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

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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