Monday, 9 August 2010

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson

Published 1965

Yesterday I had two separate discussions with family members about Moomintroll (partly because the New Scientist had published this picture of a marmoset, which reminded me of the Dweller Under the Sink), and by bedtime I felt a need to immerse myself in the quiet of Moominvalley for a while. I promptly picked out Moominpappa at Sea, which is only about Moominvalley at a remove - it's a book which leaves one filled with strange yearnings, and by the time I finished it this morning I was feeling distinctly wistful.

At the start of the book it is Moominpappa who is feeling strange yearnings. He's also feeling disgruntled, because the family aren't according him the respect he feels is his due - they even put out a forest fire without consulting him! His real strength, he decides, lies in his deep understanding of the sea, so they will set sail for the island where he knows his lighthouse stands, and everything will fall into its allotted place again. Moominmamma is, as ever, indulgent and understanding, and for Pappa's sake she is prepared to forsake the valley she loves. Moomintroll and Little My are quite prepared to set off just for the sake of adventure, so Pappa's boat, the Adventure, is loaded up and they set sail at dusk (because that's when events of such significance ought to happen). What they don't know is that someone has followed them...

Anyone who hadn't met the Moomins might think that these stories about small, stout Finnish trolls were for small children. In fact they are amongst the most poignant and expressive in European literature, on the face of it simple little stories about the not-very-exciting daily round of these small creatures and their friends, but which reach deep into the uncertainties and insecurities we all carry around with us. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moomintroll and his parents must face the anguish of displacement, Moomintroll and his mother dealing with the physical loss of the valley, Moominpappa with the loss of his role as head of the family, as the others make their own accommodations. "Don't you do anything," he keeps telling Mamma, as he constrains her ever more tightly in a coccoon of protectiveness, which only serves to further aggravate her sense of loss. 

The restricted set of characters - unlike in most of the books where there is both extended family and a wide assortment of Rabbit-type friends-and-relations - serves to underline the claustrophobia of the tiny island, battered on all sides by a not-entirely-amenable Sea. Moomintroll's own sadness is made worse by an unattainable love, which can't be articulated to anyone else. Only Little My is untroubled, rising above her circumstances with all the aplomb (if not actual callousness) that readers will remember from earlier books:
"I'm not saying anything about some mothers and fathers," drawled Little My. "If I do, the first thing you'll say is that they're never silly. They're up to something, those two. I'd eat a bushel of sand if I knew what it was." "You're not supposed to know," said Moomintroll sharply. "They know perfectly well why they're behaving a little oddly. Some people think they're so superior and have to know everything just because they've been adopted!"
All my adult life I've had Moominmamma in the back of my mind as a role model - always unruffled, understanding, warm and kind, bottle of raspberry syrup at the ready. I was glad to find that, determined to create a garden in the scattered rocks of the island, she's as sensibly practical as ever: "Moominmamma pushed the dirty dishes under the bed to make the room look tidier, and then she went out to look for soil." On this reading, though, it's her unhappiness which most deeply affects me, her uprootedness that is continually exacerbated by the failure of her rose plants to grow in inhospitable soil. Her homesickness must be dealt with quietly and discreetly, without impinging on the rest of the family - Moominpappa, of course, is much too wrapped up in his own concerns, as the sea resists his efforts to comprehend its moods.

The end of the book, typically of Tove Jansson, is low-key - fortunately, her adult readers, at least, probably know better than to expect a "story-book" happy ending. There's a resolution of sorts, and for one character, at least, things turn out better than we might have expected. But, as I said at the outset, the end leaves one more wistful than anything else - really, you have to wait for the end of the next (and final) book, Moominvalley in November, for the end of this one. All the Moomin books are ideal for reading aloud to children, but I remember finding that more and more discussion was needed with the later books. For adult readers, however, they are perfect for autumnal days of indulgent melancholia, to be savoured alone and at leisure.


  1. I read (and loved) this when I was a child. Maybe I should re-read it now.

  2. I think you should :-) it'll make you feel wistful but really glad that you did.

  3. How great to see a review of the Moomins! 'Moominvalley in November' is my favorite, but they're all enchanting - and as you say, deeper than you expect them to be given the drawings. I wonder if anyone has done an analysis of the whole series together.

    Did you know that there's a reread and analysis of the Freddy the Pig books at Here's the latest installment:

    1. I think that Tor had a reread of the whole series a couple of years ago? I've got Finn Family Moomintroll on my Kindle for those wistful moments while travelling - sadly, I think most of my original copies were mostly scattered to the four winds long ago.

      I had to Google Freddy the Pig, who doesn't seem to be part of the English child's library (or this one at least). The illustrations look wonderful, I'll have to read the Tor posts.

  4. an excellent post! i am currently pondering on doing a thesis solely based on moominpappa and the sea and focusing on the landscape as a distinct and very active character. don't quite know how to approach it, yet...

  5. What an interesting idea! I hope you might allow me to read it if you do?
    The way the Sea behaves in this book seems to speak to something quite primeval in us, doesn't it? My elder son said recently that he couldn't imagine living anywhere away from the sea now, and I feel the same - from where I live it's just on the horizon and I can see its moods, and at night, the flashing of the lighthouse in the distance, which I find comforting and lonely at the same time.
    I feel that there's a lot could be said about the Hattifatteners, as well as Moomonpappa?

    1. it's june and i am half-way through with my thesis writing! and i will be quoting this post in it, as well :)