One of Finland’s most celebrated contributions to the world is the herd of bleached rhino’s known as the Moomins. The phenomenally popular Angry Birds have no pretensions to being anything but pure entertainment, and they betray little that is distinctively Finnish, so their entry into global popular culture as an absent-minded leisure and commodity has been without Finnish opposition. In contrast, the Moomins are literary creations that lay a genuine claim to being a work of art as well as demonstrating some distinctive cultural roots, so their potential reduction to saleable products in marketplaces that cannot fathom the Moomins provides slightly more Finnish angst than the global conquest of the battling birds.
The Moomins remain obscure outside American children’s literature circles, but in Finland Moomins have become commodities on a scale rivaled only by Angry Birds. Moomins have long been reduced to commodities in Finland and at least some international markets, with a universe of oven mitts and tableware decorated with Moomins as well as a theme park and a museum. Their consumption by an international readership reaching from the UK to Japan to South Africa suggests that the Moomins’ handlers may aspire to conquer the American market.
Characterizing the books’ narrative appeal to children and adults is challenging. The Moomins series began in 1945, when Tove Jansson published The Moomins and the Great Flood, followed a year later by Comet in Moominland. Eventually the series included eight novels, one book of short stories, five picture books, a comic series, and a scatter of movies and television shows. Moomin lives are chaotic and fraught with danger and apprehension in the form of floods, comets, dark forests, or the depressed, lonely, and terrifying Groke whose icy touch freezes all it contacts. The Moomins approach that world with curiosity, optimism, and trust in family and friends. Moomins hibernate each winter and have a distinctive Nordic connection to nature, facing its undersides and complicated rhythms as they actively explore it.
The narratives unfold unpredictably with fantastic storytelling moments (compare the story profiles on tor.com’s 2010 Moominweek page), and for many young and old readers alike the novel narrative elements weave a compelling reading experience. The text narratives are amplified by Jansson’s distinctively precise artwork that places Moomins in the midst of various crises and providing a strangely comforting presence. Many of the graphics have little or no background and simply rely on the absurd and sincere expressions of the massive bleached trolls and their universe of creatures, yielding a distinctive and much-imitated Moomin aesthetic.
We could ask why these books (or any other cultural product) provide compelling narrative themes; for instance, we might psychologize Jansson’s life, contextualize the historical wartime experience and Finnish sentiments that yielded these stories or, dissect specifically how Moomin stories fabricate a distinctive narrative. Yet perhaps the deeper question may be why particular works enter the mass popular imagination and enchant people from a very broad range of different backgrounds. Articulating “enchantment”—an absolutely emotional and instinctive reaction to stories and graphics—is exceptionally difficult if not impossible to do successfully, though.
The Moomins perhaps have struggled to secure American audiences because their universe is a very different form of imagination than traditional American children’s literature. After misidentifying Tove Jansson as male, a 1961 New York Times review of Moominsummer Madness lamented that the story “badly needs a down-to-earth mortal to measure things by,” because “as it is, a bothersome nightmare quality is never quite dispelled.” In 1968 another reviewer complained in the Times that “the more one reads about Moomins the less one knows about them. … Some vital links have been lost, and these seem to be plot, character, theme and common sense.” Yet in the wake of these stale judgments, many Americans have flocked to non-conventional narrative and aesthetic oeuvres like anime, even though mass culture ideologues are often reluctant to champion a novel popular form if they are not convinced it can become profitable. Ultimately, how Moomin commodities and the narrative reach America will have as much to do with decisions made in American marketing board rooms as it has to do with the fundamentally creative and fascinating dimensions of Moomin stories.
On the one hand, Finns are proud of the Moomins, whose lives in Moominvalley negotiating nature with quirky grace and curiosity provide a flattering reflection of Finns’ own experiences and perhaps their self-perceptions (for instance, Finns routinely identify their favorite Moomin and how that particular Moomin mirrors their essential personality attributes). On the other hand, though, Americans in particular may not fathom the Finns’ national stewardship over Moomins, since Americans somewhat arrogantly assume that the planet is universally receptive to and eagerly awaiting our popular cultural products. Where American popular culture mirrors our confident national swagger and powerful international marketing reach, Finland is a much more modest place that has looked beyond its borders somewhat more circumspectly and more protective over its cultural products.
2010 Geneaologies of Wilderness and Domestication in Children’s Narratives: Understanding Genesis and Genetics in the Untangling of Identity. The Paulinian Compass 1(4):1-100.
1961 Cheery and Dauntless (Review Moominsummer Madness). New York Times May 14:BRA28.
Cobus van Staden
2010 Mutations in Moominvalley: Globalization, Capitalism and the Cultural Identity of Fiction. In Imaginary Japan: Japanese Fantasy in Contemporary Popular Culture, edited by Eija Niskanen. International Institute for Popular Culture, Turku, Finland.
1968 Moominlore for Moominlovers. New York Times May 5:BRA43.
Finnair Moomins image courtesy Antti Havukainen