After two rather serious choices in a row, this week I’m recommending something lighter -`Comet in Moominland’.  This was written and illustrated by Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson. 2014 is the centenary of her birth, so you’ll be hearing a lot about Jansson this year. `Comet in Moominland’, which came out in 1946, was the second of her children’s novels about the Moomintroll family and the one which made her famous. It is easy to get in paperback, ebook or audio editions but bear in mind that the illustrations are a very important part of the book. Trolls don’t generally get a good press in Fantasy Fiction but Jansson’s Moomintrolls are friendly creatures who resemble upright white hippopotamuses. Jansson wrote and illustrated eight novels and a number of comic-strips about the inhabitants of Moominland. If you weren’t lucky enough to read these stories as a child (or have them read to you), they still have much to offer adult readers.

Young Moomintroll lives with his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpapa, and his friend Sniff in a blue house in a peaceful valley. One morning excitable kangeroo-like Sniff finds a new path to the sea and a splendid cave. The same night, a philosophical muskrat takes refuge with the Moomintrolls, saying he has forebodings that `something  is going to happen’. Possibly something awful. Sniff and Moomintroll keep noticing a sign like a star with a tail marked in all kinds of places. Uncle Muskrat warns them this means that a fiery comet is on the way. The only people who might know more about the comet are the Professors in the Observatory on the Lonely Mountains, so Moomintroll and Sniff set out by raft on an expedition to find the Observatory.

Sniff hopes for `small adventures. Just the right size,’ but he gets more than he bargained for. Their journey takes them down a waterfall, through a dark cavern and up a mountain and involves dangers such as an angry lizard, hungry crocodiles, a giant eagle and a very aggressive bush. On the way, they make a new friend, the tramp Snufkin, and search for a lost Snork Maiden after finding her gold bracelet half-way down a cliff.  Sniff’s acquisitive nature frequently gets him into trouble and Moomintroll suffers the pangs of first love. As the comet comes closer and closer to earth ominous things begin to happen. The sun goes pale, the birds stop singing, and the sea dries up. Can Moomintroll get home in time to save his family?

`Comet in Moominland’ is a very funny book with an under-layer of sadness and anxiety. It’s rather like an angst-ridden version of `Winnie the Pooh’. Some of the humour comes from the contrast between the traditional quest plot, with its numerous dangers, and the homelier elements of the story. Moomintroll and Sniff must be among the best equipped adventurers in Fantasy fiction, since Moominmamma insists that they pack sleeping bags, a frying pan, tummy powder, an umbrella, woolly stockings and trousers (which come in very handy for distracting crocodiles) and lots of sandwiches. Their adventures are `Just the right size’ for children – short and exciting but not too scary – and the chapters have enticing titles such as `Chapter 10 Which is about a Hemulen’s stamp-collection, a swarm of grass-hoppers and a horrible tornado’.  

As a child, I adored many of the characters, especially calm and caring Moominmamma who makes delicious pear jam and always knows what to do; timid, lemonade-guzzling Sniff who invariably manages to do the wrong thing; free-spirit Snufkin, who plays the mouth-organ, hates new clothes and can walk on stilts, and the sassy Snork Maiden who changes colour at moments of high emotion and saves Moomintroll from a giant octopus by quick-thinking.  As an adult, I can now see that Jansson was having fun at the expense of gloomy philosophers (Uncle Muskrat likes to `sit and think about how unnecessary everthing is’), procedure-loving bureaucrats (the Snork is always trying to hold committee meetings about the comet) and obsessive collectors (the Hemulen is more bothered by his stamps getting out of order than by the prospect of the end of the world). The dialogue between all these eccentric characters can be surprisingly sharp.

Jansson does borrow some elements from Scandinavian folklore but the inhabitants of  Moominland are very much her own creations. Many of them seem to have evolved from an initial drawing.  Jansson was the daughter of a sculptor and an illustrator and she was a notable artist in her own right.  You may have been wondering what a Hemulen is but I can only refer you to Jansson’s wonderfully lugubrious picture of the long-nosed Hemulen sitting `with his feet in the water, sighing to himself’. At one point in the story the little band of adventurers attend a moonlit dance in the woods. I defy anyone not to smile at Jannson’s drawing of mismatched pairs of dancers, including an embarrassed Snork clutched by a much taller water-spook with sea-weed in her hair. I can now see that some of the illustrations in `Comet in Moominland’  reference the work of famous painters like Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau. Others are stunning, almost abstract, works of  art. Jansson’s picture of the dried-up sea bed in the `dim eerie light’ of the comet is particularly memorable.

While many of the adventures in `Comet in Moominland’ are clearly put in to entertain, the threat that the fiery comet will `hit the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42 p.m.’  is taken seriously throughout the book. Moomintroll thinks about `how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her’ and is `very,very sad’ at the thought that the seas and forests of  his beloved homeland are going to be destroyed. Jansson’s own homeland had suffered during World War II and `Comet in Moominland’ was written in the early years of the Cold War when everyone was beginning to fear nuclear destruction. One of the lessons of this and most of Jansson’s books is to appreciate the small pleasures of life – such as a dance, a flower or a cup of coffee – while you still have them. Moomintroll contradicts Uncle Muskrat by claiming, `There are hardly any unnecessary things, I think. Only eating porridge, and washing…’ In the course of the story, Snufkin shows Moomintroll and Sniff that even the desolate parts of the earth are beautiful but warns against trying to possess and exploit the earth’s treasures. This message, delivered with wit and charm, seems even more relevant today than when `Comet in Moominland’ was first published. Until next time…..



P.S.  I’m sorry that due to a technical glitch this post is a week late