The saga of the Moomins
has no beginning and no end. Like remnants of some skaldic history, bits of the story jut up out of the silent tundra to be gathered and chronicled by their discoverer.
who died last year, was well qualified for the task. She was born in Finland in 1914, the gifted daughter of a sculptor and a variously-talented mother (who seems, uncannily, to resemble Moominmamma, the pivotal figure in the saga). The family’s first language was Swedish and the conjunction of the two Norden cultures, along with a passion for the sea and for life on remote islands, was to be fundamental to Tove’s work.
Art too was significant.
She studied painting in Stockholm and in mainland Europe, and as well as fine art she found great satisfaction in writing and illustration and indeed, while still at school, she had produced an illustrated story of her own which was published in 1933. Her technical command of drawing in both pen and ink and watercolour was complete, as was her interpretative vision (she did some remarkable illustrative suites for Swedish editions of Alice, of The Hunting of the Snark [almost a Moomin story itself], and of The Hobbit) and any assessment of her texts must stress the perfection of their graphic accompaniment. It unites and gives coherence to what sometimes seems a fragmentary masterpiece.
Finn Family Moomintroll
gave English readers their first sight of the saga in 1950, although it had been preceded in Sweden by Comet in Moominland which was translated a year later. Together, these establish the character of the Moomin family: Pappa, Mamma, and Moomintroll, and begin the introduction of the many eccentric creatures who pop in and out of these bits of the saga that Tove has preserved for us. ALEC Insert following if room, just run on Near-permanent figures are Snufkin, the wandering harmonicist, and the Hemulen, philatelist and failed natural philosopher, and they are joined by Moomintroll’s chum, Sniff, and by the Muskrat, who, later on, drop out of sight. A prodigality of walk-on characters materialize all through, and in later books Mymble and her sister, the tough Little My, come to prominence with the boy Toft and the hysteric Fillyjonk. Strangely ominous, at the edge of events, are the tribe of Hattifatteners who can neither hear nor speak ‘with no object in life but the distant goal of their journey’s end’, and the lowering Groke, beneath whose feet the ground itself will freeze.
And the Arbitrary is in charge.
Such a register of characters may give a hint of the saga’s independence from all literary ancestors (unless, like the Moomins’ Ancestor they have been immolated in the stove). Any attempt to sum up the point of it all is defeated however by the arbitrary and sometimes barely connected succession of narrative events. (‘“Does anything matter anywhere?”’ asks Little My at one point. ‘“No,” her sister replied happily. “Don’t ask such silly questions.”’) What may be helpful though is to note that the weight of the saga is present in the seven books that run from Comet to Moominvalley in November (1971), but that some incidental goings-on are recorded in three picture books with texts in verse. A kind of coda, The Dangerous Journey came out in England in 1978, and this was preceded by the ballad, Who Will Comfort Toffle? (1960) and an early novelty-book, featuring pages with holes in them, Moomin, Mymble and Little My (1952). This has just been republished, by a company with the Moominish name of Sort of Books, in a new translation by Sophie Hannah who has done her best with the not-very-inspiring Swedish original. The best bit, apart from the cut-up pictures, is the playful script in which the text is written out.
So does anything matter?
Yes, Mymble’s sister, happily it does. Do not be put off by the unusual narrative structure of the seven books of the canon. Ignore the reductios of the Blytonians that page-turning is the highest good. Tove Jansson’s rags, tags, and bobtails march to a different drum, wakening minds and imaginations like no other. These exhumations from Moominland are best read successively and complete, from Comet onwards, because – for all their inconsequence – they take the reader into an exploration of the wellsprings of personality. Their persuasiveness does not lie in cranking up factitious conflicts. Instead we get an existentialist comedy (whose genius storytelling is remarkably well translated by, in sum, three different translators) with the participants wobbling across the paths of their fellows in quest of what may prove only a precarious self-fulfilment. You keep reading because these oddballs turn into friends. You want to glimpse how they might be faring. And in the great culminating episodes of Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November you realise that they may be living your dilemmas too and that a consolation is not impossible – even for Fillyjonks.
The illustrations are taken from The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, English translation by Sophie Hannah, Sort of Books, 0 9535227 4 1, £8.99 hbk.
Finn Family Moomintroll (0 14 030150 X), Comet in Moominland (0 14 030286 7), Moominland Midwinter (0 14 030502 5), and Tales from Moominvalley (0 14 030609 9) are available from Puffin Books at £4.99 each pbk.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times.