Like any Finnish person, I also grew up watching the Moomins and learning about their world and their creator, the imaginative artist Tove Jansson. I’m afraid I still haven’t completely read everything Jansson has written based in Moomin Valley, not to mention her novels and novellas of other subjects. (I’m ashamed a bit that I still haven’t. Don’t judge me harshly dear Finnish readers, if there are any.) However, I recently read one of Jansson’s short, illustrated books that is still on my mind because of what it illustrates with its main character – namely loneliness. The picture book, Who Will Comfort Toffe? (1960), is a midcentury classic that Jansson has composed with a poetical text that carries the reader along as the titular character, Toffle, goes on a lonely journey and ends up finding a friend.
From my reading experience, Toffle – a small grey and white, shy character – seems like a cautionary example of a lonely creature whose loneliness has made him so timid, that he is hesitant and afraid most of the time. Toffle lives in a little house all alone and “doesn’t notice quite how lonely he has grown.” He lives in a forest that becomes filled with the sounds of different, bigger creatures that could certainly make any lonely individual nervous and fearful of their surroundings. Because there is no one, then, to keep poor, sad Toffle “safe from harm with smiles and warmth and light,” it compels the narrator to ask:
So WHO will comfort Toffle, tell him, ‘Hush now, it’s okay.
Life’s bound to seem much brighter when tomorrow comes your way.
This is good advice. In fact, it’s a beautiful suggestion. However, as it appears, there is nobody to tell Toffle “this too shall pass.” Already the very first page of this children’s story affects me as I read how this little creature’s loneliness has made him so strongly aware of his surroundings that it makes him nervous and scared – “body shivering with fear.” I started to wonder whether loneliness really does make a person highly aware – as in, sentient to the sounds and movements around that might make them sensitive to these aspects of living.
What happens then is that Toffle wakes and leaves his house even before “the sun comes out” for he “packs his case and runs headfirst into the misty gloom” so that he would never experience a frightful, lonely night again. However, the next picture is even sadder, for we read and see from Jansson’s lovely picture book that Toffle has entered a livelier scene where “he sees a crowd of folk / All laughing with each other, taking time to share a joke,” but he doesn’t approach anyone. Toffle is not only lonely but also a grey wallflower in front of a colorful crowd, “all in party mood,” from which “no-one spots poor Toffle and he guesses with dismay / That nobody will notice him or even look his way.” I can sympathize with this and understand the shyness that can be caused also by loneliness, shyness that avoids making oneself seen and heard. Yet, the narrator says something that asks for more courage, that indicates them hoping for Toffle to take a chance:
Toffle could go and talk to them, no-one would think him rude
But WHO will comfort Toffle? Who will tell him ‘In the end
If all you do is hide away, you’ll never find a friend.’
Jansson’s narrator observes Toffle with us, and this time, as if I were a child reading this, it strikes me when they say, “if all you do is hideaway, you’ll never find a friend.” I mean, of course – it’s the old cliché that life is about taking chances. Yet, for someone as lonely as Toffle, this might be oddly difficult. This seems like a little creature too accustomed to being invisible for his is a timidness that makes him unable to even say hello to the characters he knows, the Moomin Valley creatures of which “no-one would think him rude.” Naturally then Toffle continues his tiring, lonely journey away from the forest and crowd, with a mere suitcase that the narrator compares to the delightful flute of Snufkin, playing nearby, which accompanies him on his many journeys, beautifully filling his quieter moments. Toffle only has his suitcase on a “hard and long” road – not an instrument or any hobby accompanying him.
“So Toffle trudges westwards, though in fact he doesn’t know / Where he’ll end up or what to do or where on earth to go.” Toffle wanders again in the woods and this time sees a bright, colorful festival attended by a big crowd. He remains the grey wallflower that observes from the shadows, looking with his big, widely opened eyes and seeming excited, yet still not joining the vibrant crowd. Again, the narrator then hopes Toffle would take a chance to make himself seen and heard:
How lonely it must feel to be a Toffle no-one sees,
So WHO will comfort Toffle and explain the way things go?
They’d know that he was there if he would only say hello.
However, more comfortable staying invisible, Toffle again continues his lonely journey “and makes his way towards the beach,” where he finds “a big white shell” and the vast surrounding and rippling land makes him feel wonderful and free of worries. “Even so, he can’t work out / Why he is still not happy. There is no-one in his way, / … He ought to feel okay.” Of course, it’s hard to “feel okay” when one is lonely, and this scene suggests this by observing that Toffle “is still not happy.” Thus, “WHO will comfort Toffle and remind him that a shell / Is nicer when there’s somebody to show it to as well?” After this point, something delightfully intriguing happens in the narrative for the little creature goes through a transformation that made the story quite memorable to me.
Toffle experiences a sudden change which is affected by a bottled message from a scared, lonely girl, Miffle, which coincidentally floats in front of him in the ocean and compels Toffle to abandon his frightful nature and immediately set forth to save this girl from the scary Groke – a big, ghost like, hill-shaped creature with cold staring eyes (something that always scared me as a kid). “Toffle can’t bear to think of it – a girl, alone and sad.” Here begins Toffle’s transformation:
His heart beats fast. This letter is the first he’s ever had.
He folds it carefully in half and keeps it near his chest,
Feeling as if it’s meant for him (though it was not addressed).
He becomes compelled to find her and bravely sets forth on the ocean, floating in his suitcase past big creatures and acquaintances. Toffle takes a chance: “’I know a Miffle needs me and a Miffle’s all I need!’” He becomes determined and even the narration changes from Toffle’s loneliness to finding Miffle as his brave journey forces him to meet others on the way because now they see him: “’But WHO will comfort Miffle if I dawdle endlessly?’” he asks, and afterwards is asked: “’But WHO will comfort Miffle if you linger by the sea?’” It’s an affecting transformation in a timid character who couldn’t even say “hello.” After Toffle’s endeavors on the ocean, he enters a scarier forest where the shriek of the Groke fills the air. (Just reading this made me shiver a bit – and it’s a simple children’s story.)
Like any classic hero, Toffle becomes even braver and after finding the Groke, succeeds in chasing her away. The little creature makes it. While “[p]oor Miffle, always quick to scare / Is even quicker to console, now Groke’s no longer there.” However, Toffle’s timidness comes back after these two are left alone on a beautiful flower field and the scene simultaneously warms and breaks my heart:
They exchange a timid smile
That says as much as words, perhaps, but only for a while
Since there are certain things that even smiles cannot express.
‘I’ll write to you instead,’ says Toffle, ‘That’s the answer. Yes!’
But when he tries to write about how lonely he has been,
About his house … the smooth white shell he’s seen
The Groke, the night he sailed the sea, he finds no words will come.
Toffle is struck dumb because he is “too shy to write his tale.” He is hesitant to take another chance with Miffle for admitting and sharing one’s loneliness can be understandably hard. It makes you vulnerable to another person and you never know how the other person reacts. Will they stay or will they go? In this part of the story, the narrator, in fact, asks the reader’s help: “So WHO will comfort Toffle now? Will someone lend a hand / And help him write to Miffle so that she can understand?” and instructs to find “some writing paper” to be placed on a “rosebush where you’re sure Miffle will see it.”
Now we as readers would like for Toffle to take another chance (at least both the child and adult in me), so Miffle does read a letter. It becomes the right decision because as Miffle reads the letter, “Her roses turn from white to red, right before Miffle’s eyes.” I don’t know if Jansson could have written this more perfectly – however simple, this scene with its vivid representation of a flower turning red, signifying acceptance, becomes quite affective even to this reader of twenty-three. Miffle then consoles Toffle and sees a future for them: “And Miffle knows, and Toffle knows, that both have seen the end / Of fear and fright and long, dark night, now each has found a friend.”
As a children’s story, Who Will Comfort Toffle? might simplify the issue of loneliness while raising actual psychological ones, since in real life it might be more ingrained into a person, unable for them to just dust away these feelings from their mind’s vast room. However, I still wish I would’ve read this story as a kid because of the narrator’s encouragement to take a chance, as Toffle does eventually. There is beauty in its simplicity as a narrative and while a children’s story, it wants to comfort both a character like Toffle, and the reader as well; some of us may have become comfortable in being invisible, to a great or lesser extent, however it doesn’t mean a person shouldn’t want a friend. Taking chances isn’t easy, of course, but a person shouldn’t undermine themselves – just as Toffle didn’t when he forgot his fears and wanted to help another creature.
You can find the edition I read from here.