Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tove Jansson

The Moomin series
by Tove Jansson

The tales of Moomintroll and his friends and family were authored and illustrated by a Finnish author and painter who wrote in Swedish. They began as simple, lighthearted, episodic stories about a family of little trolls and the small creatures they befriended. Gentle and heartwarming as they are, they also have a touch of melancholy, perhaps an inescapable part of any tale based on childhood in a far northern climate; and there are hints of messages about social and personal values. Later, the series grew in depth and maturity, until Jansson turned toward writing adult fiction.

I am indebted to Wikipedia for this summary of the Moomin books. After reading several of the books, I had to wiki the series because I was getting confused about the order in which the books happened. Here, for the record, is the order of the full-length Moomin books:
  1. The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945)
  2. Comet in Moominland (1946)
  3. Finn Family Moomintroll, a.k.a. The Happy Moomins (1948)
  4. The Exploits of Moominpappa, a.k.a. Moominpappa's Memoirs (1950)
  5. Moominsummer Madness (1954)
  6. Moominland in Midwinter (1957)
  7. Tales from Moominvalley (a 1962 collection of short stories)
  8. Moominpappa at Sea (1965)
  9. Moominvalley in November (1970)
There are also several smaller, children's picture books based on the Moomins, including The Book About Moomin, Mymble, and Little My (1952), Who Will Comfort Toffle? (1960), The Dangerous Journey (1977), An Unwanted Guest (1980), and Visitor from Moominvalley (1993). Not all of the work in the last few was hers, and some of them have not been translated into English. Jansson also co-created a comic strip based on the Moomins, but for most of its run it was the work of her brother Lars.

The Moomin books started when the author wanted to write something sweet and innocent to relieve her depression over World War II. The first book was The Moomins and the Great Flood, but many English-speaking readers missed this book because it was not widely available in translation until after many of the other books in the series. Jansson's publisher made her change the title to The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, because he feared the public would not understand the word "Moomins." In translation the original title has been restored, but (like the American publisher's decision to change the title of J.K. Rowling's first book) these changes of title have added to the confusion. So for many fans of these stories, the curtain rises with the second book, Comet in Moominland - though it contains references to the earlier book.

For her contributions to worldwide children's literature, Tove Jansson won the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1966. The Moomins are also honored by a museum and a theme park. At 33 languages strong, these have become some of the most widely translated works of Finnish literature. Some of Jansson's other books include The Summer Book, A Winter Book, and The Field of Stones.

Comet in Moominland
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Age: 10+

The little trolls and friendly creatures of Moominvalley are seeing the signs everywhere: signs that the end of the world is near. A comet is coming, and it looks set to score a direct hit on the peaceful, green place Moomintroll loves. So he and his little friend Sniff set out on a journey to the Lonely Mountains, to ask the scientists at the great observatory whether Moominvalley can be saved. As a result, this second book in Tove Jansson's award-winning Moomin series (following The Moomins and the Great Flood) is full of hair-raising encounters, eerie landscapes, and a growing atmosphere of anxiety and sorrow as the Moomins' world of innocence and pleasure increasingly seems doomed.

As they go along, Sniff and Moomintroll make the acquaintance of several friends who will be with them through many Moominadventures to come: the footloose Snufkin whose friendship means so much to Moomintroll; the sweet-natured Snork Maiden and her somewhat pompous brother the Snork; and one particular, stamp-collecting Hemulen whose sphere of awareness is absurdly limited.

Even in translation, Tove Jansson's prose is amazingly direct and economical, while at the same time filling the nostrils of the mind with many heady scents of nature, and the heart with many tender, and occasionally tense, feelings. Her illustrations are also very clever and effective, varying between the simplicity of a comic strip and a whimsical, woodcut-like detail. The true wonder of them is how she makes such abstract, oddly shaped creatures seem so expressive and lovable.

Finn Family Moomintroll
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Age: 10+

This book is the third in a series that earned its author the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1966 (this is given every two years in honor of career contribution to children’s literature). Originally written in Swedish by a Finnish author and illustrator, the version I read was translated by Elizabeth Portch. Its sweetness, charm, and smooth readability put it in the same league as Winnie the Pooh and Pippi Longstocking; it also has a touch of melancholy reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows.

The moomins are a family of small, fuzzy creatures with round snouts and frilly tails. Young Moomintroll and his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpappa, live in a tall, round, blue house in Moominvalley, along with a variety of odd friends and adopted children. These include the philosophical Muskrat, the morose Hemulen, the Snork and his Snork Maiden sister (who is devoted to Moomintroll), the ruggedly independent Snufkin, and the childish Sniff.

In this book, a follow-up to Comet in Moominland, we follow the adventures of the Moominfamily from the end of one winter’s sleep to the beginning of the next. On the first day of spring, Moomintroll and his friends discover a magical tophat lost by the legendary Hobgoblin. This hat soon shows its power to transform anything placed inside it, leading to a variety of whimsical and unpredictable adventures.

The moomins also visit a lonely island where they encounter the creepy Hattifatteners. Then they adopt the mischievous twins Thingumy and Bob, who are on the run from the sinister Groke (a creature who sucks the warmth out of everything it touches). Finally the denizens of Moomindale throw a big party, attracting the notice of the wish-granting, panther-riding Hobgoblin himself.

This story contains things that every child can understand – particularly children who live in a climate where winter casts a depressing shadow over a major portion of each year. It is a cheerful, innocent story about children playing, imagining, quarreling, and making up. It has a treasure hunt, and magic, and a mock trial, and a picnic, and a game of Tarzan in the drawing room. It has puppy love, wistful farewells, characters who speak in spoonerisms, a thrilling fishing expedition, and a terrible storm. And it very gently teaches that what really matters is not money and expensive stuff, but beauty and happiness and goodness.

As soon as I read this book, I went online and ordered all the other books in the series. This is the kind of book parents will love to read to their children, and that certain thoughtful, sensitive children will enjoy reading to themselves. The secret of Moominland has been kept far too well; I had never heard of it before I saw this book at New York City’s Books of Wonder. I suspect that more people know of it from the Japanese animated film and TV series loosely based on it than from the books themselves. I hope this series will become better known.

Moominsummer Madness
by Tove Jansson
Recommended Age: 10+

The fifth book in the sweet, heart-warming adventures of the little trolls, or Moomins, begins with a flood. The Moominfamily and their houseguests find themselves swept away in a strange, floating house that is entirely open on one side, except for some huge, heavy curtains. The Moomins, you see, have never heard of theatre; but they are about to get a strange, first taste of stage life.

This book is often funny, full of perilous encounters, and touched here and there by a spirit of satire. Consider the terrible price Moomintroll pays for violating the custom about whistling on stage, and the delight Snufkin takes (and we along with him) in fooling the Park Keeper, abolishing the rules posted all over the park, and liberating small children from their joyless, regimented existence. Of course Snufkin too pays a price for his mischief, by becoming responsible for a gaggle of little creatures.

It is a hard heart that cannot warm to these characters, such as the smart-mouthed Little My, the serious and inquisitive Whomper, the melancholy Fillyjonk, and even the officious Hemulens. To say nothing of the ruggedly independent Snufkin, and the Snork Maiden with her silly notion about picking nine kinds of flower on Midsummer Eve.

Would that everyone had childhood memories as carefree as the adventures of these little animals and their fuzzy troll friends! Why, you'll just have to put such memories into your head. How? By reading this book and others in the series!

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

When I was 10 we hosted a foreign exchange student from Finland. She brought these wonderful books to us and we enjoyed reading them at the dinner table after meals the same way we read Tolkien, CS Lewis and Erma Bombeck.