Moomintroll et al crossing the dried up sea on stilts while the comet looms large above
The Moomins and other peculiar creatures that inhabit the equally peculiar landscapes of Tove Jansson’s series of children’s books have an almost indefinable magic. My first Moomin book was ‘Comet in Moominland’ and I can remember distinctly both when and where I got it. I was six years old and not particularly ‘clever as clever’ but perhaps did imagine that I might be that age for ‘ever and ever’. We were going on holiday to the West Country and I suddenly found myself at Paddington Station in London. I was allowed to choose a book in W.H. Smith for the journey and ‘Comet in Moominland’ was the one I chose. It may have been ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’ but I think it was the Comet story.
Luckily the world did not come to an end in 2012 and the proof I have is that I am still here telling you about this on New Year’s Day. I am trying to remember what effect the book had on me at six years old and it is not easy. In fact it is close to impossible; but I think the story frightened me a little, at least in parts. At that age you don’t question why you like a certain thing, you just do. I added Finn Family Moomintroll and the Midwinter story to my collection quite soon after. In watching the documentary about the life of Tove Jansson screened on BBC4 over Christmas I discovered there was one book I had not read: the last Moomin story – November in Moomin Valley – in which apparently the Moomin family are gone away and nobody knows if they will ever return.
Some of the charm of these stories certainly lies in the seemingly unremarkable mixture of the everyday with the oddest events and characters. The style reflects this mix of magic and the mundane. Moominmamma makes jam but from pears that Moomintroll collects from ‘blue-trees’. As an adult one wonders if the trees are really blue or if they are merely bathed in some strange Finnish light. C.S Lewis in ‘Surprised by Joy’ talks about ‘Northernness’ as a mystical quality; or rather suggests that the hold it had over him for a while, after discovering the Norse gods through Wagner, had a mystical aspect. I find something of this particularly Scandinavian, or more properly, Nordic magic and melancholy, in these Moomin books. This North Germanic ‘glance’ is what we experience in some of the best Anglo-Saxon poetry. The sublime illustrations of the Moomin books are just as odd and melancholic.
In the Comet story a red spark appears in the sky which seems a little nearer each day. Moomintroll and Sniff set out on a quest to find out about it from the professors of the observatory perched at the top of the lonely mountains. On the way they meet Snufkin, a wandering free spirit, who is glad to be unencumbered by possessions, and they also meet with the Snork and the Snork Maiden who resemble Moomins but instead of being white, change colour according to mood. The Snork Maiden with her fringe and anklet brings out the hero in Moomintroll who rescues her from the clutches of a poison plant, very bravely using only a pen knife.
The topography shifts from rivers to deserts to mountains to woodland and seas. The sky gets redder and more black with menace. Even the sea dries up. Snufkin suggests stilts as a means of tackling the great chasms of the sea bed. Stilts – the perfect solution! The characters make them from various poles and bits of wood that have washed up on the beach. They have discovered from the scientists of the observatory who make ‘thousands of remarkable observations’ and smoke ‘thousands of cigarettes’ that the comet will hit the earth on the 7th October at 8.42 pm or possibly 4 seconds later. As a reader, to quote Holden Caulfield, ‘that killed me’. This gives Moomintroll and Co. only a couple of days to get back to the Moomin House and warn everyone. Of course they do and as you would expect in the nick of time too. In the end the family hide out in the cave by the sea that Sniff and Moomintroll discovered in the first chapter. The dreaded comet all fire and brimstone shaves the tops of the trees from Moomin Valley and disappears over the edge of the world.
Tove Jansson and her Moomins – would you ask her to sketch and sign a Moomin for you? How many people do you reckon did just that? (lol)
As a child I had no idea of the context in which this story was written – just after the Second World War – and I have read somewhere that it was in response to Hiroshima. I don’t know about that but it is obvious to an adult reader that there is a lot of Tove Jansson in these stories which is one of the reasons they are so good. The comet may symbolise the Apocalypse, (interestingly a plague of grasshoppers appears at one point near the end), WWIII, natural disaster of final proportions, or impending doom in one’s own life. One thing that most definitely comes across is how small we are and feel when things spin out of our control.
For me, reading the book again now it simply gives me the same vague sense of dread that I had when I read the book as a child. The comet is a spectre seen out of the corner of the eye and its cloak is red and black. The spectre looms larger with every passing day. I think sometimes we all feel like hiding in that cave by the sea, huddled together like underground Londoners during the Blitz, hoping against hope, that we will be passed over. Not even the philosophical Muskrat can eschew companionship at the moment of crisis. Instead he creeps into the cave and sits on the cake that Moominmamma has made. Of all the unnecessary things to a philosopher that the Muskrat has mentioned perhaps his own philosophy is the most unnecessary. Yet the attempt to be together when the sky falls is not.