Thu
Apr 22 2010 6:53pm

Moominland Midwinter Re-read

In Moominland Midwinter, Tove Jansson continues to explore the magical world of the Moomins, although this installment focuses exclusively on Moomintroll since he is the only Moomin awake during a period of hibernation. (Moomins sleep from November to April.) That’s not to say the book lacks a colorful cast of characters, however: when Moomintroll can’t sleep, he ventures out into the white winter haze, meeting some friends who are eccentric enough to thrive in the harsh setting and help Moomintroll break out his shell. Oh, and there’s an absent-minded squirrel with a “marvelous tail” whizzing around!

Sadly, the squirrel only makes a brief cameo at the beginning. An icy cold drift sets in known as the Lady of the Cold. He stares straight into her eyes and she freezes him stiff. The nerve! As if the barren, cold landscape isn’t punishment enough...that’s Moomintroll’s attitude, anyway. He’s bitter. He even makes up an angry song:

“Listen, winter creatures, who have sneaked the sun away,
Who are hiding in the dark and making all the valley grey:
I am utterly alone and I’m tired to the bone,
And I’m sick enough of snowdrifts just to lay me down and groan.
I want my blue verandah and the glitter of the sea,
And I tell you one and all that your winter’s not for me!”

Fortunately, Moomintroll sees the squirrel at the end of the book, and it seems that it may have survived the frost-bite, but missed out on many of the shenanigans that add levity to the bleak landscape.

Too-ticky is one colorful character in this wintry land of misfits and drifters. He lives in the Moomins’ basement during the cold months acting as a surrogate parent, without offering much by way of advice. Moomintroll feels misunderstood by Too-ticky and her quiet acceptance of winter. He stomps off defiantly and consequently runs into Little My (literally)–a thrill-seeking creature whose personality more than compensates for her small stature. The petite girl transforms a silver tray into a sled and crashes into Moomintroll, sending him flying into the snow.

Moomintroll mopes around, nostalgic for summer and the familiarity of his family. To make matters worse, the little creatures coming out of the woodwork offer him little comfort. The Dweller Under the Sink with bushy eyebrows, for instance, speaks only gibberish like “Shadaff oomoo” and “Radamsah.”

The Sun reveals itself gradually each day, but Moomintroll is impatient for something magical to happen. He must do something “terrible” and “forbidden” to alleviate the tension and decides to open a cupboard in the bathing hut that Too-Ticky had previously warned him not to touch. Out jumps a rat-like creature that Too-Ticky describes as a troll, one of Moomintroll’s distant ancestors. Moomintroll then gazes at his sleeping pappa. He doesn’t understand how something so hairy can be related to his family. As he questions Moomin evolution, he battles nagging frustration and disappointment; he finally has a relative awake in the household, but one that doesn’t speak and hangs monkey-style from the chandelier.
Each day the sun gets a little brighter and so does Moomintroll’s mood. A thin little dog named Sorry-oo arrives to tell Moomintroll a lot of people were making their way to Moominvalley for food. Moomintroll doesn’t know what to think. He’s supposed to watch over his family’s place while they sleep, but now a flock of Little Creeps threaten to eat all of his jam.

Unfortunately, the Little Creeps are the least of Moomintroll’s worries. A big Hemulen arrives on skis bearing a piercingly loud bugle. He wastes no time building an igloo on Moominpappa’s tobacco plot, enlisting the help of other guests. Too-Ticky notices the Hemulen bathing in the ice-cold river and aptly responds “good-bye to peace and all that.” She’s not impressed with those Hemulen types and their ways. Moomintroll similarly wonders why he can’t find the Hemulen agreeable when he’s been longing for someone jolly. No one likes the Hemulen except for Little My, who’s fascinated by his skis. She discovers her natural ability as a skier—unlike Moomintroll who falls in some willow-bushes by the river.

Moomintroll sulks. He’s tired of the Hemulen, who’s unmindful of the other guests’ general annoyance. He conspires with Too-Ticky to free himself of the Hemulen by insinuating the cliffs of the Lonely Mountains offer better skiing conditions. (The name of these mountains should be warning enough, but that’s Hemulen for you: completely oblivious.) Salome the Little Creep overhears the conversation and vows to tell the Hemulen the truth. She admires the big creature, but he’s always too busy to notice.

Moomintroll is tasked with the responsibility of talking to the Hemulen, but loses his nerve. Instead of sending the Hemulen off to the Lonely Mountains, he convinces the Hemulen to stay, going as far as to volunteer for skiing lessons (Moomintroll is not particularly good at deception). In the end, this turns out to be a good thing: The Hemulen makes himself a productive member of Moominvalley by saving Salome the Little Creep from a blizzard–a heroic effort that improves Moomintroll’s opinion. As a gesture of friendship, he offers the Hemulen the last jar of Moominmamma’s strawberry jam. The Hemulen leaves, on his own accord, with Sorry-oo, who has finally found a sense of belonging after a failed attempt to join a vicious wolf pack.

Eventually, the snow melts, spring arrives, the sun blazes, and the rest of the Moomin family wakes up. The house is a mess and all her food is gone, but Moominmamma is surprisingly happy. Moomintroll was able to help those in need, while maintaining the family’s honor. Besides, without odds and ends like rugs, cleaning is a lot easier. Moominmamma assumes the household duties and Moomintroll breaks into a carefree run through the melting snow. The spring miracle makes winter a distant memory.

Commentary:

I read this tale thinking about small bouts of insomnia as a child. You wake up alone, the clock ticks slowly, and you wait for everyone else to wake up and gather around the breakfast table. I can’t place myself in Moomintroll’s shoes as those hours roll into months, but it’s safe to say that we all deal with this sense of impatience and claustrophobia during winter when we’re confined to small spaces and social circles. There’s inherent greatness in this, too, because it forces you to interact with the neighbors you didn’t know existed. Maybe that neighbor is quirky like the Hemulen and can teach you how to ski, or shy like Salome the Little Creep, with her unwavering loyalty.

Moominland Midwinter proves winter can be tender, funny, and most importantly, worthwhile. It’s something relevant to this time of year when we’re anxious to have flip-flops in our doorways. Everything seems a little brighter. The sun’s rays illuminate everyday objects, making them shiny and new, reminding us transformation exists. The book offers a similar breath of fresh air as we teeter on the cusp of spring, still bitter when the temperature dips below 60 degrees. We all identify with Moomintroll’s angry winter song, although maybe that song occasionally comes out in the form of surly rants.

As March and April send mixed messages, Moominland Midwinter says, “Hang in there!” Winter is actually rewarding. Imagine living without different seasons, without time for introspection and growth. Granted, it’s not easy when you slog around everywhere; Jansson gives us some dark depictions, making me think Moomland Midwinter could easily have been titled “Midwinter Malaise.” Moomintroll’s emotions run the gamut, but this murky stage is necessary for him to achieve a new degree of maturity. When winter comes, Moomintroll grows up, understanding at last that it’s best “if things aren’t so easy.” Spring’s sweeter because of what comes before. It’s fragrant and light, yet eclipses everything. Finally, you don’t have to wear heavy boots, gloves or trousers (not that Moomins wear clothing). The point is that everyone else is ecstatic to shed those layers, which is a perfect way to describe Moomintroll’s experience. In the end, he only sees himself.

3 comments
Gabriele Campbell
1. G-Campbell
It's the most Scandinavian of the Moomin tales. I've lived through a Swedish winter (a bit south of the polar circle, but there still were only 3-4 hours daylight / twilight) and while I loved the snow and the cold, the darkness grated on the nerves after some time.
Eli Bishop
2. EliBishop
Which one of these books is my favorite is mood-dependent, but it's often this one. She pulls off this odd mix of melancholy and comfort so well, and it's such an unusual anti-adventure setup: instead of being swept away on a journey, you're at home, but everything looks different and it's a whole other set of people. And they're there every year, you just never noticed.

Also, Too-Ticky was based on Jansson's life partner, and the love really shows.
Barbara Gordon
3. bmlg
Aw, Eli, thank you! I didn't know that, and it's sweet.

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