- Tove Jansson Rediscovered
For years I have made Tove Jansson’s Moominland books required reading in my college children’s literature classes, and for years many of my adult students have resisted the charm and insight of these works. For them, the books seem too strange, too original, too challenging—they require too daring a leap, too great a suspension of disbelief. But I keep up the fight because I am convinced it is worth it, and I rejoice over every convert. In English-language criticism, Jansson has received scant attention. Only one full-length work, W. Glyn Jones’s 1984 critical biography (Twayne), exists. The appearance of this essay collection is especially welcome and should reinforce Jansson’s reputation as one of the great children’s writers of the twentieth century. The editors tell us the collection is a spin-off of a scholarly conference held at Oxford in the spring of 2007, and indeed, many of these essays have the distinct flavor of conference paper derivatives.
The collection’s purpose was to emphasize Jansson’s wide-ranging talents— she was an accomplished graphic artist, a cartoonist, a short-story writer and novelist, as well as a popular children’s author. In attempting to present the full range of Jansson’s work, the editors have had to sacrifice [End Page 377] any unifying theme along with any real analytical depth. The majority of the essays address the Moominland books, but their brevity and diversity prevents the collection from providing much more than a cursory overview of Jansson’s work. Still, readers familiar with Jansson will find much to digest in this little volume.
The first two essays, by Boel Westin and Agneta Rehal-Johansson respectively, describe the very personal nature of the Moomin tales. Westin argues that all of Jansson’s work is about herself and Rehal-Johansson sees the Moomin books as a personal project by which Jansson attempted to escape her past and personal unhappiness. Rehal-Johansson goes on to describe how Jansson eventually revised the Moomin stories to form them into a unified chronicle encompassing “new tension and ambiguities” (26). Corrine Buckland’s essay discusses the way Jansson achieves the sublime (in the Romantic literary sense) through her use of the stark, foreboding, and majestic settings. Buckland’s essay captures much of the essence of the Moomin stories, of what makes them so compelling, so memorable: “Jansson plays with our expectations breaking down limiting mindsets, creating paradoxes and yoking together opposites or extremes at many levels: solemnity and humour; the vast and the miniscule; the sublime and the ridiculous; adult and child” (37). In her piece, Claire Sharpe explores Jansson’s use of the psychological concept of depersonalization—a defense mechanism used against threatening and overwhelming circumstances. Sharpe attempts, with varying degrees of success, to draw parallels between Jansson and some of her fictional artists, such as the irrepressible Snufkin, a recurring character in the Moomin books.
In an essay focusing on Jansson’s illustration, Sirke Happonen examines drawings of the Fillyjonk (another Moominland character) and their roots in existential thought. The Fillyjonk is often depicted near a window, which itself is laden with symbolic suggestions since the window opens onto another world (either outward or inward). Happonen speculates on Jansson’s constant concern with perception—both as writer and artist. Elina Druker’s essay takes a literary approach examining Moominpappa at Sea, in which the Moomin family (mother, father, and Moomintroll, their son) and some of their friends seek adventures on a deserted island. Druker notes the actions particularly of Moominpappa, who spends his time mapping, quantifying, and searching for patterns, and of Moominmamma, who begins painting a mural on her wall—a substitute for the garden that would not grow. Her mural is magical, allowing her to enter into the picture (think Mary Poppins). In both cases, these characters transform landscapes, which allows them to “visualize and stage dreams and fears, unrevealed emotions and fleeing thoughts” (85). Lena Kåreland [End Page 378] considers Jansson’s use of Modernism (especially such movements as the...