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Tales from Moominvalley - Tove Jansson

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Genre: Junior Books / Author: Tove Jansson / Paperback / 168 Pages / Book is published 1973-02-27 by Puffin

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    Your dooyooMiles Miles

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      27.06.2012 20:36
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      A wonderful sampler of Tove Jansson's Moomin writing.

      After having written six novels in the Moomin saga (although it's arguable whether you can really call The Moomins and the Great Flood a "novel"), Tove Jansson took a bit of a change of pace and decided to instead produce a collection of short stories for the next book's 1962 release. As one might expect for such a book, the collection that encompasses Tales from Moominvalley explores a vast range of different moods and storytelling idioms, from more light hearted, comedic material to somewhat more serious concepts and contemplative tales that start to shine on the shifting perspectives of Jansson's storytelling ideals. As it stands in relation to her progress as a writer, this book can essentially be seen as a transformative collection of stories that bridges the gap between the previous novels and the remaining two in the series, resulting in a whole that has both a hint of the past, but also a glimpse of things to come.

      We start off with a story called "The Spring Tune," where we follow Snufkin on his way back toward the Moominvalley from his yearly winter wanderings. On his way he is formulating in his mind the idea of a new spring song that he'll play once he reaches his destination at the Moomin house, and is only waiting for those couple of final notes to come to him to finish the tune off. Unfortunately as he camps by the side of a leisurely brook, his musings are interrupted by a nameless critter (looking much like an otter) who recognises him and confesses to being a big fan of his. Snufkin, though, is less than thrilled, needing complete solitariness in order to finish his song, and can only be irritated by this unwanted intrusion. But when the creature makes a special request to him that he might, in his infinite wisdom, come up with a name for him, the reluctant Snufkin eventually throws out the name of "Ti-ti-oo" for him, after which he stomps off annoyed and by now having completely lost all trace of his new tune. It isn't until half-way on his journey that he realises that his foul mood is preventing him from ever finding those elusive right notes again, and decides he needs to go back and apologise to the critter to get back in the right track of mind. As an opening story, this very much harks back to the style of Moominsummer Madness and provides a great kickstart for the rest that follows, with the added plus of getting to see Snufkin on his travels and how he perceives the world interacting around him. He loves his loneliness, independence, and keeping that essential distance from everybody else - to be a highly respectful part of nature itself - while also knowing that the need to connect with others should not be forgotten either. It is simply to say that there is a time and place for everything and if impeded by anybody when it isn't desired, Snufkin can also be extremely cranky about it. It's an aspect that the cartoon series never really showed when it came to him, and which makes Snufkin in the books so much more of an interesting character than in the 1990s TV series (despite this very same story also appearing in one episode of said series).

      The next story, "A Tale of Horror," is the first of the more periphery Moomin tales that focuses on a young whomper who likes to live in a make-belief world of his own creation. In fact, so much does he like his own fantasies that he finds it hard to distance himself away from them and seems to think his imaginarium is all real. His parents, of course, are much less amused by his apparent "lies" where he tells them that his little brother's been eaten by a snake, but so strong is his conviction to the truthfulness of his own imagination that he outright rejects assertions to the contrary. It is only after a chance encounter with Little My at her grandmother's house, who terrorises him witless so that he is shocked into receiving a taste of his own medicine does he gets an inkling of the effect his own stories have on people. A particularly charming aspect to the story, though, is seen in the relationship the whomper has with his father, who supposes he should give his wayward son a spanking for distressing his mother with outright lies without apologising for them, but doesn't feel up to it that day. And while he denies dinner from him as punishment, causing his son to run off in anger, when he eventually comes to collect his frightened boy at the end of the story, there's just a certain feeling of understanding and reality in their interaction once all is said and done between father and son. This is one of those little stories of where you directly dive into the perceptions of a single character and get to experience their worldview, while also being privy to the weaknesses of their respective beliefs that Jansson was fond of doing with even minor throwaway characters. It's another wonderful little story that in its simplicity is so down to earth and relatable, yet has an undeniable feeling of childhood's magic in it that only asks for the maintenance of some healthy perspective without allowing flights of fancy to consume your entire life.

      "The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters" that follows, is one of the more middle-tier stories, telling about a Fillyjonk who has a premonition that something dreadful is going to happen, and spends the entire tale worrying and fretting about this event before her apprehensions actually do come true in the form of a violent hurricane. What Jansson does really well in this story is her masterly painting of an individual's claustrophobic fear: of her miserable life in a house she can't make feel comfortable no matter how much she remodels it, of her solitary life where visitors are few, and of her desperate desire to appeal to what few friends she does get. This last is well represented when a Mrs. Gaffsie pops by for tea and Fillyjonk tries to uphold a civilised and mannered discussion, only to have her apprehensions on the impending disaster eventually alienate and drive the guest away as she can't contain the stress within herself any longer. And as her worries grow and grow, Jansson manages to create a fantastic oppressive feeling throughout that features some of the darkest introspection she's ever committed to paper. It is only when the disaster finally does come and wipes out her house entirely that the story gets a little less effective, but the final lifting of the prior moodiness afterwards is still well done and makes this a good, if somewhat overly heavy, story to read.

      "The Last Dragon in the World" is perhaps the most "Moomin" like of the stories in this book due to its closer ties to the ideals of childhood adventure. Moomintroll captures a dragon in a glass jar while trying to gather some bugs for study and decides to keep it as a pet. Though he initially wants to keep it a secret, only revealing it to his closest friend Snufkin, it isn't long before everybody knows of it thanks to Little My's interference. The only problem is that the dragon doesn't seem to get along with anybody, least of all Moomintroll, and the one exception to the rule turns out to be none other than Snufkin. This creates tensions between the two that strains their friendship almost to the breaking point, which is not helped by the fact that Snufkin really doesn't want a dragon as a pet in the first place, but can't seem to shake the beast away from him. Like I said, this is very much a story that harks back to the more adventuresome stories found from early Moomin books like The Magician's Hat and The Exploits of Moominpappa, and has thus much more in the realm of fantasy than there's in the later books' sense of pseudo-reality. The schism between Moomintroll and Snufkin provides some spice to an otherwise fairly standard Moomin story, but it is still a generally pleasant and fun tale in the style fans of the older books will likely enjoy greatly.

      The following story, "The Hemulen Who Loved Silence," by contrast features no familiar Moomin characters, and tells about a hemulen working as a ticket clipper at an amusement park. Though he doesn't like his job, his easily amused family seems to think he does and, since he's not one for arguments, the hemulen never says anything against the work he does. But when an eight-week long rainstorm suddenly assaults the land, it causes the amusement park to be ruined and closed. The hemulen, now free, decides to retire and fulfil his dream of building a cabinet for dolls, moving to his grandmother's former estate left abandoned when the house burned down during a fireworks party, and commences to enjoy his new-found solitude. That is, until the children who loved to go to the amusement park start appearing at his front gate, tell him that they have painstakingly collected all the pieces of the old park, and now would love for the hemulen to rebuild the salvaged rides since they think he liked his job. But despite his initial reluctance, he eventually finds himself almost obsessively starting to restore the rides as the children keenly follow his task as the park starts to transform into a more and more fantastical place within the overgrown weeds. This is one of the more fascinating stories that is simple in its premise, but which ends up having a lot of subtle depth to it in the form of the hemulen's transformation from an unhappy person to someone eventually finding happiness in the very thing that was the cause of his unhappiness to begin with. It's a great story that, through the simplest of means, still manages to impart so much, and is a definite highlight of the book.

      The original title of this collection is "The Invisible Child and Other Stories," and it is the titular story that comes next. One night Too-ticky brings a young girl named Ninny to the Moominhouse. However, the crushing and demeaning behaviour of the girl's aunt towards her has caused the shy and introverted child to turn completely invisible. Too-ticky hopes that the Moomins can help her become visible again... in other words, he simply drops her off there without warning, tells them to make her visible again, and then leaves with the parting words "I have other things to do now." What follows is the Moomin family beginning the task of helping the girl get more confidence, self-assurance, and warmth to become visible again (though Little My is less than enthusiastic in showing anything with the words "kind" and "warm" in her vocabulary). Ninny takes an almost instant liking to Moominmamma and little by little she is coaxed into becoming more confident with herself and even sociable toward the others as her visibility starts to return in jolts. There are, of course, obstacles in the way, but these are generally slight as the story revolves around the idea of how a little kindness can go a long way in face of adversity, and is heavily damning of child abuse that can easily make a small child withdraw from any social interaction to the point of virtual invisibility. It is perhaps the only truly "issue" story in this collection, but it never gets to the point of loosing its entertainment value in favour of trying to make a moral point. This is a fine story, and besides it's always great to read Mamma call Pappa an "ass."

      But what follows next is the single story that most clearly points to the following novel's (Moominpappa at Sea) overarching style that was to characterise the last Moomin novels, when we fall back to that old story first heard of in The Great Flood and again in The Exploits of Moominpappa, telling of how one day Pappa left his family without any explanation to sail with the hattifatteners in "The Secret of the Hattifatteners." Haunted by feelings of frustration and yearning for something indefinable, he chances to see a small boat steered by three hattifatteners land on the beach he's on and decides to board it. Having always been fascinated by these silent wanderers, whose very mysterious nature seems to tell of great freedom and unbridled adventure, this decision leads him to a highly introspective and melancholic spiritual journey of self discovery amongst his silent, ghost-like companions through the great ocean sea. With his continuous attempts to understand these beings, this pushes him forward to doggedly find out what the source of this restlessness is that drives them onward in their rootless movement that seems to lack any form of real direction, and at the same time to possibly find some reason for his own yearning that leads him to journey so far away from home. And once he actually reaches to this elusive understanding upon arriving at a small island where hundreds of other hattifatteners have assembled in preparation for a violent lightning storm, does he finally come to the realisation of exactly how much he is in the wrong place, and the folly his imagination has brought him that hits him like a ton of bricks. Realising that ultimately what he mistook for complete freedom is nothing more than an illusion, the hattifatteners ultimately having only one goal in life: to experience the power of lightning as that is the only thing that can light a spark inside their empty, pointless existence, and how it is not freedom at all, but a one-track search for that one thing that creates a feeling of them being "alive." But Pappa is no hattifattener. His life is not empty and he has no reason to search for a meaning in his life since his family already gives him meaning, while contrastingly the hattifatteners ultimately have nowhere to go and no fulfilment to achieve from their silent wanderings on the wide, open oceans. It is an exceedingly beautiful mood piece and Jansson's poetic prose is incredibly powerful in its subtle philosophical drive that opens a deeper well to the psyche of Moominpappa himself, making the story easily the best of the whole book.

      After such a tremendous story, the following "Cedric" is at a decided disadvantage. There's not really much one can even say about it as it is really just a simple morality lesson. Sniff (making his first appearance since The Exploits of Moominpappa) has for some reason given away his toy dog Cedric, and is now feeling bad about doing so. He goes to Snufkin's tent to cry about it, which leads Snufkin to tell him a story about a rich lady who swallows a bone and thinks she's going to die. Thus she gives away all her possessions to make needy children happy, only keeping an old bed for herself. But as she finds pleasure and mirth from the little children she has helped, her laughter eventually dislodges the bone from her throat, and despite giving up all her riches, she has also learned the joys of giving. Thus, as a symbolic reward, she then discovers that the bed she's left with is actually made of solid gold embedded with various diamonds, leaving her still rich in material possession, but also much more enriched in not putting the same value on things as she did before. Therefore as a moral for the selfish Sniff to find happiness in the happiness of others, this makes for a rather straightforward and less than interesting entry among all the stories in this book, salvaged really only by Snufkin's snarky remarks about Sniff's selfish desires and constant interruptions to his story.

      The final story in the book, "The Fir Tree," then ends everything on a decidedly more humorous and lighthearted note. As a grumpy hemulen gets tired of the Moomins sleeping through winter as he enters their house in search for his gloves, he berates them for their behaviour, saying Christmas is coming, and ends up waking the entire family up from their hibernation. Thrust into a completely unfamiliar situation, the family then tries to make sense of what's happening around them as everybody seems to be antsy and in a hurry to prepare for the coming of this strange "Christmas" person. And since nobody has time to actually explain what Christmas is, the family only has some token out-of-context instructions as in what to do in preparation so that they assume Christmas won't be displeased with them and destroy them or something similar. Unlike Moomintroll's adventures during winter in the previous book, this is a highly amusing story of a family having to come to grips with something that has caused everybody to get into a frenzy without the slightest idea what the heck is going on. Their mistake of believing that Christmas is an actual evil person who needs to be appeased with a decorated tree, food, and presents is an extremely fun variation on the fish-out-of-water scenario, and them going through the motions as residents of the valley zip here and there complaining of all the stressful work they still have unfinished for that night of Christmas' arrival, is absolutely hilarious. The tale is filled with so many fun little details of them trying to make sense of everything and how to protect themselves from the wrath of Christmas that Mamma's final declaration once everything is set up to the best of their knowledge of "I'm getting sleepy and I'm too tired to think what this all means, but it all seems to be going just fine," is so perfect in its frustrated giving up of worrying about things they have never had reason to be worried about in the first place. It makes for a fantastic conclusion to a book that presents a great portrait of Jansson's sparkling writing in all its glorious colours and hues.

      This collection of nine stories is an absolute delight and, although some don't have as great an impact as others do, there are so many moods presented here that are like a cross-section on everything that the Moomins can be and stand for. It provides a direct bridge between Jansson's middle period and her late period of Moomin books, and runs the gamut through her earliest story types to her final entries in the series, being a real pleasure to read for young and old alike. The next two books, while inhabiting the Moomin spirit, would turn their attentions to almost entirely reflect the style of "The Secret of the Hattifatteners" in their introspective melancholy, leaving the last vestiges of youthful fun to reside within the pages of this collection of short stories. In a way, one might see this as the final reach toward nostalgic reminiscence that would now be overtaken by the disillusionment brought on by maturity. And in that way this book's overall feeling also becomes that of a projection toward the last rays of innocence. But in this loosing grip, it's still not ready to condemn it all to the ash pile of worthless dream but rather keeps it as a twinkle in the corner of the eye. And if anyone should ever want to truly know Tove Jansson through the influence of only one single book, then this might just be the one for you to get.

      © berlioz 2012

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