Tove Jansson 1914-2001
(Full name Tove Marika Jansson; also wrote under the pseudonym Vera Haij) Finnish short-story writer, novelist, essayist, autobiographer, illustrator, and author of juvenile novels and picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Jansson's career through 2006. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volume 2.
Called "probably the best-known writer in Finland" by children's literature scholar Alison Lurie, Jansson was the author and illustrator of the Moomin World stories, presented in a series of profoundly original books for children that have appeared in more than thirty languages. In all, Jansson penned nine juvenile novels and three picture books detailing the peaceful lives of a family of large-nosed white trolls who live in the remote Scandinavian Moominvalley. Written over a period of more than thirty years, the Moomin series began as a comic strip in a Scandinavian newspaper, growing in complexity and depth with each successive story. In 1977, after a career exclusively devoted to children's books, Jansson switched to writing adult-oriented novels that further cemented her status as one of Finland's favorite authors. Her works have remained so popular in Scandinavia that Jansson is remembered with two separate Finnish parks in her memory: the Moomin theme park in Naantali and a Tove Jansson museum in Tampere. Several Moomin cartoons have further engrained her creation in the memories of children, with her characters remaining especially popular in Poland, Japan, and the United Kingdom, where her books continue to enjoy strong sales. Awarded many of Finland and Sweden's most important literary awards, Jansson was also honored with the Hans Christian Andersen Award, a biannual award presented, in the words of the presenting committee, "to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children's literature."
Jansson was born on August 9, 1914, in Helsinki, Finland, the eldest of three children in a family that was part of the Swedish-speaking minority, a distinct community in Finland. Both parents were artists—her Finnish father a sculptor and her Swedish mother a graphic designer and illustrator. Being raised in a home filled with artistic activity had the effect of creating a sense of inevitability about an artistic career for Jansson, and this, coupled with her father's flair for adventure and her mother's interest in storytelling, contributed to Jansson's early interest in writing illustrated stories. She began writing at an early age even as she was being trained as a visual artist. Her first illustrated story appeared in a children's magazine when she was fifteen, and at nineteen she had published Sara och Pelle och Neckens bläckfiskar (1933; Sara and Pelle and the Water-Sprite's Octopuses), her first picture book. Jansson studied graphic design and industrial art at Tekniska skolan (The School of Applied Arts) in Stockholm from 1930 to 1933 and then returned to Helsinki, where she studied painting at the Ateneum (Finnish Art Society) until 1937. She then left for Paris to continue her artistic training. During the early part of her career, she supported herself by working as an illustrator in various genres. In the early 1940s, Jansson began to develop the characters and concepts that would form the Moomin World stories, her best-known work. It appeared as a series of nine books, published from 1945 to 1970, and was supplemented by three picture books as well as several scripts for theatre, radio, and television. The series became well-known internationally in translation and, in the mid-1950s, took the form of a cartoon strip, first in London's Evening News and then syndicated worldwide. Jansson received the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966, the highest award possible for a writer of children's stories. In 1968, between the eighth and ninth Moomin books, she published an autobiographical novel for adult readers, and in 1970 she ended the Moomin series, after which she wrote solely for an adult audience. In 1971 Jansson published Lyssnerskan (1971; The Listener), the first of five story collections for adults, and from 1972 to 1989 she wrote five novels, followed by two more story collections, in 1991 and 1998. Jansson received several awards from the Swedish Literary Society in Finland and, in 1973, one from the Swedish Academy; in 1978 she was awarded the title of an Honorary Doctor at the Åbo Academy in Finland. She died on June 27, 2001.
Jansson's Moomin books are set within the self-contained universe of Moominvalley, which Maria Nikolajeva calls "a Utopian world of childhood." Like other such childhood literary realities as Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, L. Frank Baum's Oz, and A. A. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood, Moominvalley is inaccessible to all but children. However, Jansson's vision differs from those worlds in that she does not use a human child as her tour guide and narrator. While human children can occasionally make the journey, as in Det osynliga barnet och andra berättelser (1962; Tales from Moominvalley), they are mostly absent throughout the series, though their spirit of playfulness is readily evident in the childlike inhabits of the valley. Many critics have favorably compared Jansson's Moomin stories to Milne's Pooh books, with Lurie arguing that, like Milne's creations, the residents of Moominvalley "are highly individual creatures, part human and part animal and part pure invention, living in a remote and peaceful rural world. Jansson's simple language, comic gift, and down-to-earth relation of odd events all recall Milne; and so does her love of the countryside and the high value she places on affection and good manners. Like Milne, she is a humanist; and also like him, though she writes for children, she deals with universal issues." It should be noted that, unlike the residents of Milne's Hundred Acre Wood, Jansson's characters are exposed to many seemingly harsh realities. Comets, volcanoes, floods, hard winters, and the presence of such dangerous figures as the Groke and the Hobgoblin seem to continually endanger the otherwise perfect lives of the Moomins.
As the Moomin series progressed, the storylines and characters became colored by increasingly complex, psychologically-oriented narratives, reflecting Jansson's own interest in evolving as a writer. Katri Sarmavuori has noted that, while "the characters don't develop much in the Moomin books, there are changes in the style. The first three books in the series are adventures. The next two, Moominsummer Madness (1954) and Moominland Midwinter (1957), are satires. The last books in the series, Tales from Moominvalley (1962), Moominpappa at Sea (1967), and Moominvalley in November (1971) were psychological novels. In fact, the last two books are more for adults than for children. In these books, the family idyll changes into a non-idyll." Examples of this psychological shift can be seen throughout Pappan och havet (1965; Moominpapa at Sea). The story depicts a restless Moominpappa who, craving a change of scenery and greater perspective on his life, takes his family to an isolated lighthouse on an island, a journey that nearly costs him his life. On the island, the juvenile Moomintroll, reaching an adolescence of sorts, becomes infatuated with an ultimately unattainable seahorse and begins an unlikely relationship with the fearsome Groke, a Nordic spirit who embodies the harsh northern winter and whose touch freezes anything. A frequent recurring character in the Moomin series, the Groke becomes a pitiable figure in Moominpapa at Sea. The embodiment of cold, the Groke nonetheless manifests a futile interest in fire. Knowing that her presence will destroy the flame, she can only watch it from a distance. Moomintroll, perhaps wishing to help, begins leaving a lantern on the beach for the Groke every night to appease her hopeless desire. Thus, even the seemingly intractable character of the Groke evolves, at least in perception. Though many scholars have applauded Jansson for allowing her creations to grow and develop along with her young readers, Jansson herself claimed that she made "no conscious effort to educate. I do not try to put over any particular view, least of all any ‘philosophy.’ I try to describe what fascinates and frightens me, what I see and remember, and I let it all take place around a family whose main characteristics are perhaps a kindly confusion, acceptance of the world around it and the very unusual way in which its members get on with each other."
Termed "Finland's most successful literary export" by Shelley Jackson, Jansson's Moomin books have remained internationally popular with readers and critics since their first publication. Reviewers have lauded Jansson for her creation of an endearing literary universe that, over the course of the Moomin series, demonstrates a surprisingly detailed and complicated expression of a child-driven utopia. Leena Maissen has commented that Jansson's canon "reflects a development of the extended Moomin family from a life in an idyllic childhood paradise to a more complex, more realistic existence, which includes frustrations and fears, loneliness and danger." The Publishers Weekly review of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip (2006) has suggested that Jansson's Moomins offers a rare level of accessibility for adults and children alike, noting that older readers are able to "appreciate Jansson's satire—although she always provides happy endings, dark undercurrents are at play." While discussing Jansson's literary legacy, Frederic and Boel Fleischer have praised the world of the Moomins as a place where "kindness always wins out over meanness, which children often accept as rather natural and adults tend to regard as wish-fulfilled illusion. In Moomin Valley the idealists and optimists are never defeated."
Children's Works; As Author/Illustrator
Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen [The Moomins and the Large Flood] (juvenile novel) 1945
Kometjakten [Comet in Moominland; translated by Elizabeth Portch] (juvenile novel) 1946; revised edition, published as Mumintrollet på kometjakt, 1956; second revised edition, published as Kometen kommer, 1968
Trollkarlens hatt [The Finn Family Moomintroll; translated by Elizabeth Portch] (juvenile novel) 1948; republished as The Happy Moomins, 1951
Muminpappans Bravader: Skrivna av Honom Själv [The Exploits of Moominpappa, Described by Himself; translated by Thomas Warburton] (juvenile novel) 1950; revised edition, published as Muminppans memoarer, 1968
Hur gick det sen? Boken om Mymlan, Mumintrollet och Lilla My [The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My; translated by Kingsley Hart] (picture book) 1952
Farlig midsommar [Moominsummer Madness; translated by Thomas Warburton] (juvenile novel) 1954
Trollvinter [Moominland Midwinter; translated by Thomas Warburton] (juvenile novel) 1957
Vem ska trösta Knyttet? [Who Will Comfort Toffle?; translated by Kingsley Hart] (picture book) 1960
Det osynliga barnet och andra berättelser [Tales from Moominvalley; translated by Thomas Warburton] (juvenile novel) 1962
Pappan och havet [Moominpapa at Sea; translated by Kingsley Hart] (juvenile novel) 1965
Sent i November [Moominvalley in November; translated by Kingsley Hart] (juvenile novel) 1970
Den farliga resan [The Dangerous Journey; translated by Kingsley Hart] (picture book) 1977
Moominstroll (juvenile novel) 1978
Skurken i muminhuset [with Per Olov Jansson] (juvenile novel) 1980
Två berättelser från havet (juvenile novel) 1984
Karin, min vän (juvenile novel) 1987
Visor från Mumindalen [with Lars Jansson and Erna Tauro] (juvenile novel) 1993
Anteckningar från en ö [with Tuulikki Pietilä] (juvenile novel) 1996
Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip (juvenile novel) 2006
Selected Other Works
Bildhuggarens dotter [The Sculptor's Daughter; translated by Kingsley Hart] (autobiography) 1968
Sommarboken [The Summer Book; translated by Thomas Teal] (novel) 1972
Dockskåpet och andra berättelser [The Doll's House and Other Tales; translated by W. Glyn Jones] (short stories and essays) 1978
Meddelande: Noveller i urval (short stories) 1998
W. Glyn Jones (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: Jones, W. Glyn. "Background, Ideas, and Influences." In Tove Jansson, pp. 1-13. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
[In the following essay, Jones argues that Jansson's literary canon displays a steady thematic evolution that carries through her early children's works and her later, more adult-centric narratives.]
The twentieth century has seen the emergence in Scandinavia of two children's writers, Tove Jansson and Astrid Lindgren, whose names have become household words throughout the world. They have both at an early stage created their own fantasy worlds, different as they are, centered in the one instance on the Moomin family and in the other on Pippi Longstocking, the first quiet, gentle, romantic at times, the other boisterous and full of fun. Both writers have, after creating their own fantasy worlds, felt the necessity to explore other fields. Astrid Lindgren has kept, broadly speaking, within the field of children's stories, though they reflect a vast register of mood and genre, whereas Tove Jansson has moved further and further away from the children's story into the realm of adult literature—which nevertheless has themes and motifs in common with her earlier work. Meanwhile, within the earlier creations, parallels have been sought and drawn between these two outstanding authors. Writing in the Danish newspaper Information in 1966, Ulla-Stina Nilsson argued that "Moomintroll becomes a dream figure in just the same way as Pippi Longstocking, whose great popularity without doubt can be ascribed to the fact that she is a girl doing just what she wants to do—and what we probably want to do but do not dare"1.
This article was written on the occasion of Tove Jansson's being awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, "the greatest distinction which can be made to a children's author." It was only one of the many awards and prizes she won. Her books have been translated into twenty-five languages, and she receives some fifteen hundred letters a year from enthusiastic devotees all over the world. The story goes that after publishing her picture book Who Shall Comfort Toffle?, Tove Jansson received a letter from an English child who wrote that he would send four pence a week to her to help comfort Toffle, and then he changed the sum to six pence. A slightly different version of this story is found in Ebba Elfving's article in Hufvudstadsbladet of 9 July 1976, in which the child in question is an American boy who at first promises five cents a year and then alters his offer to a once and for all payment of twenty-five cents!
The secret of Tove Jansson's remarkable popularity is not hard to learn. Her Moomin family represents what has been called a "liberal humanism," a slightly confused, tolerant, semi-Bohemian attitude to life that has been compared to the philosophy of Henry Miller or Jacques Tati, an opposition to the conformism that seems irrevocably to follow in the wake of commercialism and technical progress2. The Moomin world is a fantasy world, an escapist paradise even, but one that attracts children and adults alike because of the security it ultimately offers, even if that security is subject to outside threats and dangers. As early as spring 1963, Frederic and Boel Fleischer viewed Tove Jansson's world in this way in an article in the American Scandinavian Review:
… Tove Jansson's stories and illustrations caught on quickly, and a number of critics have already called them "Classics." At times one wonders whether somewhat older readers are not more moved and fascinated by the soft and sensitive illusions, the soap-bubble dreams of the individualistic characters who inhabit Moomin Valley, which is untouched by the modern age; when the characters' illusions burst they quickly develop new ones. Children are more fascinated by the Moomin family's adventures, their battle for survival against storms, floods, and other natural disasters, and the sudden appearance of frightening beasts. In Tove Jansson's works kindness always wins out over meanness, which children often accept as rather natural and adults tend to regard as wish-fulfilled illusion. In Moomin Valley the idealists and optimists are never defeated.3
Any philosophy to be found in the Moomin books seems to have been fortuitous, and Tove Jansson denies seeking to educate her readers: "I make no conscious effort to educate. I do not try to put over any particular view, least of all any ‘philosophy.’ I try to describe what fascinates and frightens me, what I see and remember, and I let it all take place around a family whose main characteristics are perhaps a kindly confusion, acceptance of the world around it and the very unusual way in which its members get on with each other"4. In this same discussion with Bo Carpelan, Tove Jansson touches on the accusation that she is an escapist. In answer to the suggestion that Moomin Valley is a paradise for escapists, she replies:
To be honest, isn't escapism an integral part of writing for children? At least it is with me. Let's put it this way: if I don't write to amuse or educate little children, I must presumably be writing for my own childish qualities. Either those I have lost or those I can't fit into an adult society, a rather discreet kind of escapism.5
The theme is taken up again in an unpublished manuscript:
Escapism, why not? … I know that it is supposed to be dreadfully negative. I suppose I am an escapist. I have enclosed a family in a valley paradise, surrounded them with lofty mountains on all sides and only given them a narrow outlet to the sea—which of course is itself an escapist symbol. Perhaps the excuse is that I am writing children's books—for surely children have the right to escape.
However, she adds that her books are written less for children than for herself, a significant comment, which may well be an indication of the forces that have led her away from children's books and turned her into a highly individual adult author6.
No author is born in a cultural or historical or national vacuum, and for some, a knowledge of the influences—cultural and social—brought to bear on them throughout their lives is important, even necessary, if their work is to be properly understood. Tove Jansson, however, is one of those who have the quality of timelessness; for her the Finnish national and cultural background certainly makes its impact, but it is of secondary importance in understanding her writing. The countless thousands of children the world over who read the Moomin books scarcely wonder about cultural backgrounds: they find themes of a timeless nature and with a universal appeal, and the character types must surely be recognizable whatever the background of the reader.
As for the significance of Tove Jansson's own life and background, interviews with her and articles about her, her childhood, or her life on the island to which she repairs in the summer all show clearly that there is a direct connection between what she writes in her books and what she has experienced. She has also admitted that people have often seen aspects of themselves in her characters, though she maintains that only two of the figures in the Moomin books are actual portraits: Moominmamma is based on her own mother and Too-ticky on the artist Tuulikki Pietilä. Apart from this, Tove Jansson is reticent about relating her life to her work, and published articles and interviews tend to be imprecise when it comes to details of her non-literary life.
Suffice it, then, to say that Tove Jansson belongs to the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. She was born of a Swedish mother and a Finland-Swedish father and brought up against the solidly middle-class background that the Swedish-speaking Finns of Helsinki represented; her own artistically minded parents, however, were less inclined to conform to the norms laid down by the respectable middle classes than were many other Finland Swedes. The obvious contrast between the narrow respectability of certain members of this class and the more relaxed attitude of her own immediate surroundings is doubtlessly responsible for some of the contrasts portrayed in her books between, for instance, the fillyjonks and hemulens on the one hand and the Moomin family on the other.
Modest as her background might have been, the home was middle class, and this is reflected in all Tove Jansson's work. Like many Finland-Swedes—indeed like many Finns in general—the family did move out of town and spend the summer months in the country or—in their case—on an island in the archipelago, where they occupied a cabin. The similarity has been pointed out between the Finland-Swedish ritual of closing down the summer residence for the winter and reopening and refurbishing it the following spring, and the way in which the Moomins close down their house to hibernate:
Life in summer residences in Finland was a very Finland-Swedish phenomenon. It was a way of life for fairly well-to-do and well-established people, and right up to the first world war it was the Swedish speakers who dominated the establishment.
And I (with my roots in that class) recognised Tove Jansson's playful portrayal of the middle class pattern which is so effortlessly merged with a Bohemian way of life. A traditional way of living, and yet with its unconventional features.7
Even the architecture of some of these Finnish summer residences, with their towers and romantic roofs, is reminiscent of the Moomin house—though that is supposed to have been inspired by an old-fashioned stove. The mixture of the petit bourgeois and the Bohemian is also pointed out by Lennart Utterström, who emphasizes that the Moomin family—and mutatis mutandi Tove Jansson's own family?—seldom consciously breaks with accepted concepts and conventions8.
There are in Tove Jansson's work occasional glimpses of rather bedraggled and woebegone creatures, but in general the surroundings reflect a certain standard of life, and her illustrations all represent sizable houses. The same holds true of the adult books: there are very few glimpses of the working classes in them, and whether the action takes place in Tove Jansson's native Helsinki or, occasionally, abroad, the solid middle classes usually assert themselves. There is no sign of social conflict and only here and there, of what could be called social awareness.
There is, however, a constantly recurring motif of security that is threatened from outside. It is not possible to explain this fully, though various reasons for the sense of lurking danger might be pointed out. While Tove was still a very small child, Finland underwent a bloody civil war between the Reds—the communists—and the Whites—the conservative forces—and it may well be that this left traces. Or perhaps the sense of belonging to a minority of 11 percent in a country where the majority was becoming increasingly influential played a part. Or perhaps it can be ascribed to the general sense of insecurity caused by events abroad as well as at home.
Tove Jansson herself makes no direct allusion to any of this in her work, and she has vehemently denied any political parallels, such as those that have been suggested in the conflict between the red spiders and the white hattifatteners in the short story, "The Secret of the Hattifatteners." She does, however, accept that the general situation in which she has been brought up has left its mark on her work:
Why not? It is a Finland-Swedish family I have described. And there may be traces of the isola- tion which is inevitably present in any minority. But it is done absolutely without pathos. They are content with each other, with their surroundings and the place in which they live. But of course they must have recognisable Finland-Swedish characteristics—that isn't intended to be either a good or a bad thing. It's simply how it is.9
Tove Jansson's family was "different" in Finland because on the one hand it was Swedish speaking—though this would scarcely be felt in the Swedish-speaking enclave—and on the other because it was a family of artists which maintained a strong artistic tradition with all this meant for the family's lifestyle. Her mother, the daughter of a Swedish clergyman, was Signe Hammersten Jansson, known by the pseudonym of Ham; she was first and foremost a highly gifted caricaturist, but she was also responsible for the design of many of Finland's banknotes and about two hundred Finnish stamps as well as a large number of book covers, illustrations, and maps. She was, according to all accounts, a practical woman who managed to combine her artistic activities with caring for her husband and three children as well as running a home and a cabin10. She used to tell stories to her children, and Tove Jansson acknowledges her debt to her for this and for the feeling of comfort and security she experienced as her mother sat near the stove in the dark studio.
Her father was the sculptor Viktor Jansson, known to his friends as Faffan. His artistic creations, some of which are seen on the dust cover of the autobiographical The Sculptor's Daughter, set their stamp on the home. Tove Jansson says that she has powerful visual memories of her childhood home:
I saw that studio much later, when other artists had been living in it and stamped it with their personalities. I saw how tiny it was, and how changed. But that did not spoil my original picture of the studio, big and mysterious with a fire in the stove, the shadows and the sculptures. Since then I have felt that any home without sculptures is empty.11
According to the author herself, both her parents were active in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, and her father in particular was of a very patriotic disposition. (One remembers Moominpappa, who on one occasion declares himself to be a staunch royalist.) Tove was the eldest of three children (her first brother, Per Olov, was born in 1920 and the second, Lars, in 1926), and she has emphasized that her childhood was a happy one despite uncertain financial circumstances. The members of the family were devoted to one another, but Tove felt herself particularly close to her mother. She has already been acknowledged as the model for Moominmamma, and the question will inevitably arise as to whether Viktor Jansson was the model for Moominpappa. The answer seems to be rather that certain of his characteristics have been borrowed, though Moominpappa falls short of being a re-creation of the author's father.
One aspect of Tove Jansson's work that strikes the reader is her love of islands and her fascination with storms. It seems that her father was at least in part responsible for this.
In the summer [my parents] rented a fisherman's cottage on an island in the eastern part of the Finnish archipelago; it was wild and beautiful and uninhabited. Every time there was a storm Father would take us out in the boat—he loved storms. We sailed to islets which were even wilder and more isolated, and spent the night under the sail during thunder-storms which were far more violent and dangerous than they are now; the waterspouts were higher, and when you got lost in the mushroom woods the autumn darkness was blacker.
We used to save shipwrecked smugglers. Father could waken us in the middle of the night to put out forest fires miles away from our island, and when the water began to rise he was delighted and said: I fear the worst.
But it was Mother who then lit the lamp in the evening.12
There is hardly a word in the account that cannot be directly related to the Moomin books and The Sculptor's Daughter, a demonstration beyond doubt of the close relationship between Tove Jansson's own experience and the poeticized reality of the Moomin world.
Tove Jansson has continued the family tradition of retiring to an island, and she comments on this in an unpublished manuscript, in which she uses Moominpappa's island as her point of departure:
That lonely island in the sea? Well, it was perhaps created less because I didn't like people than because I did like the sea. And if I am now moving out to an even smaller island out in the Finnish archipelago, it is because I have grown even fonder of the sea.
Tove Jansson's cottage "reminds one of an old-fashioned fisherman's cottage or pilot's house, a perfectly ordinary house with four windows, rag rugs, a rocking chair and so on. Even an ornate iron stove which it was difficult to find now that everything is black or white and artistically designed. In this cottage Tove works, writes, illustrates, paints"13. In another article, the same writer points out that Tove Jansson has done all the planning work on the island, which explains the obvious technical knowledge she exhibits in Moominpappa at Sea, with its glimpses of Pappa in his workshop and building breakwaters on his island.
Tove Jansson at an early age revealed her artistic propensities, and at the age of fifteen, after nine years at school, she went to study art in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Paris. She recalls that her father would not allow her to become a sculptor—but it is apparent that painting was the art form to which she was most attracted from the start.
My father was a sculptor, but he would never let us touch clay. He said it was enough with one sculptor, I think he tried to protect us. Well, then, I started as a painter and illustrator, and as a young woman I did a lot of illustrations for periodicals and newspapers. I designed book covers, anything at all; no one would buy my paintings, so I managed on illustrations. Later, I only illustrated my own books, but recently I have had some really interesting other jobs. I did them for Bonniers' Swedish versions of Alice in Wonderland and The Hunting of the Snark, and it was great fun, though very difficult.14
The principles guiding her in her illustrations are indicated by her in an article in Mediernas värld.
To illustrate a children's book gives me a feeling of being an intruder in alien territory. I only draw in order to make things clearer, to emphasise or to tone down. The illustrations are nothing but a note in the margin, an attempt to be "considerate." What is too frightening can be modified by a picture, what is not plain can be given a clear outline, a happy moment can be captured and prolonged.15
In view of the intimate relationship between illustration and text in the Moomin books (there are no illustrations to Tove Jansson's adult work with the sole exception of a late edition of The Summer Book ), it is interesting to note the indication in the first of the above quotations that it is difficult to illustrate the work of others. Tove Jansson herself feels a natural affinity between her illustrations and her text, and she realizes that illustrating her own text means the elimination of possible differences of interpretation between writer and illustrator.
The artists to whom she says she owes the greatest debt are the Impressionists, but she also mentions John Bauer16 (to whom she devotes some discussion in The Sculptor's Daughter ), Arosenius17, and Elsa Beskow18. A later interest has been old engravings, "those very intricate ones with masses of detail and mysterious landscapes and volcanoes in eruption."19 It may well be that these engravings have had their influence on some of her later illustrations, such as those in Moominpappa at Sea.
Tove Jansson has often been asked how she originally thought of the Moomintrolls. The inspiration for their shape at least appears to have come almost by chance.
The story may sound like an afterthought, but it is really true. In our house hidden away in the Finnish archipelago we used to write things upon the walls. One summer a lengthy discussion developed along the walls. It all started when my brother, Per Olov, jotted down a quasi-philosophical statement and I tried to refute it, and our dispute continued daily. Finally, Per Olov quoted Kant, and the controversy came to an immediate end as this was irrefutable. In annoyance, I drew something that was intended to be extremely ugly, something that resembled a Moomin. So, in a way, Immanuel Kant inspired the first Moomin.20
Although it had been her original intention to concentrate exclusively on painting, in 1938 she turned to writing. Her first book, The Little Trolls and the Great Flood —"a rather peculiar story for children that was sold in soft drink stands in Stockholm"21—was then published in Helsinki in 1945 and subsequently in Stockholm; from then onward the children's books took shape. In the mid-1940s, she began experimenting with strip cartoons in the Swedish-language paper Ny Tid, but it was not until 1954 that she made an international name for herself in this field with the Moomintroll cartoons which appeared in the London Evening News and were then syndicated all over the world in forty countries22. She continued this series for many years, gradually working on it with her brother Lars (Lasse) and finally leaving it entirely to him. She comments on this period of her life:
At first, when it was new to me, it was fun to work with strips. It was a new medium of expression…. After a while I found myself in a dreadful hunt for subjects, which is the curse of all comic strip writers. I had all the faces of the characters staring at me constantly and everywhere I went.23
This experience had its literary expression in the short story for adults, "The Strip Cartoon Artist," from The Doll's House.
According to an article in Hufvudstadsbladet, 9 April 1971, Tove Jansson was driven almost to despair over the demands made on her by her strip cartoon work. In the 1950s she had met the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, who "taught her to take a more relaxed attitude to life and take things as they came. And Tove gave Moomintroll difficulties instead of adventures"24. It was this same Tuulikki Pietilä who served as the model for Tooticki in Moominland Midwinter and The Invisible Child, the mentor who induces Moomintroll to accept the new reality with which he is surrounded.
The Moomintroll series continued until 1970, when the last of the novels, Moominvalley in November, appeared. Since then Moomin books have been sporadic and of a rather different nature—colored picture books with short texts. If, as appears to be the case, Tove Jansson has left the Moomins as her major work, it seems she is still tempted to take short, unassuming, and undemanding trips back into the fantasy world she created, a sign, perhaps, that although she has had to break new ground, the attraction of the children's books still remains. Again, she has commented on this:
My first books were very naive and ordinary stories intended for very little children, but I feel that since then there has been a clear line … in my work, in the course of which my books have become less and less childish. I finally reached the point when I simply couldn't write for children any more. I think this is quite a natural change; perhaps I wasn't sufficiently childish myself any longer.25
And she goes on to say that her move from the Moomin books was regretted by many people, but that it was necessary.
I am convinced that if a writer sits down with the sole intention of writing a children's book, the result will be poor. Whatever you do, you must do it because you want to do it, because of a need to express yourself in this way, and if you do it for any other reason the result will be pretty meagre.26
The question of literary influences inevitably arises, and the answer might at first seem surprising. Tove Jansson has herself listed some of them in a brief presentation of herself that she wrote in 1960:
As a little girl I was very fond of Arosenius' The Cat's Journey, and then came Elsa Beskow and Topelius27. The books which made the greatest impression on me as a young teenager were Kipling's Jungle Book, Conrad's Typhoon, Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, Burroughs' first Tarzan book, Curwood's Nomads of the North, Lagerlöf's28Herr Arnes penningar (Sir Arne's Money), Čapek's Krakatit, Hugo's Les travailleurs de la mer, London's The Sea Wolf, Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd and Karlfeldt's29Vildmarksdikter (Poems of the heath).
In her interview with Bo Carpelan, she produces much the same list, though she expands it slightly in a way that throws a good deal of light on her own approach to literature:
If everything goes wrong one day I can still take out some of the romantic and naive fairy tales by Topelius. Unless I choose science fiction or horror stories. They calm me down. Take Ray Bradbury, for instance: he works with such small means, but he makes events credible. And so he has a calming effect.30
She then adds that from the age of thirteen she avidly read everything that came her way:
Ham—my mother—used to get the books for which she designed covers, and I read everything she brought home. If it was a book she thought unsuitable for me—and she seldom thought that—all she needed to do was say: this is a very worthwhile historical novel, you should read it—and it remained unread. When I was forced out to have some fresh air I sat down behind a dustbin on the farm and went on reading. And at nights with an electric torch under the bedclothes.31
In a letter, Tove Jansson has added Collodi's Pinocchio and Jules Verne's Captain Grant's Children to these sources of inspiration, seeing the influence of Pinocchio in Tulippa's blue hair in Comet in Moominland and of the Jules Verne novel in the idea of the marooned Pappa sending his plea for help in a bottle32. On the other hand, she rejects what might look like an obvious influence, A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh, acknowledging certain similarities but stating that she did not read Milne until after she had started her own Moomin books.
Over the years Tove Jansson has become one of the most widely read of all Scandinavian authors. At the same time, she has had many exhibitions of her visual art and has been awarded a large number of prizes and medals, mainly for her books for children. Her fame as the creator of the Moomintrolls has spread still further, thanks to a number of television plays and series based on the Moomin family. She has also written a number of television plays for adults: "a little strange, with a touch of the horrific, to frighten the viewers"33. She has written a number of radio plays of a similar nature.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the success of the series, the Moomin books have made great demands on her time and her imagination. Her increasing preoccupation with human psychology (often the abnormal or overdimensioned aspects of human personality, which was apparent in some of the later Moomin books and occasionally in the very early ones) meant that these books, originally conceived for children, became more and more disguised adult literature. Consequently, over the past ten years or so, Tove Jansson has experimented with various forms of adult literature—the semiautobiographical novel, the short story, the novel—and with works for radio and television. As she has become more at home in the adult genre, she has shown an increasing intensity, until her latest volume of short stories, The Doll's House, stands as a new climax to her work. Everything seems to indicate that she has now found a medium in which she can express herself more freely than she could in the Moomin books. With hindsight it is apparent that her work as a whole shows a clear line of development: the children's books gradually take on a new character and merge into adult literature. This development is the theme of the present study.
1. Ulla-Stina Nilsson, "Mumindalen, vort genoplevede barndomsland," Information, 24 May 1966, p. 8.
3. Frederic and Boel Fleischer, "Tove Jansson and the Moominfamily," American Scandinavian Review, Spring 1963, p. 47.
4. Bo Carpelan, Interview, in Min väg till barnboken, ed. Bo Strömstedt (Stockholm, 1971), p. 102.
5. Ibid., pp. 97-98.
6. A similar comment is found in Tove Jansson's interview with Fleischer "Tove Jansson," p. 52.
7. Harriet Clayhill, "Drömmen om Muminhuset," Allt i Hemmet, no. 2 (1976), p. 29.
8. Lennart Utterström, "Möte med Mumin," Hufvudstadsbladet, 30 September 1973, p. 3.
9. W. Glyn Jones, "Tove Jansson. My Books and Characters," Books from Finland 11, no. 3 (1978): 93.
10. Look at Finland, no. 3 (1979), p. 47.
11. Private MS.
12. Private MS.
13. Ebba Elfving, "Muminmammans värld," Damernas värld, 20-28 June 1965, p. 19.
14. Jones, "Tove Jansson," p. 96.
15. "Trygghet och skräck i barnboken," Mediernas värld, Sveriges Radio, Stockholm 1977, p. 104.
16. John Bauer, Swedish artist (1882-1918).
17. Ivar Arosenius, Swedish artist and writer (1878-1909).
18. Elsa Beskow, Swedish children's writer (1874-1953).
19. Jones, "Tove Jansson," p. 97.
20. Fleischer, "Tove Jansson," p. 49.
22. "Moomintrolls in many ways," Books from Finland, no. 3 (1980), p. 128.
23. Fleischer, "Tove Jansson," p. 53.
24. At this point, the books seem to change from what might be called children's tales to novels proper, with the development of character and the consideration of problems that rightly belong to that genre.
25. Jones, "Tove Jansson," p. 91.
26. Ibid., p. 95.
27. Zachris Topelius, Finland-Swedish author (1818-98).
28. Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish author (1858-1931).
29. Erik Axel Karlfeldt, Swedish poet (1864-1931).
30. Carpelan, Interview, in Min väg till barnboken, ed. Strömstedt, p. 100.
32. Letter, 15 June 1981.
33. Jones, "Tove Jansson," p. 95.
Nancy Lyman Huse (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Huse, Nancy Lyman. "Equal to Life: Tove Jansson's Moomintrolls." In Webs and Wardrobes: Humanist and Religious World Views in Children's Literature, edited by Joseph O'Beirne Milner and Lucy Floyd Morcock Milner, pp. 135-46. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1987.
[In the following essay, Huse suggests that, thematically, Jansson's Moomin books fall somewhere between works of spiritual fantasy and humanist literature.]
In describing Tove Jansson's Moomintroll fantasies, Eleanor Cameron states that these 1966 Andersen Award books present one of the most unusual worlds in the realm of fantasy. Jansson's characters "are all beings created wholly out of her own imagination."1 The rounded, funny moomintrolls were originally cartoon characters developed by Jansson. They seem different from the animated toy characters of other comic, episodic fantasies, from the mythic creatures and talking beasts of spiritual or visionary fantasy, and even from such "domestic" beings as The Borrowers (sometimes used as a comparison for Jansson's work). Their land, Moominland, is not the kind of symbolic, coherent kingdom found in mythic fantasy, where the triumph of good over evil calls upon supra-human powers; nor does it challenge its creatures to the full use of human potential or lead them to ultimate maturation. Contrary to what we have come to expect in serious, interpretive literature, Jansson does not posit her world at conflict with the powers of the Dark, to use Susan Cooper's term, or engage in a maturation process to reach a balance between self and others, as in the stories of Wilbur the pig and Arrietty the Borrower. Nor does she set out to mock human vanity or simply spin child-toy adventures, as many fantasies which are neither spiritual quests nor humanistic searches do. Jansson's work does not fit into an easily defined position at either end of or even, perhaps, along the continuum between the ordered, mythic worlds of spiritual quest-fantasy and the progressive, rational worlds of humanistic tales.
She bases her characters in family relationships, perceived in much the same way modern psychology perceives them, but places them in a mythic world rich in strange and wonderful beings at whose center is the Moomin family. Moominland's coherence seems to rest in the theme of personal development and friendship, especially, but not exclusively, as experienced by the young Moomintroll, in the cycle of the seasons passed in a secure but stimulating menage. This fictive creation differs from tales of supra-human powers, even though Moominland is as magical as any fantasy world one can visit. Moominland is not a world which reflects a higher one, nor is it a country which demonstrates the foibles of our own. Instead, in her universally significant fantasy world Jansson celebrates the reality a child encounters with its alternating terror and joy. Her unique, comforting yet strikingly modern world view emerges somewhat randomly in the early Moomin books and with a powerful consistency in the later ones. Jansson's success in depicting a world view which is neither traditionally humanistic nor religious rests in her presentation of character, particularly the Moomin parents, and their relationships to each other and the natural world they inhabit. Two autobiographies clarify the significance of Jansson's own experience in shaping that world view and introduce questions about the relationship of her illustration and her writing.
When I began using the Moomintroll books in my children's literature classes a few years ago, this "originality" intrigued me. Jansson resisted description under the critical framework I was trying to establish with my students. Her galaxy of comic characters first caused me to focus on "originality" rather than on "convention" in describing Jansson. Moominland is inhabited by creatures of varied ages and attitudes: Snufkin, the freedom-loving wanderer; Sniff, the babyish, kangarooish companion of Moomintroll; Moomintroll himself, who looks like a comic rhinoceros with a nice long tail but feels and thinks like a young person of sensitivity and imagination; Moominmamma and Moominpappa, his indispensable parents and fellow adventurers; the Fillyjonk, a reed-like spinster who usually likes to clean her house; and, generated over more than three decades, a host of woodies, creeps, hemuelens and other newly-coined but soon familiar folk.
I was also impressed by the perceptive statement about the value and wonder of life which was evident even in the early, episodic, almost haphazard tales, Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll. 2 World view really becomes the significant dimension in discussing Jansson's originality, for in later works such as Tales from Moominvalley, Moominland Midwinter, Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November she seems to be consciously developing an overarching thematic structure. The stories depend on continual movement between the core of physical security best represented by Moominmamma's commodious handbag, and the metaphysical risk involved in experiencing and even becoming one with cosmic phenomena like the sea, the seasons, and the sky. "Self-definition in a benevolent universe" is a possible epigrammatic description of Jansson's theme, but this fails to include the lov- ing tension between individual and community essential to her version of self-definition, as well as the cataclysmic proportions of the floods, the storms, the alternately barren or lush topography, and the dark pools and hidden glades which the creatures love and fear.
Central to Jansson's vivified world view are the Moomin parents, particularly Moominmamma. Moominmamma is the core of security in Moominland. She is the pivotal character whose meaning and presence makes Jansson's work both distinctly personal and universal, and who enables this artist to construct narratives which neither hold up external standards of perfection nor suggest that human (troll) nature is in need of improvement. With her strong, loving mother figure, Jansson seems to defy our usual expectations that serious literature is in some way heroic, in some way about our need to improve. In Moominland, it is true, creatures do change—especially in the later books. But the difference between Jansson and many other writers is that in her books there is no imperative for this change, either with the other characters in a tale or with the reader. The creature has a place and will be loved regardless of inner or outer change or the lack of it. Moominmamma does not view others as flawed. As nearly as I have seen it done, Jansson captures in art the notion of "mother" as it exists for the very young child. Recalling her childhood impression of growing up in a "tremendously rich and generous and problem-free home,"3 the writer comments that she was unaware of the economic difficulties of her artist parents, as well as of other problems they faced. "Anything was possible, everything was exciting … My mother, especially, had an unusual capacity for mixing stern morality with an almost exhilarating tolerance, a quality I have never met with in anyone else."4 In Jansson's fantasy world, Moominmamma does provide essential values and norms, but she will not exclude those who do not meet them. She is friend or mamma to the fussy fillyjonk, the obnoxious mymble (a round, contented, free type) and the introverted hermit-fisherman of Moominpappa at Sea. Existence gives one an intrinsic right to Moominmamma's love.
One of Jansson's best stories, "The Invisible Child," collected in Tales from Moominvalley and, fortunately, anthologized in Arbuthnot, is a clear example of the troll mamma's central role in the books.5 Ninny, introduced to the Moomintroll household by their fuzzy-haired friend Too-ticky, is the "invisible child" who has faded away from sight because she had been "frightened the wrong way by a lady who had taken care of her without really liking her,"6 the icily ironical kind" who ridiculed instead of scolded. At first, the Moomins can see only the silver bell and ribbon the child wears around her neck. Mamma declines the suggestion to take Ninny to a doctor, and tucks her in just as she tucks in Moomintroll, leaving "the apple, the glass of juice and the three striped pieces of candy everyone in the house was given at bedtime" (p. 113). Luckily, a recipe left by Granny has a few lines for a medicine "if people start getting misty and difficult to see." Even before she starts to take the medicine, however, Ninny's paws—"very small, with anxiously bunched toes"—appear (p. 114). Though Ninny's paws fade each time she is frightened by bumbling family members, Moominmamma's strong affirmation of the way she is causes more and more of her to appear. Wearing a new pink dress and hair ribbon made from Mamma's shawl, Ninny soon lacks only a face and a sense of humor. The medicine doesn't seem to have any more power, so Moominmamma decides that "many people had managed all right before without a head, and besides, perhaps Ninny wasn't very good-looking" (p. 122).
When Ninny, terrified of the sea, notices Pappa threatening (teasingly) to push Mamma off the dock, the invisible child hisses, screams, bites Pappa's tail, and appears at last in full face—snub-nosed, redheaded. Startled Moominpappa falls into the water himself, and Ninny shouts with laughter—now the most uninhibited child in the family. Security has given Ninny the power to act on her emotions.
Numerous examples of Moominmamma's unconditional, intuitive love and its role as the basis for action and the central value of the books appear even in the early stories. In Comet in Moominland, when Moomintroll rushes off into danger to rescue a pet, his mother waits quietly and alone outside of the cave which shelters the other creatures, until her son returns. In Finn Family Moomintroll, she alone knows her child when he has been physically transformed by the goblin's hat. She is seen at the beginning of Moominsummer Madness carving a bark boat for Moomintroll—the first of the season, which always goes to him. Although interrupted by an enormous flood and a summer of foreign adventure (including a hilarious interlude in the theater), she remembers, without being asked, to complete her gift by carving a dinghy for the tiny boat. She thus seals the experience of the summer within the safe and pleasant rituals of home and the now tranquil sea. When she wakes from hibernation in Moominland Midwinter (moomintrolls hibernate with their stomachs full of pine needles) she joins with her child in enjoying the early spring even though his winter hospitality has emptied the pantry of jam and pressed the silver tray into service as a sled. "Mother, I love you terribly," Moomintroll tells her;7 this is his realization after a winter awake, during which he has learned, "One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone" (p. 143). In the last Moomin books, Jansson depicts Moominmamma, too, as someone who needs time to herself; yet she remains an expert at getting the family off on picnics when danger threatens.
As a literary creation, Moominmamma has as yet few peers, for as Too-Ticky remarks, very few stories are written about those who welcome heroes home. Beyond her loving tolerance and acceptance, Moominmamma exemplifies the ability to let people alone. She thus provides both absolute freedom and absolute security, essential to wholeness but not a way of shaping a bildungsroman.
Jansson's autobiography, Sculptor's Daughter, offers us much direct evidence of the experiences which forged such a unique world view. The incidents she chooses to relate from her childhood clearly demonstrate how dependent the Moomintroll books are on her own experience and on her memories of her parents. For example, she narrates a mood-piece in which, "doing just what she wanted to do," she burns old rolls of film left from her mother's work as an illustrator, simply to enjoy the sight and smell of the burning. In Moominland Midwinter, this odd activity is the choice of Moominmamma in her encounter with early spring. Other physical descriptions based on her childhood memories, such as the experience of enjoyable ocean storms and tidal disturbances which reveal lunar landscapes, and fascination with candles deemed "interesting" because they might burn nearby walls—all examples of the secure child venturing out into the unfamiliar with confidence and exhilaration—are incorporated into the fantasies as very natural aspects of Moomin life.
Two episodes in Sculptor's Daughter give charming testimony to the origins of Moominmamma. The child-narrator describes the bohemian parties given by her colorful father, all dependent for success on being "improvised" at the last minute. "Mummy has everything ready"—a well-stocked pantry so one can "improvise something."8 The ideal life must include openness, freedom, spontaneity; yet the enjoyment of these things depends on the core of safety, the design and framework within which one acts. The notion of "making a whole" of things, of being equal to the task of arranging the reality one encounters as flux, and of seeking out danger in order to make yet more beautiful designs, is intrinsic to the Moomin tales. This same secure bravado and potential artistry is apparent in an early memory Jansson has of building a golden calf (taken, alas, to be a lamb by her grandmother) for the purpose of "clamoring for God's attention." Such spirit as that of the five-year-old would-be-idolator-sculptor, and of the Moomins themselves, is explained by the islands of complete security and safety in Jansson's memoir. The most notable for its relationship to her mother, and to Moominmamma, occurs when Tove and her mother are snowed in alone for several days. Her mother tells her they have gone into hibernation: "Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!" (p. 165). The child's delight in their underground life is complete; she laughs, shouts I LOVE YOU and throws cushions, rejoicing alone with her wonderful mother in front of the fire. The image of utter safety, repeated in various ways in the autobiography, is extended beyond the hibernation the Moomins engage in, to the light on the verandah of the blue house, a power so great that it draws all creatures to it.
The narration of Sculptor's Daughter, by a child whose age may be five or six, spells out the premises of life as Jansson deals with it in Moominvalley. Maturing, moving from childhood to adulthood, is not the issue. Security and the courage to live are focal. Self-affirmation, rooted in a secure love relationship and eagerness for experience, is not a goal but a reality in the stories; in some sense, the tales are metaphoric shouts of joy and love. In demonstrating the child's exhilaration, Jansson seems to be one of those writers who, according to Arthur N. Applebee, shows the implications of a familiar paradigm rather than challenges beliefs.9 Jansson's work constitutes a series of images of a familiar paradigm rather than a conflict-centered drama. Travel and discovery are frequent in the tales, but occur as a result of the undemanding love at the center of each book; adventure is a response intrinsic to reality as much as mother's love is inherent in reality. Going forth into the unknown is a natural function, like breathing and eating. To a large extent, travel and adventure constitute the "Pappa" side of life, but they are narrated in reference to the "Mamma" source of security.
The light on the verandah has its deepest meaning when it burns for a returning voyager. The core of safety must center in a whirlpool, a raging storm, a comet's path, or its value as a refuge and haven is lost. From time to time, Moominpappa (and Moomintroll) must venture out, away from the verandah, to explore the world. For Moominpappa, this is a way of fueling his art, the writing of memoirs and the keeping of diaries. While the journey-quest device seems a more conventional element than the intuitive, accepting home-image, the Adventure (Moominpappa's boat) also has its origins directly in the writer's childhood. Her father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson, "gave the necessary background of excitement."10 The autobiography reflects the wildness of his parties and music, the antics of his numerous pets, the nerve-wracking but hallowed time of casting a mold in the studio, and his Viking love for the challenge of a storm at sea. It was his choice to spend each summer with the family on an island in a fisherman's cottage, creating the sources and settings for some of Jansson's adult books as well as the Moomin tales.
While the Sculptor's Daughter offers a rather clear explanation of Jansson's central thematic impulse, it is The Summer Book which explains the intimate relationship Jansson enjoys with nature which is essential to the Moomin books. The Summer Book is the story of a young child and an old woman passing their summers on an island in the Gulf of Finland.11 This work, drawn from Jansson's adult experience as well as from her childhood, recreates the strength and beauty of lives so much a part of the sea that the child is certain she has conjured up an especially fierce storm by her prayers on a too-quiet day. She needs to know the limitations of her own powers in relation to the wild, churning sea, yet her confidence in these powers must be preserved. Thus, her grandmother takes credit and blame for the terrible storm. Belief in the mind's power to interact with natural forces occurs repeatedly in the Moomin books, but without recourse to supernatural powers. It is Moominpappa's boisterous confidence which supplies the energy for the episodic adventures from which the family sometimes needs the rescue of a Moominmamma picnic.
Encounters with the natural world within and without the Happy Valley, where the round blue Moominhouse and its verandah shelter the extended family of creatures who happen along, fit neither a good-versus-evil pattern nor a nature-versus-culture one. The sea, the most pervasive and decisive force and image in the books, is the object of Moominpappa's scientific scrutiny until his child tells him that the sea "seems to do just what it likes … There's just no rhyme or reason in it."12 The sea is a living thing, "a weak character you can't rely on," unpredictable as a person and just as worthy of love, respect, and tolerance. Pappa declares, "It's an enemy worth fighting, anyway," as the little trolls shout over the breakers, equal to the task of braving the ocean and making friends with it. Like other of their friends such as the ski-enthusiast hemuelen (another funny rhino-type with an elongated snout suggesting the inherent qualities of the bureaucrat who loves to arrange other people's lives), the sea is a fearsome but wonderful mix to be accepted as it is. The trolls and their companions are part of the mysterious tides, storms, and sunshine; the essence of life is experience, the unfolding experience of a child who knows the incredible terror of separation, yet knows even more fully the comfort and safety of a parent's presence.
In The Summer Book, a seafaring neighbor elicits the comment: "A person can find anything if he takes the time, that is, if he can afford to look. And while he's looking, he's free, and he finds things he never expected" (p. 67). Almost a summary of Jansson's work in the Moomin books, the comment especially describes her father's zest for life and Moominpappa's intrepid curiosity. With its assumption that "looking" is essential to a fully realized life, the statement calls attention to the essentially visual nature of the Moomin books. As the daughter of two artists and a painter herself, Jansson has created a fantasy world in which sensory observation and stretching the limits of experience are vital, and occur as a natural part of living. Not only the themes of her books, but her illustrations of them, exhibit the cozy security in the midst of chaotic adventure Jansson offers as a child's eye view of the world.
The illustrations are full of the sweet absurdities and intense enjoyment characteristic of the Moomins. A well-educated artist, Jansson has extended her intuitive, spatial powers into her verbal constructs. This is a significant factor in her use of emotion as the real "inner logic" of her fantasies—emotion not subject to critical evaluation, but simply presented as "being" rather than "becoming." Hers is not a linear artistry; while the early books use more loosely bound episodes and the later ones more emphasis on "states of mind" (really "states of feeling"), the pictures remain constant and show that each Moomin book is about the loving embrace of unfolding reality. Jansson says that her works are centered in love—"I love my characters and I love my readers"—and that she writes for the "ones easily frightened."13
Clearly, Jansson's own artistic sensitivity, rooted in her childhood with her loving, daring parents, has made her aware of the terrors of separation, of not belonging, of being in actual physical danger. Her childhood in Finland was upset by World War I, a fact which has caused Scandinavian critics to assert that her works are about security in catastrophe.14 She has even been compared with Harry Martinson (Swedish winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1974) because of her tenderness and cosmic anxiety.15 Just as the "Mamma" core of the Moomin books sets them apart from such domestic adventure tales as those of Laura Ingalls Wilder (where the father figure is far more important to the narrative than the mother), the "Pappa" quest for danger enlarges the scope of the works and validates the security theme. The presence of fear, Jansson believes, is as strong a principle in childhood as the presence of love.16 Thus, her books have fear as their "negative" side. The crushing waves, the burning comet, the desolate island, the enormous flood, are met in love.
Significant examples of this duality occur throughout the books; the clearest may be the "Groke," a creature who seems to represent the Nordic cold. Her name is the Swedish word for "growl," and she is the closest to a "pure evil" the Moomin books have. Wherever the Groke sits, she turns the ground to a frozen grave. Yet, Moominmamma says the Groke is lonely; it is her doom never to be liked by anyone. Moomintroll, disliking her as everyone does, nonetheless leaves a lamp burning for her at night when the family is living on an island in Moominpappa at Sea. He realizes that the lamp is her one comfort, even though if she comes too close to the light she will put it out forever. Characteristically, Jansson does not explain why Moomintroll is not afraid of the Groke, beyond establishing the general principle that nothing in the world need be shunned. While such plot incidents suggest a joyful response even to the most awesome natural phenomena, the illustrations do so even more effectively. The books are replete with them; the creatures tumble up and down the pages. Strategically placed full-page drawings throughout the series are deliberately used to allay the terror the printed word may cause the child reader.17 Jansson's definition of herself as an artist by profession, her essentially nonlinear story-telling, and her dependence on illustration to mitigate the fear aroused by verbal constructs all demonstrate the existential nature of her work.
The difficulty of discussing a graphic artist in a print medium may be one reason why literary critics outside of Scandinavia have not found Jansson a rich subject for analysis; readers unfamiliar with her work need to look at it as much as they need to listen to it in the act of reading the stories or reviews of them. Discussion of a few full-page illustrations which mitigate fear through reassuring design will, I hope, make more vivid the abandon I am suggesting as the mood of the Moomin books. Unfortunately, readers of the English and American editions miss the use of color to create an "undersea" effect in the original illustrations.
In Comet in Moominland, one of the earliest, most catastrophic and least domestic of the books, the illustrations are especially effective in their mitigating role. At the end of the book, the creatures huddle in a cave waiting for the descent of a huge, flaming comet, pictured as a frightening spectacle (p. 187). Yet the illustrated page before this, and the one after it, show respectively the waiting animals round-eyed with fear while nonetheless safely huddled together; and Moominmamma, handbag and all, giving a solid hug to the most frightened creatures. Finn Family Moomintroll, also filled with the terrors of the unpredictable, has a marvelous plate showing the way the Moomin drawing room looks when it is accidentally (via the hobgoblin's hat, a device like the magic pebble which trips up Sylvester in William Steig's classic) turned into a florid jungle. Creatures swing on jungle creepers from the hurricane lamp to the drapery rods; they look afraid, but the picture is funny. In Tales from Moominvalley, perhaps the best of Jansson's work and as fine as any children's book I have read, a fillyjonk knows that something terrible is going to happen before a wild ocean storm shatters the knick-knacks, furniture and window-glass she spends her time fussing with. The picture (p. 57) shows her standing in the midst of her possessions as they are crashing about. Significantly, she is unharmed by the storm, and in fact freed by it to sit on the beach and know real safety there. While the picture itself could be terrifying were it not for the funny-looking fillyjonk, the illustrated storm becomes concrete and better known, more fully experienced by the reader, and thus less frightening.
In the last of the books to date, Moominvalley in November, an excellent tale in which an assortment of creatures travel to Moomin Valley to visit the trolls, only to find that they have gone off in the Adventure, the pictures convey the sense of separateness the creatures bring with them and retain despite their becoming used to one another, family-like, during their stay. One plate (p. 154), used as the cover design for the paperback edition, shows them—each representative of various stages from infancy (Toft) to old age (Grandpa Grumble), and various modes of life (settled spinster, itinerant musician, bureaucrat)—assembled on the verandah. Each is markedly different from the others in appearance; all are shown in the relaxed complacency of daily family life. This picture follows a more frenzied domestic scene in which the fillyjonk leads an assault known as spring cleaning before she leaves, recovered from the scare which brought her to visit Moominmamma in the first place. The fears each of the six had responded to in making their journey to the valley have been dealt with through the simple actions of keeping the household going. Only Toft, the baby-creature, waits on the dock as Moominmamma and her family return; the others, grown-ups, have gone home—unchanged from their essential selves. Knowing they have been loved and loving, they are equal to life.
The self-affirmation and individualism which constitute Jansson's world view, with her exuberance for life and thus for human nature, cannot be dismissed as a light-hearted, truth-dodging representation of existence. Viewed as a whole, and with contemplation of the illustrations in relation to the text, the Moomin books give a needed sense of the beauty of life to the modern child. Neither the all-encompassing framework of spiritual fantasy (a type often categorized as the "highest," most valuable kind)18 nor the witty self-criticism of the rational humanist offers the kind of celebration of new life which must ground a human being in a world which eludes totalized mythic explanations and can often seem too disappointing under the satirist's pen. Jansson's consistent joy does not omit terror, but—and in this respect she does what other serious writers do—enables the reader/viewer to include the terrifying among the familiar, through the process of discovery and experimentation typical of childhood.
The child-protagonist, Moomintroll, need not change. Like the sea, his life is one of flux, of unpredictability, variation and surprise. In the early books, he is more apt to be on an external odyssey, in the later (beginning with his acquaintance with winter in Moominland Midwinter ) on an inner journey. Nonetheless, each book shows him loving and being loved, and acting in response to the natural world. As an individual, Moomintroll is exceptionally sensitive and dreamy—a presumed self-portrait of Jansson herself. Just as her funny, fussy fillyjonks and stubborn, dull hemuelens are adults who are loved as they are, and who are free to change or not to change as they determine for themselves, so Jansson's cast of child-characters demonstrates the principle of being-loved-as-one-is. Even more than Moomintroll, the other child characters tend to be artfully unchanging.
Little My, a tiny mymble or self-absorbed, uninhibited, life-celebrating creature, is the adopted sister of Moomintroll who says what only a "brat" can say. She is the one who goes sledding in Moominmamma's tea-cosy, tells more fibs even than a Whomper (who tells so many he has to go to bed at sundown in Tales from Moominvalley ), and who asks Ninny if she wants a biff on the nose when the poor thing is still the terrified invisible child. Little My is indestructible, and glories in her own being; no one tells her, or expects her, to grow up. Toft, another baby-creature, is one of the "easily frightened," who are in danger from too much fearing, too much separation from the core of safety. He knows he belongs in Moomin Valley, knows he will be a welcome sight as the Moomins return at the end of the last tale. Though they needed to be away and alone, there is no doubt about his place with them. In fact, he has chosen to grow a little bit, to alter his idyllic conception of the Moomins to include the notion that, like him, they are all at times sad or angry; however, had he remained as unaware of others as he had been at the start of the book, his embrace from Moominmamma would have been as warm.
Speaking of her own creatures in the tone of tolerance and affirmation her mother character projects, Jansson says, "What would happen to this world of ours if a misabel [gloomy creature who finds a home in the theater exactly suited to her tragic sense] suddenly acted like a mymble?"19
Although Tove Jansson has received little more than generalized praise or quick dismissal from critics outside of Scandinavia who include her because she is an Andersen medalist but rarely discuss her in detail, she is the object of a good deal of scholarship in Sweden. Moreover, she is enormously popular there, even with the dominant sociological critics, who seem to forgive her uncritical tales because she offers something "necessary" to childhood.20 Various comparisons to fantasists such as John Bunyan and Lewis Carroll have been suggested; a French critic, Isabelle Jan, states that Jansson resembles realistic writers such as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott more than she does fantasists.21 Jan's comment is especially interesting, for she dramatizes the fact that our usual notion of "fantasy" assumes a significant encounter with the supernatural, or with some failing inherent in human nature or reality itself. Jansson's celebration of storms, modeled on her father but enabled by her mother, shows that certain artists evade our categories at the same time that they enlarge and clarify them. An original mythology; a dazzling image of autonomy: Jansson offers both.
1. Eleanor Cameron. The Green and the Burning Tree. New York: Little, Brown, 1969, p. 12.
2. Moomin books have appeared in twenty-two languages, beginning in 1946. Jansson's English publisher is Ernest Benn. In the United States, most of her books have been brought out by Henry Z. Walck, Inc. In the 1970's, her books have been available in Avon paperbacks. I have used these except where indicated below. Titles and dates of U.S. publications are as follows: Comet in Momminland, 1959; Finn Family Moomintroll, 1951; Exploits of Moominpappa, 1966; Moominsummer Madness, 1961; Tales from Moominvalley, 1963; Moominland Midwinter, 1962; Moominpappa at Sea, 1968; and Moominvalley in November, 1972. At least two other titles, and comic books about the Moomins, have appeared in England but not in America.
3. Jansson, quoted in Eva von Zweigbergk, Barnboken i Sverige 1750-1950. Stockholm: Raben and Sjogren, 1965, p. 468.
5. Tove Jansson. Tales from Moominvalley, Trans. Thomas Warburton. New York: Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1963.
6. Tales, p. 109. Subsequent references in the text are to this edition.
7. Tove Jansson. Moominland Midwinter, Trans. Thomas Warburton. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1962, p. 159. Subsequent references are to this edition.
8. Tove Jansson. Sculptor's Daughter, Trans. Kingsley Hart. New York: Avon Books, 1976, p. 40. Subsequent references are to this edition.
9. Arthur N. Applebee. The Child's Concept of Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 24.
10. Jansson, quoted in Anne Commire, ed., Something about the Author, v. 3. New York: Gale, 1972, p. 90.
11. Tove Jansson. The Summer Book, Trans. Thomas Teal. New York: Random House, 1974. Subsequent references are to this edition.
12. Tove Jansson. Moominpappa at Sea, Trans. Kingsley Hart. New York: Avon, 1977, p. 158.
13. Tove Jansson, quoted in Stromstedt, p. 97.
14. von Zweigbergk, p. 469.
15. Birgitta Goteman, in Tove Jansson pa Svenska, ed. Birgit Antonsson. Stockholm: Uppsala, 1976, p. 72.
16. Jansson, in Stromstedt, p. 101.
18. Ruth Nodelman Lynn. Fantasy for Children. New York: Browker, 1979.
19. Jansson, quoted in von Zweigbergk, p. 470.
20. Lars Backstrom, in Antonsson, p. 71.
21. Isabelle Jan. On Children's Literature. London: Allen Lane, 1973, p. 120.
Jansson, Tove. Comet in Moominland. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1959.
Jansson, Tove. Exploits of Moominpappa. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1966.
Jansson, Tove. Finn Family Moomintroll. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1951.
Jansson, Tove. Moominland Midwinter. Trans. by Thomas Warburton. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1962.
Jansson, Tove. Moominpappa at Sea. Trans. by Kingsley Hart. New York: Avon, 1977.
Jansson, Tove. Moominsummer Madness. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1961.
Jansson, Tove. Moominvalley in November. New York: Avon, 1972.
Jansson, Tove. Tales from Moominvalley. Trans. by Thomas Warburton. New York: Henry Z. Walck, 1963.
Nancy Huse (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Huse, Nancy. "Tove Jansson and Her Readers: No One Excluded." Children's Literature 19 (1991): 149-61.
[In the following essay, Huse discusses the importance of Jansson's frequent interaction and correspondence with her young readers and how it affected the Moomin series as a whole.]
Tove Jansson has not written a Moomintroll novel since 1970, when Moominvalley in November left the Moomins somewhere at sea, with only the youngest member of their extended household, Toft, awaiting their return. Those who know the Moomins are alive, however, include the large number of Jansson readers whose twelve cartons of letters, drawings, and artifacts (such as a pebble found by a four-year-old in Sweden, a purse for Moominmamma's handbag from a Japanese woman, a condensed thesis from a British psychologist) are stored in the Åbo Akademi library in Åbo (Turku), Finland.1 While many writers receive such mail, few engage in extensive correspondence with their readers, and fewer still seem to depend on such correspondence as a way of keeping intact a hardwon psychological stance intrinsic to ongoing work as an artist. For three decades, Jansson answered personally the approximately two thousand letters she received each year. An examination of this reader-writer interaction provides insight into Jansson's particular history. It also suggests some of the implications of the adult-child connection in literature, when the adult draws from her socialization as a daughter to create art and the child perceives the adult woman's ambivalence about the act of writing truthfully. Furthermore, it underscores the importance of children's responses in the literary system.
The daughter of two visual artists, the sculptor Viktor Jansson and the illustrator-engraver Signe Hamer Jansson, and a member of Finland's Swedish-speaking minority, Tove Jansson was educated as a painter. But the stories she constructed around her Moomin cartoons marked a transition to verbal art and to a life that continued her family's aesthetic tradition while delineating a new channel for it. Despite the difficulty of producing new fiction based on her adult identity, Jansson maintains her ties to her birth family and to her child readers via continuing contact with the Moomin family, thereby demonstrating the complex female perspective discussed by Nancy Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering) and Carol Gilligan (In a Different Voice).
Gilligan's work in developmental psychology indicates that women mature into "the vision that everyone will be responded to and included, that no one will be left alone or hurt" (63). According to Gilligan, women are socialized to preserve relationships, achieving integrity by caring for others while defining their own needs. Jansson, in a letter to a librarian, simply says, "One can't very well leave the letter of a child unanswered." Unlike Michel Tournier, however, who writes gleefully of his exchanges and visits with children but seems to view his young readers as clearly separate from his own identity (183), Jansson's immersion in her correspondence and visits with children seems directly related to her understanding of her moral selfhood. This is evident in some of her replies, such as the thoughtful and lengthy letter she writes to an American girl who wonders if the bombing of Hiroshima could in any way be justified by the creator of the Happy Valley. Persistently in such letters Jansson rejects an end-justifying-means ethic, yet she credits her correspondents with forcing her to confront questions she has avoided.
Such a perspective involves balancing rights and responsibilities, aggression and tenderness; it differs from twentieth-century images of maturity as independence and separateness, and of art as a unique product of isolation or alienation. Jansson acts the way a writing mother is said to do, alternating between "‘resentment and tenderness, negation of the child and reaching out for the child’" (Adrienne Rich in Suleiman, 366).
The first Moomin book, Smaatrollen och den Stora Oversvamningen (The Small Troll and the Big Flood ), appeared in 1942, when Jansson was twenty-eight. From the episodic adventure structure of the first few novels (there are nine novels and a collection of stories in the series), the books evolved into complex psychological fantasy, with accompanying shifts in illustration style from romantic to surreal (Hollander). A story collection, published in Swedish as Det Osynliga Barnet (The Invisible Child, 1963) and in English as Tales from Moominvalley, was followed by two additional novels, Moominpappa at Sea (1965) and Moominvalley in November (1971), exploring adult-child relationships and the aging process. In 1966, Jansson received the Hans Christian Andersen medal. Over the next decade, she gradually separated her writing from her drawing, seeing fiction as a means of exploring adult themes and pictures as a way of providing children with humor and support. Continuing her children's literature involvement only with Moomin picture books, the writer has since produced a number of stories, novels, and autobiographical works for a sophisticated adult audience.
Across the manuscript of her first short story for adults, "The Listener" (1971), Jansson scrawled "Inte for barn!" (not for children); her theme in this and later fiction is the power of language, a "mind-game called Words That Kill—." Despite her wish to keep children at a distance from such themes, to avoid projecting her own needs onto them over a long process of accepting and articulating a lesbian identity (interview), many child readers have traced themes of alienation, doubt, artistic isolation, and maturation in the Moomin series books which precede Jansson's conscious attempt to write only for adults. The children's letters, and Jansson's replies to them, suggest how Jansson's creative process depends on the links to her own childhood that the Moomins represent. The correspondence also shows that—despite notions of children's radical difference from adults which lead such critics as Glyn Jones to assert that the later Moomin novels are not children's books at all, and that children "do not interpret"—young readers' responses are in fact rich strategies for explicating and extending the Moomin books as literary texts.
By some criteria Jansson's inability to prevent children from "reading" her own deepest concerns could signal the writer's lack of control of her craft. For example, Michael Egan has used the term "Double Address" to identify a convention of children's literature whereby writers explore their unconscious while seeming not to (46). Yet to call Jansson an unskilled writer would be preposterous. A better explanation for the responses her work evokes from children lies in the novels themselves, where adults and children have richly connected lives. Children who write comments like "Why don't you write a book of Moomin poems" or "on the laws of nature according to a whomper" or who show keen sensitivity in observing that "the books are getting sadder and sadder" with advice such as "You like November best. I'll read it again if you'll read Midwinter (my favorite) again" demonstrate first-rate ability to interpret. Contrary to some developmental theory (Piaget's, for example), such childreaders can enter into the viewpoints of others, and they provide a valuable, often whimsical ("Do snorks have pockets?") commentary unavailable in reviews or formal criticism of the books. Their mode of interpretation centers on producing new versions of the books they read. Many write creatively in the persona of Snufkin or Sniff, addressing their letters not to Jansson but to Moominmamma; and new characters (such as "Smicker"), new forms (such as "Snufkin's log book"), or new plot ideas (such as "Snufkin as Heraclitus") abound. This process makes the children "collaborator(s) in the polysemic life of the text" (Corti 44), disseminating Jansson's characters and ideas within the literary system, somewhat like directors who both replicate and alter Shakespeare's texts. Perhaps because of a general devaluing of metaphor and playful language, children's discourse seems unrelated to interpretation or criticism. Yet in an era when many critics have deliberately engaged in playful elaborations of texts, it may be possible to recognize children's abilities as interpreters.
Though Jansson's lesbian orientation has remained hidden from them, child readers have recognized and empathized with her shifting existential beliefs, the yearning of the artist for solitude and of the person for affection, and the questioning of the nature of reality and illusion. Frequently children exchanged letters with Jansson over a period of years because her combined sense of responsibility and pleasure in the correspondence prolonged it. "I can't resist the little devils" is one bemused description of her letter-writing; she also describes herself as "cornered" by these readers (interview). Thus, she articulates in the letters to children her dual wish for relationality and solitude. To Japanese children who ask her what she would do if she learned of her imminent death, she writes, "I would walk along the sea with one I love best and not betray" (that is, not cause pain). To a reader who loves Jansson's poet-philosopher Snufkin, Snufkin, she comments ruefully, "He is free to come and go as he wishes and be silent without a bad conscience." More than once, Jansson has defended writers who, like Astrid Lindgren, send printed messages to children who write to them. But the children who address her as "Dear Moominmamma" may have correctly interpreted the centrality of that character's pre-oedipal, steady presence in the author's own personality—despite her admiration for the freer Snufkin.
An example of the creative tension in the correspondence is Jansson's habit of pasting an insightful letter on her studio wall or carrying one (as Moominmamma would) in her handbag, hoping to sustain inspiration and even to stimulate the allegedly impossible and undesirable return to writing Moomin books (interview). One such letter, from a boy in Sweden, detailed the way "The Invisible Child" (in Tales from Moominvalley ) had brought peace to a classroom full of emotionally disturbed children on one especially desperate afternoon. The teacher (mother of the boy, Dan) had been unable to reach the children that day. But the account of how an unloved child becomes a rambunctious Moomin daughter, able to push Moominpappa into the sea without herself disappearing from fright, fulfilled a therapeutic function which the boy described eloquently. The children grew calm, intent on Ninny's gradual recovery from abuse. Jansson's reply to Dan explained how the famous story originated in her own family, with the adoption of a troubled child. This deeply personal and functional tale is one of Jansson's earliest attempts to probe her own subconscious and to experiment with language, and the letter shows how fully children understand it.
The children represented in the collection are, of course, often similar to Dan—and to Moomintroll himself—in being sensitive dreamers and already fluent writers. Yet letters from a range of ages and personalities indicate that various kinds of children make valid interpretations of even the later Moomin books. Many letters show the comic zest with which young readers enter into the wordplay and illogic of the early books; they send their own drawings of Moomins, hemulens, fillyjonks, and hattifatteners, characters which even in the first books embody odd moods and personality structures found in adults who live alone, become bureaucrats, or are caught in self-destructive moods of long duration. These children frequently move from playing with verbal and pictorial elements to a mode of interpretation in which they comment on how their own fears and delights have been reflected and made comprehensible in new ways through the stories. Child readers explicate such passages as the one in which Moomintroll is enchanted by the goblin's hat and recognized only by his mother, or they note that they were "achingly sorry for the hemulen, when no one would play with him." When readers say which character represents them, Little My, Sniff, Snufkin, and Toffle are cited nearly as often as the protagonist, Moomintroll, thus underscoring the multidimensional affective structure of the tales and their complex cumulative meanings. Child readers, not yet bound by the convention of identifying with a single main character, readily enter and describe Jansson's mythic world, where all child and adult creatures are welcome and necessary.
Some children then move from what James Britton would call the expressive and poetic modes to that which is more discursive and rational, the transactional. To one English child who wrote, "I enjoy the Moomins so much, because they are so unreal in form, and so real in person," Jansson replied, "I couldn't have got a finer compliment from a child." Nor, one might suspect, from an adult; the comment recognizes the psychological aspects of the fantasies. Noting the unique elements of the books, an American girl wrote, "They are wonderful, because they are different from any stories I've ever read"—a perceptive remark, since Jansson has been difficult for Anglo-American critics to describe and she herself stresses the personal (and Scandinavian) nature of the tales. Most such analytic comments appear in letters that individuals have chosen to write rather than in the school-generated packets Jansson despises and fears (because of her compulsion to answer even these letters).
More interesting, and probably more disturbing to Jansson's wish to be free of the demands childhood makes of her female moral self, is the outpouring of advice from young readers who recognize the doubt and anguish in Moominpappa at Sea and Moominvalley in November —books they name as favorites. Readers as young as nine, begging for a new Moomin book to follow the November text's focus on aging, suggest ways Jansson can write herself out of a corner, picking up with integrity the unwoven threads in her Moomin tapestry. Some of these letters, no doubt, have spent time on the studio wall or in Jansson's handbag as a help in her struggle and determination to retain creativity. Certain children (including Dan, the teacher's son) write to Jansson well into adulthood, further obscuring boundaries between "child" and "adult." A Norwegian boy, Einar, sent Jansson poems over a span of fifteen years. Another child, Tom, continued his habit of sending postcards signed "Sniff" from all over the world, writing of his adult search for love and work. Another, Richard, sent Jansson a copy of his novel, an achievement hardly surprising to a reader of the letters and stories he had written her in his boyhood. Simon Short, a frequent letter writer in boyhood, took a university degree in philosophy and as a young adult wrote again to discuss the existential themes of the books which fascinated him still.
A persistent theme of the child readers has been their wanting, like Holden Caulfield, to be with their favorite writer in actuality. In more than one instance, Japanese children have shown a particularly future-oriented response that Jansson thinks distinguishes them from more present-oriented American children. Some Japanese children have saved their money until they could make a pilgrimage to Helsinki to meet Jansson. Others have written to say that they want to come to Finland to live. One teenager realized that her childhood reading of the Moomin books had been a significant part of her development: "I found your books. I met your world. Always they make me a human." Another youth wrote to Jansson throughout his orphaned adolescence, receiving encouragement from her to become a teacher and find a place in Japanese society despite his yearning to be the writer's adopted son. While other writers or celebrities might have ignored the stream of letters from these young people, Jansson must follow up on the relationships her writing initiates, even though she says the role of "guru#x0022; is exhausting and debilitating (interview).
Unerringly sensitive to the needs of the individual child, the author explains her obsession—when amused rather than disgusted by it—with such comments as "They tell me things. They tell me about their cat…." Fluent in English, Jansson has some mastery of German, French, and Finnish in addition to her first language. She gets help in reading messages in Russian, Polish, and Japanese. Nearly half the letters are in English, and she frequently replies in English. The children who "tell" her things range from the articulate and wealthy Pablo writing in German from Barcelona, at first at his mother's urging, to the Puerto Rican child in the East Bronx who copied out a long passage from The Exploits of Moominpappa on his own volition. The child's teacher sent a note explaining that the boy had never before done sustained reading or writing and needed the writer's encouragement. The children less needy than these, such as the American girl who sent her picture in a Moomin costume, or the schoolchildren who demand to know how Jansson gets ideas for books, receive witty replies. But the author explains at some length to Pablo, for instance, why he must first learn the thoughts of others in order to be truly original. Jansson writes that the Moomin texts are "memories of a happy childhood mixed with the comments of an adult," a distinction which helps her to view her newer work as "adult," linked not to her childhood directly but to experiences she has had as an adult woman artist whose almost cruel voice in her recent fiction represents a world she is determined to claim as her own.
The lengthy correspondence with individual children shows that Jansson is working through her sense of artistic vocation even as she takes care of the child she is writing to. Touched especially by the Japanese girl who signed herself "One of Your Children," Jansson seems willing to share with such young readers her most personal concerns—concerns she had hoped would be inaccessible to child readers of her Moomin books but which actually inspire letters to the author. For such readers, Jansson will allude to the "dry dust" of her mind; the potential for stories in her dreams and travel; her fears that the Moomin pictures will not be suitably recognized as art; her frequent regret that she created the Moomin comic strip in her youth and thus assured herself of "no peace ever since" to be an artist. In these letters, it is clear that the writer is willing to be mother, teacher, and mentor because these roles meet the artist's need for community. At the same time, the children's perspicuity has apparently made final Jansson's determination not to write anything but letters (and picture books) for child readers. Believing that children should not be burdened with adult concerns but given reassurance and cheerfulness by those who care for them, Jansson seems nevertheless to have accepted into her private circle those children who divine her secrets—and made up her mind to avoid future invitations to the young into her rich and hidden life. Thus, her canon—with its shift to an adult audience made explicit by a transition from fantasy to autobiography to surrealism—can be understood in developmental terms, especially in female developmental terms. Those letters to children who demand attention because they know Jansson's pain and sensitivity to others constitute an act of integration similar, as mentioned above, to the propitiation of crying children by mothers who are writers and whose continuing creativity is bound up in the continuing life of their children, even though this means interruption and diffusion of their thoughts.
Jansson's attachment to her own mother (who died at age eighty-eight) and wry affection for children are integral to both the Moomin books and the letters. Instead of separating from the all-good mother as Moomintroll does in his adolescence, the writer-daughter refuses to forget or abandon either the mother or the children who claim her attention through their letters and their insight into her books. In her autobiography, Sculptor's Daughter (1969), Jansson discusses an immediate source for the Moomin characters in "Snow," a chapter describing a few days sequestered with her mother in winter. For part of that time, she remembers, "Mummy didn't draw. We were bears with pine needles in our stomachs…. Only Mummy and I were left" (165).
Jansson's extensive, even obsessive letter-writing has taken away time and energy from other things. Yet the messages to and from Moomin readers sustain her creative powers as much as the process limits her. Unless she answers the letters, she can't work; yet the letter-writing keeps her from other writing (interview). It is apparent that Jansson's letters from and to child readers have neither simply encouraged her to write nor kept her from doing so; instead, they have caused her to write in certain ways, and her body of work has taken shape from the intensity of her involvement with children and her commitment to them as well as from her desire to be solitary and free of the demands of those who, in her judgment, need protection she cannot give.
One of Jansson's reasons for moving consciously into the writing of books directed toward adults was her fear that in her struggle to attain a clear sense of sexual identity, she would manipulate child readers. Aware of the artist's dependence on the unconscious, and fearing the psychoanalytic readings of such critics as Jacqueline Rose (The Case of Peter Pan), Tove Jansson has been wary of comparisons of her work to that of Andersen and Carroll, though in recent adult work, such as the 1982 Den Erliga Bedraggeran (The Honest Deceiver ), she has been open about her lesbian partnership with Tuulikki Pietela, characterized as the helpful and spontaneous Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter (1957). Because Jansson's search for female artistic identity takes place in the context of her famous family (Viktor Jansson's sculptures dot Helsinki; Signe Hamer Jansson designed Finland's postage stamps) her personal life is always in markedly public view, thus heightening the sense of responsibility she feels and demonstrates toward her child audience.2
Jansson turned to other art forms because, while continuing to keep the Moomins alive in pictures for children and for herself, she dared no longer allow the Moomin family to play out for children the terms of her psychosexual development. As she tells one reader, "it isn't a question of deciding. It comes to you or it doesn't. I am open for everything. But sometimes doors close and there is nothing to do about it" (1973 letter). Regardless of whether Jansson's later work endures—and such texts as Sculptor's Daughter (1969) and some stories in The Doll's House (1978) certainly have a resonance of their own—her Moomin novels and tales deserve more textual and historical criticism than they have received in English. Her integration of picture and narrative invites comparison with Sendak and Potter; her Moomin odyssey ought also to be addressed in the context of fantasy criticism. Above all, critics need to address the ways in which Jansson—like Anna Wulf, Doris Lessing's protagonist in The Golden Notebook—has discovered and dealt with the emotional difficulty of creating for oneself, for others, and for those others one must protect. These concerns make Jansson one of a relatively limited company of serious artists totally aware of a child audience.
Theories of projective poetics and reader response criticism come closest to explaining the relationship she has had with her child readers and its effect on her work. Georges Poulet, for example, emphasizes that in reading we are thinking the thoughts of another, experiencing the consciousness of another as if it were our own (44). Readers who write about the books they read, according to Wolfgang Iser, help to make conscious those aspects of the work which would otherwise remain in the subconscious (157). That readers and writers engage in "an intimate interaction … in and through which each defines for the other what s/he is about" is a familiar premise within much feminist criticism (Kolodny 244). In such a relationship, writers and readers create the works as well as each other's understanding of them. Such theories seem fully validated by this writer's continued involvement with her readers. The frequent and damaging assumptions that children cannot interpret, or that they are entirely victimized or controlled by the adults who produce children's books, are certainly called into deep question by the letters Jansson receives and answers.
Adults represented in the Åbo collection explicate some of the same themes as child readers do. But they make few demands on Jansson, supplying encouragement rather than requests or implicit pleas for attention. The adult readers typically write analytically, expressing their views by references to their other reading and learning rather than by sending story ideas or asking for the comfort they see as promised by the stories.
Although none of the letters has launched a return voyage for the Moomins, through them Jansson has engaged with readers in the quest for integration that remains primary to her. Aside from the therapeutic benefits of the correspondence; it has had the function of ordering her roles and values, allowing her to maintain an ethic of care while asserting an ethic of rights in her artistic and personal life. Like the hemulen who loved silence (Tales ) but ultimately was unable to keep children out of the amusement park to which he had retired, Jansson has needed to live with the Moomins in the correspondence and in numerous exhibits and picture books concurrent with her adult books. In some ways, the correspondence may serve as pre-writing for these adult books, a moving in the letters through the stage of "innocence" to the "experience" of the surreal stories about art.
The child who told Jansson, "I hope you keep writing all your life," recognizing the terror of failed imagination in Moominpappa at Sea (1965), is one of several who have given Jansson their own hope. The connections between Jansson and her readers, a paradox of community and individuation, play out the dilemmas of the female writer which enable, even necessitate, the writer's growth and change. Jansson's example—children's writer turned adult author who still enters tangibly into the lives of children who understand her books—may not be followed by many other writers. Yet her wish to respect childhood as a period relatively free of adult pressures, her contradictory creation of fantasies which portray the full emotional range of human life, and, above all, her sense of responsibility for the effect of those fictions upon children suggest provocatively that the child readers of such authors may have a share in constructing not only their "own" literature but "adult" literature, too. Tales from Moominvalley, possibly Jansson's masterpiece, was produced at the height of the correspondence and generated some of the most insightful letters at Åbo, and perhaps "the voyage out" represented by the Moomin books which followed. For me, the protectiveness of Jansson toward her child readers is a reenactment of the stories she wrote for them, in which no one is excluded or hurt—not even a hemulen or a fillyjonk.
1. Solveig Widen, librarian at Åbo Akademi, helped to make the Jansson correspondence available for my visit. Petra Wrede, Marita Rajalin, and Tove Hollander of the Åbo Akademi community provided a helpful context for interpreting the materials.
2. I am indebted to Petra Wrede for this information about Jansson's recent novel, Den Erliga Bedraggeran (The Honest Deceiver).
Britton, James. Language and Learning. London: Penguin, 1970.
Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Corti, Maria. An Introduction to Literary Semiotics. Trans. Margherita Bogat and Allen Mendelbaum. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1978.
Egan, Michael. "The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud." Children's Literature, 10 (1982): 37-55.
Garner, Shirley Nelson, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether, ed. The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Hollander, Tove. Interview with author in Åbo, 1983.
Huse, Nancy. "Tove Jansson's Moomintrolls: Equal to Life." Proceedings of the Children's Literature Association (1981): 44-49. Reprinted in Webs and Wardrobes: Humanist and Religious World Views in Children's Literature, ed. Joseph O. Milner and Lucy Floyd Morcock Milner. Lanham, New York: University Press of America, 1987. 136-46.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
Jansson, Tove. Interview with author in Helsinki, 1983.
———. Comet in Moominland. London 1951.
———. Finn Family Moomintroll. London 1951.
———. The Exploits of Moominpappa. London 1952.
———. Moominsummer Madness. London 1955.
———. Moominland Midwinter. London 1958.
———. Tales from Moominvalley. London 1963.
———. Moominpappa at Sea. London 1965.
———. Sculptor's Daughter. London 1969.
———. Moominvalley in November. London 1971.
———. The Doll's House. Helsinki 1978.
———. "The Monkey." Trans. W. Glyn Jones. Books from Finland 14 (1981): 62-63.
———. "Locomotive." Trans. W. Glyn Jones. Books from Finland 14 (1981): 64-71.
———. Den Erliga Bedraggeran. Helsinki 1982.
———. "The Listener." Trans. Nils J. Anderson in correspondence with author, 1984.
Jones, W. Glyn. "Studies in Obsession: The New Art of Tove Jansson." Books from Finland 14 (1981): 60-71.
———. Tove Jansson. Twayne World Authors Series. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
Kolodny, Annette. "A Map for Rereading; or, Gender in the Interpretation of Literary Texts." In Garner et al., 241-59.
Poulet, Georges. "Criticism and the Experience of Interiority." In Reader Response Criticism, ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980, 41-49.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin. "Writing and Motherhood." In Garner et al., 352-77.
Tournier, Michael. "Writer Devoured by Children." Children's Literature, 13 (1985): 180-87.
Wrede, Petra. Conversation with author, 1983.
Katri Sarmavuori (essay date August-September 1995)
SOURCE: Sarmavuori, Katri. "Fifty Years of Moomins." Reading Today 13, no. 1 (August-September 1995): 36.
[In the following essay, Sarmavuori hails Jansson's literary accomplishments on the occasion of the author's eightieth birthday, noting the evolution in the maturity level of Jansson's narratives as the Moomin series progressed.]
Tove Jansson, Finland's most famous author of children's literature, turned 80 last year. A successful cartoonist and noted painter, Jansson remains best known as the creator of the lovable creatures known as Moomins, who celebrate their 50th birthday this year.
Jansson's four picture books and eight novels about the Moomins have been translated into 33 languages, and have been adapted for the theatre, radio, opera, cinema, and television. Viewers in nearly 100 countries have seen the animated TV series, which was made in Japan and consists of 78 episodes.
There is even a Moominworld theme park in Finland. It opened in the summer of 1993 in Naantali, the southwestern-most point in Finland.
When Jansson wrote her first Moomin novel, the publisher thought that the word Moomin was too strange. Therefore, the debut book was called The Little Trolls and the Great Flood (1945). Other titles in the series include Comet in Moominland (1946), Finn Family Moomintroll (1948), The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950), Moominsummer Madness (1954), Moominland Midwinter (1957), Tales from Moominvalley (1962), Moominpappa at Sea (1965) and Moominvalley in November (1970).
The Moomins are a happy family who live in a utopian society without schools and taxes. Jansson described the Moomin's land this way: "It was a wonderful valley, full of happy little animals and flowering trees, and there was a clear narrow river that came down from the mountain, looped round Moominhouse and disappeared in the direction of another valley, where no doubt other little animals wondered where it came from."
Jansson grew up in an artistic family. Her mother was an illustrator from Sweden, and her father was one of Finland's great sculptors. Moominmamma has Jansson's mother's tolerance; she never forbids anything that is funny. Moomintroll is Jansson's alter ego.
Jansson's father served as the model for Moominpappa. In the books, however, Moominpappa is a writer rather than an artist. Through his writing, we get to know about his childhood and how he met his wife.
Moominpappa does face some crises in the books. For instance, when he gets tired of his quiet life, the family has to move with him to a far island where he learns to know the sea. The sea is at first hostile to him, but in the end he becomes reconciled with it.
Although the books were written over a period of 25 years, only Moominpappa grows until middle age. The other characters don't age or develop. They remain as types. Little My remains always little, although she is older than Moomintroll.
Moomintroll has a girlfriend named Snork Maiden, but they don't marry. In fact, in the last two books Snork Maiden has disappeared. The family doesn't speak about her, and she doesn't even belong to Moomintroll's dreams. In fact, only in her second picture book, Who Will Comfort Toffle? (1960), does Jansson have a happy ending in the classical sense. In this book, Toffle meets Miffle, and they live happily ever after.
Although the characters don't develop much in the Moomin books, there are changes in the style. The first three books in the series are adventures. The next two, Moominsummer Madness and Moominland Midwinter, are satires. The last books in the series, Tales from Moominvalley, Moominpappa at Sea, and Moominvalley in November, were psychological novels. In fact, the last two books are more for adults than for children. In these books, the family idyll changes into a non-idyll.
W. Glyn Jones wrote a book about Jansson in 1984 that is aimed at English-speaking readers. Jones writes: "The line of development in Tove Jansson's work seems to be determined by the conflict between the demands placed on her from outside, as a successful children's author and cartoonist, and her own need to communicate, as an artist, on a different level."
Jones adds that in a typical Jansson book the characters "are plagued with the problems of establishing contact with others…. They are human islands, difficult of access and blown over by violent crises. Could it be that the islands and the storms in the Moomin books are themselves early symbols of this sense of isolation? There is certainly a striking number of descriptions of journeys to islands, says on islands, and storms either at sea or on islands."
In honor of Jansson's 80th birthday in August 1994, a conference honoring her was held in the Finnish cities of Tampere and Naantali. At the conference, researchers, readers, and teachers were able to meet and talk.
Outside of Finland, Jansson is most popular in Poland and Japan. Nancy Huse, a professor of English in Illinois, expressed the hope that children in the United States would read more of Jansson's books, which have won numerous awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Medal.
In an international reader response research project, I have chosen a text for process reading and suggested different techniques for how the teacher can read it with children in the classroom. By 1996 we will have results, and we can see if we find cultural differences and similarities in different countries.
Maria Nikolajeva (essay date 2001)
SOURCE: Nikolajeva, Maria. "Human Beings in Disguise: The Moomin Picture Books." In How Picture Books Work, pp. 96-101. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 2001.
[In the following essay, Nikolajeva emphasizes the important role that Jansson's illustrations play in establishing the Moomin universe, particularly in the author's three Moomin picture books, Moomin, Mymble and Little My, Who Will Comfort Toffle?, and The Dangerous Journey.]
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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Alison Lurie (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Lurie, Alison. "Moomintroll and His Friends." In Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, pp. 79-90. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2003.
[In the following essay, Lurie compares the literary universe of Jansson's Moomin series with the universe of A. A. Milne's Hundred Acre Wood from the Pooh books, offering an analysis of the various characters that reside in Moomin Valley.]
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
MEDDELANDE: NOVELLER I URVAL (1998)
Susan Brantly (review date spring 1999)
SOURCE: Brantly, Susan. Review of Meddelande: Noveller i urval, by Tove Jansson. World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 352.
Tove Jansson enjoys international fame as the creator of the Mumin trolls. Many of her fans may not know, however, that she is an accomplished author of short fiction. Meddelande (Messages) is a selection of novellas taken from twenty-six years of Jansson's work in this genre. The book also contains eight new novellas not previously published.
The primary theme of the collection appears to be relationships, and occasionally the artistic process. Many of the stories appear to have autobiographical resonance. One of the relationships depicted most skillfully is that between a grown daughter and her dependent, somewhat manipulative mother. This constellation occurs several times, most intriguingly in a tale called "Den stora resan" (The Big Trip). In that story a woman named Elena tries to maintain a relationship with Rosa, who is emotionally bound to her mother. Rosa is trying to plan a trip for her mother and suffers severe anxiety because of the latter's manipulations. Elena fails to break through the codependency between mother and daughter, and at the end of the tale appears to move on.
The selection does not always show Jansson's whimsical side to best advantage. Most of the stories are realistic, with little narrative flair. Jansson is quite capable of greater narrative virtuosity than is evident here. The story "Tidsbegrepp" (Sense of Time) from Dockskåpet (The Doll Cupboard; 1978), which is not included in the present collection, is a small narrative masterpiece and highly recommended. It was probably not included here because it flirts with the boundaries of the plausible.
A tale from the anthology which does reveal some of the Jansson whimsy is "Ekorren" (The Squirrel). A woman living an isolated existence on an island in the archipelago suddenly finds her desert island shared by a squirrel who has drifted there on a piece of wood. The squirrel breaks into the woman's carefully tended isolation, and she gradually becomes obsessed with the creature. The end leads us to believe that such isolation is not good for either people or squirrels.
The title piece, "Meddelande," appears to consist of excerpts from Jansson's correspondence. Many of the snippets are comments from readers and requests from merchandisers. One company wants to put the Mumin trolls on toilet paper, and another wants Little My to become the spokeswoman for a brand of tampon. One reader warns of the effects that all the big noses on her characters might have on pregnant women, and another accuses her of murdering Karin Boye. Sometimes reality is bizarre enough as it is.
Fans of Tove Jansson will certainly enjoy Meddelande. It is also to be recommended to the reader whose tastes run to realistic fiction about interpersonal relationships.
MOOMIN: THE COMPLETE TOVE JANSSON COMIC STRIP (2006)
Publishers Weekly (review date 24 July 2006)
SOURCE: Review of Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, by Tove Jansson. Publishers Weekly 253, no. 29 (24 July 2006): 42-3.
From 1953 to 1960, the late Finnish artist Jansson drew a comic strip about her creation Moomin for the London Evening News. Though the strip was an enormous success around the world, [Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip ] is the first North American edition of an expressive and endearing classic. Moomin's stories begin simply (he needs to rid his home of freeloaders, or goes on a family vacation) and snowball into a series of amusing, whimsical misadventures, which can involve elements of the fantastic, like magic, monsters and ghosts. Although Moomin, his parents and his girlfriend, Snorkmaiden, are trolls, they look like friendly hippopotamuses. Moomin is reminiscent of a big, chubby baby; there is something of Charlie Brown in him: Moomin is like a child beset by life's troubles and usually (but not always) too passive to get angry and fight back. Adults should appreciate Jansson's satire—although she always provides happy endings, dark undercurrents are at play: one episode opens with Moomin attempting suicide; reunited with his missing parents, he's abandoned by them again. Jansson's deceptively childlike style masterfully conveys her characters' personalities. Moomin's mouth rarely appears, but his eyes, his brows and his gestures are expressive and endearing.
Jansson, Tove, and W. Glyn Jones. "Tove Jansson: My Books and Characters." Books from Finland 12, no. 3 (1978): 91-7.
Interview in which Jansson discusses her literary output, including the Moomin books, adult stories, artwork, and dramatic productions.
Maissen, Leena. "Tove Jansson in Memoriam." Bookbird 39, no. 4 (2001): 46-7.
Reflections on Jansson's contribution to children's literature on the occasion of her death in 2001.
Nikolajeva, Maria. "Jansson, Tove." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Volume 2, edited by Jack Zipes, pp. 319-22. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Highlights the role that Jansson's position as a member of the Swedish-speaking minority of Finland played in her Moomin stories.
Spenader, Jennifer. "Modality Realization as Contrast in Discourse." Journal of Semantics 21, no. 2 (May 2004): 113-31.
Uses examples from Jansson's Moomin books to illustrate a discussion of the use of a phonetic marker indicating "truth value" in speech.
Westin, Boel. "The Breakthrough of the Modern Children's Book." In Children's Literature in Sweden, translated by Stephen Croall, pp. 27-30. Uddevalla, Sweden: The Swedish Institute, 1991.
Suggests that the atmosphere of the Moomin books was born from the post-World War II period of anxiety and relief.
Additional coverage of Jansson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 38, 118; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 196; Contemporary World Writers, Ed. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 257; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 96; and Something about the Author, Vols. 3, 41.