Moomins and the Finnish Culture
As generalization, Mickey Mouse is instantly recognizable all over the world. The ageless, iconic mouse, in his red shorts and white gloves, is a popular and lovable character and one of Walt Disney’s earliest creations. When Mickey Mouse is mentioned, his friends Goofy, Pluto, Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse are often immediately associated with him. Mickey Mouse and his friends have become a Disney icon that is loved all over the world. However, Moomin and his friends, although popular, is less known outside of his native Finland. If someone were to mention the name ‘Moomin’ outside of Finland what would come to mind? A white hippo-like troll? So, how did this white, hippo-like troll become such a beloved Finnish cultural icon?
Tove Jansson, a Swedish speaking Finnish illustrator and author, created Moomin and his story as a series of illustrated books and comic strips which were published between 1945 and 1993. Before being animated into show by Japanese producers in 1990 and more recently by Finnish and British producers in 2019, Moomin started to gain popularity through books and later on through comic strips.
The Moomin story began with Moomin and the Great Flood, Jansson’s first Moomin book written in Swedish in 1945, during the end of World War II. Despite being the first Moomin book, it was the last to be translated into English and is thought to be a prelude to the Moomin stories. The first two Moomin novels were largely unnoticed, but the third Moomin novel, Finn Family Moomintroll was praised in Finland and Sweden in 1948 and became the first Moomin novel to be translated into English in 1950, making an international breakthrough. Moomin’s world popularity also blossomed through the form of comic strips. Moomin’s first appearance in a paper was in a small comic in the children’s section of the the 1947 edition of Nd Tid, a Swedish comic published in Helsinki. Moomin was later introduced to a wider audience when the comics were translated into English in 1954 in a popular London newspaper called Evening News. Since then, Moomin continues to be popular and his stories are read all over the world.
Like Mickey Mouse who has his own theme-park, Disney World, Moomin has a theme-park called Moomin World located in Naantali, Finland. Moomin is an iconic Finnish figure; throughout Finland one can find Moomin ice cream, Moomin designer mugs, Moomin stuffed animals and wooden figures, and even Moomin stores and cafes! Because of Moomin’s popularity in Japan, Moomin fans can visit a theme-park called Moomin Valley Park near Tokyo. One can also visit the several Moomin cafes in Japan.
Introducing the Moomin Characters
When one sees Moomin, the thought that often comes to mind is what exactly is Moomin? Drawn as a white, round, hippopotamus-like creature with a cow-like tail, a large snout, and cute pointy ears, many wonder what animal could Moomin be? Although Moomin looks like a cross between a cow and a hippo, Moomin is actually a troll. In fact, his full name is Moomintroll.
The Moomin story is centred around the various adventures Moomin and his family and friends embark. The family is made up of Moomintroll, the protagonist of the story who is adventurous and always trying to be good, Moominmama, the loving, caring, and generous care-taker of the house, and Moominpapa, the adventurous father who always wears a hat, loves whiskey, and sticks to traditions. The Moomin story would not be complete without Moomin’s interesting friends who often tag along for adventures or spend time in the Moomin family’s home. First, the audience is introduced to Sniff, a lazy, greedy, and cowardly friend, who is practically adopted by the Moomin family. Although he is a faithful friend to Moomin, his priorities are usually food and money. He often aims to get rich, but is never successful. Second is Little My, a little girl who is naughty, brave, and spunky, who also gets adopted by the Moomin family for a period of time. Little My is a sassy character who enjoys doing mean things to others on purpose. Another key feature of Little My is her stubbornness and ability to win over arguments. Little My, although small in stature, is fiercely independent and finds excitement in untidiness.
“The main thing in life is to know your own mind.”Tove Jansson, Snufkin
Another prominent character is Snufkin, a nomad who is quiet, plays a flute, and often smokes a pipe. He is a wise character and a close friend of Moomin. Snufkin enjoys solitude and journeys every November on his own to escape the winter. Snufkin is the voice of wisdom throughout the series and is often seen as a consoler and comforter for the other characters. Snufkin enjoys fishing on his own and, although he considers the Moomins as family, he has no steady place to call home. Lastly, is Snorkmaiden, Moomin’s girlfriend who is energetic, but is often indecisive and flirtatious. Although Snorkmaiden resembles Moomin, she is a different creature from Moomin. She is a Snork, a troll-like creature that changes colour according to their mood. Snorkmaiden turns light green when she is upset, but is usually white like Moomin.
There are also some interesting side characters who come and go throughout the stories such as Mrs. Fillyjonk, an obsessive compulsive mother who lives in strict order, the Groke, a frightening creature that brings winter, the Hemulens, orderly creatures that like to collect, but can be stubborn, Stinky a troublesome, irate character that gets pleasure out of playing practical jokes on others, and the Hattifatteners, which are white mushroom-like creatures that get energy from lightning. Each character in the story has a distinctive personality and while on adventures the friends and family meet other unusual characters, get into challenging situations, and have fun together.
Living the Simple Life, Routine, and a Welcoming Spirit
“I only want to live in peace and plant potatoes and dream!“Tove Jansson
There is no doubt that the Moomins live and embrace a simple life style. Although the Moomin family often go on exciting adventures, all their adventures are focused around nature. For example they go mushroom picking, climb trees, venture onto other islands, and go flower picking. Mushroom picking, flower picking, midsummer festivals, bonfires, escaping to the countryside, and fishing, which are all included in the Moomins’ everyday adventures throughout the series, are typical traditional Finnish activities. As audiences enter the Moomin story, it becomes evident that the Moomins are always centred around family and nature which are both treasured in the Finnish culture. The life in Moomin Valley is very simple: it rotates around the cycle of nature. For example, the characters use nature to be the main source of their entertainment and sustenance and to escape the harsh winters, they hibernate. Similarly, the Finns have a philosophy called mökkielämä, which refers to the cottage life of living slow and in tune with nature. Living in harmony with nature is one of the themes that flows throughout Tove Jansson’s Moomin saga.
The Moomin family often tries to live in harmony with other characters in the valley as well, but this poses to be a bit more challenging since there are so many different personalities. Despite this, the Moomin family is always welcoming and accepting of other families and various types of creatures in the valley despite their differences. The Moonin house is famous for welcoming all different creatures. Unlike Mrs. Fillyjonk, the Moomins happily open up their home as a place for visitors to play and have adventures. This may be one of the reasons why the Moomin family is so loved by others and why characters like Ninny, the invisible child, are able to be free and heal. Ninny came to the Moomin family as an invisible child due to her inability to express her emotions. Ninny was brought up by a cruel aunt and, due to her abusive upbringing, she learned to trap her feelings until she became fully invisible. She was brought to the Moomin family to spend some time with the Moomin family and to perhaps regain her shape. Because of the comfort and love given to her, Ninny started to regain her shape gradually until finally she was able to express her true feelings.
Another theme in Moomin series is adventure versus order. There is a good balance of characters that enjoy adventures and other characters that are stubborn in keeping strict routine and order. Around the Moomin house there is some routine: Moominmama is always cooking and doing house work and Moominpapa is usually sticking to tradition, but despite this, the Moomin house is always up to adventures, opening their home to different creatures, and are open to new things. Although Moominpapa often sticks to his routine of reading the paper and follows traditions, he often longs for something new. One character that hates order and thrives on adventure is Little My, who always celebrates when there is chaos or mischief. She tends to like to do things in her own time and own way. She represents the unconventional lifestyle. For example, she will sit in a coffee pot or swing on the clock pendulum. She is always doing non-traditional things to break up the tradition and routine that is so loved by many of the characters in the series. She is a constant reminder of the importance of breaking routine to enjoy and live life differently.
Despite being welcoming to all, the Moomins’ life style is not well received by everybody in the valley. The Moomins’ simple life is often questioned by other characters in the valley. For example, Sniff is always focusing on the material aspects of life and Stinky mocks Moomin for living a simple life style, saying it is behind the times. Despite this, the Moomins never fully understand this “contemporary life” and continue living their simple way of life, having their adventures to entertain them. Perhaps this speaks to why Moomin did not become widely popular all over the world, but became mostly popular and Japan and Finland where the simple life and nature is celebrated and cherished.
Inspired by Nordic Nature
“The world is full of great and wonderful things for those who are ready for them.”Jansson , Moominpappa
In many ways, Moomin Valley’s nature is designed to mirror Finland’s nature. Moomin Valley is described as a beautiful place full of green pastures, rolling hills, forests, flowers, and wild berry plants, surrounded by mountains in the east and and facing the sea in the west. Tove Jansson was inspired by the nature around her to create Moomin’s world. Brought up by artistic parents, Tove Jansson was raised in Helsinki, but she would go every summer with her family to a rented cottage in a small island off of Porvoo. Finland is famous for its pristine nature, lakes, and well-preserved forests. Finland is Europe’s most heavily-forested country, with 75% of its land area being forest. Because Finland is mostly forest, the the Finnish people have a deep connection with the forest and the forest plays an important part of the Finnish culture and economy. This connection with the forest is seen in throughout the Moomin series as the Moomins spend a lot of their time in the forest. Tove Jansson illuminated the forests in her comics and books by adding a lot of artistic detail to the forests. Although the characters are drawn in a simple manner with few drawing strokes, her forests are drawn with great detail and elaboration with pen and ink .
For example in the photo above, one can see how simple Moomin looks comparing to the elaborate gnarled trees. In this manner, Jansson highlights the importance of the forest in the story.
“It’s only the sea,” said Moomintroll. “Every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to a shell. But you mustn’t go inside because it’s a labyrinth and you may never come out.”Tove Jansson, Comet in Moominland
Finland is also famous for its numerous lakes and its Baltic seashore, where Jansson spend many summers enjoying the quintessential simplicity that only a traditional Finnish cottage can offer. Such dwellings have few amenities, encouraging people to look to nature as their main source of sustenance and guidance. Having nature as guide, spending time in silence in order to understand nature, and being one with nature is part of the Finnish summer cottage experience. Often summer cottages are by lakes or by the sea. Tove’s love for islands and summer houses is highlighted in the Moomin series as the Moomins adventure off to islands and lakes in the summer. The Moomins are also able to swim and often go to the sea or the lakes during the summers. In the novel, Moominpapa at Sea, Moominpapa goes off to sea to try to understand the sea. The sea presents new adventures, a sense of wonder, and discovery for the Moomin family. Finland’s short summers are well celebrated in the Moomin stories.
Finland’s long winters
“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.”Tove Jansson, Moominland in Midwinter
Finland is well known for its long and harsh winters and this is not forgotten in the Moomin series. The Moomins, like many creatures that traditionally hibernate over the winter, hibernate during long winter months. Although some characters temporary disappear during the winters, some characters come only in the wintertime. For example, the feared Groke is creature that brings extreme cold wherever she goes and only comes to visit Moomin valley in the cold months. The Groke has an ominous aura to her and despite never speaking, no one really likes her. She seeks friendship and warmth, but no one gives it her because everyone is too scared to go near her.
“It’s called skiing. It makes you rush ahead fast, like lightning, in a cloud of whirling snow, and you’ve got to look sharp, or else.”Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter
Although the Moomins are typically asleep during the winter, Moomin awakes and partakes in winter adventures in Moomin in Midwinter. Here, Jansson introduces to her audience to the different winter traditions and the allows the audience to explore Finland’s winter nature. Despite the cold, Moomin ventures outside to see what nature is like in the winter. Moomin finds snow covered trees, ice lakes, and dim sunlight. Moomin also meets different characters such as Too-Ticky, a wise winter-loving character that stays up all winter and Lady of the Cold, who brings winter to Moomin Valley. Unlike Snufkin, who always travels south to avoid the cold, Too-Ticky comes to Moomin Valley during the cold months to enjoy the nature’s beauty in winter.
The Lady of the Cold is another mysterious character that enters in the series during Moomin’s winter adventures. Interestingly, Lady of the Cold was not illustrated by Jansson to create a more mysterious character for her. She is spirit-like and feared by many because, although she is described as beautiful, it is told that those who look at her in the eye become pillars of ice. Perhaps, the Lady of the Cold speaks to northern Finland’s icy temperatures.
Life Philosophies, Dark Humour & Hope
“A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to and what they really are.”Tove Jansson
Along with reverence to nature, the Moomin stories are filled with life philosophies and characteristics of the Finnish people. Although Jansson wrote the Moomin stories for a younger audience, the Moomin stories are filled with deep life philosophical themes and appeal to people of all ages. Life themes such as friendship, change, and the importance of confidence and curiosity, are weaved throughout the story. Despite at first glance appearing to be simple children’s stories, the Moomin stories are quite deep and touch upon core themes of humanity. For example, although the Groke is seen as a frightening “villain” on the surface, she is a character that reminds the audience that people can be different and that even the most welcoming places can exclude people. The Groke constantly tries to visit Moomin valley to make a friend, but is never received well. The Groke can also represent personal fears that “freeze” one from pursing dreams or going outside of one’s comfort zone. Below is the Japanese animated version of the Groke. Her musical theme expresses a lot about her timid, sad, and eerie character.
Despite the Moomins living in a peaceful valley that is centred around joy and simplicity, they are not unfamiliar to tragedy. The Moomins face many different hardships such as fleeing storms, floods, volcanos, and even a comet. Despite all this, the Moomins learn to persevere and learn from the hardships each time. In fact, one of the main themes in the Moomins is learning through misfortunes. Tove Jansson created the Moomin story during World War II. In her childhood, she faced the horrors of living through the war. In an article published the University of Jyväskylä, Heinämaa, a researcher in literature and philosophy, points that “recurring themes (in the Moomins) include the destruction of one’s home, orphanhood, homelessness and migration. All these things are part of Finnish history of past decades, but for many they still belong to the present.” Jansson used an imaginative and lighter hearted story to touch the Finnish peoples’ hearts and to reflect Finland’s story. Despite the hardships, the Moomins are full of hope and resilience.
“But one needs a change sometimes. We take everything too much for granted, including each other.”Tove Jansson, Moominpapa at Sea
In addition to bringing messages of hope, the Moomin stories and comics hint at some characteristics of the Finnish people. Solitude and silence is a theme that continues through the series. The Finns are well known for speaking little and taking each word they say seriously. Small talk is not well praised and every word said is supposed to be said with meaning and truth. This is subtly noticed in the series as the characters do not say too much, but every word is meaningful and well placed. Despite this, some characters tend to ramble more than others, and as the above comic shows, these characters are reminded to keep quiet. Silence is also important and considered sacred. In the comics, it is seen that being silent and engaging in an activity such as picking flowers or going fishing is used to calm characters down and to spend time with each other. If one looks carefully, it is also noticed that the Moomins have little detail for a mouth. They have large snouts, but no detail for lips. Perhaps the Moomins speak with their mouths closed. The ambiguous mouth also limits the amount of facial expression the Moomins can show on their face.
Although being a mostly light hearted series, the Moomins do not refrain from presenting things as they are even the dark and ugly. The Moomins seem to welcome “awful” and “miserable” things in their lives. It has been generalized that the Finns are generally serious people, but of course they enjoy humour. Finnish humour can be dark at times. This is something that may through off many when reading the Moomin comics.
Despite the few darker comments here and there, the Moomins accept the good and bad in life and always make the best out of it. In a way, the Moomins do not sugar coat anything. This makes the Moomins relatable even though they are imaginative creatures.
Legacy of the Moomins
Loved by many around the world, the Moomins teach everyone to embrace the simple things of life, to have hope, to always stay adventurous, and to spend time in nature. Because of her Moomin creations, Tove Jansson became a famous Finnish artist and author. Perhaps Moomin did not become as popular as Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, but Moomin has a culture and story to share. Tove Jansson did not seek popularity when creating Moomin; in fact, Walt Disney offered Jansson the chance to sell her characters to Disney, but she turned the offer down in order to retain full creative control. Despite this, the Moomin stories have been translated into fifty languages and because of popularity of the Moomin’s stories, Jansson has become one of the most well-known Finnish artists and writers. The Moomin legacy continues to live on with cafes, theme parks, and a new television series that just started airing in 2019. Coming from Finland and written during the wake of World War II, the Moomins show the world little snippets of the Finnish culture and character as well as reminding the world to take a step away from the busy life to enjoy the simple things once more.
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