Tove Jansson: Comet in Moominland
Translated by Elizabeth Portch (1951)
Puffin Books 2019
A visitor from space is hurtling towards Moominland but it isn’t friendly, in fact it could cause devastation. Young Moomintroll and his friend Sniff set off to an observatory on a mountain to find out exactly when and where the comet will land.
Comet in Moominland is therefore a tale of their expedition — but it is not really all about that, for Jansson’s story is, as all good stories are, about the people involved and their relationships with each other.
For those, like me, faintly familiar or even strangers to the Moomin tales, it was an adventure in itself to meet with Moomintroll, his family, Sniff, a muskrat, a silk monkey, Snufkin, some Hemulen and others, all with their characteristics and idiosyncrasies.
I have to confess that I never understood the fuss made of the Moomins: I thought they looked sweet, even charming, but I hadn’t fallen under their spell, and I was dubious that I would after a few chapters.
And then something magical happened. Instead of a series of chapters with only loosely related incidents, what began to emerge was a picture of relationships. Some of these were close, others a bit fraught; but here were a bunch of disparate creatures thrown together by chance and circumstances who managed to rub along together.
Moomintroll, his family and the related Snorks are friendly cuddly animals, like furry hippos but without the aggression; Sniff is like a hybrid kangaroo rabbit but with short legs; the Hemulen are dour figures with big snouts and shapeless robes; Snufkin is a tramp with a big hat, shepherd’s smock and a mouth organ; but essentially these are all human children in disguise. There are humans as such, but the astronomers (grumpy to a man) and the woman in the village shop all refer to the assorted expeditioners as ‘children’, an indication of how we should regard the inhabitants of this world and with whom young readers (and not so young readers) might choose to identify.
The narrative takes Moomintroll and Sniff through a sequence of landscapes, first through woods to a seashore ringed with cliffs, later on a raft along an increasingly perilous river, up mountains and back across deserts and a terrain from which all water has disappeared. And all through the September and early October days the comet is getting nearer, the sky redder, the atmosphere hotter. Yet the underlying message — if message there is — seems to be that it is necessary to take risks, to see what one is capable of, but that there is always the expectation of a loving family to come home to.
Was I charmed? Did I fall under the Moomin spell? I must confess that I suspect I was, and that I’m grateful to all the urgings to try the series and indeed to begin with this, the second of the series of nine. And, as well as the humour, not a little of the enchantment came from Jansson’s delightful, delicate line drawings, and especially the scenic landscapes, which one has only to view to fall for, with their vistas and skies drawing the gaze. I’m now contemplating what title should now follow this.