Tove Jansson

Pictures that give Wings to Fantasy
'Pictures that give wings to fantasy: the relationship between illustration and text in Tove Jansson's Moomin books'.

An article by Sirke Happonen.
Translated by Thomas Warburton.

The Moomin books by the Finnish author Tove Jansson (born 1914), who wrote in Swedish are timeless. As in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, their events are set in an imaginary world. The characters of Moominvalley are neither animals nor people but creatures of fantasy. Their names signify both an individual and a category. For example, the friendly moomins possess a specific character which distinguishes them from the hemulens.

The distinctiveness of the Moomin books is largely due to the marriage text and picture, and the tension between illustration and storyline. In the first books, the pictures concretise and illustrate the text, and link its adventures and dialogue to the world of the moomins, fillyjonks and hemulens. The picture serves to underscore a dramatic twist, to add flavour to a personal relationship or to alleviate a frightening scene with the aid of humorous nuance. Some images have been influenced by Gustave Doré's illustrations or by the books of Jules Verne.

Here is an example of how Tove Jansson's illustrations work. After some breathtaking adventures, the companions return to summery Moominvalley, where Moominmamma awaits them with a cake and buns. Just before an immense fire-red comet hurtles towards Moominvalley, the Moomin family, which has found refuge in a cave, finds time to taste the cake, which someone has, though, sat on once. The illustration underscores the absurdity of the situation by means of two opposing moods. Two different drawings are juxtaposed: Moomintroll running on a last-minute rescue journey through a nightmarish forest, and, by contrast, on the previous double page, Muskrat, the parody of a philosopher, bathing his cream-covered bottom in a tub. In the Moomin books, the dangerous and the humorous alternate with one another as frequently as adventure and routine.

In the Moomin books subsequent to Moominland midwinter (Trollvinter, 1957), action-packed adventures and disasters play a less important role. External events are replaced by the characters' inner journeys, in which they examine their relationship with themselves and others, a foretaste of Jansson's gradual transformation into a writer for adults. The characters of Moominvalley encounter real difficulties, often with a symbolic form. These include the winter experienced by Moomintroll (Trollvinter, 1957), Fillyjonk's whirlwind in Tales from Moominvalley (Det osynliga barnet 1962) and Toffle's battle against the Groke in the picture book Who will comfort Toffle? (Vem ska trösta knyttet? 1960). Yet setbacks and natural cataclysms have a positive effect that clears the air. In the illustration, there are fewer details and the characters become more human. In particular, the collection of stories entitled Tales from Moominvalley reveals Jansson's experience of cartoon production: the character's feelings and persona are conveyed with just a few strokes.

In The Fillyjonk who believed in Disasters (Filifjonkan som trodde på katastrofer) from the collection Tales from Moominvalley, the danger is literally indoors. A storm beats the window panes in and smashes heirlooms. Outside, Fillyjonk gradually begins to enjoy the storm and eventually meets the tornado, her hands held up in captivation. The indoor picture stresses movement and the direction of the wind, with Fillyjonk shown in a dancing posture. Her eyes reflect her horror and her skirt flaps about. The hemulen statue in the background has a similar posture. Compared to Fillyjonk, the statue appears exhilarated, and its flight anticipates Fillyjonk's rapture. If one compares the picture to the preceding drawing of the character, Fillyjonk begins to show signs of a positive change as the shivers of glass hurtle past her: her oppressed, stooping posture has gone and she stands upright despite the danger. In the text, Fillyjonks language of movement reaches its climax. The story ends in a wild dance after the storm in the swell of the sea and in a tongue-in-cheek roar of laughter.
Just like loneliness, being together is also associated with its own difficulties in the Moomin books.

Nonetheless, the clashes between the various personalities are tempered by Moominmamma's accepting generosity. From time to time, jolly parties are arranged. Snufkin's tales and songs also spread harmony and understanding.
On the other hand, no one should withdraw into total solitude. Even the independent, much-admired Snufkin occasionally ends up with a bad conscience because of Moomintroll, who is expecting him to return to the valley. The artist may suddenly have a real job on his hands, as the guardian of a flock of twenty children, as in Moominsummer Madness (Farlig midsommar, 1954). It is as if Jansson the writer wants to teach the vagabond a lesson by forcing him to proceed on other people's terms. In the illustration, Snufkin is also tormented by the rain, whose merciless lines all running in the same direction press him even more into a heap and prick his neck in Moominsummer madness. In this picture, it is the figure of Little My that is subjected to the use of contrast so typical of Jansson. Little My hops on ahead, and her neck is not pricked by even a single spike of rain
In the tale The Hemulen who loved Silence (Hemulen som älskade tystnad), solitude and living together are resolved by means of an effective compromise. The Hemulen, who is tired of shrieking children and his noisy relatives, is given a present of an abandoned garden, where he intends to retreat to spend his retirement in. However, he is not allowed to build his garden of solitude all by himself. Waiting at the gates are the children whose amusement park, Hemulen's old place of work, has been destroyed. Hemulen cannot escape from being a hemulen nor from living for others: he is forced to drag to the garden the junk from his past, the remains of the amusement park. The angry Hemulen finally agrees to accept the help of the children, and together they build the park of silence. The collaboration between word and picture achieves Jansson's view of the relationship between illustration and text: the task of illustration is to continue the fantasy, not to restrict it.

(This article has been abridged by Transcript.)

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL