Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Moominland Midwinter, by Tove Jansson

I scanned my bookshelf for the antidote to the book hangover occasioned by Shroud.  Found it!

Bookface has a soft spot in her heart for Finland and has spent a few summers in Helsinki. Although she developed a fondness for Marimekko textiles and Sibelius, the whole Moomin craze simply eluded her. Until now.

Her pal in Edinburgh bought this little book for her, suggesting it for a day when she needed either a dose of winter or of whimsy.

Moomins are funny little creatures, looking somewhat like a hippo with the ears and tail of a mule. They hibernate in their snug little houses through the winter months, which seems eminently sensible to me, since I often shivered in the Finnish July. In this book, a young male Moomin, Moomintroll, wakes up and goes outdoors to have a series of adventures with the other creatures who are out and about in the dark, white night of winter.

Although he is delighted with the newness of it all, this is not a season filled exclusively with joyful frolics. His new acquaintances warn Moomintroll that soon the Lady of the Cold will come to visit. The Lady seems to be clothed in aurora borealis, but she's as dangerous as she is beautiful.
They went out onto the landing-stage and sniffed towards the sea. The evening sky was green all over, and all the world seemed to be made of thin glass. All was silent, nothing stirred, and slender stars were shining everywhere and twinkling in the ice. It was terribly cold... Far out on the ice came the Lady of the Cold. She was pure white, like the candles, but if one looked at her through the right pane she became red and seen through the left one she was pale green. Suddenly Moomintroll felt the pane become so cold that it hurt, and he drew back his snout in rather a fright. 
The Lady of the Cold pauses with a smile to scratch the scatter-brained squirrel with the magnificent tail (who forgot to stay home) behind his ear. Moomintroll and his pals find the unfortunate squirrel on his back, legs up in the air, stiff as a board. "'At least he saw something beautiful before he died,' said Moomintroll in a trembling voice." One of his plucky and practical little companions simply pipes up that the squirrel's tail will make a splendid muff.  (Tove Jansson leaves an author's note at this point to forestall any excessive grief:  "In case the reader feels like having a cry, please take a quick look at page 126."  Here, one learns that the squirrel eventually recovers from his near-fatal brush with the Lady of the Cold, although -- unsurprisingly, being such a dimwit -- he has no memory of it.)

Sorry-oo, the little dog in the illustration above, also learns a valuable lesson that winter. He arrives in the Moomin village and stays, but he rejects all efforts of the residents to befriend him. He wants only to join the pack of wolves whom he hears howling in the Lonely Mountains. He goes frequently to his howling pit and bays his heart out, daydreaming about how glorious it will be when he can join the pack.  Then, one night, he learns the truth of the old adage, be careful what you wish for...
Now Sorry-oo was quite overwhelmed with his vivid daydream. He turned his muzzle to the stars and gave a howl.
And the wolves answered him.
They were so near that Sorry-oo felt frightened. He tried clumsily to burrow down in the snow. Eyes were lighting up all around him.
The wolves were silent again. They had formed a ring around him, and it was slowly closing in.
Sorry-oo wagged his tail and whined, but nobody answered him. He took off his woolen cap and threw it in the air to show that he would like to play. That he was quite harmless.
But the wolves didn't even look at the cap. And suddenly Sorry-oo knew that he had made a mistake. They weren't his brethren at all, and one couldn't have any fun with them.
One could only be eaten up, and possibly have the time to regret that one had behaved like an ass. He stopped his tail  that was still wagging from pure habit, and thought: 'What a pity. I could have slept all these nights instead of sitting here and longing myself silly...'
Tove Jansson reminded me of life in a part of the world that has dramatic seasonal shifts, where the hours of daylight swerve between close to 24 in the summer to none at all at the winter solstice. No one revels in the glories of spring like someone who has been through a long, dark, bitterly cold winter. Many northerners (myself included, I must admit) see the winter as a quiet, inward, reflective time of the year -- a healthy contrast to the energetic summer. Even the Moomin has to learn that winter is an ordeal that one must survive, largely in solitude.  As the days get longer, his friend Too-Ticky gives the bathing-house a spring cleaning (once all those who sought winter shelter in it have moved out).
'Now the bathing-house'll be a bathing-house again,' she said. 'When the summer's hot and green, and you lie on your tummy on the warm boards of the landing-stage and listen to the waves chuckling and clucking...'
'Why didn't you talk like that in winter?' said Moomintroll. 'It'd have been such a comfort. Remember, I said once: "There were a lot of apples here." And you just replied: "But now here's a lot of snow." Didn't you understand that I was melancholy?
Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. 'One has to discover everything for oneself,' she replied, 'and get over it alone.'
I adore children's books, but since I don't have children, I don't often read them, and that's a pity. A well-written children's book -- like this one -- has pertinent messages for people of all ages, even cranky old ones like me. Reading Moominland Midwinter was a great analgesic after the heaviness of my previous book but also a nostalgic joy. As I lazed about under the ceiling fan, completely absorbed in the Moomin's doings, I was transported back to the summer afternoons of my childhood, when I would retreat to the hammock which hung between two great, leafy maples in our back yard and lose myself in a book until dinner time. Happy, happy.


  1. What a delightful book! I'd love to have a look at it when I come over next, please.

    1. How about passing it to your mobile library? :-)


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