Life with the Moomins: Lessons in Stability and Freedom From Moominvalley

            “The quiet transition from autumn to winter is not a bad time at all. It’s a time for protecting and securing things and for making sure you’ve got in as many supplies as you can. It’s nice to gather together everything you possess as close to you as possible, to store up your warmth and your thoughts and burrow yourself into a deep hole inside, a core of safety where you can defend what is important and precious and your very own. Then the cold and the storms and the darkness can do their worst. They can grope their way up the walls looking for a way in, but they won’t find one, everything is shut, and you sit inside, laughing in your warmth and your solitude, for you have had foresight.” 

-Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November

 

If you are ever to travel over the Lonely Mountain and into the valley below, you will find a small path, which, if you follow it for a short while, will take you through the outskirts of a small wood, over a steady stream with good fishing, and up to the verandah of a cylindrical, three-storied blue house decorated with windows and capped by a red pointed roof. You have found the Moomin family.

A unique family by all stretches of the imagination, I was introduced to the Moomins and their hospitality over the dinner table, during the evenings when my dad would read their stories to us. Moominmamma welcomed me into their home as she has done for countless other small creatures who happen to be travelling by. And like all those other travellers, I always find myself coming back to Moominvalley.

Who or what are these Moomins you say? Well, for those who require a more encyclopedic history, I will supply a short one. The Moomins are the main characters in Tove Jansson’s series of nine children’s books set in Moominvalley itself. Together with a cast of friends and extended family, the Moomins go on adventures in the summer, tend their garden next to the verandah, and then hibernate in the winter. Through their depth and delightfulness, Jansson’s books evoke thoughts of other children’s masterpieces such as The Little Prince or The House at Pooh Corner. The Moomin books are, without a doubt, the ones I return to again and again to aid in my own growth.

But enough of this; what makes the Moomins incredible are all the members of the family itself. The Moomins are fantastic hosts. They live a peaceful life, but not one devoid of adventure, and all are welcome in their house as long as they enjoy eating pancakes. For indeed, “Someone who eats pancakes and jam can’t be so awfully dangerous. You can talk to him.” Each member of the family and their many, ever-present friends are quite personable, which makes them easy to adventure with. But more importantly, they are all unique and thoughtful, providing different ways of looking at life which are all unified under the roof of the Moomin house. So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to the Moomin family.

                                                                               ****

Moominpappa:

“We’ve been everywhere already. There isn’t anywhere new,” said the Hemulen.

“But there must be,” said Moominpappa. “And if there isn’t, then we’ll make somewhere. Stop eating now, children—we’ll take the food with us.”

Moominpappa, before he settled down in Moominvalley, spent many years sailing the seas and adventuring with a few of his close friends: in many ways, a true Moomin Odysseus. However, despite his own oceanic adventure coming largely to an end, Moominpappa did not lose any of his widely collected knowledge. As the head of the family, Moominpappa is the model of a practical and adventurous father who cares deeply for his family and the growth of his children. As a writer, an amateur philosopher, a builder, an able seaman, and a fine fisherman, Moominpappa is a true Renaissance man.

 

Moominmamma:

“Quite, quite,’ she thought with a little sigh. ‘It’s always like this in their adventures. To save and be saved. I wish somebody would write a story sometime about the people who warm up the heroes afterward.”

Ah, but Moominpappa would not be complete without Moominmamma. Easily one of the quietest characters living in Moominvalley, but just as easily the dearest to all the hearts there. A mother who never fails to have warm tea and pancakes ready when the heroes return from their conquests, Moominmamma possesses the unsung art of powerful goodness. My dad told me once never to be ashamed of innocence, goodness, and simplicity, for they are great powers in the world and are to be reckoned with. Moominmamma embodies this power. Her compassion for all small creatures looking for a meal, or even for the fearsome Groke, draws everyone to the verandah of the Moominhouse looking for a kind word and a warm pancake.

 

Moomintroll:

“It’s wrong to be disrespectful to elderly gentlemen.”

As Moominpappa says, “He’s a chip off the old Moomin-block if you like. An eternal reminder of my youth.” Moomintroll is noble, gentlemanly, and typically the catalyst for adventure. If there is anyone who will jump at the prospect of a quest, it is Moomintroll. However, he cannot adventure alone. Moomintroll excels at rallying his companions to journey together, much like his father. But ultimately Moomintroll’s curiosity acts as the unifying force in the house. His genuine sense of wonder captivates his friends and points everyone towards adventure.

 

Snork Maiden:

The Snork Maiden lowered her eyes and smiled. Then she said: “I think I shall give it to Moomintroll.”

Moomintroll’s sweetheart loves to do anything as long as Moomintroll will do it too. The Snork Maiden, while beautiful and good-hearted, can sometimes be quite vain. But she always learns from her mistakes (especially when Moomintroll pulls her out of them). At the end of the day, the Snork Maiden knows that her beauty is a product of the love and care which she finds in Moominvalley. She has an endearing heart for nature and the beauty which the outdoors can reveal, and she would rather lose her tuft of golden hair than leave her family in the valley.

 

Sniff:

Meanwhile Sniff had made a very simple find, but he was just as happy over it. He had found a life-belt… “Now I can go into the deep water,” he thought, “and I’m sure I shall soon be able to swim as well as the others. Won’t Moomintroll be surprised!”

Sniff understands well that the world is a scary place for someone small and that it is okay to be scared of things beyond one’s control. However, that does not stop his feisty character from standing up for what he knows is right. As long as he has friends to travel with so as not to be all alone, Sniff is up for just about anything. Sniff is a hero to all those who are small and don’t think that they will amount to anything. Sniff has found his family with the Moomins, who have taught him courage, boldness, and the ability to exact small justice with all of his small person.

 

Little My:

“When you’re angry, you’re angry,” thought Little My, peeling her potato with her teeth. “Sometimes you have to be angry. Every little creature has the right to be angry.”

Born so small that one would need a magnifying glass to see her, Little My could be at quite the disadvantage. On the contrary, Little My has one of the biggest personalities in all Moominvalley. Ready (and possibly quite excited) for disaster at any minute, she is fearless, brash, and often mischievous. But all of these qualities are a product of My’s incredible self-knowledge and her savvy awareness of reality. My speaks the truth, even if it is grim, because without her everyone would be stuck in a false sense of naiveté. As she says, “Believe me, I’m terribly wise!”

 

Snufkin:

The voice of the waves was now mixed with strange sounds; laughter, running feet and the clanging of great bells far out to sea. Snufkin lay still and listened, dreaming and remembering his trip round the world. “Soon I must set out again,” he thought. “But not yet.”

Snufkin wanders the world as a tramp, playing his harmonica and smoking his pipe. Nobody owns him and he owns the whole world. But every spring, he almost inexplicably winds up in Moominvalley to spend the summer with Moomintroll, his best friend. Snufkin knows himself well and prefers to be quiet and understand the world as it is rather than force himself upon it. For someone like Snufkin, it would be easy to disappear and isolate oneself from interaction in a bad way, but Snufkin does not do that. He values his time alone highly and indeed would prefer to be alone; but he knows that there is something special in Moominvalley that is worth returning to year after year, even if it is only the company of Moomintroll. Perhaps the one thing Snufkin allows to bind him is the vitality of life that the Moomins provide.

                                                                             ****

This is the main cast of characters to whom I was introduced by my parents long ago around a dinner table, after the food had all been eaten and we were just beginning to relax. These books shaped my childhood. However, I do not intend to simply list out the characters in a children’s novel and demand that it be read because I thought they were good. Instead, I will say one more thing about what life with the Moomins has taught me, and if you decide to go see Moominvalley yourself, so be it.

All of the characters I have mentioned are aware of their own radical freedom, and perhaps even more importantly, the freedom of the others as well. This mutual freedom allows each character to not just tolerate one another, but to flourish in each other’s company. It is hard to imagine Snufkin and Moomintroll as best friends because they are immeasurably different. It would be easier for the vagabond Snufkin to become frustrated with Moomintroll’s good intentions and retreat to his lonely tent. However, through their understanding of one another’s freedom, Moomintroll and Snufkin are able to be the friends that they are. Snufkin says at one point, “You can’t ever be really free if you admire somebody too much.” This is true of friendships as well. Friendship is about freedom as much as it is about unity, and the Moominhome provides a place where all visitors can find that freedom.

Completely unbound freedom, however, leads to catastrophe. While the Moomins understand that freedom is vital to their lives, they also know that their freedom would be chaotic and maybe even painful if it were not for the power and stability of their home. Within their many-roomed home, all the friends and family who happen to adventure by find a place that is worth staying at, even if only for a little while. They find a home to which they can always return and find warm pancakes to eat. Adventures and odysseys can be wonderful. Every small creature has a chance to wander or adventure at some point. But adventuring without a return destination is dangerous, and aimless wandering quickly gets one lost. So should you ever choose to adventure out into the world, do not forget about the directions to the cylindrical, three-storied blue house, just over the Lonely Mountain. Moominmamma will be there with warm pancakes, and perhaps Snufkin will even be back from his travels and tell you stories. No matter who is there, take off your thirsty boots and rest for a while with the Moomins.

 

Dietrich Balsbaugh is a sophomore studying English and mathematics.

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