Culture Literature

Beyond ‘whimsical escapism’: the reality behind the beloved Moomins

To escape the overriding sense of guilt which characterised my first lockdown experience, I decided to go in search of some whimsical escapism. I found myself returning to Moomin Valley, and discovered that Tove Jansson’s Moomin series offers a complex exploration of relationships, identity, and sense of place, all conveyed with an elegant balance of wit and quiet philosophy.

The first ‘Moomintroll’ was a scraggy creature invented by Jansson’s uncle to scare her and stop her pilfering the kitchen. Jansson, however, remodelled the monster and drew out the warmth of its assonantal name, creating the beloved central figures of her stories. Jansson’s beautiful and fantastical world has seen the stories adored since their publication. I have cherished a long-term love for the Moomins, many lazy weekend mornings spent reading with my mum – the very same editions she treasured as a child.

While the images of the Moomins remain close to my heart, I realised I largely left the fantastical qualities of the worlds behind, and was surprised to find how satirical the comic strips were. The children’s books explore life’s intricacies with the reflective quality familiar to Jansson’s writing for adults, for example The Summer Book.

Finn Family Moomintroll sees a tender portrayal of the nature of parental relationships, as in the final, touching vignette. Following a wild party, ‘happiest of all Moomintroll… goes home through the garden with his mother, just as the moon is fading in the dawn, and the trees rustling in the morning breeze which comes up from the sea’. The lyrical writing sets the mother-son relationship against the backdrop of the valley’s embrace, hence sharing the security of its Arcadia. This delicate portrayal of the pair’s relationship recurs throughout the novel. When Moomintroll transforms into a monster it is his mother who recognises him: ‘I shall always know you whatever happens’. Jansson hopes that however lost and far from ourselves we become, it is those who are closest to us that will see through the mess we make and help us to find ourselves.

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The exploration of the Moomins’ relationships is incredibly prevalent as Jansson imbues the stories with her own life, notably her homosexual affair with Tuulikki Pietilӓ. While inspiring the character Too-ticky, she appears in a host of others such as Thingammy and Bob. Their language ‘isn’t clear to everyone, but the main thing is that they understand each other’, as the characters desperately conceal the contents of their suitcase, representing both the intimate understanding between the artists and their love’s secrecy. Moreover, Snufkin’s absence from Moomin over the winter months marks the couple’s frequent separation. Always leaving him a brief letter, Jansson recollects the comfort she found in her love letters with Tuulikki. Amid Moomin’s intense loneliness in the silence of Moominland Midwinter, he finds solace imagining Snufkin ‘sitting somewhere in the sun, peeling an orange’. Jansson found this same respite in the thought of Tuulikki far away, as seen in a letter in November 1957. She writes: ‘Darling Tooti, last night I pretended I was falling asleep in your arms, I imagined the pillow was you, and that made it much easier and less troublesome to sleep’.

The Moomins emphasise the importance of the web of relationships in our lives, reminding us to hold onto them even when we are miles apart. I was struck most by the poignancy of the final book, Moominvalley in November. Written after the death of Jansson’s mother, the absence of the Moomin family drives the story in a Godot-esque narrative of waiting. Each character gradually rediscovers themselves, and the story closes with the family’s boat bobbing intangibly on the horizon. It is ambiguous as to whether they return and whether Moomin Valley will ever be the same, but Jansson ends Finn Family Moomintroll with the assertion ‘it is autumn in Moomin Valley, for how else can spring come back again?’

The Moomins acknowledge the complexities and ambiguities of life, and Jansson’s books ultimately encourage us to come to terms with this. In Too-Ticky’s wise words, ‘All things are so very uncertain and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured’.

Image: Lutrus via Flickr