weeks months ago, I read a tweet where someone, an Englishman, complained that their local librarian had not known about The Moomin books.
Seconds away from expressing my disbelief in a tart comment, I stopped myself. I’m the type of person who writes salty comments, only to immediately hit backspace and never post them.
As a swede, it’s hardly surprising I know who The Moomins are; they’ve been a staple in Nordic children’s literature for sixty years. They’re Mumintrollen!
I’ve been meaning to start a series promoting Nordic literature, showing how it’s so much more than Nordic Noir. I think The Moomins are the perfect starting point; they’re so Nordic.
So, let’s talk a little about these lovely trolls; because they are trolls, not hippopotamuses.
The Moomins were created by the Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Between the years 1945 to 1993, she published five picture books, nine novels, and countless comic strips featuring The Moomins and the other characters of Moomin valley.
Although Finnish, she wrote in Swedish. Without going into about a thousand years of complicated political history, both Sweden and Finland have minorities who speak Finnish and Swedish. Both languages are considered official minority languages in either country.
The Moomin books center around the Moomin family, consisting of Moomintroll, Moominmamma, and Moominpappa and their life in Moomin Valley. They’re a family of soft-spoken bohemians who takes anything life throws at them with calm composure and a welcoming attitude.
Tove Jansson playful language and imagination inhabited this world with all kinds of wonderful creatures. Throughout the stories, Moomin Valley and the Moomin house becomes a shelter and home to many lost and displaced creatures.
A bibliography will tell you there are five picture books. However, one is a songbook, and one features photographs by Tove Jansson’s brother, Per Olov Jansson instead of her illustrations. These two are seldom mentioned and might be hard to find.
There are also new picture books, produced and published after the author’s death in 2001. These are retellings of the Moomin novels for a younger audience. There are three picture books written and illustrated by Tove Jansson.
There are eight novels and one short-story collection. These stories are adventurous but not action-packed; they’re slow, philosophical, emotional, thoughtful, and, at times, melancholy.
The first book, The Moomins and The Great Flood, is generally not considered a full-fledged Moomin book; it’s more of an origin story. You can tell from the illustrations and writing that The Moomins have not quite found their shape and personalities yet. Still, I think it’s worth reading.
Despite their age, the subjects and themes these books explore ensurers that they stay relevant and relatable to every new generation that reads them.
These books are marketed to an age group of between nine and twelve. However, there is an ongoing discussion among scholars and fans if The Moomin novels should even be considered children’s stories.
Many times, the subjects they handle can be very complex, especially the later books: Moominpappa at Sea, Tales from Moomin Valley, and the last and most poignant of them all, Moomin Valley in November.
Moominpappa at Sea is basically the story of a man’s midlife crisis, loss of purpose, and inability to express those feelings.
These are not complicated books. Age has, to some extent, matured the language. They’re written in a way that might not be the standard in contemporary children’s literature, but they’re not difficult to read. Rather than categorize these books as targeted to adult, teen, or young readers, I see them as wholly human books, in the best sense of the word.
Depending on where you are in life, your experience might be different, but there is something in them that people of any age can relate to and enjoy.
The comic strips published in, among others, The London Daily Standard, were produced from the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies. From 1959, they were predominantly written and illustrated by Tove Jansson’s brother, Lars Jansson, to ease her workload. You can find the comic strips compiled in omnibus style books.
Like with the picturebooks the comics have been renewed and reworked in different countries. However, it’s the ones produced during the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies that Tove Jansson and her brother created.
However, the most well-known is probably the Japanese-Finnish-Dutch produced, Moomin, from the early 90s. Both Tove Jansson and her brother Lars cooperated with the Japanese writers. It’s said that Tove Jansson was pleased with the result.
The most recent adaptation is the Brittish-Finnish, Moominvalley released in 2019.
I like the 90’s version better; I’m not a fan of Moominvalley’s visual style. In its defense, I grew up watching the 90s version so, apart from animation style, nostalgia probably plays a big part in which version I prefer.
Whichever style of animation you might favor, in my opinion, Tove Jansson’s world and characters are best depicted by her illustrations. Her characters are so uniquely hers, except for her brother Lars, she was the only one who could truly capture their essence.
Just how unique her art style was become apparent when it’s paired with other people’s work. In a previous post, I talked about one of my most prized books; my Swedish edition of The Hobbit, illustrated by Tove Jansson. Paired with her illustrations, the story is given an entirely different tone.
Another good example is the illustrations she did for Alice in Wonderland.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Being able to read these stories in their original language, I don’t have much experience with the translations. However, out of curiosity, I’ve looked at some English versions.
My experience with the animated tv-series, old and new, is that the English translation makes the Moomins appear childish, which they’re not. They also come off as significantly more extroverted and loud than they are; the result is a loss of emotional depth.
I do think this is more a question of interpretation than the translation itself.
True to their Nordic temperament, The Moomins are not overly expressive; this, unfortunately, is lost in the English translation.
As for the audiobooks, I’ve listened to samples of the most readily available ones, and I have to say, I think narrator Hugh Dennis does a good job. He seems to capture the mood and tone of the story.
Tove Jansson was not only a great author and illustrator. She was also a fascinating woman who spent her life breaking barriers.
Choosing not to marry and have children, she had relationships with both men and women. In 1955 she met the love of her life, artists and graphic designer Tuulikki Pietilä who’s said to have inspired the character of Too-Tiki.
Tove Jansson was never an outspoken gay activist. But, if you look for them, you can find queer themes in The Moomin books (you can read more on the subject HERE).
However, whatever Tove Jansson’s motivation and inspiration might have been, The Moomin books are not overtly political.
Instead, they’re deeply humanist books that touch on subjects of loneliness, a longing for acceptance, and choosing your family. They’re books that will speak to anyone longing for a place to belong and to be accepted for who they are.
POP-CULTURE PHENOMENON & NO THANK YOU DISNEY
Despite offers from, among others, Disney The Moomin characters and all licensing continue to be under the Jansson family control.
There are museums, theme parks, shops, and numerous products produced under the Moomin brand: Moomin Characters.
The Moomin are also popular among collectors. One of the most popular products among collector is coffee mugs produced by the Finnish company, Arabia.You can read more about them and their history HERE.
A word of caution. These mugs, although high quality and a design that makes you genuinely happy, has one major drawback: if you buy one, you will buy another. And another. Trust me.
The Moomin books are ageless stories about finding your place in the world. They’re thought-provoking, evocative, philosophical books with a touch of nordic melancholy.
As children’s books, they’re lovely, imaginative, stories that are sure to inspire meaningful conversations about difficult subjects. As an adult reader, you’re bound to see the underlying layers and the real emotional depth of these stories.
I adore The Moomins. Having re-discovered these deceptively simplistic stories as an adult, I find that age has changed my perspective. As a child, I feared Morran (The Groke) now I feel such sympathy for her. Mumintrollet (Moomintroll) used to be my favorite; now, I relate more to Snusmumriken and Muminmamman (Snufkin and Moominmamma).
These are books I return to, over and over. They’re always on my “go-to list of books I give as presents to inspire new and old generations to discover the wisdom of these trolls. They’re simply wonderful stories.
Have you read a Moomin book? Who’s your favorite character? As an adult, are you still scared of The Groke, or do you pity her?