Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Tales from Moominvalley

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson
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's review
Dec 12, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: borrowed, fiction, short-stories
Read in December, 2010

What a bunch of strange, opaque, elliptical little stories.

This is my first entry into the Moomin world, Jansson's books having passed me by as a child. I was dubious - the pastelly coloured covers of the editions I keep weighing in my hands then returning to the shelves in Unity have put me off - but this was lent to me by a close friend whose taste I trust.

I flipped the book over and read the blurb first:

If you found a tiny golden dragon with green paws, would you know what to do it it?

Well, Moomintroll thinks he knows what to do. But when he takes his new-found pet home, things don't work out as planned!

At the sight of that exclamation mark my heart sank. Japes ahoy, I thought - cute little animals getting up to whimsical things.

I couldn't have been more wrong. It might be because I was dropped into the Moomin world without any preparation, but the only thing I would childlike and traditionally delightful in this book were the names of the various creatures - the Moomins themselves, the Mymble, the whompers and creeps and fillyjonks, all words to savour across the lips.

Apart from that, I found the stories dark and puzzling and quite moving. In 'The Spring Tune' Snufkin is interrupted in his solitary wanderings (he is trying to let a song come to him, "a new tune, one part expectation, two parts spring sadness, and for the rest, just the delight of walking alone and liking it") by a little creep (some kind of forest creature) whose chatter drags him back towards his obligations, and who then asks him for a great favour - a name of his own. Snufkin, eventually, reluctantly, diffidently, offers 'Teety-woo' - "a light beginning, sort of, and a little sadness to round it off." And then

The little creep stared at him with yellow eyes in the firelight. It thought its name over, tasted it, listened to it, crawled inside it, and finally turned its snout up to the sky and softly howled its new name, so sadly and ecstatically than Snufkin felt a shiver along his back.

'The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters' is a small, fantastical, psychological study of a woman who is living a life that doesn't fit her properly, and chafing against it, breaking free in the only way she can - her imagination:

Those storms of her own were the worst ones. And deep down in her heart the fillyjonk was just a little proud of her disasters that belonged to no one else.
Gaffsie is a jackass, she thought. A silly woman with cakes and pillow-slips all over her mind. And she doesn't know a thing about flowers. And least of all about me. Now she's sitting at home thinking that I haven't ever experienced anything. I, who see the end of the world every day, and still I'm putting on my clothes, and taking them off again, and eating and washing-up the dishes and receiving visits, just as if nothing ever happened!

Some of the stories are relatively straightforward - little Ninny, the girl who has become invisible out of neglect, and becomes visible again once enfolded in the Moomin family; the gentle satire of the Moomin's first Christmas.

But it's 'The Secret of the Hattifatteners' that really sticks in my mind. Despite the ludicrous title, it strikes me as having strange similarities toMalory's Holy Grail - a journey undertaken not from choice but from some force of fate, of unhappy and bemusing travels, of fear and discovery (up until the last couple of pages, which gentle back down, without the tragedy of Malory).

It's the opening of the story that really struck me:

Once upon a time, rather long ago, it so happened that Moominpappa went away from the house without the least explanation and without even himself understanding why he had to go.
Moominmamma said afterwards that he had seemed odd for quite a time, but probably he hadn't been odder than usual. That was just one of those things that one thinks up afterwards when one's bewildered and sad and wants the comfort of an explanation.

That's not an opening that belongs in a whimsical children's book. That's the beginning to a hundred thousand children's stories about why someone who shouldn't have left did.

I'm not sure now if I want to back-read more of Jansson's books, or if I want to move straight on to her adult books and savour the weirdness of this little collection a little longer.
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