Celebrations begin for Moomintroll and Groke

Creature comforts: Why are Jansson’s stories – and illustrations – so popular?

This year marks one hundred years since the birth of Tove Jansson, the Finnish children’s author who created the fantastical, hippo-like creatures. Why are they still so popular today?

By autumn 1945, Europe was exhausted after a long, devastating war. But out of those dark years emerged one of the most popular literary creations of all time – the Moomins – a family of small, good-natured trolls, resembling miniature, upright hippos.

This year is the centenary of the birth of the Moomins’ creator, the Finnish author Tove Jansson. Her stories have sold millions of copies, and in Finland, a flurry of books, films, and exhibitions will celebrate her legacy as one of the world’s most important children’s authors.

The Winter War, between Finland and the Soviet Union, profoundly affected Jansson’s writing. It was a fraught period; her brother had gone off to fight, and all around her in Helsinki people were leaving their homes, fearful of bombs.

Her anxiety is echoed in the first Moomin book, ‘The Moomins and the Great Flood’, published in 1945. Warm, resourceful Moominmamma and her son Moomintroll go in search of Moominpappa, who is lost, feared dead. They travel through stormy waters, and a dark, surreal forest, eventually finding him safely entangled in the branches of a tree.

Despite the Moomins’ peaceful, philosophical nature, the stories are suffused with melancholy and framed by unsettling backdrops. Characters experience loneliness and anxiety, like the Hattifatteners; mysterious, silent, finger-like beings who only come alive in the presence of lightning. The Groke, a metaphor for despair, cares only for riches, and freezes the ground over which she travels.

The Moomins’ global fame was sealed when Jansson began drawing comic strips for a London newspaper in 1954. Within two years, 120 newspapers were running the comics, reaching a global audience of 12 million readers. Even today, the Moomins are among Finland’s most profitable exports.

Bloomin' Moomins

What can explain the extraordinary success of the Moomins; these nonsensical, playful creatures? Their simplicity and naive optimism even began to grate on their creator. Eager to devote her time to writing ‘serious’ adult books, Jansson confessed: ‘I could vomit over Moomintroll. I shall never again be able to write about those happy idiots who forgive one another and never realise they’re being fooled.’

But to her fans, such as the author Philip Pullman, Jansson is a genius. Her stories resonate as much with adults as children, and her work has been compared to the literary greats – ‘Chekhov spiced with Poe’, according to one critic. Not only do her stories brim with boundless imagination, they provide important life lessons. Despite the darkness of the world, it is life’s simple pleasures – consolations of home and family, contentment and tolerance – that make us human.

You Decide

  1. Why do you think the Moomins are still so popular today?
  2. Can children’s authors be described as geniuses? If so, why?

Activities

  1. In groups of three, make a list of your favourite children’s stories. Discuss what you enjoyed about them.
  2. Research the life of your favourite children’s author. Write a short piece on what you think influenced their writing.

Some People Say...

“You feel a cold wind on your legs when you step outside Moomin Valley.’Tove Jansson”

What do you think?

Q & A

Am I not too old to read the Moomins?
Are we ever too old to read children’s books? Of course, as our minds develop and grow, we begin to read books that are more intellectually challenging. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on children’s books forever. The author Jeanette Winterson, a self-confessed Moomins maniac, has commented that she derives more pleasure reading the books as an adult, than she did as a child.
Why?
She laments the seriousness of adult life, and turns to the Moomins for their playfulness. As adults, children’s books sometimes reveal new details and hidden meanings. For some, the Moomins suddenly appear subversive – like the fact that the Hemulens of either gender only wear dresses. Or perhaps we return to them for a sense of nostalgia – a reminder of our childhoods.

Word Watch

Jansson
Other themes from her life can be found in the Moomins, such as the death of her mother, which affected her greatly, and her relationship with fellow artist Tuulikki Pietila – a woman – portrayed as Too-Ticky in ‘Moominland Midwinter’. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in Finland, and their relationship was kept secret for many years.
Millions
Since 1945, 15 million copies of the books have been sold, and they have been translated into 44 languages. There are Moomin theme parks in Finland and Japan.
Winter War
The Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939, for territory, and to better protect the city of Leningrad which was only 40km from the Finnish border.
Dark, surreal forest
‘Here and there giant flowers grew, glowing with a peculiar light like flickering lamps, and further in among the shadows moved tiny dots of cold green.’
Fans
Michael Morpurgo, writer of ‘War Horse’ and Frank Cottrell Boyce, who scripted the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, are other prominent Moomins fans. Boyce has said of reading the books: ‘Finland was like Narnia, with these incredible characters that were so strange but instantly recognisable because you had met lots of them – noisy Hemulens or neurotic, skinny Fillyjonks.’
‘Chekhov spiced with Poe’
Anton Chekhov – a Russian playwright, regarded as one of the world’s greatest writers. Edgar Allan Poe – an American author, famous for his Gothic tales of mystery and the macabre.

Subjects

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