The launch of the Kindle got me thinking about all the things an e-reader can never be. You can't inscribe it to a loved one or press flowers between it's pages. It can never be an object, loved and cherished and passed from person to person, with any history. Your children cannot draw upon the pages and fill it with precious memories. Illustrations look terrible on it, especially art, which needs a grand scale. For these reasons and many more, help me celebrate the real thing: dusty old books!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Marvellous Moomins 1: Finn Family Moomintroll

It's been a while since I posted on Dusty Old Books. Work has kept me busy. But it's time to celebrate the printed page again, and I can think of nothing better to do that with than my favourite author: Tove Jansson.

Everywhere I’ve been this year I’ve seen Moomins in Bookshops, Kitchenware shops, Greetings card & gift shops. Bags, books and badges, knitted cuddly toys and cups; out of print titles reinstated; lectures given, articles published. Even in her lifetime, Tove Jansson felt overwhelmed by the “moomin-boom”. I wonder how she would feel now. Once, the Moomins seemed slightly exclusive, a delight that only a certain type of person really “got”. And I knew a lot of people who didn’t quite understand their brilliance. But now they have been embraced in our climate of retro-chic as must-haves for the Cath Kidston set.
So where has the Moomin-madness of this summer come from? The estate has been successfully exploited by Tove’s niece Sophia to celebrate 65 years of Moomins: for the first book was published in 1945. That particular book, “The Moomins and the Great Flood” was only very recently translated into English. The immediate sequel was “Comet in Moominland”, but this was not to be the first title to be published in English. That honour fell upon the third title “Finn Family Moomintroll” and so I am beginning my survey of Tove’s work – over several posts – with this book.
From my legendary Moomin cupboard I have – with trembling paws – taken out my first edition from 1950. Immediately hailed as a new children’s classic, this is beautifully produced, with embossed boards and a dust cover. Inside, the book has a magical map of Moominvalley which folds out to almost four times the size of the book. This was reproduced on a single page in later editions, and only the first edition has a fold out example of this exquisite, fantastical plan, which, on the reverse has an eccentric letter from Moominmamma herself (surely one of the greatest maternal figures in all literature).

The back flap of the dustwrapper asks if the reader “would like a picture of the Snork Maiden to put on the mantelpiece?”. And there she is, a voluptuous cut-out design. And who wouldn’t want the Snork Maiden on their mantle-piece?

For those unfamiliar with this book (shame on you), it tells the tale of one summer – from Hibernation and Spring through to Autumn, in Moominvalley. Here we are introduced to Moomintroll (son of Moominpappa and Moominmamma) and his friends Sniff and Snufkin who find a Hobgoblin’s hat that can enchant anything placed inside. This can be a good thing – like turning eggs shells into magic clouds. But it can also be a considerable problem, like when an encyclopaedia of Outlandish Words is brought to remarkable life. We also meet the Snorks, the Muskrat, the lugubrious Hemulen, the enigmatic Hattifattners, and the “Big grim and terrible” Groke, who freezes everything she touches. The adult domestic world of verandahs and stoves is beautifully caught by Jansson, and contrasts with the high adventure of the “children” of the story. Getting rid of the magic hat is not all that easy... and what would happen if the Hobgoblin himself – a great magician – came to Moominvalley?

What I like about Jansson’s storytelling is that little things matter, like the folklore of butterflies in spring or Snufkin’s need for solitude. And I like that while much is fun and frolicsome, there is often danger and threat lurking. It is an idyll... but sometimes one with dark clouds seen out of the corner of the eye. In fact this is one of the lighter and funnier stories. Later in the series the books become darker and more satisfying and, finally in Moominvalley in November, deeply moving.
Also tucked inside my copy of Finn Family Moomintroll is a letter. While I recognise that Tove Jansson, like the Moomins ,was not a person to whom possessions mattered, this letter is, I confess, valuable to me. In the event of a fire (and after securing safety for my family) this would surely be the first thing to rescue. For the letter is written to me, by Tove Jansson herself.

In 1993 I had a book published in Finnish. Although Tove was a Swedish speaking Finn, I felt excited and honoured to have a book published in “the land of the Moomins”. I wrote a long, rhapsodic letter to her. I had no address, so I drew a Moomin on the parcel and put, simply: To Tove Jansson, Helsinki, Finland.
I didn’t think anymore about it. There seemed no point dwelling on a parcel that might never arrive (and what a story Tove would have spun out of such a dwelling of thought). With the letter I had sent the Finnish edition of my book (“Madame Nightingale will sing Tonight) and some other books. And it wasn’t written or sent to expect a reply. It was sent with gratitude and admiration. A sort of gift.
Then, one quiet unassuming January day, a letter arrived. The carefully crafted handwriting , graphically clear and beautifully spaced, should have raised my expectations.
Surely this letter was a letter from my Finnish pen-friend Tarja, who I had corresponded with since we were both 7 or 8 years old? But then I saw the stamps.
Moomin stamps.

Inside was a letter from the great lady herself, with kind works about my illustrations (can you imagine how much that meant to a novice artist like myself?), and what seemed to be genuine gratitude and humility regarding my words about the Moomins. She seemed genuinely touched that my world had been coloured by her Moominvalley, and that their morals and eccentricities had reflected the foibles of myself and my family and that they had, I felt, projected themselves upon the minds and hearts of the next generation. Which can only be a good thing.
It would no doubt have horrified this most elusive, hermit-like author to know how I cherished the letter and how special it felt to have what seemed like a tiny part of her. But any writing is that. She gave the whole world a part of her with all her books and pictures.

In any case, she was one of the great observers and recorders of human life. She would have understood, just as she understood Sniff and his avarice as well as Snufkin and his solitude. For in the Moomins, these strange and melancholic trolls, we see ourselves, our lives, our families and our fears. The Moomins are in some ways more real than any gritty novel or PC picturebook. And that is what makes them the work of a genius.


  1. That letter is a real treasure. You seem to have made genuine and sincere contact with Jansson, one author to another. Thanks for sharing it. One day Gabriel will pass it on to his grandchildren and they'll be amazed by the doings of their legendary ancestor:)

  2. Thanks Thomas. If only our e-conversations were preserved in letter form... You see, so much is lost with the digital revolution. As for Jansson's reply, I was utterly astonished. that moment is etched forever in my mind. I know exactly where I was standing when I opened the envelope. a tyreasure indeed, and what a great lady to take the time to write such a lovely letter.

  3. Moomin stamps? You lucky, lucky thing!

  4. They are things of extraordinary beauty Saviour. I have many others, from a stamp-dealing friend. I'll post some for you see!

  5. Yes, e-mails will never have the same feel. And all that social networking will leave about as much trace as a troll on a misty morning.

  6. Sometimes, Thomas, I think my best writing is on Facebook or the blogs. A bit of a waste...frankly!

  7. Tove Jansson has also become more widely known through her works for 'grown ups' such as the delightful Summer book. She was a superb writer generally and I suspect that those who didn't get the Moomins have come to her through the other works of hers.

    Lucky you to have that letter from her. I have two short letters from Iris Murdoch and one from Laurie Lee and I treasure them too.

  8. That's true Griffin, although her Novels for "grown-ups" have been similarly neglected. I first read The Summer Book in the 70s and could never understand why it was out of print for decades... Likewise Sculptor's Daughter, which has never been reprinted in it's entirity. I will post on both of these in due course.

    Letters from Iris Murdoch and Laurie Lee??? That's fantastic! Between us we could start a literary museum, couldn't we?

  9. Oh wowee, I adored the Moomins as a child! (Fair bit of adoration lingering...)...a fellow blogger friend loves them too, going to tell her to come see...

    ..lucky you, James!

  10. Lucky all of us, that such books exist. more Moomin rarities coming very soon!!!

  11. Oh James, a Literary Museum would be good and I'm even qualified and experience as a curator too! I love the Summer Book and also wish that Sculptor's Daughter would be reprinted completely. I would buy that...shhh, don't tell my bank manager!!

  12. Thanks for this. I stumbled upon "Comet In Moominvalley" at our small public library in suburban Illinois many years ago. The Moomins and their friends have been part of my life ever since. You're absolutely right in saying that their relative obscurity made them seem even more magical to those of us who had discovered them, but, I will be glad to share them if it keeps the stories alive. I occasionally want to say "Foke means smood!" or some other Moominism to my adult friends and no one knows what I mean. :)

  13. Thanks for looking Karen. I must post some more... I have so many things to show everyone, and it IS good to share them, you are right!

    Lovely to remember Thingummy and Bob - their odd speeches used to really intrigue me as a kid!

  14. We found the Moomins through buying a sailing boat, the SNORK MAIDEN. I didn't know where the name came from until an insurance broker told me. Later I got the story from the previous owner who, since a boy, had wanted to own a boat called Snork Maiden. He grew up, he found his boat (a Sadler 29) and wrote to Tove Jansson asking her permission to name the yacht after her character. She wrote back, saying he could, and that's how she came to us. Not only is she the kind of sea kindly boat that will takecare of us like Moominmomma, she's as pretty as the Snork Maiden and as fearless of the water as Moomintroll. When we are away sailing, I write a b(log) like Moominpapa. I'm afraid the letter didn't come with the ship's papers. I can't explain how moving it was to get the gift of the boat and the Moomins at once. They have inspired our adventures. If you'd like to see our Snork Maiden check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meNVTXcmLzQ

  15. Am a great fan of Mumitrollet and Snorkfrøken myself! You see their names in norwegian. I saw Peer Gynt in your self as well, the bookworld is the same where ever you go ...