Mrs Bentley who is visited by two little girls who simply won’t believe that she was ever a young girl like themselves. Initially Mrs Bentley is upset and frustrated but then… gives in, and next time they visit, happily accepts the role of ancient old lady.

One of his two best buddies, Charlie Woodman, takes Doug to see a real life Time Machine, which turns out to be the very ancient and bed- or chair-ridden Colonel Freeleigh who, when prompted, tells them stories about the old Wild West, about the prairies covered with buffalo as far as the eye can see, taking them back in time.

The Green Machine is a funny insect-like automobile sold to two spinsters Miss Fern and Miss Roberta, by a smooth-talking salesman. The story starts with them having run home and up to hide in their attic because one fine day, pootling along at ten miles an hour, nice Mr Quatermain stepped out in front of the Green Machine and they ran him over. The story features their feverish recriminations, the man who sold it to them etc, until Doug knocks on their front door and assures them everything’s alright, Mr Quatermain is fine.

Mr Tridden, the trolleycar motorman, treats the town’s kids by not stopping the trolley at its terminus but continuing on along the old abandoned rails out into the countryside where they have a wonderful picnic!

Doug’s friend John Huff announces his family are leaving Green Town and so he’s moving away. The boys then play an emotionally fraught game of hide and seek and freeze! or Statues, during which Bradbury explores the inability of a 12-year-old to process the fact that his friend is abandoning him and breaking up the gang.

A self-contained story in which Elvira Brown becomes convinced that goody two-shoes Clara Goodwater, head of the town’s ladies club, is a witch who’s been casting a hex on her for years to make her so hapless and clumsy. In a climactic meeting to elect a new president, the ladies watch Elvira accuse Clara head on, before stomping off in a huff and falling down the entire flight of steps to the meeting room. Rushing down Clara does – I think – in fact reveal that she’s a witch who’s been sticking pins in a model of Elvira for years, and vows to stop. This fantasy is integrated into the book by having it all witnessed by Tom who Elvira co-opts as a sort of confidant and mascot.

Colonel Freeleigh, very ill and bed-bound, uses the phone to ring his old friend Jorge in Mexico City and begs him to open the window of his office so the colonel can hears, from thousands of miles away, the hubbub and street sounds of the city which bring back memories of his adventurous youth. The colonel had crawled out of bed to reach the phone and now he slumps down the side of the wall to the floor where, hours, later Doug and his friends discover him, dead.

Doug and Grandpa bottle the dandelion wine in carefully numbered bottles which record every individual day of the long hot summer.

A self-contained story which tells the strange love affair between Bill Forrester and old Helen Loomis, well over 70. Bill was given a photo of the young Helen and went looking for her at the town dance only to realise that was fifty years ago. He pays a social call out of respect but finds himself… not exactly falling in love, but developing a real fondness for the old lady and her no-nonsense conversation. After weeks of frequent calls which begin to make town gossips talk, Helen writes Bill a letter which he will receive when she has passed away. A few weeks later he receives.

Another long story, maybe the longest in the book, concerns the outing of Miss Lavinia Nebbs and her two friends, Francine and Helen Greer, who meet up and go to the pictures. the whole town is talking about the serial killer they have named the Lonely One who has strangled two young women recently. After the movie Lavinia decides, out of bravado, to walk her two friends home and then, by herself, to descend the hundred or so steps into the deep darkness if the ravine, which we’ve mentioned before encroaches into part of the town, slowly becoming more spooked and scared, by threatening sounds and sights glimpsed out the corner of her eye. Bradbury very successfully cranks up the terror of the woman nerving herself to continue down into the darkness, cross the bridge, up the other side, onto the street, hurrying along the pavement convinced someone is following her, up her drive then a fatal few seconds fumbling with the keys to her house, before stumbling into the house and slamming the door shut, leaning with her back against it, her heart racing in the darkness… And it is only then that…

She put her hand out to the light switch and stopped.
‘What?’ she asked. ‘What, What?’
Behind her in the living room, someone cleared his throat.

In another linking passage, next morning we see Doug, Tom and their mates discussing what happened next. What happened was that in a panic frenzy Miss Nebbs stabbed the strange intruder to death. Now the boys wonder whether it was The Lonely One at all, or just some hobo who’d wandered by looking for shelter.

Cut to a sweet bucolic vignette describing the never-ending work of good kindly old Great Grandma, who works her fingers to the bone for everyone, then one day retired to her bed, makes herself ready, and passes away.

A long story about the Tarot Witch, an automated model which stands in a glass frame in the carnival. You pay a cent and the model witch reads the cards and doles out a card. Doug and Tom try it but it breaks and the grumpy old owner, Mr Black, complains, hits the case and hangs an Out of Order sign on it. Doug and Tom are entranced by the idea that the witch can read the future and Doug even devises an entirely fiction biography of her whereby she is a real woman who told fortunes at the time of Napoleon until she told him to his face he would be defeated at which point he ordered her covered in wax and turned into an automaton. So, logically enough, they decide to pump it with enough money to encourage bad old Mr Black to go and consume a lot of Magic Philtre (i.e. scotch) at the local speakeasy. This he does, returning drunk and passing out. Which allows Doug and Tom to break into the show, and quietly steal the Tarot Witch. They carry her out to a secret place at the edge of the ravine and are discussing what to do with her when bad Mr Black burst into the clearing, takes a swipe at them, which they duck, grabs the witch and throws her bodily far out into the ravine amid all the other junk, before collapsing and passing out. Tearfully Doug and Tom go home and persuade their dad to make the heroic effort to come out to the ravine with them, look for it, find it, carry it home and… he manages to fix the busted mechanism so it doles out fortunes once again.

The temperature hits its summer peak, way up in the 90s and Doug falls ill with a fever. He is cured by the magical mysterious junk man Mr Jonas who comes to him late at night and leaves two bottles filled with very special air, all the way from the Arctic via the Hudson Valley and marinaded in creek and spring, with dashes of papaya, lime, and health-giving water-smelling fruits. He sits by the bed Doug’s family have made for him out in the garden (where it’s coolest), tells the feverishly sleeping Doug all about them, then titptoes away. Minutes later Doug stirs and reaches for the bottles. In the morning he is recovering from his fever.

The impression given by Doug’s hallucinating thoughts is that he went through an existential crisis during his fever. the accumulation of deaths has deeply affected him. It makes him realise, deny, then realise again the fact of his own mortality. Appalled at the prospect of his own death he falls sick. But something about Mr Jonas and his magic elixir of life triggered his recovery. He decides to live, a sadder but a wiser boy. The entire book, therefore, is framed by these two big moments – his initial bursting gushing realisation that he’s alive! – and then the darker realisation that friends leave, grandmas die, change is inevitable and that he himself is mortal. Symbolically, next morning, the morning of his recovery, sees the first heavy drops of a summer storm to break the heatwave.

Then a comic story about a distant relative, Aunt Rose, who comes to stay. For time out of mind Grandma has made magical meals from all sorts of ingredients kept in the haphazard mess of her kitchen, working by instinct. Aunt Rose insists they tidy up the kitchen and pantry, putting all the ingredients in jugs and jars properly named and even buys Grandma a cookbook. With the inevitable result that Grandma’s cooking goes bad, really bad, becomes inedible.

One night Doug sneaks into her kitchen and messes it up again, empties all the nice tidy jars, burns the cookbook in the stove. the roaring heat wakes everyone up including Grandma who comes down and prepares a midnight feast for the family which is, of course, a storming return to form.

Then suddenly it is autumn. They stand with Grandpa on the porch, sniffing the cooling air, looking at the first leaves turning. They take down the porch swing and pack it away int he cellar, next to the crates of dandelion wine. Up in the attic bedroom, in the cupola above Grandpa and Grandma’s bedroom, Doug makes the last entries in his journal for 1928 and then, as he had made the magical invocation to start the summer, now he stands at the window, looking over the town, and formally shuts it down.

Douglas in the high cupola above the town, moved his hand.
‘Everyone, clothes off!’
He waited. The wind blew, icing the windowpane.
‘Brush teeth.’
He waited again.
‘Now,’ he said at last, ‘out with the lights!’
He blinked. And the town winked out its lights, sleepily, here, there, as the courthouse clock struck ten, ten-thirty, eleven, and drowsy midnight.
‘The last ones now . . .there . . .there . . .’
He lay in his bed and the town slept around him and the ravine was dark and the lake was moving quietly on its shore and everyone, his family, his friends, the old people and the young, slept on one street or another, in one house or another, or slept in the far country churchyards.
He shut his eyes.
June dawns, July noons, August evenings over, finished, done, and gone forever with only the sense of it all left here in his head. Now, a whole autumn, a white winter, a cool and greening spring to figure sums and totals of summer past. And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare straight into the sun until he could stare no more, then close his eyes and consider the burned spots, the fleeting scars left dancing on his warm eyelids; arranging, rearranging each fire and reflection until the pattern was clear . . .
So thinking, he slept.
And, sleeping, put an end to Summer, 1928.

Magic.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – nineteen stories loosely telling the colonisation of Mars but much weirder and stranger than that suggests
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country – nineteen stories of the gruesome and the macabre
1957 Dandelion Wine – wonderfully uplifting stories based on Bradbury’s own boyhood growing up in a small town in rural Illinois
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

This is a wonderfully fun and uplifting exhibition but be warned: only go if you’re prepared to step carefully among the scores of toddlers large and small, running squealing and laughing from one interactive treat to the next. For this exhibition is an experiment, an innovation, an attempt to create a fun and stimulating exhibition for parents and children, very small children. Very, very small children.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What I hadn’t expected is that, in among all the fabulous blow-ups of the characters, the models, the play tent, the mock-up stairs and the slide, there is also quite a serious and scholarly exhibition of some 95 of E.H. Shepard’s original Winnie the Pooh illustrations, accompanied by some very interesting and illuminating commentary.

Biography of a bear

Alan Alexander Milne was born in 1882 and by 1906 was assistant editor of Punch. He was a prolific professional writer, producing humorous verse, social satire, comic stories, fairy tales and even a murder mystery novel.

Ernest Howard Shepard was born in 1879 and during the Edwardian decade worked as an illustrator for Punch as well as numerous other magazines and illustrated a variety of books. He served in the Great War where he produced not only humorous cartoons (cf. William Heath Robinson’s Great War cartoons) but also some powerful pencil drawings of the Western Front. These are collected in a funny and moving book, Shepard’s War, on sale in the V&A shop, and were also included in the excellent overview of Shepard’s career held at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, back in 2000.

In 1913 Milne married Dorothy ‘Daphne’ de Sélincourt and in 1920 she had a baby they named Christopher Robin Milne.

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, ca. 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

Photograph of A. A. Milne and Christopher Robin, 1925-1926 (c) National Portrait Gallery

In 1924 Milne published a volume of verses he’d made up for his son, When We Were Very Young, which included a poem about his son’s bear, humorously nick-named Winnie the Pooh. This was followed by a book of stories –Winnie-the-Pooh – in 1926, then The House at Pooh Corner (1928) with a second volume of poems, Now We Are Six, in between (1927).

An exhibition for children

Five minutes after it opened the exhibition was packed, and I mean packed, with mums and prams and scores and scores of 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, toddling from one treat to the next. The exhibition has been designed to be as toddler-friendly as possible, in numerous ways:

– There are as many blow-up images of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl and the rest as it’s possible to ooh and aah at. I particularly liked the model of Pooh holding on to his blue balloon and sailing up towards the ceiling.

– There is lots going on down at floor level, starting with the large-scale words naming each section, festooned with jolly cutouts of all the Pooh characters.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– Other treats include a cubby hole inside a big blow-up of the letter O of ‘Owl’ for the very small to crawl into, and a mock-up of the tent Pooh makes in the woods, to hide in. There’s a slide to slide down and little tables and chairs with scraps of paper and coloured pencils to draw on. I used to take my small children to one o’clock clubs to play and draw. I remember it all so well.

– There’s even a mock-up of pooh sticks bridge which, alas, only has a digital stream running underneath it so no actual dropping of sticks is possible. (Given that there’s a fountain and pool in the main courtyard of the V&A I wonder if it crossed the designers’ minds to make this flow from one end to the other, erect a bridge and give kids real sticks.)

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

– There’s a model of the door into the tree where Pooh lived to run in and out of, along with a bell with a rope hanging from the knocker, so that the sound of a bell being manically rung by a succession of three-year-olds accompanies you around the exhibition.

– There’s a recording of a bit of the story going on in a special darkened room where you can lie on the floor and watch the words being projected on the ceiling.

– And throughout the exhibition, at toddler head height, is a succession of placards inviting the curious child to do interesting activities or think creative thoughts:

  • ‘Piglet is struggling against the snow and the wind. How would you feel if you were Piglet?’
  • ‘What do you think a heffalump looks like?’

Suggestion

My experience of looking after small children in party places is that they run excitedly from one treat to another and exhaust themselves in five minutes. To really cater to youngsters, maybe some soft play areas with fluffy Pooh toys would have been an idea – places (and quite a few would be needed) where mums and little ones could really unwind, take coats and shoes off, and soak up the ambience.

At the recent exhibition on Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, they filled the ante-room half way through the show with lots of cushions and lots and lots of books, large and small, picture books, cartoon books, story books, and while I was there these were permanently full with kids reading for themselves, or mums or grandparents reading to toddlers. For all its digital wizardry, what this exhibition missed was some quiet spaces like that.

Still, top marks to the V&A for trying as hard as possible to make the show child-friendly and exciting.

Ernest Howard Shepard, illustrator of genius

Milne himself was the first to acknowledge that it was Shepard’s illustrations which brought Pooh and his animal friends to life. From the start of the exhibition Shepard’s original pencil illustrations for the books are sprinkled in among the displays of Pooh memorabilia, first edition books, props and toys – but as the exhibition proceeds there are steadily more of them and, particularly in the final three, rather narrow corridors, the show turns into a fairly scholarly and fascinating analysis of Shepard’s drawing technique.

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation view of Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic, showing a mock-up of Christopher Robin’s bedroom (with a toy bed which you’re encouraged to lie on and read). Note the half a dozen prints of Shepard’s original artwork on the wall © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These last few corridors group Shepard’s marvellously evocative drawings into sets of two or three and uses each group to demonstrate a particular aspect of his craft. This is actually quite rare at art exhibitions. Usually you get a lot of biographical information, general history, some explanation of the subject matter and so on – but you rarely very much about how the works are actually made.

The curators have done a tremendous job of explaining how Shepard gets his effects. For example, in this drawing of Pooh and Piglet walking through the snow, they explain how Shepard first drew the figures, then used gouache to ‘stop out’ i.e blot over, some of the lines, thus creating a realistic sense of the snow falling in your line of vision between you and the characters.

Image result for winnie pooh shepard snow

Next to it is the picture of Hundred Acre Wood in the downpour which causes the flood. The commentary explains how Shepard methodically drew the main subject – the imposing beech tree and the rising water level – and then used a knife to incise the surface of the paper in diagonal lines to create an almost physical sense of rain falling.

There are about twenty little sectionettes like this, packed with insights. They bring you right into the pictures and give you a tremendous appreciation of Shepard’s skill and technique. Subjects include:

  • Animation – the way Shepard does multiple versions of a sequence of events e.g. Eeyore chasing his own tail, to give a sense of movement and dynamism.
  • Character study – two versions of Christopher Robin leaving school, one moony and sentimental, the other showing him kicking through the leaves, which is much more forceful and was the version chosen for the book.
  • Stance – Sensible phlegmatic Pooh is almost always show foursquare with both feet on the ground, Piglet’s arms are often cast backwards as if in dismay or surprise, Eeyore’s head and neck are always bent down nearly to the ground in gloom.
  • Expression – Related to the above, the curators point out the simple fact that none of the animals has an expression, their fixed expressions never change. The powerful sense you have of the characters’ changing moods is created almost entirely by their stances and attitudes.
  • Slapstick – shows how Shepard drew sets of pictures giving a sequence of (generally comic) events, possibly something he learned from the movies. The example given is the six small illustrations of Pooh struggling to climb aboard the floating honey jar in the flood and continually falling off it.
  • Irony – Shepard would often illustrate things which weren’t in the text a) giving the pictures added interest, prompting you to really study them, and b) often showing the reader objects or actions in the background suggesting things which the characters themselves don’t know about.
  • Interplay with the text – Milne and Shepard between them came up with humorous ideas for integrating text and illustration, a good example being the scene when Pooh is being lifted up into the air by the balloon, the way the text describing the action is squeezed into a narrow column of single words along the right-hand side of the full-page picture – thus recreating the verticality of the action.

Shepard’s trees

I found myself falling in love with Shepard’s depictions of trees.

At one stage there’s a set of drawings Shepard did when Milne took him to Ashdown Forest, the inspiration for the Hundred Acre Wood –  and, devoid of animals or characters, they are simply very good drawings of a wood, a copse, a clump of trees, or individual beech trees.

The more illustrations you look at, the more you realise it’s the completely naturalistic rendering of the trees and bushes which gives so many of the pictures their sense of space, depth and verisimilitude, against which the little animals live out their adventures.

Surely the tree is the real star of this illustration. From Winnie-the-Pooh Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Surely the tree is the real star of this colour illustration, bringing everything else to life? From Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A wall label towards the end gives an analysis of the drawing of Pooh and Piglet ‘having a stroll’. It explains the way the spinney of trees was drawn in tremendously realistic detail, Shepard using a thin pencil for the outlines and branches, and thicker pencils for the leaves, as also for the detailed gorse bush to the right. Whereas the grass or brush which the characters are strolling through is done in a completely different way, using a scatter of almost abstract shapes and flecks. And then the characters themselves are limned with cross-hatching to bring out their volume. Note how Pooh is in a characteristically phlegmatic pose, hands held behind his back, Piglet is (as so often) looking up in admiration of some larger animal) while ahead of them Tigger is in characteristically exuberant mood, caught off the ground in mid-bounce (note the little shadow beneath his body).

In other words, this detailed commentary to Shepard’s illustrations gives a fantastic insight into how he used different techniques for different elements of the pictures, to create depth and characterisation and animation.

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Having a stroll by E.H. Shepard in Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic at the Victoria and Albert Museum

As I mentioned earlier, there are some 95 drawings and illustrations by Shepard in the show, and the wall labels explaining in detail how he created his visual effects, how he and Milne integrated the pictures large and small into the text, creating dramatic and ironic effects by their interplay – provide one of the most genuinely illuminating and insightful commentaries on an artist’s work I think I’ve ever read.


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Moominvalley in November by Tove Jansson (1970)

Hardly had Fillyjonk thought of spring-cleaning when a wave of dizziness and nausea overcame her and for one terrifying moment she was hanging over the abyss. She knew: I shall never again be able to clean. How can I go on living if I can neither clean or prepare food? (p.72)

Tove Jansson and the Moomins

Jansson began her career as an illustrator in the late 1930s. The first sketches of the Moomins appeared late in the Second World War while she was producing adult caricatures for a Finnish satirical magazine, Garm. The first Moomin book was barely published (in 1945) before she was commissioned to produce a daily comic strip featuring the characters, in Finland. When this strip was picked up by the London Evening Standard and syndicated to other European newspapers in the early 1950s, it grew to reach a readership of 20 million people a day. The contract to produce these daily comic strips provided Jansson’s main income for nearly thirty years. It was the kind of long-running daily comic strip found in newspapers to put alongside the likes of Peanuts, The Far Side, Hagar the Horrible, B.C. etc.

Fairly quickly there came requests for other spin-offs, first the book-length novels, then large-format picture books, then real-world stuff like dolls & merchandise, plays, TV adaptations, even an opera, and so on.

a) Running the commercial empire while producing an entertaining comic strip every day must have been exhausting. b) It must have used up a lot of plots and stories and gags. Over the years Jansson must, presumably, have separated out the timely topical subjects for the strip, from the much deeper, stranger, humorous or elliptical plots for the books. c) 25 years – from 1945 to 1970 – is a long time in anyone’s artistic output. Much can change and develop.

d) The previous Moomin book, Moominpappa at Sea, seemed to me to have lost almost all the joie de vivre of the earlier books. It contained strange and eerie moments but hardly any real humour and was dominated by the settled depression of the main character, Moominpappa, and the less obvious discontent of Moominmamma and even Moomintroll. Above all, it dropped almost all of the big cast of ancillary characters to concentrate on this rather claustrophobic family triangle. Only the inclusion of Little My with her pert, rude humour stops the book becoming inconsolably gloomy.

e) As any glance at Jansson’s biography shows, during the writing of this, the final Moomin book, her beloved mother died. She struggled to the end of Moominvalley in November, but – for her – the Moomins were over. She could never go back to that happy valley.

Moominvalley in November

There are a lot of chapters, 21 to be precise, in this 157-page book (since the text starts on page 9, that’s 148 pages of actual text: 148/21 = 7 pages per chapter). So they’re more like short anecdotes than chapters in an ongoing narrative. One chapter is as short as two pages. They are quick impressions. Snapshots. Moments which provide insights into the characters.

And the narrative is very character-based, not event-based. Previous stories followed Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin as they, for example, set out for the Lonely Mountains as a team, a gang, a group of children on an adventure. Moominvalley in November concentrates on the individuals as monads, as solitary individuals thrown together by chance and only slowly learning to get on with each other.

The premise is simple: half a dozen disparate characters, in different ways and for different reasons, decide to shake off the winter blues by visiting Moominhouse in the Moomin Valley, to recapture memories of happy summers they’ve spent there.

But it isn’t summer, it is rainy winter. And the Moomins are not there. At the end of Moominpappa at Sea we saw them decide to really settle on the isolated island which Moominpappa had taken them to. This exile seems to be confirmed when Snufkin looks into Moominpappa’s magic crystal ball in the forest and sees an image, far away, in the deep depths of the ball, of a stormy sea and a light flashing with a regular beat. Obviously, the Moomins are still on lighthouse island.

And so the six characters bump into each other and, despite each of them wanting to be left alone with their memories (and fears and anxieties), slowly, one by one, they have to learn to rub along and live with each other.

Six characters in search of the Moomins

We all know Snufkin, the solitary traveller, from Comet in Moominland and its sequels. He heads vaguely towards the house trying to capture a tune which flits in and out of his head.

The Mymble decides to come and visit her kid sister, Little My. She doesn’t know that My is off with the Moomins on their desolate island.

Toft is a small boy who hides in the hemulen’s beached boat, and decides to go to the Moominhouse. No very clear reason is given except that he seems to have detailed dreams and fantasies about such a house, and spends hours longingly painting it in ideal features in his imagination. Once there, Toft discovers a big scientific book about creatures which live on electricity and becomes convinced such a creature is hiding in the house, or nearby woods. Again, he uses his imagination to paint the Creature in ever more vivid detail and almost – it seems – does actually conjure it into existence. He hears it roar in the woods. He sees it gnash its big teeth by the black pool in the forest.

So far, with these three characters, so relatively straightforward. What makes the book decidedly weird is that the other three characters all suffer from what might be termed quite serious mental disorders.

Grandpa-Grumble can’t remember who he is, what he’s doing or why. He quite cheerfully accepts his early Alzheimer’s, in fact he’s very proud of having forgotten almost everything, but occasionally gets very cross. Grandpa-Grumble isn’t his name, but he needs some kind of identity before he can get up and exist. This is one among many that floats through his mind soon after we meet him, so he adopts it. For the time being…

The Fillyjonk is as full of fear and anxiety as when we first encountered her in the short story collection, Tales from Moominvalley. Suburban breakdown neurosis.

As soon as the Fillyjonk touched a broom or a duster she felt dizzy, and a giddy feeling of fear started in her stomach and got stuck in her throat. (p.46)

Within moments of meeting her, as she anxiously goes about her housekeeping, she manages to fall out of window onto a sloped tiled roof and slither down towards the sheer drop, only just managing to cling to the guttering and then pull herself up by the lightning rod and back into the room. For a while she becomes nothing but a tatter of flesh clinging to the side of an enormous empty house.

Now she was nothing at all, just something that was trying to make itself as flat as possible and move on. (p.22)

Once she’s recovered she decides to travel to the Moomin house to seek out others, to be among other people whose bustle will fill her day so that ‘there was no time for terrible thoughts’. But once she’s there, the others automatically recoil, smelling the ‘fear’ which she emanates, fear of life, fear of existence. She reminds me a bit of a Samuel Beckett character.

As does the hemulen, living in the same small seaside town as Toft. (In fact Toft hides in the hemulen’s sailing boat which he proudly owns but never in fact uses.) The very opening words of the hemulen’s introductory chapter describe a person who struggles to find a reason to live.

The hemulen woke up slowly and recognised himself and wished he had been someone that he didn’t know. He felt even tireder than when he went to bed, and here it was – another day which would go on until evening and then there would be another one and another one which would be the same as all days when they are lived by a hemulen. (p.28)

Quite grim, eh? Tired of living. An almost existentialist facing-up to the monotonous emptiness of existence, this could come from Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

The empty house

One by one they bump into each other, misunderstand each other, cautiously enter the cold empty house and commandeer rooms. Snufkin remains outside in his tent. Toft takes Moominpappa’s old room. The hemulen has a typical moment of existential crisis:

and then to undress and confess that yet another day had become yet another night. How did things get like this, he thought, quite dumbfounded. (p.40)

and so forces his way into Snufkin’s tent, boisterously declaring he wants to enjoy ‘the outdoors life’.

Things happen. There is a big rainstorm with thunder and lightning. The Mymble somehow absorbs all this lighting and becomes a ball of crackling energy. Grandpa-Grumble catches a big fish and Snufkin advises him that the Fillyjonk is a great cook. In fact, she finds that preparing a big meal for everyone does something to calm her nerves. Almost. Though when she opens the linen cupboard she has a terrifying vision of zillions of creepie-crawlies escaping everywhere and spends the rest of the book hearing them scuttling behind the wallpaper and the wainscoting in a barely controlled panic.

Grandpa-Grumble finds the Moomin’s little hairy ancestor hibernating in the cold stove. But he soon forgets what it looks like and, when he opens the cupboard door which has a mirror in it, he mistakes his own reflection for the ancestor and (comically) gets to like and respect him. His reflection, too, is old, eccentrically dressed, and knows how to keep quiet.

Towards the end of the book the Fillyjonk organises a big party, with welsh rarebit to eat and cider to drink. The hemulen recites a poem and then the Fillyjonk puts on a lantern show, hanging a white sheet from the ceiling, placing a lamp behind her and moving a cutout of a boat with the three Moomins and Little My in it in a boat-on-the-sea kind of way. Mymble is moved, so are the others.

Toft goes outside to find the Creature which he has created with his imagination in the pitch black night but it moves away, it is nowhere, it is nothing.

After the party, the Fillyjonk sits by herself amid the mess of the dining table, picks up Snufkin’s mouth organ and turns out to be brilliant at making music on it. Mymble had said she was ‘artistic’ earlier in the day. Maybe she is. Maybe things will be alright. Maybe she can put her fears and anxieties behind her.

Next day the Fillyjonk organises a massive clear-up of the house, dusting the surfaces, cleaning the windows, sweeping all the corners, and the others join in and make the place spic and span. Something has been achieved, something has been finished and the Fillyjonk and Mymble shake hands by the bridge and head off home. Grandpa-Grumble confronts his own reflection in the clothes-cupboard mirror and, when it doesn’t reply, pokes it with his stick. The mirror shatters, the fragments falling to the floor. There’s only one thing for it – to hibernate – he tucks himself up on the living room sofa and goes to sleep.

Snufkin invites the hemulen to come out in the sailing boat. The hemulen – who owns a dinghy back in the seaside town which, as we know, he never actually uses – is absolutely terrified, and thinks he’s going to throw up, but is forced to take the tiller when Snufkin simply moves forward into the bow leaving the tiller unmanned.

Back at the house the hemulen embarrassedly admits to Toft that he was terrified and that he will now never have to use the dinghy back home. He too has found some kind of resolution and sets off home the next day.

That leaves just Snufkin and Toft. The latter walks out to look at Moominpappa’s crystal ball deep in the forest. The first snow has come and the forest is white and frosty. The crystal ball is completely empty.

Next morning Snufkin strikes camp and walks down to the sea where the song at the edge of his mind finally comes into it, fully formed, simple and beautiful. He heaves his pack on his back and walks straight into the forest.

Next morning Toft goes to the crystal ball in the snow and sees a tiny lamp in it, the lamp attached to the Moomins’ sailing boat mast. He wanders into the forest, getting quite lost, and slowly his imaginings about the Moomins – and especially the mother that he never had and fantasises about – Moominmamma – fade out, his mind becomes completely blank, like the landscape.

Emerging from the forest at the foot of the hills.Toft climbs the biggest one and far, far out at sea, sees the Moomin sailing boat heading towards the land. If he walks straight back down, he calculates that he’ll get to the bathing house just in time to greet them, catch the line and tie the boat to the jetty.

And that is the last line and last thought in the complete set of Moomin novels.


The dialectic of fear and cosiness

By emphasising the mental problems of some of the characters I’m at risk of giving a misleading impression of the book. It contains plenty of very calm, semi-mystical passages about nature and the seasons, painted in Jansson’s beautifully crisp, descriptive prose. Here Snufkin and the hemulen wander down to the empty, disconsolate bathing house the morning after the big storm.

A dark bank of everything that storm and high water had thrown up, discarded things, forgotten things, all jumbled up under seaweed and reeds, heavy and blackened with water, covered the beach as far as the eye could see. The splintered timbers were full of old nails and bent cramp-irons. The sea had devoured the beach right up to the first trees, and there was seaweed hanging in the branches. (p.69)

But for every purely descriptive passage like that, there are many others which move from the outer world of nature to the troubled realm of the psyche within. For example:

The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and to burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude… (p.10)

Many of the descriptions do this – they tend to become psychologised, to switch from the outer world to dramatise internal feelings – often of a rather troubled kind.

Because the same overall feeling emerges again and again. Repeatedly, whatever the situation, each of the characters, or the narrator in her generalisations, seeks for peace and solitude and escape from others.

All the creatures want to be by themselves, repeating what is very obviously their author’s mantra, that peace and quiet and solitude are best.

[Toft] wished that the whole valley had been empty with plenty of room for dreams, you need space and silence to be able to fashion things sufficiently carefully. (p.88)

[Toft] wanted to be alone to try and work out why he had been so terribly angry at the Sunday dinner. It frightened him to realise that there was a completely different toft in him, a toft which he didn’t know and which might come back and disgrace him in front of all the others. (p.116)

Snufkin overcomes his longing for the Moomin family by realising that maybe they, too, just want to be left alone in peace (p.92).

Hemulen likes Moominpappa’s old room because it is ‘a place where one could be by oneself’ (p.94).

Because I happen to have recently read the famous play by Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis Clos, I couldn’t help finding echoes of it in the plight of six characters who have all converged on one place, seeking solitude and summer only to find the exact reverse, bleak winter and irritating company. The text is alive with the idea of places of refuge and sanctuary, of just being left alone:

  • The big pool was a gloomy place in the autumn, a place to hide oneself and wait. (p.117)
  • ‘[The Moomins] went to the back garden when they were fed up and angry and wanted a bit of peace and quiet.’ (p.119)
  • Of course, when you hibernate you’re much younger when you wake up, and you don’t need anything but to be left in peace. (p.144)
  • [The dark forest] is where Moominmamma had walked when she was tired and cross and disappointed and wanted to be on her own… (p.156)

There is one way out, one way to escape other people or your own alienated or anxious thoughts – and that is to cease being conscious altogether.

This, maybe, explains why there are so many scenes where one or other of the characters makes themselves a cosy little snug and goes to sleep. (Obviously, children’s stories are more often than not designed to be read to children at bed-time, so this partly explains why the little creatures fall asleep at the end of almost every chapter.)

But still – falling asleep in the dark Nordic nights is a recurring leitmotif. Despite the ‘optimistic’ ending, the text tells us that the creatures (before they all leave) are sleeping longer and longer as the nights draw in.

And we know that even though the Moomin family are (supposedly) heading home, they will barely have arrived before they, too, have their last meal of pine needles and bed down for the long winter hibernation. One day, perhaps, they’ll go to sleep and never wake up.

As we all do.


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

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

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (1962)

The most obvious thing about this book is the quality of the illustrations: in contrast to the crystal clear, crisply drawn illustrations of all the previous books, the pictures in Tales from Moominvalley are rough and sketchy i.e. where one precise line did the job in earlier books, here they take multiple lines to sketch out a character’s outline or other objects, giving a far rougher, hastier, smudgier appearance to the pictures and to the entire page.

Why? Are they early works saved up for this relatively late publication (1962)? Is this her late style? Or did she make a conscious decision to explore a rougher, more sketchy style? In some of the illustrations the familiar Moomin characters barely look themselves. Compare early and late:

Here’s a gallery of illustrations from the book. Judge for yourself how rough-hewn, primitive and unfinished they look, compared with the earlier style.

Nine stories

The book consists of nine short stories. They are all more elliptical and serious than in the previous books. Instead of carefree childhood adventures – as the previous books – they investigate what are essentially adult psychological states.

Thus in the first story Snufkin is happy walking alone through the woods on the verge of creating a new song. He stops to camp by a stream but a little woodland creature plucks up the courage to speak to him, then comes over and starts a nattery conversation and, when he finally leaves, Snufkin discovers to his frustration that the idea for the new song has been completely driven out of his head.

But that’s not all, the little creature had heard of the famous traveller Snufkin, and before he left asked if he could give him a name. A bit irritated, Snufkin names him Teety-woo after birds he can hear singing in the treetops. Next morning Snufkin, still irritated at this intrusion into his solitude, sets off north but can’t get the little creature’s babbling chatter out of his head and eventually turns round and walks back to the woods to find him.

Here he finds Teety-woo and discovers that, now he’s got a name, he is making up for lost time and running round experiencing everything for the first time as Teety-woo! In fact, he’s far too busy living to listen to Snufkin who, only yesterday, he sought out all timid and shy: now he is the brave confident Teety-woo.

He runs off and Snufkin sits, pondering, as does the reader, this parable about identity and existence. Then gets up and sets back off towards the north, whistling. Soon a tune begins to form in his mind. A lesson learned.

See? Not a kiddy adventure, is it? More a life lesson. I wonder what on earth my 8-year-old self made of it.

The stories

All the others are all like this. In one a very nervous fillyjonk, always worrying and fretting about the worst, actually does experience the worst when a terrific tornado blows in from the sea and lays waste her home and, in the end – you know what – it turns out not to matter.

The fillyjonk drew a deep breath. Now I’ll never be afraid again, she said to herself. Now I’m free. Now I can do anything. (p.58)

So far so sort of Moominish. But I haven’t mentioned that the main part of the story consists of a tea party the fillyjonk gives for her ‘friend’, Gaffsie, who is depicted as an empty-headed housewife. The fillyjonk gets more and more frustrated with gossip about the best way to clean carpets and so on and, suddenly – out of nowhere – erupts into a great speech about how disaster is going to strike the world, everything is going to be destroyed, ‘they’ are coming to get us all! Gaffsie looks into her teacup, deeply embarrassed. It is the story of a suburban nervous breakdown.

Maybe this is why the pictures are so different, so much rougher, in this book. Jansson wanted to indicate this was a different, more teenage (at least) type of book.

Other stories are about:

A Tale of Horror A little whomper who tells such lies his parents send him to bed without tea, so he runs away and, after a scary spell in the dark, stumbles into a house where Little My is hiding on top of the wardrobe and she proceeds to tell such outrageous lies (about a man-eating fungus) that the little whomper is relieved when his daddy knocks on the door and comes to take him home, a chastened little boy.

The Last Dragon in the World Moomintroll catches a teeny, tiny dragon which fits into a jam jar but, when he shows it to the others, it immediately flies to Snufkin and refuses to leave. This makes Moomintroll sad and sulky. Realising this, Snufkin who’s fishing down by the river, eases the sleeping dragon into his kettle and gives it to a hemulen skippering a passing boat, asking him to slip flies down the spout to feed it, and then, after a few days, to release the dragon somewhere miles downstream. When Moomintroll moodily comes down to the river, Snufkin says he hasn’t seen the dragon, they’re notoriously flighty and go their own way, it’s probably flown off. And Moomintroll, reconciled, sits down to fish with him. It has a baby dragon at its centre, but this is quite obviously a story about friendship and understanding.

The Hemulen who loved silence The old hemulen works at a pleasure ground punching the visitors’ tickets and has got sick of the endless people and the blaring noise and can’t wait to retire. One day it starts raining and doesn’t stop for eight weeks. Bit by bit the pleasure ground attractions are washed away and he is glad. All the children are stuck inside their homes with their noses pressed to the windows. The hemulen uncles who owned the park decide they’ll abandon it and build an ice rink. When they offer him a job there, the hemulen says, ‘No, he wants to retire’. The hemulen uncles fall about laughing and give him the key to his grandmother’s old park.

Slowly, at length, the hemulen explores the overgrown gardens – described with typically Jansson-like wondrous spookiness – and settles into his new life of silence. But — the children have followed him and bang at the gates. They tell him they’ve recovered lots of bits of the pleasure ground from the rain and flood and can he put them together again. So, very reluctantly, the hemulen opens the locked gates and drags some of the wreckage inside. Long story short: the parts are too damaged and random to rebuild any of the rides but it does occur to him that he can create a sort of theme park with magic bits and painted faces and so on scattered through the underbrush, and so he does. He lets all the children in on condition they play very quietly. And they do, for that is part of the game in the marvellous jungle playground the hemulen who loved silence has built.

The Invisible Child Too-tickey comes home to the Moomin house one day with a completely invisible friend, Ninny. (Note, this strange new addition to the household, as so many, is a girl. It’s reassuring, the way so many of the characters are female.) Moominmamma makes up a traditional medicine handed down from her grandmother (note the importance of the matriarchy, as in Moominland Midwinter) and it helps start to make some of Ninny visible, but she also requires quite a bit of coaxing and reassurance from the others.

Little My diagnoses the real problem – Ninny has never been really angry and never laughed. They try to teach her games but she doesn’t get them. She doesn’t know how to have fun. Until one day they take her down to the seaside where they’re fixing up the old boat. First of all Ninny is terrified and appalled by the sea, which she’s never seen before – it’s just too big! And then she spies Moominpappa creeping up behind Moominmamma to give her a friendly fright, and Ninny leaps to mamma’s defence, giving Moominpappa a hard bite in the tail. She starts to laugh as Moominpappa curses and, reaching for his top hat which has fallen into the sea, tips over and falls headfirst into the waves. At which Ninny roars with delight and becomes fully visible.

So maybe the story could be retitled ‘the girl who learned how to laugh’. It seems pregnant with significance and meaning, like a fable.

The Secret of the Hattifatteners We’ve met the hattifatteners in numerous previous books. This tale describes how Moominpappa came to feel asphyxiated by happy Moomin family life and just had to get away. Moominmamma encouraged him. So he went to explore a secret bay he had once glimpsed from their boat and is surprised when a little boat with hattifatteners in it floats out. He hops in and spends the next few weeks journeying with the hattifatteners. He discovers they go to remote islands (of which there are thousands on the coast of Finland) and leave rolled-up birch bark scrolls. Not with any hidden messages or treasure maps. Just rolled-up birch bark scrolls.

Slowly Moominpappa feels his own mind becoming flattened and emptied. Sometimes he finds himself staring out over the sea as empty-mindedly as a hattifattener. Eventually they congregate with other boats of hattifatteners at a particular island and there is a big thunderstorm with plenty of lightning.

Moominpappa is knocked flat by a gust of wind and woken from his daze. Looking round at the hattifatteners yearning up into the sky, he realises they seek the lightning in order to come alive.

Only in the presence of electricity were they able to live at last, strongly and with great and intense feelings. (p.141)

Chastened by his adventure, Moominpappa realises that he not only misses home and wants to be back on the Moomin veranda – but that it is only there that he can feel free and adventurous.

Running through this story is a disconcerting anxiety about the act of thinking itself and the kinds of thoughts people have. Right at the start, Moominmamma rationalises her husband’s decision to go by saying that he’d been acting oddly for a while. But is that right? Or was it:

… just one of those things one thinks up afterwards when one’s bewildered and sad and wants the comfort of an explanation. (p.120)

This is a bit more unhappy and psychologically searching than any of the previous books. Later Moominpappa wishes he could communicate with the hattifatteners because talking:

‘is such a good way to keep one from thinking. And it was no use to leave the big and dangerous thoughts aside and concentrate on the small and friendly sort… (p.126)

Suddenly these are characters who have to keep from thinking.

As Moominpappa slowly falls in with the hattifattener way of life he finds his thoughts becoming white and empty. It is only the gust of wind which blows him over during the storm which makes him realise the whole situation and leads to his ‘happy’ realisation that home is where the heart is.

But to the adult reader, this all sounds like a fable working through real mental unhappiness and distress. ‘Fear of the big thoughts’ which make you so unhappy? A wish for an end to thinking, to the hattifatteners’ mindlessness? This is not the clever, warm humour of the earlier books, but something much darker.

Cedric Cedric is the name of Sniff’s toy dog. Moomintroll persuaded him to give it away to Gaffsie’s daughter because he said giving gifts makes you feel good – but in fact it’s made Sniff feel miserable.

‘When Sniff’s thoughts became too black’ he jumped out of bed and went to see Snufkin. Snufkin tells him a fable, the story of an aunt of his who had no husband or children or friends but a house stuffed full of belongings. One day she swallowed the bone in a lamb cutlet and went to see the doctor who told her she had only a few weeks to live. She’d always had an ambition to see the Amazonas and go deep sea diving so she decided to give away all her things and set off. But giving away everything turned into quite a project, especially since she wanted to give some thought to giving the correct things to the right people.

The more she gave away, the lighter and brighter the house became, and friends popped round to thank her. She laughed more, people enjoyed her company, came round for the evening and told funny stories and one day she was laughing so hard at one of these stories that the stuck bone popped up out of her mouth.

Sniff thinks it’s a foolish story and goes back to bed.

The adult reader gets the point – stop being a lonely miser, give away your belongings and become a happy person with lots of friends.

But the acute reader also notices the little trills and grace notes in the prose. In all the previous books these notes and details pointed upwards, they delighted you with sweet and touching details. But in every one of the stories in this volume the details point downwards. Moominpappa can’t bear to be at home any more. Sniff doesn’t just get restless; he gets out of his bed when his thoughts become too ‘black’.

(Compared to the masterpieces of her earlier illustrations, this picture feels roughly done and poor.)

The Fir Tree In which the Moomins are woken from their winter hibernation by a thoughtless hemulen who warns them about Christmas. On the surface the story is meant to be a joke, because the hemulen unwittingly gives the panic-stricken impression that ‘Christmas’ is a monster who has to be placated with a cut fir tree and presents, so the Moomins chop down a fir tree and each chooses a gift to give to the awful god ‘Christmas’.

And the joke is maintained by the way the hemulen is so stressed with all the gifts he has to give, and also by the hemulen’s aunt rushing to and fro in a sledge packed with presents, loudly fretting about what she’s going to cook because, oh dear, Christmas it always requires such a massive meal, and so on.

All round, this ‘Christmas’ thing is presented as an awful, stressful time which makes everyone unhappy and miserable.

The joke ends fairly humorously as a shy timid woody and his family come out, awe-struck, to look at the decorated tree and all the presents in the Moominhouse. ‘Is Christmas coming?’ ask the Moomintrolls, full of anxiety. ‘Why this is it!’ smile the woody and his family. Still scared, the Moomins declare the woody and his family are welcome to it all and sneak off to the veranda to await the disaster.

But there is no disaster. They peek through the window and see the woody and his family merrily eating and drinking and opening presents. Maybe the hemulen and his aunt got it wrong all along. Maybe Christmas isn’t about stress and lists and social obligations and worrying about food. Maybe it is about eating what you like and simply giving something meaningful to others.

Hopelessly confused, the Moomin family sneaks back to their bedrooms to carry on sleeping through till the spring.

The illustrations

I can’t get over how different the illustrations are. Here is Moomintroll from an earlier book, depicted with great clarity and precision, in perfect outlines set against a background created by incredibly detailed shading.

And here is Moomintroll as he appears in this book, looking at the baby dragon in its jam jar. There’s no comparison in the level of artistry. It looks like the roughest or preparatory sketches. Was she ill? Had she lost interest?

Moomintroll

Moomintroll and the last dragon in the world


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

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

Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson (1954)

The plot is a little easier to summarise than the previous books. It is an unusually hot June, there are grumblings in the ground, the phlegmatic Moomins say it’s the volcano, drat all this soot. Cracks appear in the ground and frighten Moomintroll and the Snork maiden as they walk in the woods.

Then there is a particularly big crash and far out at sea an enormous tsunami is formed which comes rushing in over the beach and floods Moomin Valley.

The water level in Moominhouse slowly rises and the family enjoys drilling a hole in the drawing room floor to look down into the flooded kitchen.

They become friends with Misabel and the Whomper, refugees from the flood who are floating past on a tree. Misabel turns out to be a young person who cries almost all the time. The water continues rising till they are all forced to retreat right up to the roof of the Moominhouse. From here they watch a large object they’ve been observing for a while, coming closer and closer. It is a theatre, cut loose from its foundations (though none of the Moomin family has ever seen one before).

As the theatre floats past they all step aboard and it floats merrily on, past the Moominhouse and beyond. They set about exploring. They discover how the curtains and the backdrops work, the prompter’s box (which becomes the larder) and secret corridors leading to changing rooms, costume rooms and a room full of wigs.

There’s a strong female element about this story: we have the trio of the Snork maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and Misabel, who all comb their hair, fuss about their looks and are quick to be a bit hurt, wandering off among the strange building to discover treasure (wigs and gowns!)

For the first few days they’re aware of strange snickerings from the darkness and practical jokes – for example, all the stage lights suddenly flaring on at once. After a few days Emma the old stage rat appears, a downtrodden cleaner who complains that they only ever leave her porridge in a bowl, and she hates porridge!

The theatre floats into a forest and Moomintroll says he’d love to sleep up a tree, so they moor the theatre and Moomintroll and the Snork maiden climb into a high tree and make themselves comfortable. Everyone goes to sleep. In the middle of the night Emma the old theatre rat, poking about, finds the makeshift hawser Moominpappa has made – the rope to the tree tied round his stick which is poked into the prompter’s box  – and throws it away. Slowly the theatre drifts onwards, leaving Moomintroll and the Snork maiden – asleep and all unknowing – abandoned.

Next morning Moomintroll and the Snork maiden awaken desolated to discover the theatre and their whole family has floated away. The Snork maiden asks Moomintroll to protect her; maybe they can play a game that he’s kidnapped her. He feels all manly. They go exploring through the connected treetops and eventually come – oh bliss! – to dry land.

They discover little forest creatures lighting fires and dancing, for it is Midsummer Eve, an important festival in Scandinavian countries. They remember the loving preparations of his family for this festival. The Snork maiden says girls had to pick nine types of flower and place them under their pillows to make their dreams come true.

Meanwhile, the Moomin family wake up to the calamity that they have sailed far away from Moomintroll and the Snork maiden. Moominmamma is, for once, inconsolable and Misabel is in floods of tears. Little My is exploring the trap door which looks down into the black waves when the theatre runs aground on dry land with a bump and she is tipped into the sea. She is so tiny that she floats and soon sees a biscuit tin and a work basket floating by. She picks the work basket, climbs in and curls up among the rolls of wool and knitting needles and falls fast asleep.

The work basket drifts slowly ashore and comes to rest in a bed of reeds. Now it just so happens that Snufkin – Moomintroll’s oldest bestest friend, who he met in Comet in Moominland and who then left to travel the world in Finn Family Moomintroll – is quietly fishing nearby. He sees ther basket come to rest, discovers Little My, wakens her, pops her in his pocket and carries her away. She knows the words to his favourite tune on the mouth organ, ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.

It turns out that Snufkin has a plan to discomfit his perennial enemy – the Park Keeper! The Park Keeper and the Park Wardress are responsible for banning Fun, for putting up signs in the park which read ‘No Smoking’, ‘Do not sit on the grass’, ‘Laughing and whistling strictly prohibited’ etc and generally intimidating all the little children who go there into sitting motionless and silent.

Snufkin has a cunning plan. He tells Little My that the Hattifatteners actually grow from seeds!! but only if they’re sown on Midsummer Eve.

Little My is filled with her usual naughty glee! She asks to come and watch and so, as the sun sets, Snufkin carefully moves round the perimeter of the park scattering handfuls of Hattifattener seeds. And they start to sprout and tingle with electricity. And before you know it they are chasing the Park Keeper and Lady Wardess away, the latter yelping from little electric shocks.

Then Snufkin tears down all the signs which ban things, makes a bonfire out of them and burns them to ashes. All the time the little ones from the woods, the ‘woodies’, are looking at with him with big eyes. ‘Well, go and play,’ he shouts at them – but instead they follow him, and as he leaves the park and heads home he is trailed by a posse of twenty-four little ones. Oh dear. He hadn’t counted on this at all.

Meanwhile Moomintroll and the Snork maiden come across the lonely Fillyjonk, crying and wailing in her house where she’s laid the table for a Midsummer Feast but, as usual, she knows her uncle and his wife won’t come, as they always don’t.

‘Well, you don’t have to invite people who refuse invitations, you know,’ says Moomintroll confidently. ‘Really?’ says the Fillyjonk, and suddenly feels free and liberated 🙂 At which, she promptly invites Moomintroll and the Snork maiden to join her for the meal.

After dining and drinking well they set out to look for the Midsummer Eve fire and stumble across a load of old park signs which have been torn down (aha – so they are not far at all from Snufkin and Little My). The Snork maiden tells the Fillyjonk about more folk traditions – like you must turn round seven times and walk backwards up to a well and the face you see in it will be the face of the person you’re going to marry!

Alas, when they daintily and gaily carry out this ritual, first picking sweet summer flowers, then turning then walking backwards to the well, the face they see in it – is the face of a very angry Park Keeper who promptly arrests them for burning all his signs!

In chapter eight, the distraught Moomin family settle down to make the most of it without Moomintroll and the Snork maiden. They have run aground in Spruce Creek and the theatre is sloping at an alarming angle. Emma reveals she was once married to a Mr Fillyjonk but he passed away (aha, that links to the sad Fillyjonk in the clearing who invites her uncle and wife to Midsummer supper but they never come – same people).

Emma comes out of her shell and explains to everyone what a THEATRE is along with diagrams. Moominpappa gets fired up to write a play.

THE LION’S BRIDES or BLOOD WILL OUT

Then it is the afternoon of the first dress rehearsal. Everyone is fussing and panicking and wants their lines rewritten. Emma the old stage rat has stopped being grumpy and turns out to be amazingly calm and reassuring and supportive. She is in her element.

This chapter, complete with all the characters speaking Moominpappa’s heroic blank verse, and missing every cue, dropping the props and bumping into each other, is really funny.

Meanwhile the Hemulen policeman is tremendously enjoying having three prisoners in his gaol (Moomintroll, the Snork maiden, the Fillyjonk). But when passing birds drop playbills advertising the forthcoming play at the floating theatre he remembers the gay days of his youth and realises he has to go. He deputes guarding the prisoners to a very timid Hemulen relation and goes to get dressed. Quite quickly Moomintroll and the Snork maiden persuade the little hemulen to take them to her place for tea and cakes and they offer practical advice on her crocheting. Then after tea they simply announce that they are not going back to prison but to the play. Oh dear. She says she’d better go along, too.

Meanwhile the playbills have fallen on the Fillyjonk’s house (abandoned because she’s in prison) which Snufkin and his twenty-four woodies have moved into. He announces he’ll take them to see a play. Thus Snufkin and his woodies, the Hemulen Policeman, and Moomintroll, the Snork maiden and the Fillyjonk all row out that evening to the theatre in Spruce Creek, along with lots of other little forest folk and watch the first half of the play from an armada of little boats. They gaze at Moominpappa’s masterpiece in blank verse in complete perplexity.

But when the (stage) lion starts chasing the Mymble’s daughter, Little My (not understanding it’s all pretend) leaps up on the stage and bites his leg. This leads the entire cast to stop acting and greet Little My with tears of relief – but the audience in the boats, in their simplicity, think this is all part of the play which has – thank goodness – stopped being performed in impenetrable verse and is suddenly being told in normal language. From what the audience can make out, the play seems to be about a family which has been split up and is now being tearfully reunited. Ah, isn’t that nice. They applaud.

This impression is all the more confirmed when Moomintroll rows up to the stage and climbs aboard. Tears, hugs, laughter, the audience of wood folk applauds wildly this happy ending, then starts getting up on stage and joining in themselves.

The Hemulen Policeman spots his prisoners and also climbs up on stage. Just as he is accusing Moomintroll et al of tearing down the signs, Snufkin announces that it was he who pulled up the forbidding notices and burned them all. In the ensuing dramatic pause, Snufkin evades the Policeman’s grasp, jumps into his boat – Moomintroll jumps into the creek and climbs into Snufkin’s boat – and they row off into the darkness leaving pandemonium behind them.

Snufkin hides his boat in an inlet and they hear the big heavy Hemulen Policeman row clean past, not spotting them. Snufkin tells Moomintroll to go back to the theatre and fetch the others, leave everything, meet him back here, he’ll take them home.

Next thing the entire family is in Snufkin’s rowing boat as he lazily rows them back into Moomin Valley. The flood waters are finally retreating, exposing all the well-loved landmarks. They’ve been rowing for three days. They left Misable and the Whomper at the theatre, she to act in grand tragedies where she’ll get to cry every night, and he to be the practical stage manager, which will suit him down to the ground. The little woodies will be looked after by the Fillyjonk who was very lonely before. The Little Hemulen is still cowering in the middle of Snufkin’s rowing boat.

Now Snufkin’s boat runs aground on grassy banks covered with summer flowers and they wade through the receding waters back to Moomin House. At the last moment there’s a police whistle and the Hemulen and several assistant constables corner them. But it turns out that the Little Hemulen had all this time been doing the ‘punishment’ which Snufkin would have been sentenced to, namely writing out ‘Strictly forbidden’ five thousand times!

She hands the punishment over to the Hemulen Policeman who is non-plussed. She also says that Snufkin apologises fulsomely (and when Snufkin goes to protest, sharply shuts him up). Well, hmmm, alright, the Hemulen Policeman grumpily admits he’ll have to let him go and whistles his men together. The Little Hemulen tells the Moomin family she’s going back with him. She thanks the Moomins for their kind suggestions about her crocheting, and all the hemulens leave.

And so the Moomins finally arrive home, after another satisfying adventure.

Everything felt right… It was if nothing had ever happened and as if no danger could ever threaten them again. (p.142)

Comments

I always felt that the intrusion of the Hobgoblin flying round the solar system broke the fourth wall of Finn Family Moomintroll. Basically a science fiction idea, it felt like it came from a different world than the cosy woods full of the snug little creatures of Moomin Valley.

Similarly, The Exploits of Moominpappa is a) a bit much about men and their pompous pretensions b) also has a kind of ex machina device – the enormous dragon, Edward the Booble – who is dragged in at key moments to sort out the plot.

These divagations in the scale of the plot didn’t seriously trouble me when I was a boy, maybe I liked them. But as an adult I find Moominsummer Madness has much more unity of tone: there are some striking coincidences but they are acceptable, they are part of the Moomin world, they don’t require giants or Hobgoblins from space to interfere. The whole thing feels much more of a piece, more unified, hugely more content and homely.

If you could bottle family love this is how it would taste.


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

The Exploits of Moominpappa by Tove Jansson (1950)

As a father of a family and owner of a house I look with sadness on the stormy youth I am about to describe. I feel a tremble of hesitation in my paw as I poise my memoir-pen! (p.7)

The tone and style of this, the fourth Moomintroll book, is notably different from the previous ones. It is, after all, told in the first person by Moominpappa himself and this is why it is cast in an entertainingly pompous and self-important style.

The characters we’re introduced to also speak less clearly, with more mannerisms and clipped adult speech, than the essentially childish dialogue of the earlier books. It is a children’s view of the silly mannerisms of adults. Hodgkins in particular has the style of speaking sometimes called ‘telegraphese’, which appeared in Dickens’s Mr Jingle or Jimmy in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Would be interesting to know whether he speaks like this in the original or whether it is the translator’s idea of a stiff-upper lipped, English military type:

‘No dinghy,’ said Hodgkins. ‘Takes too long to weigh anchor. Motor’s tricky. Too late.’ (p.39)

‘Hattifattener,’ said Hodgkins, ‘Never seen one? No peace, no rest. Always travelling. Travel and travel without a word. Dumb.’ (p.50)

That said, almost all the chapters cut between two narrative voices: one part is Moominpappa’s memoirs (which, we learn, he is reading aloud as he writes them, to the young persons in the household), humorously pompous, self-important and moralising – and another voice, that of the familiar omniscient narrator, which shows the (generally humorous) reactions of the children he’s reading to, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin et al.

It’s just as well because the style of the memoirs is very different from the norm; it’s funny for spells, but it’s a relief to come back to the familiar, warm tones of Tove.

The plot

Glorious times! Immortal deeds!

Baby Moominpappa is left wrapped in a newspaper on the steps of the Home for Moomin Foundlings. This is run by the stern Hemulen who believes in astrology. As soon as possible he runs away and walks through the scarey woods, until he reaches a clearing where he builds a Moomin house, you know, a good one, with lots of secret corners, balconies and towers.

Bored, he wanders down the stream and bumps into Hodgkins who shows him how to build a waterwheel (there’s an illustration to show how). Hodgkins takes him to the boat he’s built and introduces him to his nephew, the confused young thing with a saucepan on  his head, the Muddler. He has the brainwave of moving Moominpappa’s house onto his boat to create a houseboat.

Moominpappa and (the odd-looking) Hodgkins dandling their feet in the stream

It takes all three quite a lot of effort and when the house falls over on the way out tumbles the Joxter who was hiding inside. He becomes their friend. Now they are a foursome.

The key fact here is that each of the four turns out to be the father of one of the childish characters who accompany Moomintroll. Thus the Joxter is Snufkin’s father and the Muddler is Sniff’s father. As they realise this it makes the interjections and comments of the children animals pointed and comic as they comment on their daddies’ activities. Y ou can see that there’s a kind of practical requirement for this: if it had just been Moominpappa’s memoirs, only Moomintroll would really have been interested in them. By making his friends the fathers of Moomintroll’s friends, the net is widened to a) include everyone b) set up all kinds of comic comments and ironies.

They erect the Moominhouse on the deck of the boat and commission the Muddler to paint it and name it. In the process he paints everything a vivid red, including half the forest and himself. Hodgkins wanted the boat named the Ocean Orchestra which proves beyond the Muddler’s abilities, who writes Oshun Oxtra on the side. Oh well.

The Muddler painting Oshun Oxtra while the Joxter takes a nap

The Muddler makes a nice hot dinner but some of the bric-a-brac in his huge tin of bits and bobs get into it, specifically some cog wheels.Hodgkins isn’t upset, but delighted: the cogs are just what he needed to make the ship go (there’s an illustration to show how they fit into the boat). (The houseboat also has rubber wheels for driving over sandbanks. Hodgkins is that kind of a practical chap!)

Hodgkins, Moominpappa, the Joxter and the Muddler finding cogs in the meal the Muddler’s made

Now how to get it afloat out of the boatyard. Hodgkins takes Moominpappa to meet Edward the Booble. This is a huge, a truly enormous dragon. They persuade him to sit down in the stream, thereby blocking and flooding it. Away Oshun Oxtra speeds on the crest of a wave, down the stream and out towards the sea.

Here they anchor in a bay only to hear scarey sounds from the shore. It is the dreaded Groke out hunting and they can hear one of its victims shrieking for help. The others freeze but Moominpappa goes to the rescue. Since the ship’s dinghy is tied up and this calls for instant action, he chucks the ship’s kettle overboard then leaps into the river and propels it to the shore with his nose. Here the shrieking victim jumps in and Moominpappa noses the heavy kettle back to the Oshun Oxtra.

Glorious feat! Lonely deed! (p.40)

Only when she clambers out does everyone realise that Moominpappa has saved a prim and proper maiden Hemulen. Oh dear. She immediately starts telling them all how to behave, to wash and stand up straight and address her correctly. Suddenly a vast swarm of Niblings swim out to the boat, seize the Maiden Aunt Hemulen, chuck her over the side and swim off with her. The others look at each other shamefacedly but are relieved that she’s gone.

The Oshun Oxtra arrives at the sea and the crew disembark for a typical bit of Jansson exploration and cave-finding conveyed with some of her beautifully pellucid prose.

Now evening came, very slowly and carefully, to give the day ample time to go to bed. Small clouds lay strewn over the sky like dabs of pink whipped cream. They were reflected in the ocean that rested calm and smooth. (p.51)

Hodgkins tells Moominpappa about the Hattifatteners, who sail the ocean and travel the world, deaf and mute, staring with their big eyes, in search of who knows what, and Moominpappa is entranced by this image of eternal voyaging, eternal questing (p.52).

That night they discover everything is sticky including their beds. One of the Niblings was left behind and gnawed through the painter. Oh well. They welcome him onto the crew.

Three little clouds are passing overhead being chased by a black looking gale. They use a rope to lassoo the clouds and rescue them, bringing them down to the ship’s deck where they turn out to be soft and fluffy. This is lucky because an enormous storm blows up which threatens to sink the Oshun Oxtra, but the clouds come in handy as sails which help them run before the storm and weather it.

What joy when the storm has passed and the sun comes out again! It reveals that the Oshun Oxtra has been pretty beaten up and is covered in seaweed and a few sea spooks. Still Moominpappa is happy to have weathered it. They set sail towards an island with a tall spindly mountain sticking up. Too late, they realise it is Edward the Booble and he is not happy with them!

Characteristically the memoir reading stops there, to reveal that Moominpappa was reading this chapter to an enthralled Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin by the seaside. As they stroll around suddenly they see a shiny object bobbing in the waves. it is the very top knob of the Oshun Oxtra which must have been floating the seven seas all this time! Moominpappa clutches it tight and goes off alone to have a deep and spiritual moment!

Back in the memoirs, our crew quick-wittedly offer Edward the three soft clouds to soothe his sore bottom (scraped by the gnarly streambed they persuaded him to sit on earlier) and while he is nestling down on them, they make their escape to land and go exploring the island.

First they come across the naughty little Mymble’s daughter in her house of wood planks and leaves, who explains what all the dry stone walls are for and then that her mother (the Mymble) is at the King’s Surprise Garden Party. The Mymble’s daughter tells them he allows his subjects to call him Daddy Jones (though Moominpappa, a stern royalist, will insist on calling him Your Autocratic Highness).

So off they all set to the party which actually is full of surprises – first of all they have to cross a cleft in which is a giant spider (which turns out to be made of spring). On the other side is a big sign reading SCARED – WEREN’T YOU? Then they take to rowing boats to cross a lake but half way across huge water spouts erupt drenching them. There’s a sign on the other side reading WET – AREN’T YOU? and so on.

They take part in the lottery, picking up eggs with numbers painted on them and then Daddy Jones, who is a cheerful bald old man, hands out prizes to all his subjects who he addresses as ‘My dear muddle-headed, fuzzy and thoughtless subjects!’ The party ends with a mad go for all on a merry-go-round.

Next morning they set off to colonise an island in the name of his Autocratic Majesty. It is two miles north of Daddy Jones’s island. They land and unload the Moominhouse, placing it on a high promontory and split up to explore (as always, as in the best summer holidays by the sea).

That night Moominpappa is woken up by creepy footsteps creaking up the stairs. He  hides under the bed. But when the door opens it reveals a soggy ghost who sneezes and apologises. It becomes clear the ghost is full of the best intentions of scaring everyone’s pants off but is very bad at it. They invite him to a Council meeting of the explorers, where he tries to scare them but they end up becoming friends and he joins the gang. They make up a nice bed for him in a packing case, where he snuggles down and gets on with his knitting.

The Joxter, Moominpappa, Hodgkins, the Muddler and the Mymble’s daughter confront the island ghost

The Mymble (who has a vast array of children) gives birth to Little My, who is to go on and have a great career in the later books as a world-class irritant and naughty urchin. Hodgkins has been appointed Royal Surprise Inventor to His Royal Highness Daddy Jones and now unveils the Amphibian, a machine which can fly but is also a submarine.

There is a grand unveiling where all the people come from miles around, our heroes climb in and it flies up into the air. Then Hodgkins depresses the lever and it dives into the depths of the sea. As usual, the sea brings out the most poetic in Jansson as she describes the different shades of seawater as they dive deeper. We overhear the sea creatures discussing this new arrival and declaring it won’t last long when the Sea Hound appears.

The Sea Hound? It appears and all the fishes scarper in fear. The Sea Hound grabs the Amphibian by the tail and begins shaking it with predictable consequences for all our friends inside. Then everything is suddenly still and ominously silent. Until they hear the booming voice of their old friend, Edward the Booble. He has stepped on the Sea Hound by accident. Not only our friends rejoice but all the sea creatures who have lived in fear of the Sea Hound all their lives rejoice and all of them turn on the lamps and flashlights they all have but never turn on for fear of the monster. The entire sea is illuminated by a dazzling display of light!

The sea lit up by the Amphibian and all the other fish turn on their lights

They surface to see a dinghy carrying the eccentric Daddy Jones who tells them to come back to the mainland because the Muddler is getting married! To a Fuzzy!

At this point the excited children interrupt the narration and insist that Moominpappa clarifies their family relationships. So it turns out that the Muddle marries a Fuzzy and they are parents to Sniff – while the Joxter marries the Mymble and they have Snufkin. The children let this soak in. So Little My is Snufkin’s sister! Well, well.

The wedding is a great affair, the entire population turns out for it, the Hemulic Band plays the national anthem – ‘Save our silly people’ – fog horns blare and some kiddies fall into the sea from sheer excitement. It turns out the Muddler invited the Hemulen Aunt and all 7,000 Niblings and when a Packet Boat hoves into sight everyone thinks it must be them. But it turns out that boat is empty apart from one Nibling who delivers a message from the Hemulen Aunt declaring that she has never been happier than living in the Nibling kingdom where she is teaching them the joys of quizzes and multiplication contests.

Momminpappa tells the assembled audience that his memoirs are complete. He has finished.

I believe many of my readers will thoughtfully lift their snout from the pages of this book every once in a while to exclaim: ‘What a Moomin!’ or: ‘This indeed is life!’ (p.8)

All except for one tiny last detail. How he met his wife, the wonderful Moominmamma.

Well, it was Autumn and the gales had started and he was sitting in front of a cosy fire with the Island Ghost, the Mymble, the Muddler and the Fuzzy listening to the seas raging wilder and wilder down by the shore. On an impulse he goes down to confront the tumultuous waves and there, clinging to a spar, is the most perfect of Moomins, Moominmamma, being washed in and dragged out again by the roaring waves. Moominpappa bravely wades in and grabs her, hauling her to shore. ‘My handbag, my handbag,’ she cries. But it is in her hand. Alas her facepowder is all soggy, though. ‘You look beautiful without it,’ says Moominpappa, and a great romance is born.

Moominpappa rescues Moominmamma from a raging storm

And at that, Moominpappa lays down his memoir pen.

There remains only a brief epilogue to the book in which, to everyone’s amazement, there’s a knock at the door and all Moominpappa’s old gang is there, not looking a day older than when he last saw them: Hodgkins, the Muddler and the Fuzzy, the Joxter and the Mymble. Never has the Moomin verandah held so many questions, exclamations and embraces! Hodgkins announces that the new, improved Amphibian is parked outside. Tomorrow they will all go for a flight. ‘Why wait for tomorrow,’ cries Moomintroll. ‘Let’s all go now!’

And in the foggy dawn they all tumbled out in the garden. The eastern sky was a wonderful rose-petal pink, promising a fine clear August day. A new door to the Unbelievable, to the Possible, a new day that can always bring you anything if you have no objections to it. (p.130)


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

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (1948)

This is the third of the Moomintroll books, published in 1948 and translated into English by Elizabeth Portch in 1950. All the Moomin books bring back lovely memories, the feelings of wonder, adventure and safety I had when I read them as a boy.

The plot

Winter comes and the Moomins eat a last meal before hibernating.

In the spring Moomintroll wakes up to find Snufkin has woken before him and is sitting on the bridge over the little river. They wake little Sniff and decide to go for an adventure, to climb to the top of the nearest mountain and make a cairn of stones there. Instead, when they get to the top they find a big black top hat, which they don’t realise is the Hobgoblin’s magic hat.

(In fact this, the centrepiece of the plot, gives its title to the original Swedish-language version of the book, Trollkarlens hatt, ‘The Magician’s Hat’. [Jansson was Finnish but spoke and wrote in Swedish.])

The first hint of the hat’s magic is when Moomintroll absent-mindedly throws the shell of his hard-boiled egg into it. A while later five fluffy clouds emerge from it and hover in the garden. They are soft as cotton wool so, one by one, Moomintroll, Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden climb up on them and discover you can make them move by moving your feet and leaning to either side. Soon they are playing bumper cars on the magic clouds!

They comfort the Hemulen who is crying because he has completed his life’s work of collecting every stamp in the world. After some thought they suggest he starts a new collection (Hemulens need a project to keep them going) of botany. Every plant in the world! Aha! He suddenly beams with happiness and goes off to collect samples.

The Hobgoblin’s Hat shows a darker side when Moomintroll goes to sleep under it and emerges in a completely different shape, as a skinny elf. The others are afraid and then disgusted when he keeps pretending to be their friend Moomintroll. In tears he begs Moominmamma to accept that it is he, Moomintroll. She looks long into the tearful eyes of the stranger and then decides, yes, it is him. Typical of her role as the accepting, comforting, all-wise Mother.

They decide to play a trick on the ant lion who lives on the beach. They capture him and throw him into the hat, which they cover with a Dictionary of Outlandish Words. After a while the hat starts flowing with water (which is what the sand has changed into) and a profusion of peculiar little creatures (which is what the Outlandish Words have changed into) and then a small, bedraggled hedgehog emerges (which is what the ant lion has changed into).

Moominmamma and Moominpappa decide the hat is too dangerous to keep and throw it into the river. Late that night Snufkin wakes up Moomintroll and they go and find the hat has run aground on a little sand bank. Moomintroll wades out to rescue it and discovers that the river water flowing into it is coming out as raspberry juice, and that fish entering it fly out as canaries!

They decide to hide the hat in the cave by the sea which Sniff found in Comet in Moominland. Next morning the Muskrat is peacefully reading his big book, On The Uselessness of Everything when his hammock string breaks and he lands with a bump on the ground. He indignantly tells Moominpappa he can’t put up with the children’s pranks any more and announces he is going off to live in the cave. We follow him as he marches off to the cave, makes himself comfortable, and then settles down for a snooze, first putting his false teeth into the top hat for safekeeping.

Moominpappa only tells the rest of the family about all this at lunchtime, at which Moomintroll and Snufkin let out a squawk and go running towards the beach. On the way they hear a series of screams and pass the Muskrat running the other way. The cave is empty, though the sand is mightily disturbed. The Muskrat never tells anyone what had frightened him so much. We will have to use our imaginations!

Now everyone is down by the sea, they find a washed-up boat in fairly good condition. After some squabbling they name it The Adventure, pack lots of goodies and set sail. The first island they come to is the Lonely Island surrounded by reefs and combers. None of them know that this is the island where the legendary Hattifatteners congregate once a year before setting off on their mysterious odyssey no one knows where (or why).

They split up to go exploring. The Hemulen takes his magnifying glass botanising but stumbles across the clearing where the Hattifatteners hold their gatherings. Suddenly they are closing in on him and he retreats to the pole in the centre of the clearing, then scampers up it to find a barometer at the top.

His screams bring the others who suggest he rocks backwards and forwards to scare the Hattifatteners off. That does the trick but the Hemulen insists on bringing the barometer as a souvenir back to the tents which Moominmamma and Moominpappa have erected on the beach.

A massive and dramatic storm batters the island. Moominmamma tucks everyone up in the safe and cosy tents she has prepared. In the middle of the night Moomintroll is woken up by strange spectral figures moving about in the tent. It is the Hattifatteners, who have been electrically charged by the storm and so are glowing slightly, looking for their barometer. They find it in the Hemulen’s corner, seize it but wake him up and there is much screaming and pandemonium before the Hattifatteners made off.

The Snork maiden discovers to her woe that the electric buzz of the Hattifatteners has singed off her little fringe which she was so proud of. Moomintroll tries to tell her he never liked it really, but she is inconsolable.

Next morning they recover from all this excitement with breakfast and then split up to go swimming or sunbathing. The Snork finds a reef of gold inland, but the others find lots of wreck washed up by the sea – a life belt, a snow globe but most impressive of all is the big ship’s figurehead which the Snork maiden finds.

All the animals share their finds and the Snork maiden very graciously gives the big painted figurehead to Moomintroll. They pack all the discoveries onto a raft tied to the back of The Adventure and sail back towards the mainland. Moomintroll is in the middle of describing how beautiful the painted figurehead is when he becomes aware that the Snork maiden has gone quiet with unhappiness. Very sensitively, he then tells the maiden she is much more beautiful than any figurehead. He likes her much more. The Snork maiden blushes with pleasure.

A few weeks later it is boiling hot August. Moominmamma agrees to let the children go and set up a base in the seaside cave. They make themselves comfortable and Snufkin tells him stories he’s heard (from the Magpie) about the Hobgoblin, who collects rubies and rides about on a magic black panther.

But above all the Hobgoblin is consumed by a quest for the biggest ruby of all, the King of Rubies. He has travelled around the solar system looking for it on each of the planets. Currently he is searching the moon, and it is from there that his hat fell to earth and landed on the big mountain where Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin found it. All the creatures feel a thrill of fear and excitement go through them.

They wake next morning to find it is raining strong steady rain. Counter-intuitively they decide to go fishing. Meanwhile Moominmamma decides to tidy up Moominhouse. Among all the bric-a-brac she rolls up some of the Hemulen’s old botanical specimens and, without thinking, throws them into the hat in the corner – uh-oh – then goes for a well-earned nap.

The children have a fabulous adventure in the boat, and catch an enormous Mameluke fish which drags the small boat around like a whale until it eventually gives up the ghost. They sail it back to shore and then struggle to carry its huge carcass back to Moomin valley.

Where they discover that the whole house has become completely overgrown with vines and creepers and fruit trees which have all erupted from those botanical specimens which we saw Moominmamma throw into the hat. They have to hack their way into the cellar to gain entrance, while Moominpappa is breaking Moominmamma free from the bedroom where she’s been blocked in by thick vines and creepers.

Once this is all sorted out, the children have a wild afternoon playing Tarzan and Jane, swinging from the creepers hanging from the drawing room ceiling.

Outside the Hemulen gets bored of guarding the fish in the rain. When it eases off a bit he gets some matches and starts a fire, initially to keep warm but then decides to roast the fish. So the family ends all its jungle adventures just in time to come outside for an open air, fresh fish barbecue!

Next morning Thigumy and Bob arrive, two little creatures who speak their own language and have brought a heavy suitcase. They are taken in by Moominmamma, like all other creatures, fed milk and soon find a corner of the Moominhouse to live in. They tell the Moomins the suitcase really belongs to the Groke and she’ll probably come looking for it. Sure enough that night the air goes chill and the big sad Groke appears on their doorstep. After staring morosely, she slips away without saying a word. (When I was a boy it gave me some kind of frisson that so many of the key characters are female; I can’t define it exactly, but it added to the books’ exoticism, compared to lots of English children’s stories which were more often than not about boys.)

The Snork is very pompous and bureaucratic. He tries to organise a court to prosecute Thingummy and Bob for stealing the Groke’s suitcase. Thingumy and Bob blow cherry stones at him through their peashooters. All the characters are allotted roles like prosecuting lawyer and jury. It is all great fun.

Suddenly there is a chill over the forest, the sun goes behind a cloud, all the colour leeches out of things. The Groke has returned. But it’s not the suitcase she wants back, it’s the contents. Thingumy and Bob refuse. Moominmamma has a brainwave and goes and gets the Hobgoblin’s Hat: will the Groke accept the hat instead of the contents of the suitcase? To prove its magic they put a couple of cherries into the hat and – luckily for everyone – these turns into rubies. The Groke is impressed, takes the hat, disappears and is never heard from again.

In the final chapter it is the end of August ‘when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden’. Moomintroll is woken by Snufkin and they go down to the bridge they sat on at the start of the book. Snufkin announces the time has come to be on his way. He is a restless soul. And he sets off that very moment, walking into the distance playing his mouth organ.

Moomintroll wanders sadly back to the house where Thingumy and Bob try to cheer him up by taking him to the secret dell they’ve made in the bushes and revealing the contents of their suitcase. It is an enormous magical ruby which changes colour. Stunned, Moomintroll realises this must be the King of Rubies the Hobgoblin is seeking.

Back at the house disaster has struck – Moominmamma has lost her handbag. A Wanted advert is placed in the paper offering a reward for the finder – a Huge Party will be held in their honour. Word spreads. Soon every creature in Moomin Valley is searching for Moominmamma’s handbag. But it turns out that Thingumy and Bob had stolen it, because its pockets were just the right size for sleeping in. Since everyone has been so kind to them they reluctantly decide to go and fetch it from its hiding place and present it to a delighted Moominmamma.

The scene is set for a vast August Party, with loads of food and drink to which all the creatures of the valley are invited.

At the height of the party an excited Thingumy and Bob present a big surprise, by opening their suitcase and revealing the King’s Ruby which lights up the entire valley with its wonderful red glow. It is even visible from the mountains of the moon where the Hobgoblin is still searching. Quick as anything he leaps onto his magic panther and flies back to earth, arriving in the heart of the party.

There is a stand-off in which the Hobgoblin asks for the ruby but Thingumy and Bob steadfastly refuse. Oh well, the Hobgoblin is consoled with a delicious plum jam pancake and then declares that, since it’s a party, he will grant everyone’s wish. One by one the characters ask for wishes which the big sad Hobgoblin grants – for example Moomintroll wishes for the feast table they’re sat at to be sent to his distant friend Snufkin and immediately it levitates and flies off. Moominmamma, with a mother’s wisdom, wishes that Moomintroll should cease pining for his friend, and immediately his heart is freed from sorrow.

The Hobgoblin can make everyone happy except himself. Thingumy and Bob ponder this, go into a corner to confer and then – say that their wish is for the Hobgoblin to have a ruby as big and dazzling as the King’s Ruby – and lo and behold, the valley is filled with twice as much red light, as a ruby of equal splendour – the Queen’s Ruby – appears!

And so the Hobgoblin spends the rest of the night making everyone’s wishes come true and, as dawn rises over the happy valley, everyone goes home to bed.

The illustrations

At least half the pleasure of reading the Moomin books is the sheer visual pleasure of the illustrations. There’s a major one on almost every page.

The appeal stems from:

  • the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves
  • the clarity of line, the precision and deftness of the drawings
  • in the more complex ones, the wonderfully evocative effect of the cross-hatching and shading
  • the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope in Comet)
  • or the childlike simplicity of some of the smaller, incidental illustrations

The illustrations are themselves just part of the whole visual apparatus which surrounds the text. This includes a map of Moomin Valley as well as an introductory letter to young readers from Moominmamma and the numerous incidental small illustrations.

In addition there are chapter headings which give detailed summaries of each chapter’s events – and, at the top of every page, a few words summarising the events on that page (as a boy I used to love checking these summaries to see how closely they matched up with what actually happened on each page, and spotting mistakes).

Thus the books are packed with incidental information and decoration so that every aspect of the book’s production helps create an all-enveloping, fascinating and transporting environment.

Moomin facts

In this book we learn that:

  • Pine needles are the best thing to eat last thing before hibernating for the winter.
  • Snufkin’s best tune on the mouth organ is ‘All small beasts should have bows in their tails’.
  • Moomins can’t sing but they are excellent at whistling.
  • Hemulens all wear dresses (even the male ones). So when they’re being polite, male Hemulens curtsey.
  • All the bedrooms in Moomin house have rope ladders on the windows – quicker than using the stairs.
  • If the first butterfly of the year you see is yellow, it will be a lovely summer.
  • The Hattifatteners congregate every June on the Lonely Island before setting off on their endless quest for nobody knows what. Hattifatteners can’t speak or hear.

Nature

Moominhouse is the only house in the valley. These are extremely rural stories, as close to nature as can be: no other houses or people at all, let alone cars or trains or any element of the modern world. Instead, the Moomins live right by nature, immersed in its rhythms (hibernating and waking with the seasons). Many of the chapters start by indicating the month and then describing the kind of weather to be expected, the heat or coolness, the state of leaves in the trees, the noisiness or subduedness of the forest creatures.

And a really strong feature is the way the Moomin world is teeming with life. When they go for walks in the woods the trees are rustling with little forest creatures, the seaside is bristling with crabs and shellfish – nature is alive with voices and creatures and sprites and spooks and tree spirits combing their long black hair.

And all these weird and wonderful creatures talk and wish you the time of day as you stroll past, or join in silly games, or reveal wonderful mysteries. Everything is not exactly enchanted but open and free and calm and happy. Nature is open and available.

Moomintroll kept close behind Snufkin as they went through the wood. There were rustlings and patterings on both sided of the path and it was almost a bit frightening. Sometimes small, glittering eyes stared at them from behind the trees, and now and then something called to them from the ground or from the branches. (p.48)

Having recently visited the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery about Tove Jansson I know that the lakes and seashore of Finland were extremely important to her, scene of many happy holidays with her family. The sea, in particular, is a recurrent subject, described very brilliantly in all its uncanny beauty. Here is the storm beginning to brew up on Lonely Island.

The sea had changed. It was dark green now with white-horses, and the rocks shone yellow with phosphorus. Rumbling solemnly the thunder-storm came up from the south. It spread its black sail over the sea; it spread over half the sky and the lightning flashed with an ominous gleam. (p.69)

And the characters’ response is the response of any adventurous 8- or 9-year-old.

‘It’s coming right over the island,’ thought Snufkin with a thrill of joy and excitement.

How wonderfully she captures the excitements and thrills of childhood.

Moominmamma

As usual Moominmamma is the unheralded heroine of the books, the calm accepting practical centre around which the world revolves, anchoring the tremendously safe, secure, happy and loving Moomin household, ‘a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow’ (p.16).

Strange new guests and even stranger events are all calmly welcomed, room made for them at the big table, while the steady routines of domestic life continue with Moominmamma calmly and sensibly making jam and pancakes.

Good things

This is linked to the way that everything that happens is exactly the kind of things which a child would want to happen. Climbing a mountain, finding treasure, owning a Magic Hat, sailing to an unknown island, weathering a Big Storm, finding washed up booty, night-long parties with dancing and fireworks – it is all the ingredients of a kind of perfect summer adventure holiday, of ideal childhood fantasies, all brought to life in vivid prose which has a strange dreamlike inconsequentiality.

And food, the yummy scrummy children’s food which Moominmamma is always preparing and serving. For example, the provisions they take to the cave, much of which is exotically non-English – betraying their Scandinavian origins – but recognisably yummy-sounding: raisin-pudding, pumpkin jam, bananas, marzipan pigs, sweet maize and pancakes. Always pancakes. Lots of pancakes.

Same with the amazing-sounding punch Moominpappa makes for the Big Party, out of almonds and raisins, lotus juice, ginger, sugar and nutmeg flowers, one or two lemons and a couple of pints of strawberry liqueur (p.140). Wow. Make mine a double.

Good prose

And the prose style is so wonderfully straightforward, good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride, plain and simple but capable of awesomely pregnant meanings and significances.

Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come. (p.13)

Isn’t the rhythm marvellous, the diminuendo towards the last three-word sentence. And the subtle use of alliteration (hung heavily) and assonance (roofs and eaves). The simple use of baby language (‘big, round’). The brevity heavy with symbolism and meaning – ‘The clocks stopped ticking one by one.’

You know you are in safe hands.


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

Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson (1946)

‘You must go on a long journey before you can really find out how wonderful home is.’
(Snufkin, page 93)

Inspired by the current exhibition about Tove Jansson at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, I am rereading the Moomin books. I’ve been meaning to for ages. I’m reading the old Puffin paperbacks my parents bought me back in the late 1960s when I was 8 or 9. Just handling them brings back memories, and immersing myself in the stories brings back a wonderful warm feeling of safety and adventure.

The plot

The Moomin family have settled into Moomin Valley after the great flood carried their house there. Moominpappa has built a little bridge over the river and Moominmamma is making jam. Moomintroll and his friend Sniff go exploring, make friends with the silk-monkey, then discover a wonderful cave by the sea, and Moomintroll goes diving for pearls. But everywhere they go secret signs have been laid out – carved in trees, marked in the sand, laid out in pearls – the sign of a circle with a flaring tail.

One dark and stormy night a bedraggled visitor knocks at the door. It is the muskrat who is welcomed in and made at home by Moompappa. The muskrat is a philosopher who lies around in a hammock all day contemplating the pointlessness of everything.

The muskrat tells Moomintroll and Sniff that a great comet is coming. To find out more they must go to the observatory high in the Lonely Mountains. So Moominmamma packs their bags and makes sandwiches and off they go on a raft down the river. They avoid an attack of crocodiles by throwing them a pair of Moomintroll’s woollen trousers (that’s the way to handle crocodiles). On a bare barren strand they hear the beguiling sound of a mouth organ and steer to the shore where they meet and befriend Snufkin, a wanderer over the land.

He takes them up into some hills. In a ravine they see garnets twinkling. Sniff loves jewels and clambers down to collect them but he is terrified by a large dragon and only just manages to scramble back up to safety!

Snufkin joins their expedition. Floating along on the raft, he tells them about the time a volcanic vent opened up right next to where he was sleeping and erupted a torrent of fire spirits. One of the weaker ones fell into a nearby stream and wailed for help so Snufkin scooped him out, though he got a bit burned in the process. The grateful fire spirit gave Snufkin a bottle of underground sun-oil.

He’s barely finished this story before the raft goes over a tumultuous waterfall and then into a long black tunnel which gets narrower and narrower.

Just as the river (and the raft) are about to plunge down a black hole, it gets jammed by the mast and, looking up through an opening in the tunnel roof, Moomintroll, Sniff and Snufkin are able to attract the attention of a Hemulen who is collecting butterflies up above. He is most surprised to pull up three little animals in his butterfly net. Hemulens are big and rather slow. They love collecting things.

The trio climb up into the mountains and are attacked by a massive eagle. But when the eagle misses the three little creatures cowering against the rockface, it goes off in a huff. Eagles are very proud creatures, you know. Up in the misty mountains they come across a gold ankle bracelet which Moomintroll retrieves from a ledge.

Then they come to the observatory on the Lonely Mountains and quiz the professors about the comet. The professors are irritated to be bothered and interrupted. They also say the Moomin group isn’t the first to do so; they recently had a visit from a Snork maiden who mainly fussed about a lost bracelet. Sniff manages to get one of the professors to talk, who tells him that the comet will collide with the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42pm. Possibly four seconds later.

Well, there’s only one way to cope with the end of the world:

‘Then we must hurry home as fast as we can,’ said Moomintroll anxiously. ‘If only we can get home to mamma before it comes nothing can happen. She will know what to do.’ (p.76)

So they hurry home. When Snufkin explains the game of rolling boulders over mountain cliffs, Moomintroll accidentally falls over the cliff, too, and is only saved because they are all roped together. Moomintroll is becoming obsessed with rescuing the Snork maiden whose ankle bracelet he found.

They discover the Hemulen at the bottom of the mountain with a bump on his head from falling stones. They don’t tell him it was they who are responsible.

Then they hear screams and run to the rescue of the Snork and his sister, the Snork maiden, who is being attacked by a Snork-eating bush. Moomintroll fights the bush, rescues the Snork maiden and gives her back her ankle bracelet, at which she goes a fetching shade of pink and asks Moomintroll to go and collect blue flowers for her; they’ll set off her colour adorably. (She is rather a preening, beauty-obsessed young person.)

The Snork maiden makes a lovely fruit soup with some berries and the last of Sniff’s lemonade, and they all go to sleep in the forest on a mat she has woven under the baleful red glow of the comet which is looming larger and larger in the sky.

Next day they come across a little village store in the woods, where they buy more lemonade and the Snork buys an exercise book to write down what to do if a comet hits the earth. Moomintroll buys the Snork maiden a beautiful pocket glass. That evening there is a party in the forest, where Snufkin plays his mouth organ accompanied by a giant grasshopper on a fiddle. Tree-spirits and water-spooks come out and all the little forest creatures dance till the early hours and everyone falls asleep.

Next morning Moomintroll and Sniff, Snufkin, the Snork and the Snork maiden come to the sea and discover it has completely dried up, leaving a vast muddy basin littered with seaweed. So they find planks and poles and saplings and make stilts for themselves and stilt-walk across the abandoned sea bottom. They come to a ruined old hulk of a ship which contains treasure but also a huge octopus which tries to attack Moomintroll till the Snork maiden uses the pocket glass to shine light in its eyes and make it slope away in fear.

They come across some enormous sea shells, the biggest of which is singing softly to itself the age-old song of the sea.

‘Oh!’ sighed the Snork maiden. ‘I should like to live in that shell. I want to go inside and see who is whispering in there.’
‘It’s only the sea,’ said Moomintroll. ‘Every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to the shell. But you mustn’t go inside because it’s a labyrinth and you may never come out again.’ (p.122)

Next day they climb back up out of the sea basin to dry land and approach Moomin Valley. Everyone is fleeing the comet, the paths are full of little forest folk pushing wheelbarrows full of belongings. They come across a very disgruntled Hemulen whose stamp collecting has been upset by all the bother. (He is a cousin on his father’s side of the butterfly-collecting Hemulen they left in the Lonely Mountains.)

They come across a fleet of Egyptian grasshoppers who are eating everything in their path. And then a tornado which originated in Egypt and has turned into a devastating wind comes blowing through Moomin valley. They persuade the Hemulen to take off his dress (Hemulens always wear dresses), all grab hold to the frills of the hem and are blown high into the sky, coming to rest in a tall plum tree.

Next day they finally arrive home at Moomin House to find Moonmamma putting the finishing touches to a lovely birthday cake for Moomintroll, with pale yellow lemon peel and slices of crystallised pear. Moominmamma rushes out to meet them and her son introduces her to all the newcomers, including the bashful Snork maiden. The Muskrat has already told Moominmamma that the comet is due to crash right in Moomin valley, which is very vexing because she has only just weeded the vegetable patch.

Now they tell Moominmamma and Moominpappa about Sniff’s cave and everyone decides it will be the best place to hide from the comet. They all run round gathering provisions to see them through. They hurry off to the cave with a wheelbarrow of belongings and also the house bath (of course) which they squeeze through the doorway and put Moomintroll’s cake into for safekeeping. At the last minute the Muskrat shows up, and withdraws into the shadows. After a few minutes they realise he has sat on the cake. Oh dear.

‘My cake too,’ groaned Moomintroll. ‘In my honour!’
‘Now I shall be sticky for the rest of my life I suppose,’ said the Muskrat bitterly. ‘I only hope I can bear it like a man and a philosopher.’ (p.149)

At the last last minute Moomintroll realises they’ve forgotten the silk-monkey and goes rushing back out into the woods to find her, managing to track her down and rushing with her back to the cave. Barely has he thrown himself through the curtain they’ve hung up over the entrance than there is a tremendous whooshing sound and the comet flies right through the valley, out the other side and flies clear of planet earth. A tiny bit closer and, well, none of us would be here to read this. But it all turned out OK. Phew.

Moominmamma reassures the terrified little creatures and tells them to cuddle up against her while she sings them a lullaby.

Snuggle up close, and shut your eyes tight,
And sleep without dreaming the whole of the night.
The comet is gone, and your mother is near
To keep you from harm till the morning is here. (p.155)

The next morning the sky is blue again – no longer the horrible red caused by the comet – and the sea is flooding back into its bed, gleaming like soft blue silk. All the little creatures of sea and land are coming out and frolicking and singing. Snufkin wakes up and starts playing his mouth organ. Moomintroll digs up the pearls he buried in the cave right at the start of the story and gives them to the Snork maiden.

But the last and biggest pearl he gives to his beloved Moominmamma.

The illustrations

Half the pleasure of a good children’s book is the illustrations, but in this case more than half. What is it about Jansson’s line drawings which are so airy, fantastical and yet so utterly charming? The preciseness of the line drawing (as opposed to the fuzzy style of, say, Edward Ardizzone). The vivid three-D effect of the cross-hatching and shading. Maybe the key is the essentially humorous, baby-like conception of the characters themselves, which have survived translation into film and animation and models and puppet form. Sometimes it’s the Heath Robinsonian intricacy of the more detailed illustrations (like Sniff at the telescope). Other times the big simplicity of awe-inspiring images, like the comet coming close.

The worldview

Jansson doodled the first Moomin characters into existence during the war. It is no coincidence that in these early books the Moomins represent stability, love and optimism in the face of great disasters (a flood, a comet rushing towards the earth).

What comes over for me, in the books, is their groundedness in the enormous sense of safety and security created by the Moomins’ loving parents. Whatever happens, the little ones – Moomintroll and Sniff – know they can be home in time for plum jam and tea. Nothing can ever be seriously wrong as long as Moominmamma is darning socks and decorating cakes. Moominmamma will know what to do.

Because Moominmamma is the central character. Moominpappa is a rather remote character, an eccentric handyman who builds bridges and fixes things, but is mostly in his study, puffing his pipe and writing memoirs about his adventures. It is Moominmamma the little ones go running to, who accepts all their adventures calmly, who packs bags full of practical items they’ll need on their journey (a frying pan, an umbrella) who never panics, who is calm and capable.

It is this wonderful warmth and all-accepting calmness of Moominmamma which sits at the centre of Moominworld, carrying on the quietest of domestic activities – arranging shells around the flower beds, making plum jam, arranging lemon peel on a cake – and in doing so, creating, securing and safeing a whole world.

In the kitchen Moominmamma found Moomintroll and Sniff curled up together in a corner, tired out by their adventures. She spread a blanket over them and sat down by the window to darn Moominpappa’s socks. (p.21)

Good things

Everything that happens is exactly the kind of thing which a child would want to happen. The book features a kind of greatest hits of childhood fantasies. Just to take the first 30 pages, Moomintroll and Sniff find a secret path in the woods, have an adventure with a new friend (the silk-monkey), discover a cave – and not just any old cave, but the perfect ideal cave, with rocky walls and a sandy floor – Moomintroll goes diving for pearls (and finds lots), they set off down a river on an adventure on a raft, fight crocodiles and fry pancakes on a camp fire amid the roots of an ancient tree. Wow. It’s like the best holiday ever.

It’s not just that some of these things are exciting: pretty much every single one of these events is a devout fantasy wish of any adventurous 6, 7 or 8 year old.

Good prose

And the style is so straightforward, so warm and good humoured, taking the most amazing events and ideas completely in its stride.

On the very top of the jagged peak above them stood the Observatory. Inside, scientists made thousands of remarkable observations, smoked thousands of cigarettes, and live alone among the stars. (p.71)

As with everything in the books, the child reader thinks ‘How wonderful!’ To be a grown up and smoke cigarettes and be a fascinating professor and live lonely and remote among the stars. God, what a dream!


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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