Jun 10, 2010

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson

Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson

Tales from Moonminvalley is a 1962 collection of short stories revolving around the fictional Finnish forest creatures that populate Mooninvalley, about which Janssson wrote several renowned stories, novels and comics. If by any chance you’re glancing at the cover and at the illustration further down, thinking “Ah, I see – cutesy”, and preparing to click away, let me ask you to hold on just a minute. You see, “cutesy” is probably the very last word I’d use to describe these lonely, melancholy and emotionally complex short stories.

The only one of Jansson’s books I’d read previously was the lovely The Summer Book, a book for adults that you might remember from the recent spotlight on NYBR Classics tour. I don’t think that children’s and adult’s fiction are or should be nearly as different as most of the world seems to believe, so the fact Tales from Moonminvalley is very noticeably a book that draws on the same kind of sensibility as Jansson’s adult fiction didn’t particularly surprise me. Like The Summer Book, these stories are delicate and gentle, subtle and beautifully written, and about emotional experiences that are relevant for people of all ages.

I know I’d have loved these stories as a child, because I always loved things that hinted at the mysteries and complexities of the world of adults – especially if they did so in a way that gave me a real, palpable glimpse of those mysteries. But I suspect I was all the more ready to love them now, as an adult with a wider emotional vocabulary and with personal knowledge of some of these experiences (not that children lack these by definition, of course - I can only speak for the child that I was). The best fiction can be read at different levels depending on where you are in your life, and these stories are no exception.

Moonins by Tove Jansson

But let me highlight a few of my favourites: “The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters” is about a Fillyjonk (think of her as a person, really) who lives all alone in a house full of knick-knacks collected over a lifetime, and who worries endlessly about the possibility of a disaster costing her everything she has. It is, of course, a story about living in the grasps of fear, and there’s an amazingly moving scene in which the Fillyjonk asks a friend over for tea and unsuccessfully attempts to talk about the source of her anxiety. I was amazed with how well Jansson captured what it feels like to struggle to communicate intimately without success.

In “The Last Dragon in the World”, Moomintroll learns that holding on too tightly to what we love doesn’t always have the intended effect. Also, and more importantly, he learns that if someone or something fails to love you, it’s not necessarily that they’re wronging you. You can’t demand anyone to love you back. I particularly loved “The Last Dragon in the World” because it’s a story in which a situation with endless potential for resentment and bitterness is handled with remarkable generosity and tact.

Finally, “The Secret of the Hattifatteners”, probably my favourite story in the collection, is about the longing for a radically different life that most of us experience at one point or another. It begins when Mooninpappa goes away from Moominvalley to learn the secret of the free and rebellious Hattifatteners, all because he cannot stand another day of sitting quietly in the porch and having tea. The choices we didn’t make always have a way of seeming a bit more appealing than the ones we did make, but as Mooninpappa learns, in reality things are never quite as simple as that.

As you can tell by now, rather than about cutesy little critters hopping about in a forest, these are stories about fear, anguish, disappointment, loneliness, connections, missed opportunities, and so on. All these things are dealt with delicately and with incredible precision. Tove Jansson never wastes a word, and more often than not she doesn’t need all that many of them to cut to the bone. I look forward to reading more of both her children’s and her adult’s fiction.

Favourite passages:
Walking had been easy, because his knapsack was nearly empty and he had no worries on his mind. He felt happy about the wood and the weather, and himself. Tomorrow and yesterday were both at a distance, and just at present the sun was shining brightly red between the birches, and the air was cool and soft.
It’s the right evening for a tune, Snufkin thought. A new tune, one part expectation, two parts spring sadness, and for the rest, just the great delight of walking alone and liking it.

The brook was a good one.
It went rushing clear and brown over wads of last year’s leaves, through small tunnels of left-over ice swerving through the green moss and throwing itself headlong down in a small waterfall on to a white sand bottom. In places it droned sharp as a mosquito, then it tried to sound great and menacing, stopped, gurgled with a mouthful of melted snow, and laughed at it all.
(“The Spring Tune”)

She still held the china kitten in her left paw; it calmed her to have something to protect. Now she could see that the sea looked almost all blue-white. The wave crests were blown straight off and drifted like smoke over the beach. The smoke tasted of salt.
Behind her something or other was still crashing to pieces, inside the house. But the Fillyjonk didn’t even turn her head. She had curled up behind a large boulder and was looking wide-eyed into the dark. She wasn’t cold any longer. And the strange thing was that she suddenly felt quite safe. It was a very strange feeling, and she found it indescribably nice. What was there to worry about? The disaster had come at last.
(“The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters”)

‘That’s Hattifatterners,’ the Hemulen had said, and in those words everything was expressed. A little slightingly, a little cautiously, and quite clearly with repudiation. Those were outsiders, half-dangerous, different.
And then an overpowering longing and melancholy had gripped Moominpappa, and the only thing he knew for certain was that he didn’t want any tea on the verandah. Not that everything, nor any other evening.
This had been quite a time ago, but the picture never left him. And so one afternoon he went away.
(“The Secret of the Hattifatteners”)
Other opinions:
GeraniumCat’s Bookshelf

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. I used to love watching the Moomins children's TV series in the 1980s! I'm sure I read one or two of the books as a child too, but I can't remember anything about them. Maybe I should try reading them again as an adult.

  2. The stories sound interesting but those little critters look adorable!

  3. Helen, I suspect they'd read as different stories altogether now that you're an adult. Which adds to their charm, of course!

    Chris: They do, and I kind of loved the contrast between their sweet, innocent look and what goes on in the stories. They're never dark or anything like that, but there's so much underneath their gentleness.

  4. i remember the cartoon series of this ,i ve read winter book and have some book on my tbr pile ,i may read this i did like the quaintness of the cartoon as a kid ,all the best stu

  5. When I was a kid I loved the cartoon series and only found out they were actually based on books a few years ago.

    I can't remember which one I read now - it was a blue book, same style as the cover you have there.

    I liked it, I was a little surprised by it I think. Would like to read more Moomin books.

  6. I have never heard of this collection or author! It sounds like something I would have loved in my tween years, when even then I was developing a penchant for the dark. Wonder if I can make up for lost time?!

  7. Are the stories illustrated? I really hope that they are because I find the front cover of the book irresistable. If there were more such images inside, I'm not sure I'd be able to refrain from acquiring a copy myself...

  8. The difference between the adorableness of the images and the depth of the themes intrigues me. I'll have to check this out.

  9. I had thought that these stories would be very "cutesy" and am glad to hear that they are more emotionally developed and nuanced than I had expected. I really like the sound of this book and think that I'd actually love to read this. It's always so nice when a book defies expectations and delivers such complexity. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth. This one goes to the top of the list!!

  10. Funny. I didn't see "cutesy" when I looked at the cover. I thought it looked interesting. But you say it's a short story collection? I don't know. The longer I read, the less I like short story collections. I avoid them like the plague at this point. :(

  11. Stu, I hope you enjoy it if you do :)

    Fiona: If I hadn't read The Summer Book before I think I'd have been surprised too!

    Elisabeth: I think you can :)

    Steph: They are! Black and white illustrations, but several of them and very irresistible!

    Trisha: I thought the contrast was interesting too.

    Zibilee: I hope you do love it when and if you get to it!

    Amanda: I have good news, though: the majority of the Moomin books are actually novels! This one's an exception.

  12. I missed the TV show, but the book and stories sound good -- I'll put this on my radar, but who knows when I'll be up to bringing yet more books into the house.

  13. I have The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson but haven't read it yet and am so excited for the day I crack its pages. It seems like Jansson is of a rare breed, and I hope to read her children's stories soon, too!

  14. I have been dying to read these. I hadn't discovered the Moomins until your review of The Summer Book. After you reviewed that, I went and Wikipedia'd Tove Jansson and found out about this series! And it sounded like something that I wanted to read immediately but when I started to research it I had no idea where to start. But this sounds like a good one.

    It just sounds so good. There's something I love about that contrast of innocence (with the extremely cute characters) and melancholy...or innocence and revelation to what we all must face. Does that make me sadistic? :/ I just think it's a powerful tool in books and Jansson seems like a master of it.

  15. I remember the childrens programme from the 80s and I also remember that it really freaked me out as a child! I dont remember much about the programme but I remember there were dark and scary aspests, I had not idea there were short stories about these fellows.

  16. Well they do look cute, and it seems the stories hold deeper meanings.
    Great review!

  17. Loved your beautiful review of Tove Jansson's book. I have her 'The Summer Book' on my 'TBR' list and I don't know why I haven't read it till now. Will have to take it down from my bookshelf and read it soon.

    I liked very much your comment on the story 'Last Dragon in the world' - "Also, and more importantly, he learns that if someone or something fails to love you, it’s not necessarily that they’re wronging you. You can’t demand anyone to love you back." Very true.

    I will add this book to my 'TBR' list.

  18. Nymeth - I have just finished another Tove Jansson one you might like. Fair Play, which is rather semi biographical as it deals with the relationship between two mature women. The book is supposedly a novel, but I felt that it was more a selection of short stories. They were beautifully written and the events occurred quietly within the pages.

    I absolutely loved The Moomins as a child and hope to get my hands on some of these books.

  19. Well, I seem to be in the minority here in having never heard of Moomins. But having read your review, I can't even put into words how badly I want this book!

  20. I agree that the best fiction can be read at any point in life and the reader can take away different things at different times.

  21. Great review, Ana!
    I've not heard anything about this author so I'm definitely adding this book onto my wishlist! I love books which contain deep meanings! :)

  22. Well, you've opened my eyes. I have a blogging friend (Readersguide) who loves these, and I thought it was some kind of left-over childhood thing (which it still may be) but it makes sense to me that these stories are more. I will have to read them now.

  23. This sounds like a lovely collection. Children's and Adult's literature both cover a lot of the same ground, and the issues touched in this book sound wonderful.

  24. Ahh! Moomin! I lived in Finland for a year and everyone was Moomin-crazed. Love them.

  25. I've never given much thought about these books, I suppose I was wrong:P

  26. I've seen this reviewed before and remember thinking that I needed to read this. You just confirmed that, thank you so much because I had forgotten about this book I'm afraid.

  27. Beth F: I know - I'm on the exact same boat.

    Aarti: I can't wait to hear your thoughts on The True Deceiver!

    Chris: I'm glad to have brought these to your attention :)

    Jessica: Short stories, novels and comics! She really was quite prolific.

    Naida: I really thought they did. An interesting contrast!

    Vishy: I hope you enjoy both this and The Summer Book when you get to them!

    vivienne: Thank you so much for the recommendation! I look forward to your full review :)

    Debi: Never too late, right?

    Kathy: That's part of the beauty of it!

    Melody: Don't we all? :P

    Jeanne: I can see the potential for childhood nostalgia over these, but I think there's certainly a lot here that will interest an adult reader.

    Amy: I absolutely agree!

    Daphne: Makes sense!

    Valentina: Yep :P Well, IMO anyway.

    Iris: I'm happy to have reminded you!

  28. Your third paragraph is a perfect description of the ideal experience one can have with an author like Jansson.

    I didn't discover the moomins until my teens but as soon as I did, I loved them as much if I'd known them all my life. I don't believe the cartoons aired where I lived (at least not when new), and the books were largely forgotten by the time I found a copy of Moominsummer Madness in a used bookstore, so I never associated them with childhood. Jansson was never as big in the U.S. as in Britain, I think. American editors of children's imprints in the 50's and 60's wouldn't have known what to make of her. Or American parents.

    And like you I didn't read Tales from Moomin Valley until I was completely grown up--just several years ago. It's depth took me by surprise, even though it shouldn't have after her other work.

    I wonder how anyone who actually opened one of her books could dismiss Jansson's illustrations as cutesy? Some are, but always in a self-aware sort of way; almost self-mocking. Others have such pathos. And I thought the pictures for the Fillyjonk story were positively scary! It was my favorite.

    Aren't the hattifatteners creepy?

    I secretly wanted to be Snufkin when I grew up.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.