My second Janssonian contribution to the Tove Trove Library
“All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold.”
Moominland Midwinter (or Trollvinter) is the fifth title in Tove Jansson’s series of stories about a family of benevolent, philosophical trolls with downy fur and soft round snouts, who reside in a rather unusual house in an attractive woodland valley by the sea.
I chose to explore this work out of chronological order since it was seasonally appropriate, but also because its storyline accords in some respects with the way many people I know are feeling at the start of the new decade. There is a palpable trepidation in the air, as if we might be facing a long, lonely, bitterly cold winter.
“One has to discover everything for oneself. And get over it all alone.”
Moomins go into a state of deep hibernation from November to April, until the ice melts and spring sunshine warms their fur – it has always been so, or was, until a particular winter when something utterly perplexing happens to Moomintroll: he wakes from his state of torpor and cannot not get back to sleep. As his family slumber in their beds, oblivious to his predicament, he emerges into a world where the clocks have stopped, there is nothing to eat and the land is covered with snow.
Although we never learn the reason for his wakefulness, it seems plain that in some fundamental way this behaviour goes against nature. He was, in his own words, “the first Moomin to have lived through an entire year”, and he feels desperately isolated.
Despite first appearances, the young troll gradually realises he is far from alone. Indeed, the valley is teeming with creatures unknown to the sleeping inhabitants, in some instances because they emerge only to make a midwinter bonfire then depart with the arrival of spring. To Moomintroll’s relief, one old friend does make an appearance: the indomitable Little My (a great favourite with Moominites). Physically diminutive but immense in personality, she is unafraid of anything, says exactly what she thinks and often annoys others. The snow holds no fear for her, and she uses kitchen knives as skates and Moominmamma’s tea tray as a sledge, reaffirming her reputation for recklessness.
“Little My, never shied, she hurtled at breakneck speed close to a pine-bole, wobbled, caught her balance again, and with a roar of laughter threw herself down in the snow beside Moomintroll.”
Moomintroll also makes new acquaintances, such as the Hemulen Skier who, unlike most hemulens, doesn’t wear a dress and doesn’t follow rules or collect things. He’s a big, cheerful outdoorsy type who announces his arrival by blowing a bugle. When he isn’t plunging into freezing cold water or whizzing down precipitous slopes on skis, he’s annoying everyone by disturbing their afternoon nap, chivvying them to get out in the fresh air.
“Believe me, there’s nothing more dangerous in life than to become an indoor sitter.”
Tuulikki Pietilä (known affectionately as Tuuti), Jansson’s life partner, is immortalised in Moominland Midwinter as the calm and wise Too-Ticky, a character who teaches Moomintroll how to survive in this new environment. In her striped sweater and bobble hat, she is presented as a practical, independent individual who lives in the Moomins’ bathhouse with eight invisible shrews.
Other memorable characters include the melancholy Sorry-oo, a wan little dog whose greatest wish is to run wild with the wolves, and the Ancestor (or dweller behind the stove), a small, hairy creature with a large snout. He too is a troll, an antecedent of the Moomin family but with a great many generations separating them. He should perhaps be described as a mooministic primogenitor.
The creature I find most fascinating is the mysterious Groke, a solitary, expressionless being who appears unexpectedly and brings with her an unnatural chill. She leaves the ground frozen beneath her feet and those who encounter her are forever reminded of the bleakest winters. Sometimes death.
“The Groke remained immobile for a moment. The hill was empty, everybody had left. Then she glided down to the ice again and back into the dark, as she had come, alone.”
Many others, whom I’m tempted to call climate refugees, arrive from the north seeking food and shelter. Since the Lady of the Cold passed through their valley, they have suffered starvation. Their plight leads Moomintroll to exclaim: “What troubles people have”. He opens both his home and Moominmamma’s jam store to these forlorn incomers.
Far less jolly than its predecessors, Moominland Midwinter is a haunting yet joyful tale of a frightened, angry, isolated young troll who learns to respect and care for creatures unlike himself. While this book is far more introspective than its predecessors, it fully retains the charm of the previous novels while exploring serious subjects such as dealing with death, facing one’s fears and embracing change. It is also, I suspect, Jansson’s oblique nod to Darwinism.
Re-reading this book for the first time in several decades, I was thrilled to find it remains my favourite book of the series. Jansson’s distinctive illustrations still captivate this adult reader and her simple stories never fail to evoke a range of complex emotions.
My copy of the book is a Collector’s Edition Moomin Hardback published in 2017 by Sort of Books, which has been “lovingly restored” to its former striking design. It was translated by Thomas Warburton (1918-2016). Jansson dedicated it to her mother, the Swedish-Finnish graphic artist Signe Hammarsten-Jansson. It was originally published in 1957.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki on 9th August 1914, the daughter of a Swedish-Finnish father who worked as a sculptor and a mother who was a graphic designer. She first trained as an artist and made a name for herself in her homeland as a painter and cartoonist. She became internationally famous after creating the Moomins. She later went on to write novels and short fiction for adults. She worked in her Helsinki studio, moving to a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland during the summer months with her partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. She died on 27th June 2001 at the age of 86.
“This day the spring had decided not to be poetical but simply cheerful. It had spread flocks of small scatter-brained clouds in the sky, it swept down the last specks of snow from every roof, it made new little brooks run everywhere and was playing at April the best it could.”
All images © Moomin Characters™