Matt McIrvin (mmcirvin) wrote,
Matt McIrvin

Comet in Moominland, Tove Jansson

Having read through the first several books in L. Frank Baum's Oz series a few years ago, I recently managed to get my daughter hooked on them, and we've been reading them in Kindle e-book form. It's fun, and it's been great watching Jorie progress from passive bedtime consumption to reading them on her own, but the Oz books only go so deep.

On to a very different fantasy series. I read four or five of Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books when I was a kid, and loved them. They seem to be more obscure in the US than they are in the rest of the world (especially Japan), but I'd wanted to read them again and see how well they hold up (I'd heard good things).

Jorie and I just read through the 1946 Comet in Moominland (the original Swedish title just seems to be something like "Comet Quest"; the translation is by Elizabeth Portch, and it seems to be of the first version of the novel, prior to some revisions by Jansson in later Swedish editions). This is actually the second book in the series, but the first one (The Moomins and the Great Flood) seems to be relatively obscure, though Comet mentions the events of it. Comet was Jansson's breakout hit. It really does hold up; indeed, like much of the best children's literature, it has depths I didn't consciously detect when I read it as a kid.

It's peculiar in that it effectively begins the series with an apocalyptic narrative. This makes it an interesting back-to-back read with The Emerald City of Oz, which does a similar thing to Oz (Baum was trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to kill off the series). In both cases, things turn out fine in the end, but the characters spend a significant part of the story wondering if the world is going to be there tomorrow.

In the Moomin world, human beings seem to coexist freely with talking animals, approximate humanoids, and more peculiar creatures with no direct real-world correlate. The Moomin family are pleasant, friendly trolls with hippopotamus-like faces who live comfortably in a pretty blue house in Moominvalley (it floated there in a flood in the previous book), where all manner of other odd creatures have a tendency to drop in and crash on the kitchen floor. Jansson later implies that Moominvalley is north of the Arctic Circle, somewhere in Lapland perhaps; but in this book, there are crocodiles and monkeys living nearby and swarms of talking locusts that pop over from Egypt. That's the kind of world it is.

Comet in Moominland starts out with a vibe reminiscent of Winnie-the-Pooh, with Moomintroll and his friend Sniff in the Pooh and Piglet roles. They find a path to the seashore and have a droll, aimless little adventure there with a mischievous and easily-distracted monkey, in which they discover a hidden cave.

It's a fakeout, though: all this is merely set-up for something far grander and weirder. Collections of objects start rearranging themselves spontaneously into the shape of a star with a tail, and a learned Muskrat crashing on the kitchen floor identifies these as portents of a comet on a collision course with Earth. It's as if Pooh suddenly learned of Ragnarok. Moomintroll decides to set off on a perilous expedition to ask some astronomers in the mountains about it, and with some fairly minimal preparation (aided by Moominmamma, who seems remarkably unperturbed), Moomintroll and Sniff just go and do it. That's the kind of world it is. In short order, they're battling crocodiles while navigating whitewater rapids on a flimsy raft.

The moment the story really catches fire, though, is when Moomintroll and Sniff meet the great breakout character of this book, a wanderer in a beat-up green hat named Snufkin (he was apparently based on a friend of Tove Jansson's, an editor of a left-wing newspaper). Snufkin is a wise, resourceful vagabond, disdainful of possessions apart from his clothes and his harmonica, and full of crazy stories about his adventures busting out of prison and meeting fire-spirits in a land of volcanoes. As soon as he shows up, it's as if Jansson has discovered a new source of narrative energy. The prose becomes livelier and funnier.

From that point on, the party gradually collects more eccentric members, and the adventures get scarier and more fantastic. They find the astronomical observatory (they know they're close when Snufkin realizes they're camping in a pile of thousands of cigarette butts) and get an exact date and time for the comet's arrival. The comet starts to loom in the sky and gradually heat up the world, in an astronomically inaccurate but effectively unsettling manner. There is a subdued romance between Moomintroll and the Moomin-like Snork Maiden, who is traveling with her uptight brother the Snork. Once they've got their date for the end of the world, everyone figures that the right thing to do is to get back to Moominvalley and talk to Moominmamma about it, because she'll surely know what to do.

That's the kind of world it is.

The shortest way back is across a stretch of the ocean, which has entirely dried up from the heat of the blazing comet, so they have to cross the empty sea floor on stilts, and it is awesome. Tove Jansson was also a genius illustrator! She draws wonderful pictures of all of these creatures, and there is an illustration of them crossing the dried-up seabed, past a wrecked sailing ship lodged in the exposed seamounts, which has as much sense-of-wonder as any six or eight science-fiction novels I've read lately.

Eventually they get back to Moominvalley and the reassuring presence of Moominmamma, and everyone makes use of the cave they discovered back at the beginning of the story to take refuge from the comet, which does not in fact destroy the world. But, interestingly, Jansson doesn't portray the comet as an idle threat, a delusion of the Muskrat's, a dream or a childish fancy; this world contains real menace. At one point, there's a parenthetical remark in which she describes the flight to the cave as like being evacuated in wartime, something I imagine she had recent personal experience of.

One thing that seems a tiny bit dated, in this early volume, is the gender roles. The two major female characters are Moominmamma, who is an idealized mamma, and the Snork Maiden, a very girly girl and love interest who we initially meet as a damsel in distress, rescued by Moomintroll from an animate thornbush. (She holds her own with the adventuring later on, and rescues Moomintroll from a giant octopus, albeit with the help of a hand mirror.) It's a little surprising to see because, as I recall, the later books break out of that pattern in a big way with major characters such as Too-ticky and Little My. The romance thread, itself, is the kind of thing that is cute to adults but might put off some children, though it's not played too strongly. Jorie didn't seem bothered, though.

There's a lot I didn't mention. Given the subject matter, you would expect that the story would get increasingly grimdark as it goes on; but while the background gets more and more ominous until the end, the story doesn't become unrelievedly dark, or too scary for six-year-olds, because the characters won't let it.

At one point along the way, they drop in on a village and have a comical interlude buying gifts and supplies at the village store (without benefit of money, but fortunately the lady who runs the place is both kind-hearted and quick on the uptake). Then the creatures of the surrounding woods have a party far into the night, with dancing, drinks and sandwiches, lit up by some obliging glow-worms around the dance floor and the weird light of the comet. It isn't portrayed as an act of desperation or a depraved end-of-the-world bacchanalia. Everyone's just got to take a break for a little while and enjoy themselves regardless of events. It's an attitude that, as I recall, persists in the later books.
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