I will never forget it: Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden have captured the annoying sand-spraying Ant-Lion and stuffed him inside the Hobgoblin’s hat. The hat has magical properties and whatever goes in comes out changed; eggshells into clouds you can ride, water into raspberry juice. To contain the Ant-Lion’s rage they flatten him down in the hat with the Dictionary of Outlandish Words. ‘You must take risks when experimenting’ says Snufkin.
The dictionary starts to crumple up and all the words crawl out along the floor and up the walls until the ceiling is covered in Outlandish Words.
I was reading Finn Family Moomintroll in the Accrington Public Library. I must have been 9 or 10. I went home and put my Collins English Gem school dictionary into my Dad’s Trilby. When that didn’t work, I wrote out random words and stuck them on the wall above my bed with flour and water. This got me into trouble but I didn’t care. The words, random, alive, were making a kind of leaf mould in my mind. From that rich and fertile place came language of a different order.
Poetic disorder is how language is made. Only later is it codified. Naming starts as joy. Think of the pleasure a child has in finding words and inventing words and forming sentences that are also shapes. Words are ear and mouth before they are pen and paper. Words run away; you have to catch them.
Machine-made language, the language that comes later, in school and then at work, is useful enough but it has no life of its own. The job of the writer is stay on the side of life. The moving words were what I wanted – then and now,
I keep the Moomin books in my study and if I am tinkering about preparing for work I will often open one at random and read a page – they are funny and subversive, (Hemulens of either gender only wear dresses), And playful. Whatever happened to playfulness? Why, as adults, is serious/superficial the boring binary of our lives?
The Moomins and the Great Flood began in 1939 when Tove Jansson was 25. War had broken out, and she was thinking about a different world, one not shot through with fear and hatred.
There’s been a fashion, thankfully going out of fashion, that if you are not writing Social Realism you are wasting time. I am sure that so many adults read Harry Potter because they wanted some magic back. The huge success of books like His Dark Materials, The Hobbit, and Coraline, or movies like Up, and Shrek, is down to our imaginative need for a world within a world. Part of us is wired to sit round the fire telling stories. And truth is often easier to bear when told at a slant.
Moomin-world is wise. The Groke only cares about riches and freezes everything she touches like a refrigerated Midas. The Hemulen collects stamps but falls into despair when his collection is complete – then he is only an owner. Moomins don’t think much of owning things.
The Great Flood is a story of adventure and reconciliation as MoominMamma and Moomintroll search for Moominpapa, lost at sea, which everyone agrees can happen if you start adventuring, though everyone agrees that adventuring is important.
On their travels they adopt a small creature with big ears who explains ‘I got lost and thought I’d never see the sun again.’
This is Dante opening L’Inferno – ‘Midday through this life of ours I found myself alone in a dark wood.’
We know what that feels like, when the sun goes dark, whether we are a small scared child or a depressed adult.
But here are light-up flowers and bowls of sea-pudding and MoominMamma reliably carries a dry pair of socks and stomach powders in her handbag.
Yet sadness is allowed. When Moominmamma falls into despair, every else gets gloomier and gloomier dwelling on the sadness in their lives. Perhaps this is Scandinavian, or perhaps it is just a psychic truth, and we try and protect children from what they know anyway – that life is dark as well as lit-up.
Tove Jansson believed in happy endings though – not the Disney kind but more solid and ambiguous – which is a paradox but more truthful than black and white solutions. Ever-after is what is invisible on the next page.
Moominpapa is at last rescued from a tree above the flood but his house is lost. Then, suddenly, it reappears – still with the three rooms, one yellow, one sky blue and one spotted, built like a tall old fashioned wood burning stove. It has floated by luck to a better place.
Luck and chance are part of Moomin weather. And better than a controlled environment. Happy ever after is much too boring for a Moomin.