The Moomins and the Great Flood – Tove Jannson

Most people who know Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomin books have come across the eight books starting with Comet in Moominland (1946) and ending with Moominvalley in November (1970), a smaller number of people will have seen the five picture books for younger readers (1952 – 1993) only four of which have been translated into English and which will probably be featured in a blog on here sometime next year. Fewer still will have seen the long running cartoon strip which I covered in a previous blog. And then there is the subject of today’s post.

20181211 Moomin and the Great Flood 1

The Moomins and the Great Flood has a very odd history it began life in 1939 at the start of WWII when twenty five year old Swedish speaking, Finnish born artist Tove Jansson, faced with a lack of inspiration for her work decided to try writing something. As she herself said in 1991

It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures.

Perhaps it was understandable that I suddenly felt an urge to write down something that was to begin with “Once Upon a Time.”

Inspiration didn’t really strike with the written word either and the part written story was put away to be largely forgotten until she showed it to a friend in 1945 who encouraged Tove to finish it as a children’s book and do some illustrations to see if it would sell. The original title in Swedish is Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen or Small trolls and the Great Flood and although the following eight books became hugely popular all over the world from the 1950’s and have spawned a massive merchandising industry this first appearance was rather neglected. The book was out of print for a long time and did not get translated until 2005 when a limited edition copy was produced in English for the 60th anniversary of it’s first publication. This translation however was printed in Finland and was not widely available outside that country, the edition I have is printed by Sort Of Books in 2012 and is the first copy that is easy to obtain.

20181211 Moomin and the Great Flood 2

So why was this book missed out when the others took off, well the first thing you notice is that it doesn’t seem to be very consistent with the others, this is clearly Tove finding her way with the characters. Here the Moomins are absolutely tiny as can be seen in the picture above where Moominmamma and Moomintroll encounter Sniff for the first time, although he is never named in this book being referred to as ‘the little creature’ throughout. The flower that Moominmamma is holding is far bigger than she is, now it has to be said that nowhere in any of the other books is a size given for Moomins but I was really surprised to see this picture as in the later illustrations Moomins and the other characters are normally interacting with things that are to the same scale as themselves so I had never thought about how tall they are before. A later picture in this book shows Moomintroll riding on a stork looking for survivors of the flood

20181211 Moomin and the Great Flood 3

and this also shows him as very small. The other difference is the lack of recognisable characters, apart from Moominpappa who only makes an appearance at the end only Sniff, Moomintroll and Moominmamma and the Hattifatteners are ones we know, no Snork Maiden, Snufkin, Hemulen etc. all these wouldn’t appear until Comet in Moominland.

The back story given in this book that Moomins lived with House Trolls in peoples homes and would be behind the tall stoves that used to be so common in Scandinavia and they didn’t like central heating as there was no nice warm place to hide.

“Did the people know we were there?” asked Moomintroll

“Some did,” said his mother “They felt us mostly as a cold draught on the back of their necks sometimes – when they were alone”

As far as I can remember this is the only time an interaction with humans is mentioned in any of the books. Ultimately after numerous adventures they find Moominpappa although he has lost the house that he built as it was washed away in the floods only to find it again in a different place that became Moominvalley. The house is shaped like an old stove as a memory of the way Moomins used to live and the next book continues the story from this point.

20181211 Moomin and the Great Flood 4

It’s a pity that although the book is now available in English as well as the original Swedish that there don’t appear to be other translations yet so the worldwide Moomin fans are still largely unaware of how the Moomins started, the full page pictures are beautiful and so unlike any of the books to come after this and deserve to be appreciated everywhere.

Moomins: The Comic Strip

20180508 Moomins 4

Tove Jansson wrote her first Moomin book ‘The Moomins and the Great Flood’ (original Swedish title Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen) during WWII and it was published in 1945, Småtrollen translates as small troll. By the second book ‘Comet in Moominland’ (1946) the original Swedish title has Mumintrollet rather than Småtrollen and the Moomins had truly arrived. Interestingly those of us reading the Moomin stories in English didn’t get the first book until 2005 as a 60th anniversary limited edition which is a distinctly odd way to have it’s first English translation.

My younger brother read the Moomins in the early 1970’s as a child but they somehow passed me by, I remember the covers of his books but I don’t think I ever opened them. The first time I really became aware of the Moomins was when I lived in Stockholm whilst subcontracting on IT systems for Swedish company Dagab in the mid 1990’s. By then in Scandinavia you could hardly turn a corner in a shopping area without encountering the familiar white characters and a recent visit showed that the interest is even greater now.

20180508 Moomins 2

My interest was taken by the comic strip versions rather than the books, these were originally written and illustrated by Tove from 1954 for the Evening News in the UK and this gave them a huge following. By 1957 however workload from what Tove regarded as her ‘real’ career as an artist meant that she got her younger brother Lars involved and from 1960 he took over as sole writer and artist until the strip finally ended in 1975. Despite not really being a fan of comic strips or graphic novels I love the simple drawings and the tightness of script imposed by the comic strip format to the Moomin tales and if anything I prefer the work by Lars to Tove as there is more humour although the drawings are not as precise. Suggesting this however is probably heresy to true ‘Moominites’. The first strip was published on 20th September 1954, but before that the Evening News ran teaser panels for a week such as the one at the top of this blog.

20180508 Moomins 1

Since 2006 Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly had been issuing collections of the cartoon strips at the rate of roughly one a year, although volume 10 came out in August 2015 and nothing since. Emails and attempts to contact the company via their facebook page regarding further volumes have been ignored. After all they have still only reached 1964 of what was described as ‘The Complete Lars Jansson Comic Strip’ and there would still need to be 8 to 10 (difficult to tell how they would choose to split the cartoons into the books) more volumes to complete the set. It is important at this point to emphasise that the comic strip stories are not retelling the nine books by Tove, what we have here is 73 more Moomin tales, 14 of which are by Tove, 7 by the brother and sister in combination and 52 by Lars, so there are 32 Moomin stories written after 1964 that are not currently in print and therefore not available to purchase and read.

20180508 Moomins 3

Although I have tagged this essay as “children’s books” and certainly they can be, and are, read by children it is easy to forget how dark a lot of the subject matters covered are, not just in the books but also in the comic strips. From the very first comic strip story where it becomes clear that Moomintroll believes himself to be an orphan and is being put upon by lots of other characters taking advantage of his good nature it is clear that this is not just a simple tale for children. After the end of the series of strips making up ‘Moomin and the Brigands’ he finds his parents when they rescue him whilst he is trying to drown himself to get away from the hordes of people making his life miserable that have eventually driven him from his own home.

20180508 Moomins 6

Charles Sutton from Associated Newspapers recognised the more adult possibilities in one of his letters to Tove before the strips were finally commissioned and it is clear that she took this advice to heart when she signed the contract for 7 years worth of cartoons.

It has come to my mind, that your “Moomin” family could make an interesting comic strip, which would not necessarily be aimed at children. It is obvious that the Moomin family appeals to children, but we think these wonderful creatures could be used in comic strip form to satirise our so-called civilised lifestyle.

The Moomin cartoon feature film ‘Moomins on the Riviera’ released in 2014 was based on the third comic strip tale written and illustrated by Tove in 1955, rather than one of her books. This meant that the story was new to most of the people who saw it, as the books are far better known, even though the comic strips were syndicated widely through Europe. In line with the less childlike cartoons Moominpappa at one point has a terrible hangover and Moomintroll himself becomes extremely jealous of Snorkmaiden’s admirers and is not impressed by her tiny bikini which actually looks very daring despite the fact that normally, like Moomintroll, she doesn’t wear any clothes at all. You can see the trailer for the film here.

As an example of Lars Jansson’s work the cartoon below shows Moominpappa being as selfless as ever and willing to put himself out for the good of the family…

20180508 Moomins 5

This story has him become totally obsessed with the television and it controls his life (along with all the family as they have to do what he sees as correct according to the adverts) for a while until he finally is brought back to reality.

Hopefully Drawn and Quarterly will eventually start issuing the books again, but until then at least we have access to 10 volumes covering 41 tales. As an aside to this blog, there was a fascinating documentary about the life and work of Tove Jansson which includes an interview with Lars and also his daughter Sophia, who now controls the vast Moomin empire, made by the BBC in 2013. At the time of writing this blog it is still available on youtube.