RogerBW's Blog

Comet in Moominland, Tove Jansson 06 November 2014

Tove Jansson's second book about the Moomins. Original title Kometjakten.

It's hard to describe the Moomin books to people who haven't read them, even as a person who hasn't read most of them myself. They are whimsical and fantastic, menacing and reassuring; they are stories for children from an age when stories for children didn't have to have Deep Meanings or teach Important Life Lessons.

So. Moomins are small people/animals who live in a world not entirely unlike the wild parts of our own. They are some sort of troll, but taxonomy isn't of huge importance. They have houses and bake cakes and have adventures in the forest; but this is also a world with a Silk Monkey chattering from the trees, and grasshoppers who play violins for the woodland creatures and tree-spirits to dance to. Everything is rooted in the world we know, but just slightly odd.

In this particular story, Moomintroll and his friend Sniff become aware that a comet is approaching, and might hit the Earth. They travel to the observatory in the Lonely Mountains to find out whether this is true, and if so when it will happen. They have adventures on the way, rafting through mountain rapids and evading large predatory birds, then once they've got the news head back home as fast as they can. But the comet is getting closer, and the sea has dried up…

Characterisation is mostly fairly simple, with most of the cast having one or two significant traits (the Snork is organised and likes to write things down and hold meetings; Sniff is young, enthusiastic, but easily tired and scared). Moomintroll's enjoyment of adventure is only slightly moderated by occasional petulance. But Snufkin, the wanderer met along the way, is much more developed, and his enjoyment of the existence of lovely things without a need to possess them is the sort of sophisticated concept that would be unlikely to make it into most children's books now.

The latter part of the book, the trip home and the encounter with the comet, has a rising tension as our heroes struggle with a changed environment and meet refugees heading for a hope of safety. The book was conceived in the latter days of the Second World War, not the best of times for Finland, and there's a certain Scandiwegian grimness about the setting that sits well with adventure. Yes, we can be pretty sure everything's going to be all right in the end, but there's that little edge of uncertainty to stop things from becoming twee or smug.

Sales of the book were disappointing, and it was only with the next volume (Trollkarlens hatt, vt Finn Family Moomintroll) that the stories became wildly popular; indeed, that book was the first one translated into English, and was presented as the first in the series until the 1980s. However, this is probably a better starting point: it introduces the large cast chapter by chapter, rather than throwing one in at the deep end and expecting one already to know what everybody is like.

Jansson revised the book in 1968 as Kometen Kommer, removing references to The Moomins and the Great Flood (which was out of print by then) and changing the Silk Monkey to a kitten. As far as I know this latter version hasn't been translated into English.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:23pm on 06 November 2014

    I vaguely rememeber Moominpapa but I can't place it. Was this ever a childrens TV series in the UK?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 02:48pm on 06 November 2014

    There have been quite a lot of TV series made about the Moomins; none in the UK as far as I know, but it might have been an import.

  3. Posted by Paul Mason at 10:32pm on 06 November 2014

    The Moomins and the Great Flood was more of a short story. It's rather unformed, and the plot isn't dissimilar to that of Comet. In it, Sniff appears, but is never called Sniff.

    There have been two animated versions of the Moomins in Japan alone, plus a sort of stop-motion animated version. Jansson apparently didn't like the original Japanese anime, though it is probably better than its successor (I'm biased: I watched it all with my son). I also have a video of an English-language version with the most ridiculous title-music, a jaunty C&W-style piece which I find it hard to believe could have been written by anyone who had watched a single episode of the show, let alone read the stories.

    Although they were written in an age when, you suggest, books 'didn't have to have Deep Meanings or teach Important Life Lessons' I think the Moomin books do, simply by virtue of the fact that Jansson was an unusual person, expressing different ideas. The Snufkin-style characterisation increases as you go through the series of the books, although Moomin himself always remains the relatively hollow 'experiencing' character.

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