“At last they came to a small valley that was more beautiful than any they had seen that day. And there, in the midst of the meadow, stood a house that almost looked like a stove, very elegant and painted blue.”
These are the first, enchanting words written about Moominvalley and the Moominhouse, found in the end of the book “The Moomins and the Great Flood” (1945). To the surprise of many, even though the book is the very first published Moomin story and it introduces the Moomins and how they find Moominvalley, it has always had a complex position within the array of the Moomin books. First, it went largely unnoticed by the larger audience, and sold only 219 copies during its first year, and was translated into English as late as in 2005. Also, the story has been referred both as the grand “creation myth of moominology”, as well as a prelude to the eight official Moomin novels, rather than “an official Moomin book” due to differences in style and content.
Nevertheless, it presents an early version of Moomintroll and the characters and themes for which Tove Jansson would later on become internationally renowned, and it shines a light on how her ideas and artworks evolved as she developed the Moomin themes and series.
First glimpse of the history and the future of the Moomins
“The Moomins and the Great Flood” is a story about Moominmamma and Moomintroll’s quest to find the lost Moominpappa who has gone off with the Hattifatteners, and how they find their way to the beautiful Moominvalley, born as a result of a great flood. They move through a forest full of suspense and a monumental flood, counter a stream of surprises and meet all kinds of peculiar beings along the way, including a “little creature” who in fact is an early Sniff who joins them for the journey.
Other main characters from the world of Moomins presented in the book include the Hemulens and the Hattifatteners, as well as the ancient moomintrolls, the ancestors, who are introduced as characters living behind the stoves of people’s houses.
Indeed, the book contains a good bit of Moomin history. For example, in the story Moominmamma tells Moomintroll how Moomins used to live behind tall stoves in people’s houses and were driven out by the advent of central heating: “‘Some of us still live there now, I’m sure,’ said Moominmamma. ‘But only where people still have stoves, I mean. We’re not happy with central heating.’”
Another thing that makes the book interesting is the fact that Tove Jansson was already a respected artist when her first book was published in 1945. This can easily be seen in the way she illustrated the first Moomin adventure with a skilful mix of delicate sepia watercolour and delightful pen and line ink drawings. For example the last painting in the book is a beautiful, happy landscape with sunlight and flowers and birds flying over a friendly-looking house that looks quite a lot like a stove.
The realities of the war motivated Tove Jansson to create Moominvalley
The first words written about Moominvalley and the Moominhouse and quoted in the beginning of this text reveal the fact that one cannot fully understand “The Moomins and the Great Flood” and its deepest tones and layers without understanding the time and the world Tove Jansson created it in. The magic in the discovery of the safe and beautiful Moominvalley comes from the contrast, from the uncertainty that defined the flood and the quest for finding Moominpappa.
Tove Jansson wrote the first Moomin story during the hopeless times of the Winter War, fought between Finland and the Soviet Union 1939-1940. She felt that the war had taken all the colours away and she needed to write something that ends on a happy note, and so the story became a form of escape from the dark shadows of war.
Danger, threats as well as fears are present in the first book, like they were present on people’s life while the book was written. Loss and sorrow but also the hope of a better future were the realities of war. The book has been seen as a story of disaster and survival, but also as a story of a family, how it grows and is formed, and how the family finds their way to a safe and wonderful home.
Many Moomin researchers say that the horrors of that time served as an inspiration for the Moomin books: Moominvalley served as an alternative world to the world Tove Jansson was living in – a place where one could feel safe, accepted and loved.
*For the curious ones
One of the most comprehensive sources for background information on the Moomins, Tove Jansson and her life’s work is Boel Westin’s book “Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words“, which is an authorised biography published first in Swedish in 2007 and in English in 2014. It draws together the many threads of Tove Jansson’s life: from the studies interrupted to help her family, the bleak war years and her emergence as an artist with a studio of her own to the years of Moomin-mania, and later novel writing. “Love and work” was the motto she chose for herself and her approach to both was joyful and uncompromising, and the book shows how her work reflected these tenets of her life.
After “The Moomins and the Great Flood” eight Moomin novels followed along with three picture books, and a long series of syndicated cartoon strips. Even though “The Moomins and the Great Flood” didn’t reach high popularity, the next Moomin book, Comet in Moominland, was published already in 1946. Writing and drawing Moomin stories gave Tove a new vent for expressing herself.
In the next part of the article series presenting the original Moomin books we will dive into the world of “Comet in Moominland”, which is chronologically the first official Moomin book in the classic “Moomin series” and the first full-length Moomin novel. It introduces readers to the much loved Snufkin, Snork and the Snorkmaiden, and it presents key topics from the Moomin saga, ranging from the family relationships and the openness towards visitors and strangers.