Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Moomin

One of my favorite hiding places as a child were Tove Jansson's moomin books. Jansson was a woman who knew how to live outside the society: she was the daughter of two bohemian artists, she was a Finn who spoke and wrote in Swedish and she was a Lesbian. Her books are very much about difference and how to live with it, about accepting people as they are, not as we would like them to be, and about compromise. But she never preaches.

The moomin books, like most really good children's books, are as much fun to read in adulthood. The moomin family: Moominmamma, Moominpappa and Moomintroll, their son, live in the Moominvalley in a house shaped like a round tower. The valley is a place of wonder and safety, but it is surrounded by the Lonely Mountains on one side and the frightening yet appealing ocean on the other. The moomins are trolls and their friends and neighbors take various animal forms but the characters and feelings of all of them are human. Even the Groke, the frightening monster who kills everything she touches and who leaves the earth frozen wherever she has sat, is sad and lonely at the same time. The Hemulens (like cows walking upright) are really good at organizing and hale and hearty. They like multiplication tables and cold showers. The Mymbles, especially the smallest of them, the little My, are honest to the point of rudeness, adventurous and selfish but with ultimately good hearts. The Snufkin is a wonderer who must fight his desire to be alone with his desire not to hurt his friend, the Moomintroll, by leaving him. And the Moomins themselves love home and raspberry juice and pancakes but they also love adventure and pine for something beyond the horizon. Here is a picture of the Moomintroll:

Horrible things happen in the moomin books: a comet threatens the Moominvalley, Moominpappa gets a midlife crisis and decides to take the whole family to live on a far-away island in a lighthouse where Moominmamma finally gets her midlife crisis and the family comes back. But the horror is in the background, never wins, and is ultimately seen as not just horrible but something more like the moomins, like ourselves: neither all good or all bad but something muddled and capable of improvement, especially when loved.

The later books in the moomin series are more complex than the earlier ones, but even the first one can be read as a parable of the human society, including its gender relations. Here is a snippet from Finn Family Moomintroll: The family is going to have a picnic on the beach (where they will have to cope with the Hobgoblins scary hat) and is preparing to leave:

Moominmamma hurried off to pack. She collected blankets, sauce-pans, birch-bark, a coffee-pot, masses of food, suntan-oil, matches, and everything you can eat out of, on or with. She packed it all with an umbrella, warm clothes, tummy-ache medicine, an egg-whisk, cushions, a mosquito-net, bathing-drawers and a table cloth in her bag. She bustled to and fro racking her brains for anything she had forgotten, and at last she said: "Now, it's ready! Oh, how lovely it will be to have a rest by the sea!"

Moominpappa packed his pipe and fishing-rod.

"Well, are you all ready?" he asked, "and are you sure you haven't forgotten anything? All right, let's start!"

My personal favorites among Jansson's books are her short story collections. One story (as I remember it) is about an old Hemulen who has spent his whole life guarding the gate to an amusement park, clipping the tickets of the children coming in, and hating the loud noises and laughter, hating the clipping, hating even the children. So he closes the park down. But the children are unhappy with this and keep quietly pestering him, pleading with him, to open it again. He doesn't want to do it, but now he also feels guilty. Jansson's solution is typical of her thinking: ultimately the Hemulen opens up the amusement park but only at night and nobody is allowed to make a noise (except for some giggling here and there). The children agree to maintain the equipment, and there is no clipping of tickets.