The shadow of war in the first Moomin story

How much has the war influenced Tove Jansson’s first Moomin story? And what can it teach us about the importance of a proper handbag or that family doesn’t necessarily mean only relatives? In our video about The Moomins and the Great Flood, you can find the answer to this and other questions. Tove Jansson’s niece Sophia Jansson reads passages from the book and Boel Westin, researcher and expert on Jansson’s life and art, opens up the context of the story.

“Tove Jansson wrote the story during the winter war in the 1940s.  There’s homelessness and the threat of annihilation. The catastrophe, the great flood, and the refugees show how Tove was influenced by the war. But then there is a happy ending – it’s a children’s book after all.”, says professor Boel Westin, one of the most prominent experts on the Moomins and Tove Jansson, whom she’s written a biography about.

Jansson wrote in her diary that she dreamt of creating a happy society – another world – something different from the depressing and scary reality of World War II.

“And perhaps you can say that the Moomin world is a realisation of this dream”, says Westin. 

Catastrophe as a theme is present already in the first Moomin story  – a big flood is threatening the existence of the Moomintrolls, and the characters are portrayed as very small in comparison to the force of nature.  

“Catastrophe as a theme became important to Tove Jansson in many following books. Here it’s the great flood, later it’s the comet, or a volcano. That is a narrative concept that she often built her stories around”, Westin says.

For Tove Jansson the respect towards nature’s forces was often mixed with a fascination and attraction to storms and other dangerous phenomena. It was something she’d carried with her from childhood, a heritage from her father, the sculptor Viktor Jansson. That feeling she describes in her adult books too, for example in the short story High Water from the self-biography The Sculptor’s daughter. There, a heavy storm is precisely what is needed to wake up a melancholic family father from the broodiness which is affecting the whole family – “The best storm we’ve ever had”, as the narrator expresses it.

In the beginning of The Moomins and the Great Flood, Moomintroll and his mother are looking for a new home and searching for Moominpappa, who is missing. During the adventure, they meet various figures who either help them or are in need of help themselves. The Moomin family takes on these new acquaintances with open arms.

“In the beginning, there’s only a mother and her son. Then they meet a small animal, Sniff, who becomes a part of the family. It’s typical for the Moomin family: family is a very flexible concept,” says Boel Westin, implying that the idea of an extended family might be one of the most important themes present in the book.

“In later Moomin books, when discussing guests who want to move in, there’s talk of only needing to build new beds and expand the dining table. I think that is a very Moominous concept.”

The Moomins and the Great Flood gives the reader insight into the lore of Moomintrolls – among other things the fact that they used to live in symbiosis with humans behind their tile stoves, but that was before the time of radiators. This old habit can be seen in the Moomins’ fascination with living in tower-like buildings.

We also find out how the Moomin family makes their way to Moominvalley and what important part Moominmamma’s handbag, along with its contents plays in the venture. Despite this book laying the foundation for the later Moomin books, Moomins hasn’t been seen as part of the actual Moomin-canon. The story differs quite a lot from the eight later books, both regarding character depiction and narration. 

“It’s a story written in a fairytale mode. It has lots of references to children’s classics. She hasn’t really developed her literary language yet. But at the same time, it’s a charming story. When you know there are more books to come you can read this and have keys to events that will follow later. So it’s quite an important book, although it’s not the best book. But I think it’s sort of the foundation for the Moomin world.” Boel Westin says.