Tove Jansson has died, aged 86 – my favorite Finnish childrens’ book writer and illustrator. The Moomins – gone forever? Certainly not! Ardent fans around the world will be keeping things up.
The Moomin world reigned for 20 years – and then had to be abandoned. “Sorry I couldn’t keep up with that happy valley,” Tove Jansson wrote me in 1993 in fine-lined handwriting with dark-blue ink on paper which smelled of heavy chain-smoking.
Happy valley indeed: a world so abundant with friendship, joy, high mountains and green grass; a world full of love and respect for each other. But also a world of adventure, angst, and solitude. Above all, a world where wit and absurdity abound. In short – life as it is.
For over two decades, Tove Jansson invented stories about the many adventures of the Moomins, a family of Scandinavian trolls who look like hippopotami more than anything else. Moomin books have shaped whole generations of children like myself – stories involving our hero, Moomintroll, and his girl-friend, the Snork Maiden; stories with the wonderful Moominmamma and the earnest but warm-hearted Moominpappa; the restless traveller, Snufkin, and the skittish Sniff who dreams of great richness and fame; with the weather-ridden Too-Ticky, Little My, and the absent-minded Hemulen; and (shudder) the Groke, and, of course, the mysterious Hattifatteners.
The Moomins are a family whose savoir vivre lies right in-between bourgeoisie and bohemia. They reside in a comfy wooden house – vast porch, steep roof, and all – in Moominland which, situated amidst a thickish forest, stretches from the Lonely Mountains to the open sea and beyond. The rugged Scandinavian landscape is the scene of action for the family’s encounters with comets, floods, wizards’ hats, and lighthouses.
Comets, wizards, and the sea
A happy world? The first “real” Moomin book entitled Kometjakten (Comet in Moominland) was conceived in 1945, and finds itself strongly under the influence of doom and desolate post-war Europe. Eerie omens indicate that a comet has set out to destroy the earth. Seeking to learn more, Moomintroll and his friends set out on a dangerous journey to the Great Observatory in the Lonely Mountains. They make it back just in time to warn the others. The comet misses the earth only by inches.
The subsequent books, too, are set in the very types of adventurous environment that children enjoy, and feature Moomintroll (or his father in recollections from the past) in search for himself – only to return home strengthened, after coping with dangers from the world outside. The original titles alone sound exciting: Trollkarlens hatt (Finn Family Moomintroll, 1948) is about a wizard’s magic hat. In Muminpappans bravader (The Exploits of Moominpapa, 1950), dad recollects his sturm und drang past. Farlig midsommar (Moominsummer Madness, 1954) sees the Great Flood in Moominland, which tears apart the family, and sets the children out on their own, while the parents get hooked on a floating theater (and, of course, take up performing a play before you know it).
The all-to-1950’s-style German translations of the books have long yielded the wide-spread belief, at least in Germany, that the Moomin stories were plain adventure novels set in Never-Never-Problem Land where reality is avoided, and the good guys win. The contrary is the case, however. The seemingly timeless stories are in truth sociological psychographs in times of World War II, the atom bomb, and the prior-to-writing wholly unheard of threat of universal destruction: Utilizing modern mythology, Tove Jansson addresses reality through the back door.
The Fine Line
As time passes and Tove grows older, her somewhat naïve Moomin world takes a gradual, but drastic, change towards literary postmodernism. Increasingly, her view of the world as a grown-up tiptoes into Moominland, and eventually takes over. While the Moomins grow up, they turn increasingly commercial – a phenomenon frequently seen in popular cartoon characters.
Take Disney – the Mickey Mouse of 2001 is no longer the saucy little mouse whistling a happy tune in Steamboat Willie of 1928. Instead, he has changed, has grown up and turned into a commercial trademark. Used and abused, Mickey has morphed into a Hollywood propaganda atavar.
Same in Moominland. First publications tend to be among the best work ever for many authors and illustrators, since they are conceived with only few strings attached. There is often a vigor involved, an urge to go out there with force brute, and to set forth something that is truthful and real. The resulting magic, the air of experimenting with meaning and form, expression and style, usually wears off in time.
There is only a fine line between professionalism and routine. For a number of years, Tove Jansson continued to conjure up stories and illustrations which rank among the most beautiful ever composed, alongside the works of contemporaries like A.A. Milne and Ernst Shepard (Winnie-the-Pooh), or Erich Kästner and Walter Trier (Emil and the Detectives). Tove’s expressive use of light and dark, and her magic stroke are unparalleled. A similar way of expression accounts for her comic strips, which for the longest time were supervised by her younger brother, Lars.
As time passed, Tove saw herself riding the roller coaster of commerce. With respect to her enormous success in Finland and abroad, such an evolution was likely inevitable. A devastating monstrosity along this process is the Japanese cartoon television series of 1993, alongside the horrid theme parks in Finland. The magic spirit seemed lost forever.
But then again, Tove’s characters are still alive. Maybe we ought to appreciate this, and be happy that they haven’t vanished into obscurity, or remained a 1950’s product like Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings, who never quite made it into today’s world. So maybe we shouldn’t be complaining, after all.
The big question is, how are we kids going to end up without Tove? Well, we have grown up, I suppose. I assume we’ll simply go on living as we’ve been taught to. “The light burned,” it says in the last-but-one Moomin book, when the lighthouse fire, after countless failing efforts, is finally lit anew. We don’t want to sound lofty. But, hey, this it what it’ll be like.