Tove Jansson’s Moomins: Just Stories?
In this short discussion of the Moomins and philosophy, I want to do two things. First, I want to point out some obvious instances of philosophy at work in the Moomins. Second, I want to suggest that the way Tove Jansson treats the relation between fiction and reality is also something worth exploring philosophically.
Philosophers in Moominvalley
The first time Tove Jansson drew a Moomin it was an attempt to sketch an ugly caricature of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (Zahavi, 2018). It is appropriate, then, that (like A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh) although they were written and illustrated with younger audiences in mind, Jansson’s Moomins stories are rich in philosophical reflections on what makes for a good life (perhaps, living with your friends in a tumble-down house in the Moominvalley) and how one ought and ought not to behave (don’t be a lazy Moomintroll, help your Moominmamma around the house, and be there for your friends).
In fact, there are several philosophers in Moominvalley. For example, there is the Muskrat, who bears a striking resemblance to Nietzsche, enjoys reading his favourite book ‘The Uselessness of Everything’, and ruins birthday parties by commenting on the inevitable destruction that awaits us all. Like a true Stoic philosopher, he is calm in the face of his unavoidable fate, remarking that “This is a time for weeping and wailing, sure enough. But of course that sort of thing doesn’t affect a philosopher like me.” On the other hand, those readers less inclined to nihilism might turn to Snuffkin for moral guidance. Snuffkin is a migratory figure who leaves Moominvalley during the winter while the Moomins are hibernating and returns in the spring with a pack on his back and stories of his travels. Snuffkin is not an armchair philosopher but a lover of nature who has seen more of the world than most of the inhabits of the Moominvalley. For example, consider the following interaction:
The Hemulen, moaning piteously, thrust his nose into the sand. “This has gone too far!” he said. Why can’t a poor innocent botanist live his life in peace and quiet?”
“Life is not peaceful,” said Snuffkin, contentedly.
Snuffkin knows life is not always peaceful, but he’s ok with that.
There is much to be gleamed from the interactions between Jansson’s characters and their different approaches to the trials and tribulations they go through in her stories. However, I think there are also philosophical insights to be gained from reflection on Jansson’s approach to writing and the way she treats the relationship between fiction and reality.
Fiction and reality
Jansson’s recently published correspondences (2014) with family, friends, and contemporary artists paint a picture of someone who approached most aspects of life – love affairs, publishing deals, family drama – with levity, but who was also capable of deep reflection. Her letters are littered with humorous and lightly mocking remarks about her ‘Faffan’ and ‘Ham’ (her father and mother), who bear more than a coincidental resemblance to Moominpappa and Moominmamma. Yet, at the same time, her correspondences contain striking insights into her responses to the most intimate and personal moments of her life. For example, in a letter written after her Faffan’s death in 1958, Jansson remarked:
You know what, Faffan’s watch stopped at the very time he died. Isn’t that a strange thing about watches – it often happens, apparently. (2014, 361)
Jansson seems eager to imbue the circumstances of her father’s death with a touch of fantasy. Do watches often stop at the moment of death? Perhaps, but there is no indication of where Jansson might have learnt this or why this might be the case – and, anyway, the truth of this claim seems beside the point.
Jansson’s reflections on her life are often instilled with a touch of the magic, farcical humour, and occasional existential reflection that those who grew up reading the Moomins stories will be familiar with. Why should all this be of interest to philosophers? The relation between fiction and reality, and the question of what differentiates one from the other, is a question that plays an important role in our understanding of the history of philosophy. For instance, going back to Ancient Greece, there is still no clear consensus on where Plato ends and Socrates begins, and to what extent Socrates might be considered a fictional character. Later, in the Enlightenment era, thinkers (such as Francis Bacon and Margaret Cavendish) began attaching works of fiction to their serious philosophical treatises. Traditionally, while philosophy aims at truth, fiction was seen as mere entertainment; a way to fancifully pre-occupy the otherwise busy mind. But this decision from Enlightenment thinkers raises the question of how fiction and non-fiction writing are related and what such thinkers hoped their readers would learn from reading fiction alongside philosophy.
There are clear signs that Jansson was likewise interested in and affected by the blurring of the line that separates fiction from reality. I suggested already that Moominpappa and Moominmamma share character traits with Jansson’s parents. But consider also the character Too-Ticki who was first introduced in Moominland Midwinter. Too-Ticki was based on Jansson’s partner Tuulikki Pietilä, who was an artist and engraver. Jansson sent a sketch of Too-Ticki to Pietilä in a letter from 1956 with the comment:
And here is a new little creature that isn’t quite sure if it’s allowed to come in! (2014, 340)
This remark suggests Jansson was looking for permission or approval from Too-Ticki’s namesake before introducing her to Moominvalley. Soon after, Jansson began referring to Pietilä as ‘Tooticki’, blurring the line between fiction and reality further.
Perhaps the most significant example of Jansson’s own life leaking into the pages of the Moomins is her final story Moominvalley in November. This is the only story that does not feature the Moomin family at all, but rather a host of other characters who await the family’s return. This book was published soon after the death of Jansson’s ‘Ham’. The Moomin family, who throughout the other stories evoke the light-hearted rapport shared by Jansson’s own family, are gone and the other inhabits of the valley are forced to face up to the absence of those they love and long to see.
Today, philosophy of fiction is a prominent and mainstream sub-field of philosophy, concerned with questions such as whether fiction can be true, or what the difference between fiction and non-fiction is (and whether there is really any strict distinction). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes fiction as “as a mode of representation—a way of describing individuals and events—that is strikingly different from representation concerned with truth, the latter long a dominant theme in philosophy” (Krron and Voltolini, 2019). Yet, Jansson’s fiction seems to present a challenge to this kind of definition since figures and events in her own life are represented in, and often shape, her Moomins stories.
While it is by no means the case that the Moomins have passed under the radar of philosophers unnoticed, here is perhaps a further reason – more closely related to Jansson herself and her approach to writing – to think philosophically about the Moomins.
Peter West is a researcher and lecturer based in Dublin who specialises in Early Modern philosophy, especially his two favourite philosophers George Berkeley and Margaret Cavendish. You can follow him on twitter @PeterWest23 or visit his website sites.google.com/view/peterwest. He’d like to think he’s more of a Snuffkin than a Muskrat.
Jansson, Tove. Letters from Tove. Boel Westin and Helen Svensson (eds.), translated by Sarah Death. London: Sort of Books (2014).
Krron, Fred and Voltolini, Alberto. “Fiction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2019/entries/fiction/>.
Zahavi, Dan. ‘Manhattan Dynamite and no pancakes: Tradition and normality in the work of Tove Jansson’ SATS 19:1 (2018), 5-19.