Book Nook: Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (1957) Translated by Ernest Benn

Image Credit: @cartoonist.sami

Aífe Kearns-McHugh dives deep into Jansson’s fictional world of Moominland and the hidden messages behind the words.

What to read...

Moominland Midwinter is a book about insomnia. 

Tove Jansson’s Moomins are some of the most iconic children’s characters of all time. Readers might recognise the soft marshmallow-hippo-looking creatures from comics, cartoons, puppet shows, or charming tote bags sold at Oxfam. 

The Moomins and their friends are comforting characters to look at and to read about. They live in a valley to the far north in the wilderness of unbounded forest, where strange neighbours live in strange harmony. Jansson was an anarchist and it shows in her writing, where the homeless wanderer who camps by the river is a good and wise friend and where, if a child is happier living at a friend’s house than their own, they can simply move in. And her further exploration of self-professed politics, and allowing for fluid family definitions reflect those politics, adds another level to this stunningly complex children’s series.

The actual stories of Moominland are secondary to the mood they create. Moominland is a place of wild adventure and consistent, cosy comfort. A child’s land: a safe place to play and learn and grow. Tove Jansson is not afraid of throwing darkness in there, either. 

In Moominland Midwinter, Moomintroll wakes up in the middle of his usual winter hibernation and he cannot get back to sleep. His parents don’t wake up when he calls. He looks outside and discovers winter, like an invading nation, has changed Moominland beyond recognition. The sun does not come up. Everyone he knows is asleep or far, far away. In this scary new world, he must find his own way, all alone and in the dark. 

A Swedish-speaking Finlander, Jansson understood the darkness and desolation of winter. The Moominland of this book is an uncanny inversion of the Moominland we know. “It wasn’t green any longer, it was white. Everything that had once moved was immobile. There were no living sounds. Everything angular was now rounded.” Moomintroll is lonely, out of place, and very, very unsure.

Thoughtful and poignant meditations on surviving the harshness of winter are interspersed with wonderful nonsense...

Moominland Midwinter teaches us how to make peace with darkness and loneliness. It also teaches us how to avoid someone who wants to bring you skiing. Thoughtful and poignant meditations on surviving the harshness of winter are interspersed with wonderful nonsense, like a squirrel so obsessed with his own fluffy tail that he cannot keep an unrelated thought in his head, or hiding under sea ice to avoid annoying neighbours. 

Written in 1957 and translated into English by Ernest Benn in 1958, Moominland Midwinter is told in a polite, old-fashioned cadence of children’s books – reminiscent of Enid Blyton. 

This is not a challenging book. While bad things happen and complex topics are alluded to, all hurts are soothed and all worrying meditations are put to bed. Yes, this is a book about a scared and lonely child, but this scared and lonely child makes new friends and finds new safety. Moomintroll learns to cope with the bad and roll with the good. He finds a way to survive, if not thrive, in a season far harsher than he has ever experienced. He does this while everyone he loves is temporarily lost to him. So no, this is not a challenging book. But winter is a challenging time. And this book contains lessons we could all stand to learn. 

Where to read it...

I recommend reading this book in a park at 10 a.m. Buy a pastry (they’re less than a euro in Tesco) and bring a flask of tea from home. You’ll need to wrap up warm, so you can sit on the ground. I would never recommend you ignore a sign which specifically forbids people from climbing the rocks, so you can perch on the outcropping which catches just a drop of golden sun. However, if you do happen to do such a morally dubious thing, it would be understandable and, I imagine, a pleasant experience. 

Try and read something new. I suggest Moominland Midwinter, in the cold and clear winter sunlight, when it’s just cold enough that your fingers are getting stiff, and just bright enough that you are grateful for the light and touch of warmth. 

But winter is not always so idyllic.

You may find yourself awake at 4 a.m. with your bed too warm, the air too cold and everyone in the world asleep without you. 

You may feel all alone in a world, during the darkness you were made to sleep through. You may hear the soft breathing of nearby sleepers and resent their easy rest.

...let this book hold you in a half hug and tell you about the beauty of winter.

When your phone is too bright and the night too dark, you can find great comfort in lighting a little lamp and holding a hardback book in your hands. When your body is too tired and your brain too busy, the delicate ink drawings and softly serious words of Moominland Midwinter is the perfect thing to look at with your tired, burning eyes. 

This is a kind book: a book about a little troll waking up in the middle of winter and feeling very afraid. He makes friends. He feels lonely. He muddles through. But spring does come in the end. When you’re all alone and everyone you love has fallen into a deep sleep or is far, far away, let this book hold you in a half hug and tell you about the beauty of winter. It’s not beauty despite pain, or beauty because of pain – just beauty beside the pain.