A Strange Journey: Tove Jansson and The Moomins

moomin book by Tove Jansson

The Moomins (Mumintroll in Swedish) were the most famous creation of Finnish-Swedish author and artist Tove Jannson. Though this beloved creator wrote and illustrated many other works for both children and adults, the names of Tove Jansson and The Moomins will be forever linked.

The family of round, white fairytale creatures — which resemble hippopotamuses first appeared in 1946, and were the central characters in a total of nine novels, four picture books, and a comic strip that ran for more than twenty years.

Although Tove was a prolific illustrator, painter, and writer for adults, the Moomins are her enduring legacy, beloved across Finland and the world, and still hugely popular today.

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Tove Jansson Trollvinter

Learn more about Tove Jansson
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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The origin of Moomintroll

The Moomins had their origins in the grey, dreary days of World War II, when Tove was struggling to paint, longing for an escape, and was “feeling depressed and scared of the bombing and wanted to get away from my gloomy thoughts to something else entirely …”

She turned to writing and drawing, and what emerged during the Winter War of 1939 – 1940 was the first story of Moomintroll, Moominmamma, and Moominpappa — a story of adventure, loss, and longing for safety.

Moomintroll and his mother are looking for a home for the winter, as well as for Moominpappa, who has disappeared. Along the way they find a friend, the animal “sniff,” and a new little family is formed.

The theme of displacement, the anxiety and danger inherent in the story, and the hope of change for the better all came out of Tove’s experiences of war, but her inclinations still lay towards happiness, towards a brighter future. She referred to this in her letters to her friend Eva Konikoff:

“For a whole year, Eva, I’ve not been able to paint. The war finally destroyed my pleasure in my painting … It took time to realize that what matters is a path, not a goal. Now I want my painting to be something that springs naturally from myself, preferably from my happiness. And I am determined to be happy…”

In the new world that she created, Moomintroll’s journey ends in such a place of happiness: a beautiful valley laden with fruit and flowers and sunshine, which Tove named Moominvalley. The book was a creation story of sorts, explaining the habits of Moomintrolls (such as hibernating from November to April).

It also establishes Moominpappa as an “unusual Moomintroll” because of his restlessness and longing for adventure, and Moominmamma as a central character of strength who holds the family together.

The original title of this first Moomin story was Moomintroll’s Strange Journey, but it is not mentioned in letters or notes until 1944, when Tove’s brother Per Olav was home on leave from the eastern front.

Tove then wrote in her diary, “I felt I wanted to write a fair copy of Moomintroll’s Strange Journey and change it.”

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Tove Jansson in her studio with Moomins, 1956

Tove Jansson with 3-dimensional Moomins in 1956
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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The Moomins emerge: First publication

In a fit of joyous enthusiasm, she finished the new version in a few days and handed it in at Söderströms Publishers in May 1944. She celebrated by buying a new hat for spring, blue and flowery, “my first really feminine and idiotic one.”

However, it was a year later, in June 1945, that she noted in her diary, “Received the proofs of The Moomins and the Great Flood [the new working title for Moomintroll’s Strange Journey] and made a sort of start on the next Moomin book.”

The book, ultimately published under the title The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, rather than went largely unnoticed. There was just one review, by Gudrun Mörne in Arbetarbladet in January 1946, which was largely positive, but the book sold just 246 copies in that year.

The name Moomintroll itself came from her Swedish maternal uncle, Einar. In an interview in 1947, Tove explained:

“… When I was a small child I used to steal food from the larder. And then my uncle said, ‘Watch out for the cold Moomintrolls. They rush out of their hideyholes the moment a larder thief shows herself and begin to rub their snouts against her legs and then she begins to freeze so that everyone can see that there goes someone who’s been stealing jam and liver pâté.’”


A new passion

Tove herself became enthralled with the Moomins, and often had to force herself to stop working on them in order to do other things. The second book, Comet in Moominland, was written in the summer of 1945 and accepted for publication in spring of 1946.

This was quickly followed by The Hobgoblin’s Hat, which she wrote in summer 1946. These first three Moomin books established Tove’s reputation as a “double artist,” one who worked with both images and words.

She took a lot of inspiration for the natural world of Moominvalley (and the other landscapes of the Moomin books) from her summers spent on the Pellinge archipelago.

From the time she was born, Tove had spent weeks each year at the family’s various summer houses, where wild weather and the power of the sea were forces that couldn’t be escaped. Her father had a passion for the wildness of the archipelago and its seascapes, and this passion would later be shared by Moominpappa.

Storms and bad weather also feature heavily in the various catastrophes and disasters that the Moomin family face throughout the books, and some of the descriptions of the natural world that surrounds the Moomins read like prescient warnings of climate change:

“… the great gap that had been the sea in front of them, the dark red sky overhead, and behind, the forest panting in the heat.”

Söderströms also published Comet in Moominland, with a glowing blurb on the back cover which spoke of Tove as a “talented and imaginative woman who knows just what children like to hear.”

Commercially, it was no more of a success than the first book, but Finland-Swedish reviews were generally positive. Already, the Moomin books were talked about as books that held appeal for both children and adults, and were compared to Winnie-the-Pooh.


First Moomin success: The Hobgoblin’s Hat

The Hobgoblin’s Hat, the third book in the Moomin series, was published by Schildts and was the first commercial success. While writing it, Tove fell violently in love with Vivica Bandler, a theatre director, and this new Moomin story left behind the anxiety and tension of the first two war-time books.

Instead, Tove explored love, friendship, and the affinity between two creatures — Thingumy and Bob, also the pet names that she and Vivica had for each other — who wander into Moominvalley one summer’s day bearing a mysterious suitcase. In 1947, Tove wrote to Vivica:

“The Moomin book’s finished. Thingumy and Bob had now run riot at the end and definitely overcome the Groke [the name Tove and Vivica gave to the “enemy of love,” the laws and social conventions that outlawed homosexuality]. They are inseparable and sleep together in a desk drawer. No one understands their language, but that doesn’t matter so long as they themselves know what it’s all about…”

Tove also continued to be inspired by her love for the islands of the archipelago on which she spent so many summers; by the landscape and the seas and the wild weather. The Hobgoblin’s Hat features storms that turn the sky yellow, thunder and lightning and rain, and crashing waves that keep the character Snufkin awake.

At the same time Tove also made far more use of color in her illustrations: in contrast to the gloomy Indian ink that she used to illustrate the first two books, the Moomin summer of The Hobgoblin’s Hat is as “gaudy as an engagement bouquet.”

The book was published in 1948 and received several good reviews. In a survey of children’s books for Christmas 1948, Solveig von Schoultz devoted a large amount of space to The Hobgoblin’s Hat, writing that, “Pictures and text belong organically together and have the same qualities; one can’t talk about illustrations in the normal sense, but rather of an artist with two native languages.”

It was also the first Moomin book to be translated into English: in spring of 1950, The Hobgoblin’s Hat was published in the UK as Finn Family Moomintroll.

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Moomin book by Tove Jansson

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Hell’s growl-jumps: a theatrical triumph

On 29th December 1949, the first Moomin theatre play was performed. Moomintroll and the Comet drew on Comet in Moominland, The Hobgoblin’s Hat, and also the fourth book in the series, The Exploits of Moominpappa (a kind of biography of Moominpappa’s early life, which was a great success with the critics).

It was directed by Vivica Bandler, and Tove worked on the script as well as the costumes and scenery. She was determined to experience every aspect of working in the theatre, and after the dress rehearsal wrote to Eva: “It was so appallingly awful that there must be a good chance the first night will go well. Snufkin overslept after a party and didn’t turn up at all…”

Her prediction was right. The opening performance received generally good reviews although some parents complained of the play’s “strong language.”

Expressions such as “begrowled” and “hell’s growl-jumps” had largely passed over the children’s heads, but caused consternation among the adults. One father wrote, “…in its present form, with its boozing prophets and strong expletives, I cannot recommend it.”

This theatrical experience would later be turned into the book Moominsummer Madness, published in 1954, in which the dress rehearsal of Moominpappa’s tragic play is full of errors and poor performances.

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Moomins in Icelandic

The Moomins books have been translated into multiple languages.
Here they are in Icelandic
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“Moomin duties” and international fame

Even before The Exploits of Moominpappa, the Moomins had begun to expand beyond the books. Various “Moomin duties” were beginning to take up Tove’s time. She wrote to Eva in the spring of 1950:

“These Moomin duties seem to be swamping me….there are constant interviews and arrangements to do with the books … Moomin ceramics and Moomin slides you look at through special viewers and whatnot. And then the Moomin opposition, help! — all those aggressive people who scold me about the poor troll …”

Moomin illustrations were appearing outside of the books. Two short Moomin stories appeared in newspapers, while Tove was invited to exhibit Moomin illustrations in Norway.

The Moomins even advanced into academic circles: there were invitations from Helsinki University, the Helsinki School of Economics, and the universities of Lund, Oslo, and Gothenburg to discuss “the new children’s literature.”

The Moomins, it seemed, were everywhere, but Tove remained protective of her creation and famously turned down the advances of the Walt Disney company to make Moomin cartoons.

The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My was the first full Moomin picture book. It used cut-out methods and startling combinations of colors to great effect. It won Tove her first award, the Nils Holgersson Plaque awarded by the General Association of Swedish Libraries.

This was followed, after Moominland Midwinter in 1957, by the Elsa Beskow Plaque, the Rudolf Koivu Prize, and the Swedish Literature Association’s Prize.

The Moomins traveled even further with the introduction of a comic strip in the London Evening News. After several months of back and forth over contracts, the first strip was published in September 1954, and within two years was running in twenty countries.

It was both exciting and draining for Tove. Having regular income was a huge improvement to her previous ever-desperate finances, but the amount of work involved was overwhelming.

“This is no bit of fun on the side,” she wrote. Each week she would send off six “daily episodes” to London, for a strip that overall would last three months. Her contract was for seven years.

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comet in moominland by Tove Jansson

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The end of a love affair

After several years, the pleasure and excitement of the comic strips, and the opportunities they gave Tove to develop the characters, were far outweighed by the stress of constantly having to find new ideas.

She noted sarcastically, “It’s going so well I can’t help getting rich even if they keep cheating me.” But she often spoke of how creating the strips had become constraining, turning the pleasure of creating art into the stress of a deadline and the encumbrance of duty.

She had financial freedom, but the associated contracts, correspondence, appearances, and interviews drained her time and energy and left her with little desire to work. She began to feel ambivalent towards the Moomins, and increasingly frustrated and angry with what felt like a living creature beyond her control that also prevented her from painting.

As early as 1955, she was complaining: “I can’t recall exactly when I became hostile to my work, or how it happened and what I should do to recapture my natural pleasure in it …” She felt hidden behind the Moomins and her identity as “troll-mother.”

By 1957 Tove was in negotiations over contracts and rights to see if she could end the arrangement early. Eventually, it was agreed that Tove would continue for two more years, up to the end date of the original contract. However, the newspapers were keen to continue the strips beyond that time, and it was agreed that a successor would have to be found.

For Tove, this was no problem: she had already collaborated with her brother Lars (also a writer and artist) on several other books, and he was the natural choice. In 1960, Lars officially took over the Moomin strip series, along with the financial side of the “Moomin business.” The strip ran under his direction until 1975.

A company was also founded, Moomin Characters, to look after rights and production of merchandise (which by this time included wallpaper, cards, puzzles, crockery, ties, mugs, bookmarks, calendars, dolls, and braces and suspenders).

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Moomin Shop in Itis Mall, Helskinki

Moomin Shop in Itis Mall, Helskinki
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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The last of the Moomins for Tove

After leaving behind the Moomin strips, she made as much of a clean break as she could. In letters to friends, she was almost brutally dismissive of the characters and the world she had created, saying that she had “forced her brain to work with trivial ideas which made real ideas disappear,” and that working on the comic strips had been like a “threadbare marriage.”

Almost with relief, she noted her belief that the demand for the Moomins was at last abating: “It won’t be long before no one will ever again want trolls made of marzipan or soap, or wear them pinned to their bosoms.”

In January 1961 she wrote that she would never again “be able to write about those happy idiots who forgive one another and never realize they’re being fooled.”

However, separating herself from the desire to tell stories was not so easy. She spoke of Tales from Moominvalley as her last Moomin book, published in 1962, but two more would follow: Moominpappa at Sea (1965) and Moominvalley in November (1970), in which the family has left Moominvalley. This final book had no Moomins in it at all. 


Legacy of The Moomins 

Tove would never be entirely free of the Moomins. Her belief that all the hype over the Moomins was waning was perhaps wishful thinking, and over the following decades there would be more plays, television adaptations, and hundreds of different items of merchandise.

Although Tove developed an equally strong reputation as an author of books for adults, any interviews that she granted would inevitably come around to the Moomins, and considerable correspondence — to which she diligently replied right up until her death in 2001 — was also largely from Moomin fans.

The Moomin books have been translated into some fifty languages. New stories continue to be written using original drawings and materials from Tove’s vast archive, control of which is managed by her niece Sophia.

There have been three feature films: Moomin and Midsummer Madness (2008), Moomins and the Comet Chase (2010), and Moomins on the Riviera (2014).

In addition, there is a Moomin theme park — Moomin World in Naantali, Finland — and a comprehensive, interactive Moomin website, where readers can explore Moominvalley, delve into the history of the books, find out all about the characters, and take the quiz to see which Moomin character they are (this reader is a proud Moominmamma).

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Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is a writer and editor with a serious case of wanderlust. Her short fiction has been widely published online and is included in the Best Small Fictions 2022 Anthology published by Sonder Press. She is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform, she is also co-facilitating What the Water Gave Us, an Arts Council England-funded anthology of emerging women writers from migrant backgrounds. She is currently working on a collection of short stories, and when not writing can usually be found planning the next trip abroad, or daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris. Find her online at  Elodie Rose Barnes


Further reading and sources

  • The Moomins (available separately and in various collected editions)
  • Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words by Boel Westin (Sort of Books, 2018)
  • Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Dr Tuula Karjalainen (Penguin, 2016)
  • Letters from Tove, edited by Boel Westin and Helen Svensson (Sort Of Books, 2020)
  • Moomins website
  • Tove Jansson website

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