Poise and Prudence: Tove Jansson’s The Moomins

I think it safe to surmise that pretty much everyone is familiar with the light-coloured, pleasantly plump creatures collectively referred to as the Moomins. Even if you’ve never heard of Tove Marika Jansson, their creator, you’ve surely glimpsed a Moomintroll mug, a Snork Maiden tote, or a Little My t-shirt.

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was a multi-faceted soul: comic strip artist, of course, but also novelist, painter and illustrator (one might argue that these all are related: point taken). She published her first Moomin book in 1945 (The Moomins and the Great Flood) to (eventual) great success; the eight books that followed were equally popular. All have been translated into forty-four languages. The Moomin comic strip, first designed for publication in the children’s section of Swedish newspaper Ny Tid, ran from 1947 to 1975, and was syndicated in 120 countries. (Here’s a detailed timeline of Moomins’ creation and development.) To Anglophone audiences, the strip is known thanks to The London Evening News, which picked it up in 1954.

The commercialization of the Moomin family, the ubiquity of Moomin merchandise overshadow the rest of Jansson’s career – but also cheapen the darling Moomins. (I should talk; I have two favourite Moomin mugs from which I drink kefir.) As with the best writing for children, Moomin stories are fun and easy to follow on the surface – but beneath that cheerful and cute exterior, complex themes are tackled, moral dilemmas remain unresolved, and the world is a confusing, unfair place.

Montréal’s Drawn and Quarterly is currently « reworking classic Moomin stories in full colour, with a kid-proof but kid-friendly size, price, and format » (to quote from their website) for their Enfant collection. « Enfant » means « child », but I think any adult with a sense of humour and just a pinch of childlike innocence will enjoy these stories. Drawn and Quarterly have heretofore published collections of London Evening News strips in black and white; and though the art is beautiful, I really like the way the strips came out in colour.

As little of this stuff is findable online, I’ve selected a few (well, quite a few) favourite pages to whet your appetite – a selection of goofy characters, hard life lessons and good old madcap fun.

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Pages from Moomin’s Winter Follies

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Moomin Builds a House. Little My makes her first appearance in this story. Some parenting advice from Elder Mymble, the mother of this red-haired hoarde: « I don’t like to keep scolding them. I just… pour some water over them. …Or lemonade. »

« Born in 1914, at the onset of World War I, Tove’s childhood and early adulthood took place in a time of intense political upheaval. Artists themselves, her parents were a part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland and in those first few years, when the world was at war, Tove and her mother stayed in Stockholm while her father remained in Finland, going on to fight in the Finnish civil war in 1918. That experience, some literary analysts say, is reflected in the missing Moominpappa, who appears only as an allusion in the first chapters of the first book. » (How Tove Jansson’s Moomins conquered readers’ hearts)

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« As springtime dawns in Moominvalley and the first northern crocus opens, Moominpappa and Snorkmaiden, glamorized by the prospects of movie stars and gambling, insist the whole family take a trip down to the Riviera. Reluctantly Moomin and Moominmamma agree to go along, and the Moomins set off on a grand adventure, complete with butlers, luxury shops, indoor swimming pools, and duels at dawn. » Pages from Moomin on the Riviera.

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« Following art school and travels abroad, Jansson drew cartoons for different outlets, including, for fifteen years, the satirical political paper Garm. (“Do as you like,” the editor told her. “Just make sure you hit them in the mouth.”) This is where the Moomins first surfaced publicly. Originally meaner-looking and troll-like creatures called Snorks, they began mostly as marginalia, a kind of signature, and might even be found loitering in a cartoon about the German Army’s evacuation of Lapland. » (The Hands That Made the Moomins)

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Page from Moomin and the Sea.
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Misabel the maid is, as her name suggests, miserable. Afraid of any kind of non-conformist behaviour, scared of enjoying anything, she is anathema to Moomins’ approach to life. Pages from Moominmamma’s Maid.

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« Tove’s entire life was filled with bold decisions: selling satirical cartoons mocking Hitler; opposing war; choosing not to marry or have children; and turning down Walt Disney’s offer to buy the Moomin brand. She was the writer, illustrator, designer and controlled the business side of her creation, not trusting anyone else to do it justice. » (Tove Jansson’s Feminist Legacy)

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This sequence with a somewhat indignant cow is one of my favourite moments. Pages from Moomin and the Martians.

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« In like spirit, Moomin hospitality excludes no one—except those prone to electrify the furniture or freeze Moominmamma’s roses. Guests include shrewish Fillyjonks addicted to cleaning; large graceless Hemulens obsessed with classifying and organising; and a philosophical Muskrat who believes only in the pointlessness of everything. » (Tove Jansson, Queen of the Moomins)

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« When a charismatic prophet comes to town, the residents of Moominvalley are easily convinced to follow his doctrine for true happiness. Intrigued by their friends and neighbors’ lifestyle changes, the impressionable Moomins find themselves attempting to adopt the teachings of their new spiritual leader. But the freer they get, the more miserable they feel. Moominvalley’s state of divine chaos is further complicated by the prophet’s well-intentioned decree to free all of the jail’s inmates. » Moomin Begins a New Life.

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MoominNewLife02A« Over time, Jansson came to feel exhausted by the Moomins and that their success had obscured her other ambitions as an artist. In 1978, she satirized her situation in a short story titled “The Cartoonist” about a man called Stein contracted to produce a daily strip, Blubby, which has generated a Moomin-like universe of commercial paraphernalia—“Blubby curtains, Blubby jelly, Blubby clocks and Blubby socks, Blubby shirts and Blubby shorts.” “Tell me something,” another cartoonist asks Stein. “Are you one of those people who are prevented from doing Great Art because they draw comic strips?” Stein denies it, but that was precisely Jansson’s fear. » (Tove Jansson: Beyond the Moomins)

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« Moomin’s pushy relations have come to stay, and in the process of getting them out, he unwittingly embarks on a quest for fame and fortune with his sly friend Sniff. But it’s much harder to get rich than either of them expects, whether it’s through selling rare creatures to the zoo, using a fortune-teller to find treasures, or making modern art. » Moomin and the Brigands.

The only (other) thing I’ll add is that Tove Jansson was a lesbian, which tends to get glossed over by (bad) biographies of her. You can read an excellent essay about Jansson and her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä here.

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Tove Jansson photographed by her brother Per Olov.
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Jansson and Pietilä. Sweet!

~ ds

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