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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