In Which We Consider Moominmamma Closely

In a bid to remind myself that I still know how to read a book, I recently picked up Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson. It was short and easy, with pictures. I’m pretty sure I read the Moomin books as a child but I had retained no memory of their intrinsic style, though I was aware that their supporters really love them.

I’d only read a few pages in – Moomintroll and Sniff go exploring and find a strange sign, a star with a tail, carved all over the forest – when I became very curious about Moominmamma. When Moomintroll and Sniff finally return from their adventuring, it’s late and past their supper. Moominmamma does not say, ‘Where the hell have you been?’. She does not say ‘I’ve been out of my mind with worry,’ she just says they should help themselves to something to eat before bed. That night when everyone is sleeping, Moominpappa hears a strange noise outside and finds the philosopher Muskrat in the garden in the rain, complaining that the family’s bridge-building activities have destroyed his habitat. Moominpappa invites him in to stay and tries to provide some hospitality by lumbering about in the kitchen without turning the light on. Naturally, he creates a commotion and some breakages.

Moominmamma came running downstairs with a candle in her paw.

‘Oh! It’s you,’ she said. ‘I thought someone must have broken in.’

‘I wanted to get the palm-tree wine down,’ said Moominpappa, ‘and some silly fool had put that stupid vegetable dish right on the edge of the shelf.’

‘Never mind,’ said Moominmamma. ‘it’s really a good thing it’s broken – it was so ugly. Climb up on a stool, dear – it will be easier.'”

I was so struck by this exchange that I read it out loud to Mr Litlove. ‘Tell me what’s wrong with this scenario,’ I invited him.

He shot me the sly side-eye. ‘They don’t make wives like they used to?’

‘No one makes wives like that,’ I said. ‘The real Moominmamma would say, “What in the world did you think you were playing at, rummaging in the cupboard without turning the light on? Now you’ve broken my best dish and ruined tomorrow’s dinner to boot.” I’m trying to decide whether it’s dangerous to mislead children this way.’

When on the following day, Moomintroll and Sniff come running in at the sound of the lunch gong, only to demand sandwiches to eat out, and Moominmamma does not say, ‘What? Are you crazy? Go and sit down and eat what I’ve cooked for you,’ but simply complies, I began to believe she was operating under the influence of some powerful sedatives.

No, I’m messing with you. I didn’t really believe that, but I was intrigued by this image of overly perfect motherhood, and Moominmamma as this serene, loving, centre of the world whose presence assures comfort, certainty and security.

But of course, it’s just as well that she does, because what follows is a delightful tale of environmental apocalypse. The Muskrat informs Moomintroll that the strange signs they keep seeing are indications of the imminent arrival of a comet, an event which will probably destroy the world they live in. And so Moomintroll decides to take a long and perilous trip to the distant Observatory on the Lonely Mountains where he might get some better information. This being an age in which experts are still respected for their knowledge and no one is running counter-interference on the comet rumour as idle speculation or myth. He and Sniff set out with bags lovingly packed by Moominmamma (whose insistence on including woolen trousers will prove fortuitous) and begin a dangerous, adventure-packed journey, that will find them close to death on many occasions. But the journey will also present all kinds of developmental possibilities – Moomintroll falls in love with the Snork Maiden and rescues her, Sniff comes a cropper on a couple of occasions over his desire for all that twinkles, but learns nothing, alas – and will bring them a number of useful travelling companions. They will team up with the experienced and wise Snuffkin, with the analytical Snork, and the sweet, courageous Snork Maiden.

The news from the Observatory is bad: the comet is due to strike on the 8th October at 8.42pm and four seconds. The friends hurry back home to the Moomin Valley, but as they go, so the comet comes nearer and nearer, blocking out the sun, drying up the seas and rivers, and generally causing all kinds of climate change mayhem.

What matters is teamwork. The friends work together to overcome obstacles, evade dangers and make it back home. Their perspective is entirely inclusive – even the morose transgender Hemulen is rescued by them (though in all fairness, his bad temper is partly due to the fact they ruin his dress by using it as a balloon to out-fly a tornado). They make it back in time to warn the parents and pack up the home, taking their belongings to a nearby cave. Even Moominmamma wigs out a bit at this point, which shows you quite how stressful an approaching apocalypse must be. But as they await the end of the world together, the comet zooms through the valley, missing the earth by inches, and hurtles back out into the wilderness of space.

So what are we to learn from this story? The internal moral works this way: if you are close to a loving mother, you will be safe from harm. Moominmamma – or even just the thought of Moominmamma – looms large over this tale, the guarantor of peace and security. For it’s the generosity and affectionate, open inclusiveness of the Moomins that sees them through. Together they are stronger, and that togetherness is based on an explicit diversity of species. All those differences bring with them other essential forms of knowledge and resource. Compassion and wisdom avert oblivion.

It occurred to me that in our contemporary world we look to science and technology to save us, and to give us what fragile security we have. But is this wise? In the story, science is impressively informative. The comet really does pass the earth at 8.42pm and four seconds. But that all important sense of safety can only be gained from the community, and one founded on the ideal of the loving mother.

The story is a myth. Mothers don’t need to be as perfect in reality as Moominmamma is. But what we do need is that ideal of love in our hearts and minds, because it gives courage and it neutralises fear. It’s the only way to face whatever lies ahead and maybe, just maybe, avoid disaster.

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30 thoughts on “In Which We Consider Moominmamma Closely

  1. Lovely interpretation and review! As an aside, I always hoped to be like Moominmamma as a mother, and of course that was unrealistic and of course I failed. But she is based on Tove Jansson’s own mother and in other books we find snippets of sarcasm or subtle influencing which makes you realise she is not a doormat.

    • I think we all want to be Moominmamma, while knowing it’s not possible! I love this idea that she can be subversive. I’ll have to work my way around the other books. This one was truly delightful.

    • LOL! I love the idea of Moomins an Smurfs as interchangeable. I honestly didn’t retain much of the Moomin essence as a child (how I came to be a literary critic when I grew up is a matter of wonder), and part of me thinks they’re maybe just as good for grown ups as children in any case, having so many subtleties. I’d love to know what you make of them, Annabel.

  2. What a lovely post, and you did have me laughing at the start at the thought of Moominmamma on tranquillisers (or gin…) But I think she’s very much an idealised version of Jansson’s own mother, and as you read through the books you see how much they draw on her own life. There’s a lot going on underneath I think, and I only read them recently for the first time as an adult and I definitely think Annabel should read them now! 🙂

  3. It’s one thing when it’s your kids, but she is extraordinarily patient with Moominpapa.
    My kids still remember watching the Moomins Riviera film as teens with great fondness.

    • I haven’t seen this film! I’ll have to get my son to find it for me online when he’s next visiting, lol. And I do agree about Moominpappa. Inviting every waif and stray to stay must be incredibly tiresome to put up with!

  4. I have to agree with your other commenters – what a lovely, typically insightful post. The Moomins were a staple of my childhood years as the books were passed from one member of my extended family to another. While I loved the stories as a child, I suspect that many of their subtleties were completely lost on me at the time. You are making an excellent case for reading them again as an adult!

    • Oh bless you, Jacqui, thank you. I do find it really intriguing to read books again that I haven’t read in many, many years to find out what my memory has done to them! And these novels definitely have so much subtext to them that they are satisfying adult reads. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the book as much as I did. I’d love to know what you make of them now.

  5. I enjoyed your post as I’ve never heard of Moominmamma and this series of books…immediately Googled! Laughed at your description about how she must be sedated somewhat as she gently succumbs to her children’s wishes about lunch. Seems to be a well read and received series of books. Glad to have read your post!

    • Thank you! And welcome to the blog – it’s lovely of you to comment. The Moomintroll books seem to have quite a cult following but are nowhere near as famous as, say, Harry Potter or Enid Blyton. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this, reading as an adult, as I’m not normally someone who’d return to childhood books. So I was glad to have picked it up.

  6. We do see something of the price of Moominmamma’s saintliness in Moominpappa at sea, which is one of the books which deals most with the characters’ internal struggles. I think one of the series’ key traits is its enticing portrait of domesticity and home, and of course it’s Moominmamma who creates that.

    • Chloe, I’m beginning to realise that these books have such an overall coherence that you have to read the whole series to get the full effect. I’m very tempted to read further about Jansson’s life and to explore more of the Moomin titles. Thank you for telling me about this one!

    • I’m beginning to think the world needs a sort of injection of Moomintroll spirit! There’s something very lovely and enchanting about it. Could we break the internet with Moomintrolls do you think? Or form a sort of resistance movement and tweet from Moominmamma every time the ghastly Trump tweets something awful???

  7. Moominmamma, yes! And that handbag…Yes – that longing to adventure out but come back to safety is a strong one in all of us but particularly in children of course. Boel Westin, in her wonderful, chunky book about Tove Jansson ‘Life, Art and Words’ tells how she’d been depressed in the war, how she’d watched people leave their homes in Helsinki for fear of catastrophe. How, by the time this book was written, the fear of nuclear war had been unleashed and how this was a reaction to those events and the emotions they provoked. The cover I have on my edition – kept since childhood- is the one of them walking across the missing sea on stilts – one of those you show here. I adore this book, and next I recommend Finn Family Moomintroll – and particularly the story about the hat! So many delights for you to discover. Happy you liked this one!

    • Tricia, I was hoping you’d comment as you know much more about children’s literature (and Moomins!) than I do. I thought it was interesting how developmental the journey was, and how much Moomintroll grew up over the course of it. I absolutely have to read more about Tove Jansson’s life now – it sounds fascinating. And I clearly need to read more Moomin books!

  8. I’m not much of a fan of this series but I have a friend who is, and she’s the nicest person, inclusive and kind and (mostly) patient. I love this reading because it makes me think we could all be more like that.

    • Your friend sounds lovely. But then you are lovely, too, Jeanne, without Moomin input. I do think that Moomin philosophy needs to be broadcast to the wider world. It’s exactly the message that’s needed, I think.

  9. Heh heh! I’ve always suspected – well, always since I was an adult I mean – that Moominmamma was on something much naughtier than sedatives. How else could she put up with Mooominpappa?

    • Helen, as ever you make me laugh so much! And I totally agree with you about Moominpappa. I did tell Mr Litlove that if he invited the human equivalent of the Muskrat to stay, I would not be so saintly about it! 🙂

  10. Adult writing that is also entirely appropriate for children is my view of the Moomintroll books. I read them and loved them as a child, I re-read them (many of them) in my early twenties (often to a lovely slightly younger friend I have known since birth) and re-read them for a third time when I introduced them to my son aged about 8 or 9. The series of books deal with very adult themes in my view, love, loneliness, rejection, being a feared and rejected outsider (see for example the Groke), the selfishness of the Muskrat, the lure and corruption of treasure and the bleakness of reality (see for example the strange and very dark Moominpapa at Sea).

    I think you can tell I am a total fanboy 🙂

    • I had the feeling that you were a Moomins fan! I do wish my son were still of an age to be read to, but alas, I can imagine the look on his face if I tried…. It was a lovely experience to read this book, and I’m definitely going to get to more of the series when I can. I like your definition of the Moomintroll books and very much agree with it!

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