In Praise of the Moomins
I am writing this somewhere on the ferry between Stockholm and Turku; and as I look out of the window at the grey sea and the rocky little outcrops of Åland, I find it all seems strangely familiar, as if I have seen it somewhere before. And, in a way, I have; because these are the seas that I navigated again and again in my childhood imagination, in the company of Moominpappa and Moomintroll and Snufkin, whilst reading those incomparably strange and wonderful children’s books by Tove Jansson.
These are the seas with islands so small and remote and strange that they might seem like bits of fly-dirt on the map; seas where chilly and lonely Grokes pursue distant boats with paraffin lamps at the head of the mast, glowing in the night; tiny harbours where small, solitary creatures crawl secretly underneath the tarpaulins of tied-up boats, to fall asleep and dream. And it feels like a pilgrimage of sorts to come here, and to watch out at the cormorants scudding over the waves, and to look across the countless islands towards the distant horizon.
These days, the Moomin characters have turned into a global franchise; and yet when I think about my own relationship with these books that were so formative of my imagination, I realise that what I owe these books is something much more private and intimate, a philosophy of sorts. Because in Tove Jansson’s books, when I re-read them now, I find a fierce recognition of the importance of solitude; an expansive sense of friendship—not a friendship that erases solitude, but one that is a kind of mutual recognition within it; a sense of delight in the world, its seasons and its changes, that doesn’t require any form of transcendence; and a hospitable generosity of spirit that manages, in one way or another, to accommodate even the most awkward and tricky of characters—not just eccentrics, stove-dwelling ancestors, hemulens, free spirits and oddballs, but also genuinely alarming creatures such as grokes and philosophers. And so I am happy to confess that my Snorgh would not be the Snorgh that he is without Tove Jansson; but, more than that, I suspect that perhaps my entire sense of life, my general philosophical orientation, would not be quite what it now is, had I not fallen under the spell of those extraordinary books…