Why you should read the Moomin books

I never read the Moomin books when I was growing up, though I vaguely remember seeing the TV series when I was a teenager. I suppose the cuddly characters indicated that there was nothing to see there, and I should move along.

But recently I have been tracking down and reading various books which are generally "Fantastical", mainly via 100 Must Read Fantasy Novels; Comet in Moominland was one mentioned there. I've just finished reading it to my daughter (7), and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

It's the first of the Moomin books intended for older readers (the first was more for younger children), and while slow-moving to start with, and in many ways lacking in "action", it is humorous, lovable and graceful, but with a deep, darkly-tinged heart.

Some reviews I've read, talking about this book and the later ones, discuss themes in depth; one of the most important being that difference should be tolerated. The characters are very different from each other: some nomadic, some home-loving; some open, some insular; some pessimistic, some optimistic etc. But they all rub along together, and want to stay together, tolerating each other's differences. I have to be honest that this didn't occur to me during reading, but it does make sense in retrospect. Though that's not why I'm urging you to read the book.

The story is pretty simple: through various omens, Moomintroll realises a comet may be about to crash into the planet. The comet appears in the sky, and he sets out (with various friends) to ask some astronomers (fairly useless, it turns out) when the impact will happen. Towards the end of the book, they are racing back home to Moomin valley to hide in a cave they think will keep them safe. The comet has boiled the water out of the ocean and hangs threateningly overhead; they are using stilts to move over the drained ocean bed. At that point, there is a beautiful passage which almost made me cry. It's because of passages like this that I urge you to read it, even if you're an adult:

All about them stretched the strange sea landscape, which had been covered by millions of tons of water since the beginning of the world.

"You know it's rather solemn to be down here," said the Snork. "We must be pretty near the deepest part of the ocean by now."

But when they reached the biggest chasm of all they didn't dare go down. The sides sloped steeply and the bottom was obscured in green gloom. Perhaps there was no bottom! Perhaps the biggest octopuses in the world lived down there, brooding in the slime; creatures that nobody had ever seen, far less imagined. But the Snork maiden gazed longingly at an enormous and beautiful shell that was poised on the very brink of the chasm. It was a lovely pale colour, only to be found in the depths of the sea where no light penetrates, and its dusky heart glowed temptingly. The shell sang softly to herself the age-old song of the sea.

"Oh!" sighed the Snork maiden. "I should like to live in that shell. I want to go inside and see who is whispering in there."

"It's only the sea," said Moomintroll. "Every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to a shell. But you mustn't go inside because it's a labyrinth and you may never come out."

So she was at last persuaded to go on, and they started to hurry, as dusk was falling, and they had not found anywhere to sleep. They could only see soft outlines of each other through the damp sea mist, and it was uncannily silent. There were none of the small sounds that liven up the evening on land: the pattering of small animal feet, leaves moving in the night breeze, the cry of a bird, of a stone dislodged by someone's foot.

A fire would never draw on that damp ground, and they dared not sleep amongst the unknown dangers that might be lurking about, so in the end they decided to pitch camp on a high pointed rock, which they could just reach by their stilts. They had to keep watch, so Moomintroll took the first and decided to take the Snork maiden's too, and while the others curled up tightly together and slept, he sat staring out over the desolate sea bottom. It was lit by the red glow of the comet, and shadows like black velvet lay across the sand.

Moomintroll thought how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her. Then he thought about how much he loved everything; the forest and the sea, the rain and the wind, the sunshine, the grass and the moss, and how impossible it would be to live without them all, and this made him feel very, very sad. But after a while he stopped worrying.

"Mamma will know what to do," he said to himself.

I love how the simplicity of the language in the penultimate paragraph reflects the simplicity of the sentiment: it's simple things which make life worth living, and dressing those simple things up in more flowery language detracts from their worth (it puts me in mind of the haiku of writers like Han-shan). I also like the description of the shell: a little sentimental, maybe, but hinting at our ambivalent relationship with the sea: the myth of the siren, our endless longing for the sea, but ultimately how unfathomable and dangerous it is.

The sequels apparently become darker in tone, though remaining life-affirming. I'll definitely be getting hold of them and reading them with my daughter.

Comments

Made me happy!

Coming from the same country as the author of these books, I'm so happy to hear people outside of Finland discover the books as well!

I grew up with the japanese TV show and loved it, but now in my twenties I'm enjoying the original books so much - the simple poethic prose never fails to inspire me. My favourites are Moominsummer Madness (the original title translates to "Dangerous Midsummer", which I find more suitable) and the much darker Moominvalley in November (Originally "Late in November").

I just had to comment and say how wonderful I think it is to hear that you were reading these books to your daughter!

Want to give it a try

Honestly, it is my first time to hear about this book. I love new and uncommon books and based on your blog, it seems interesting. I think I would give it a read.

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