The Magician and his hat

Moominvalley map by Tove Jansson

Finn Family Moomintroll
(Trollkarlens hatt, 1948)
by Tove Jansson,
translated by Elizabeth Portch.
Puffin Books 2019 (1950)

Another delightful instalment in the Moomin saga, Finn Family Moomintroll is indeed about the extended Moomin family but also introduces us to several new characters in addition to those who joined in the preceding novel, Comet in Moominland.

This novel takes us through a whole year, from when the first snow of approaching winter starts to fall through to late August when the smell of autumn is in the air.

But the thread which winds its way through the seven chapters is the strange hat which is discovered early on, leading up to the appearance of the owner of that hat, the Magician, who appears as the Trollkarlen in the original Swedish title but who I think is misleadingly called a Hobgoblin in this translation.

Trollkarl or Trollkarlen might be better translated as Sorcerer or perhaps, literally, as Ogre-man. He has a swishy cloak and a top hat, in the manner of old-fashioned stage magicians, but his glowing red eyes and the black panther he mounts to fly through the air and to the moon tell us that he is rather more than a mere mountebank. Despite the fact that the cover of the original publication depicts the Trollkarlen on the moon, we are only given hints about him until he makes his appearance in the final chapter.

A series of mini-adventures precede his appearance, in which the core of Moomin children — Moomintroll, the Snork and the Snork-Maiden — get themselves involved in magical happenings and, of course, scrapes. The discovery of a top hat on the Lonely Mountain leads eventually to a further discovery of its random transformative power; there is an expedition to the Hattifatteners’ Island by the Moomins, the Hemulen, Sniff and Snufkin, where unexpected things take place, plus a perilous fishing expedition; then the transformation of the Moominhouse into a jungle; and finally, after the appearance of the spoonerising Thingumy and Bob and of the Groke, the nature of the Trollkarlen’s long quest is made clear.

The seeming unrelated incidents that take place give the novel an episodic feel, and for the intended readers (or maybe for those who are being read to) the focus is almost entirely on the nature, virtues and foibles of the individuals, and on their interactions. There are minor squabbles and irritations, but also rapprochements and generous acts; there is anxiety when someone new appears, but soon they will be warmly welcomed into Moomin family life and even the stove-pipe home; there are natural dangers like storms and flooding and excessive heat but also there are games, and parties, and picnics. Old and young alike can’t fail to be drawn to the comfort food that abounds, principally pancakes and raspberry juice, though many will baulk at the diet that sustains the Moomins through their annual hibernation — pine needles.

And who can fail to be intrigued at the book titles referenced here — The Dictionary of Outlandish Words, Moominpappa’s Memoirs, and On the Uselessness of Everything — even if the latter later morphs into the more humdrum On the Usefulness of Everything?

Ultimately it’s the love of nature which seeps through these pages and provides the life force that buoys up the Moomin community. Whether the valley’s inhabitants are climbing mountains, exploring caves, beachcombing, gardening, sailing, preparing food, fishing, or botanising the exotic foliage that grows in Moominvalley, these activities provide the background to the beings’ existences, who at the end of all repair to their warm, cosy, sheltering home, and to their beds. It’s pretty much what, in exchange for the Trollkarlen’s treasure, they wish for, and what leaves us closing the book contented and at peace.

With a map, a personal message from the author (in the guise of Moominmamma) to English speakers, and a set of wonderful line drawings, Finn Family Moomintroll is a work to enjoy, to share, and to wholeheartedly recommend.


Read as part of World Kid Lit Month 2020 and also for Book Jotter Paula’s meme Tove Tove

36 thoughts on “The Magician and his hat

  1. I’m glad to see you continue your travels in Moominvalley. While I love the melancholy in her later Moomin books I find the joy in this one to be infectious. It is such a happy book that I’m smiling just from thinking about it.

    I also agree that sorcerer would have been a much better translation of trollkarl.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You think The Usefulness of Everything is humdrum? I think that would be most interesting to know! Either way, the Moomins are a treasure. Maybe I should read something for World Kid Lit Month too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! I was only trying to reflect a character’s dismay that a book title had been changed! I don’t know how accurately the title was translated from the Swedish (was it something like “Alltets värdelöshet”?) but I wonder if Jansson was making the point that some people think that unless something has a human use it has no intrinsic value and can be discarded? Perhaps an extreme kind of utilitarianism?

      But that the Moomins are a treasure I have no quibble with, even though I’m a very late convert! I’m also sure you’d be able to fit something in for World Kid Lit Month — even if it was only a Tintin or Asterix or Lucky Luke or a manga comic… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fairly accurately translated, “Om alltings onödighet” is the original title. Onödig=unnecessary, onödighet is when it is used as a noun.

        So I would rather associate it with extreme minimalism where everything is considered unnecessary. That also fits with the characters wish to leave everything and move into the cave.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I used online translators for the literal rendering of the English version, so can’t claim any expertise here whatsoever, sadly! But Elizabeth Portch’s englishing of Om alltings onödighet seems as close a translation as can be, and describes the Muskrat’s inclination really well.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post! I did love my readings of the Moomins which I have come to relatively late in life – but I do feel they have much to offer us philosophy wise (as well as Tove’s beautiful drawings). You make me want to revisit them – and also to read a book called “On the Uselessness of Everything”!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I always feel the intrinsic worth of a book is related to how much I reflect on it long after a review is done and dusted; in this case I want to continue pondering on the nature of the Hattifatteners, on the origins of the Trollkarlen, why I relate most strongly to Snufkin, and how the Moominhouse is such a comforting symbol.

      Regarding On the Uselessness of Everything see my response to Lory!

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Yay for Moomins! I am cheering you on, Chris, the journey with Moomins is such a rewarding one. It’s interesting that in the Polish translation we have a sorcerer; he even looks very human in appearance on Jansson’s illustrations, not at all like an ogre.

    Ah, this is such a sunny book! Now I’m tempted to reread it for the umpteenth time! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    1. If it wasn’t for the glowing red eyes of the Trollkarlen and the panther I’d agree he isn’t quite ogre-ish, Ola — but then Moomintroll isn’t frightening either!

      I think it’s the variability in meaning of the word ‘troll’ in European languages over time and space that leads to it signifying something a bit droll or odd but harmless (like house elves, or indeed the warmth-loving Moomins in their stove-like house) but also something terrifying and ogre-ish like Ibsen’s Mountain King or Beowulf’s Grendel — with Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things somewhere in the middle!

      Anyway, enjoy your reread, whenever it happens. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I love words, they have such malleability and subtlety (which can be disconcerting, even confusing) but when I look at their etymology I can see how objects and actions transform into metaphor, melting and reshaping to suit new needs and nuances. Sad that so many people are unaware of historical contexts and, a little like Humpty Dumpty, think that certain words have always meant what they might mistakenly think they mean and are willing to fight to the death over them. (And thank you for drawing attention to the Danish tryllemand, another specimen for my word hoard!)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. As I understood it (and I’ve just now checked online) karl in modern Swedish merely means man, fellow, even lad. Any connection with late Anglo-Saxon or Viking housecarl (and the original regal or noble associations with the bestowing of the name Charles) has seemingly disappeared over the intervening thousand years.

          In fact the modern phrase “a proper Charlie” shows any cachet the proper name once had to now be virtually non-existent! And as you suggest, Nick, hobgoblin as a description doesn’t evoke any more terror than, say, gremlin…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for reminding me that I haven’t read enough of The Moomins. And, did you hear the repeat of The Summer Book on Radio 4 last Friday? She was such a magical writer!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Ah Moomins…. It’s time I picked up another in the series. I do love these books and I’m delighted I’ve come to them this late. I’m convinced certain books need to be encountered at certain points in life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a sort of mantra for me too, Sandra! And yet I have this nagging feeling that this is akin to the truism that you usually find what you’re searching for in the last place you look… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Reading Matters – news from the world of children’s books | Library Lady

  8. I’ve never heard of this, but it sounds like something fun to read with the children in the evening! How interesting the Magician doesn’t arrive until the end. That reminds me a little of Chrestomanci, always a presence but not *physically* present until deep into the story. And your point about episodic storytelling is interesting…hmmm. That gets me wondering about writing episodes vs. writing a serial vs. writing a single fluid novel narrative. This might be worth digging into…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, lots of interesting points here, Jean! In reverse order:

      1. Episodic fiction, a remnant perhaps of epistolary and/or serialised novels (eg Dickens) is much underrated I think as a fiction form. As are collected short stories interlinked by theme, characters or place (eg UKLG’s Orsinian Tales) instead of random unrelated tales. It’s an approach I think I’d take myself as I’m rubbish at long form.

      2. I see what you mean by the Magician in this Jansson story being similar to Chrestomanci, but a closer parallel would be to Howl as both wizards by repute are to be feared, one a kidnapper of young women, the other a terrible being with glowing eyes. But all three indeed turn out to be more benign that expected!

      3. I’d always thought the Moomins were merely cutesy nursery creatures, a group of generic whimsical characters who wouldn’t ever appeal to me. How wrong I was! Kids who are captivated when young retain the affection when older, and adults like me who come to them late appreciate them in different ways — for their nostalgia for lost childhoods, for the Pooh-like philosophy, for the range of individuals one can empathise with (I’m in awe of Snufkin), for the author’s haunting illustrations and for many other perhaps indefinable reasons. Or is it second childhood creeping up on me?! I’d be interested in your kids’ reactions to these tales! Perhaps try Comet in Moominland first though before this one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 3. I shall! Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂 x
        2. Yes! Even like the Wizard of Oz–a fearful presence that is more a (useful) facade than actual face.
        3. You know, I actually did such a short story collection for my senior thesis in my undergrad years. I wrote short stories of various characters inspired by my childhood in church, connecting them by the appearance of a character inspired by my kid brother growing up story by story, always witnessing the fault lines that crack the faith, if that makes sense. Heavens, I wonder if I can even access those stories anymore, having written them in the days of floppy disks…

        Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.