Places of Childhood: Moominland, by Brian Sibley
I was an only, sickly child and, hence, a lonely child and, like many another, lived vicariously in a world of books. But which books? Certainly not most of those books featuring ‘families’. I had read a few – by Nesbit, Ransome and others – but those authors failed to engage this youngster with no siblings, few ‘friends’ and a daily life absolutely devoid of even the most commonplace adventure! Then, in 1961, I discovered the ideal family when I stumbled on Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll. I will resist attempting a description of Moomins because (although there are those who make analogies with hippos) the only thing a Moomin truly resembles is another Moomin.
I was already aware of the Moomins having followed their daily comic strip exploits in my father’s nightly copy of the London Evening News. But those strips, carefully clipped out and preserved, were three-or-four-frame ‘cartoons’ with ‘speech bubbles’; in Finn Family Moomintroll I met the same storyteller but unshackled from the limiting restraints of newspaper layouts and the demands of syndication. I found instead the work of a writer of emotionally nuanced prose accompanied by some of the most alive and exciting illustrations I had ever encountered.
One such illustration was Jansson’s tantalising pictorial map (no book with a map can ever truly disappoint) depicting Moomin Valley: the woods and rivers, and a wavy coastline with its cave, jetty and bathing-hut along with mysterious hints of a wider landscape indicated by the wolf-topped Lofty Mountains and an enticing offshore island, home to the enigmatic Hattifatteners. Obviously, this was but an intimate corner of a much larger world – and it was one that was irresistibly beckoning and beguiling.
I supposed that the landscape depicted on this map was purely imaginary, like the cartography encountered in other works of fiction. How, sixty years ago, could an eleven-year-old have known that the mountains, forests and scattered archipelagos of the world of the Moomins had been drawn from the Finnish author-artist’s Nordic homeland? Finland to a child in 1961 was as fantastically remote as Narnia or Middle-earth.
This map that inveigled me into the book also featured a plan of the tall, round, Moominhouse – the place where so many of the stories have their beginning and their end. Moominhouse is a very particular residence: a haven for family and a refuge for outsiders who are always accommodated without question or quibble and where the governing philosophy is one that advocates the freedom and joy of self-expression, tempered only with an awareness and acceptance of the individualism of others. It is a place of security and tranquillity and, most importantly, has none of those restraining locked doors and barred windows one encounters in so many other houses – both in literature and in life.
The Moomin family and their friends are repeatedly caught up in happenings, sometimes trivial, sometimes of consequence and frequently elemental: great floods, all-enveloping winter blizzards, lightning storms, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As Jansson notes: ‘Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to get bored, and that is always a good thing.’ Boredom, happily, is never permitted in Moominland.
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