Dreams of Freedom: On Tove Jansson’s Tales from Moominvalley

Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers for Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson.

Freedom is a large concept. It has its precise definitions, but even then, it is a huge topic and can be difficult to describe for some. After all, what freedom means and feels like can vary greatly for different people. This is true for the characters appearing in the Moomin books written by beloved Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson.

The Moomins are a family of anthropomorphic white hippo-like trolls. They live in the round, blue Moominhouse, set among rolling green hills, woodland, and sparkling rivers leading to the vast sea. This idyllic setting is also called Moominvalley, and it is home to many other characters besides the Moomin family. 

In a world where the concept of currency is not practised, characters have all the time in the world to accomplish whatever they wish to do. For those stuck in modern hustle and bustle, this would no doubt sound like the definition of freedom. However, these characters, their values, and the activities they engage in are widely different. Covering all the characters and their respective nuances would be ambitious within the confines of this article, and that is why I will only be diving into certain stories from the book Tales from Moominvalley.

The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters

An immediately apparent aspect of the story is that the Fillyjonk is anxious. The calm summer day filled with lazy bumblebees and soft waves isn’t enough for her to drop her guard. Convinced that this is all just a guise, the Fillyjonk firmly insists that “everything’s always peaceful like this just before a disaster.”

Normally great lovers of order and ornaments, the Fillyjonk should be content with her trinkets and her neat abode (where her grandmother had supposedly lived). Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. As it turns out, the Fillyjonk’s grandmother had not previously lived in the house by the bleak expanse of sea. This misgiving, no matter how hapless, only earns a sigh of “That is life!” from the Fillyjonk.

The Fillyjonk, overcome with panic that the disaster will pounce at an uncertain time when she least expects it, becomes even more distressed when her acquaintance dismisses her efforts at explaining these fears. This emotional invalidation may have made her feel lonelier than the desolate environment she lives in. With no one else to confide in, it is no wonder that the Fillyjonk believes that all beings are “so very small and insignificant.” While her belongings still remain dear to her, they no longer bring her any joy.

When the disaster comes, the Fillyjonk is overcome with relief. Even when her prized possessions fall prey to the disaster and are brought away far beyond her reach, she feels no remorse. Her wrecked house only prompts her to wonder about her life and how she wants to live it. Should she choose to mend everything and retrieve what was lost, wouldn’t it mean accepting her old life, one filled with discontent and ceaseless worry? Seeing the disaster up close, she realises how grand and majestic it is. All the power nature wields is unmatched, and her worrying about her lack of control was unavoidable, but may have been pointless all along. 

The sea, once something she feared and despised, is no longer terrifying to her. Abandoning any prim and proper Fillyjonk habits, she surfs in the sea and weeps tears of laughter despite her misfortune. It is then that she truly feels free. 

The Invisible Child

It is a surprising day for the Moomins when their friend Too-ticky brings over an invisible girl named Ninny with the hope that they would be able to cure Ninny of her predicament. Things aren’t as easy as they seem, as it happens that Ninny turned invisible because of abuse she had received at the hands of her aunt.

At first, all seems to progress well enough. Living with the Moomins and being on the receiving end of Moominmamma’s unconditional kindness helps Ninny gradually become visible. Even so, her face remains invisible, with no one being quite sure why. When she plays with the other children, “she played only from politeness and not to have fun.” Little My even advises Ninny, mentioning that “You’ll never have a face of your own until you’ve learned to fight.”

Ninny “never laughed at all.” The family, with the exception of Moominmamma, leaves her to her own devices. One day, when the Moomins visit the beach along with Ninny, she cowers on the ground, terrified at the sheer vastness and unpredictability of the sea. Nevertheless, when Moominpappa suggests pushing Moominmamma into the sea as a prank, Ninny rushes forward and shoves Moominpappa instead, exclaiming, “Don’t you dare push her into the big horrible sea!” 

To everyone’s surprise, Ninny’s outburst has made her face visible again. Little My’s advice may have had some truth behind it after all. Ninny made the first step to protect someone she loves, and making her own decisions and standing up for what she believes in helped her to regain her voice and identity.

The Secret of the Hattifatteners

Those who know Moominpappa will know his penchant for adventure. With the idea that the mysterious Hattifatteners are living a life of complete freedom, he embarks on a journey with a group of them, determined to discover the secret behind their presumably carefree attitude. He firmly leaves behind his own life, certain that a life without attachments and concerns is the very key to freedom. 

That is, of course, not the case.

Moominpappa’s life-changing journey doesn’t start off smoothly. The Hattifatteners aren’t great at striking up conversations. In fact, they do not speak at all. Remaining indifferent to Moominpappa’s presence, they set off on a sea expedition where frequent stops to small patches of land – barely islands – are made. All this opposes what Moominpappa considers an adventure. Perhaps it would’ve been better if the Hattifatteners actually did something on these stops, but all they do is wander silently, without communication or any indication of intent.

It is then that Moominpappa wonders, perhaps there is more to freedom than being unpredictable and reckless. He thinks sadly that “If this is a wicked life I’d rather eat my hat.” The Hattifatteners “didn’t feel, they didn’t think – they could only seek. Only in the presence of electricity they were able to live at last, strongly and with great and intense feelings.” They were not to be admired, but rather sympathised with for their incapability to feel. Freedom, in any case, is worthless for a life lived without purpose. 

Upon realising this, Moominpappa sets off home back to Moominvalley, yearning to be at home with his family once again. As the story ends, “All of a sudden he thought that at home he could be just as free and adventurous as a real pappa should be”.

The Moomins and the Sea

Throughout these three stories, the sea is a constant element. It is a setting that helps each character realise what freedom means to them.

To the Fillyjonk and Ninny, the sea with its immensity and fluctuating moods is fearsome because it is a stark reminder that it is an entity that is beyond anyone’s control, but still has more than enough power to easily overwhelm them. Nonetheless, it is the sea that the Fillyjonk sees beauty in after choosing to live her life after the disaster differently. Although the very sight of the sea is enough to leave Ninny cowering, it is by the sea that she regains her face. 

On the other hand, Moominpappa views the sea as one full of opportunities and the potential to be “free.” However, the time he spends with the Hattifatteners shows him a desolate sea with no beginning and end. The sea holds adventure, but it is also easy to lose oneself in it.

In the end, this is all just a brief exploration of the Moomins and what freedom could be for them. There are many more interesting characters and instances (such as Snufkin, Little My, and the Groke), and there is so much more to discover in Moominvalley. As Jane Shilling writes about the Moomin books in Prospect Magazine, “…there exists an unsettling tension between safety and danger, the comfort of the familiar and a yearning for adventure, the potent tug of nostalgia and the risky allure of an uncertain future.” And that is part of the appeal of the Moomins.

Written by: Jia Xuan

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