The Moomins: a progressive tale woven with fantasy

A globally celebrated series, The Moomins has long been cherished by a broad audience for its distinctive and comforting nature. Its memorable characters and aesthetics have appealed to audiences across ages, gender, and languages, making it a universally celebrated work of art and literature. With a resurgence in popularity with a new TV series, Moominvalley (2019) as well as a theme park in Japan, Saitama, the white trolls and their crew are experiencing a “renaissance” worldwide. 

Though the content appears to be geared mainly for children, the series explores mature concepts that penetrate beyond its general image as a soft, fairytale story. Much can be learnt from both the series and the creator Tove Jansson herself. 

1. Celebration of same-sex love

Image: Jansson and her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä; together they enjoyed creating art and visiting an isolated island

The topic may seem unlikely or rather surprising to many, but it happens to be one of the most vital themes expressed in the world of The Moomins. To begin with, Jansson was a lesbian; a fact that she did not openly discuss during her lifetime. Her partner Tuulikki Pietilä (nicknamed “Tooti”) inspired the creation of Too-ticky, a placid character who dons a red striped sweater. Besides the fact that she essentially inserted her partner into her story, the miniscule couple Thingumy and Bob represent herself and a married woman, Vivicka Bandler, with whom she had a brief and passionate affair. The two are frequently shown holding hands and travel together while protectively carrying a ruby, an item that can be interpreted as the romance between Jansson and Vivicka. It becomes clearer with knowledge of the monstrous Groke who freezes everything she touches…and chases the pair for their treasure - a metaphor for Jansson and her partner’s secretive love. Such characters reflected Jansson’s sexuality and were rightfully subliminal due to the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971 and remained a classified illness until 1981.

Image: the romance between Jansson and lover Vivicka Bandler echoes in the wee couple, Thingumy and Bob (one wears a red dress while other dons blue)

Under such conditions Jansson skillfully wove her experiences into The Moomins; potraying gay characters clearly enough to be interpreted as they are with a careful eye. To some it may be obvious while to others, especially children, more time may be needed to detect or understand it as gay. Moomin and Snufkin’s relationship for instance, vividly illustrates their closeness as well as the complexities they confront. The two are almost always together, partaking in various activities such as tea parties, adventures, fishing, and so on. Despite the duo’s differing lifestyles – one yearning for intimacy while the other prefers solitude – they still enjoy each other’s company, looking forward to seeing each other again after the long winter. Their love is particularly emphasized in the recent TV series Moominvalley, of which creative director Marika Makaroff has commented the following:

One of the main issues in the series is that Moomintroll is older than in the previous series and Moomintroll is kind of trying to find his own place in the family and the community…so that’s why it’s important for Moomintroll to kind of figure out his relationship with Moominpappa (his father)…as well as in between Snufkin…if I make any sense. 

Alongside its cheery atmosphere, The Moomins embraces a warm outlook on gay relationships; showing visible signs of affection between same-sex characters. Nobody pokes fun at nor questions their intimacy. Hopefully, with the TV series, The Moomins will usher in a more positive, accepting time for younger audiences to understand that love between same genders is not shameful at all. 

2. Treating everyone with kindness

On a similar note regarding the previous section, kindness is a core aspect of life in Moominvalley. Familial love is of course important throughout the series, as seen in Moomin’s interactions with his mother and father. But what makes The Moomins an endearing masterpiece is its immense welcoming attitude. Even towards Snufkin, who wanders to and fro in the wilderness, everyone is so thrilled to see him, no one ever asks him where he has been. Like a family member he is always invited (or rather goes in himself) into the Moomins’ house, free to dine and sleep as he pleases. 

Image: the Moomins and friends; Snufkin (bottom left in blue coat and hat) is treated as a family member - in Moominvally everyone is essentially family

Strangers are treated with great compassion, regardless of who they are or where they came from. The Moomins are willing to provide shelter for a variety of folks, including a little girl who turns invisible after being badly treated by the woman supposedly caring for her. Not forgetting to mention Little My, a troublesome child who lives with the Moomins…even though she isn’t related to them. Even when figures such as the aforementioned My are quite a handful, the Moomins are tolerant and maintain a comforting atmosphere. As a result, there are times when characters appear to go in and out their house without worrying about locked doors. 

Jansson’s emphasis on kindness can be better understood in context of her experiences during the war. Her first book The Moomins and the Great Flood, was begun the year war broke out; a tale that describes the Moomin’s struggles in seeking safety within a devastated landscape. With a family member missing while wandering in a gloomy environment, all seems lost. But in times of darkness there is still hope, which can be seen in the community rebuilding itself as disparate creatures, brought together by the ravages of the flood, help one another. Together with her fears towards war and gentle art style, Jansson stressed the need for kindness and its power to unite. 

3. Combating authoritarianism

Extreme or absurd as it sounds, but Jansson has covered the theme in her own unique methods. In addition to being a lesbian, Jansson was a staunch anti-Fascist and worked as a cartoonist for the Swedish satirical journal, Garm. Her disgust towards authoritarian figures can be easily felt from the way they were mockingly expressed, especially with one cover that pictured Hitler as a spoiled child, greedy for more cake that represented parts of Europe. After all, she left the following statement: “what I liked best was being beastly to Hitler and Stalin.”

Image: Jansson's cover for Garm, a Swedish satirical journal, where Hitler is caricatured as a constantly selfish and gluttonous personality

This resentment towards figures of power or control can be found in the rebellious Snufkin whose great dislike for authority figures…regulation signs and fences manifests in the form of sabotage. The sixth episode of Moominvalley offers clear insight into this facet; in response to a park keeper’s decisions to keep the park closed to the public (plus the fact that it is encircled with fences and signs), Snufkin plots a cunning revenge that sends the park keeper fleeing for his life. Snufkin’s defiant stance towards authority figures and private property emanate Jansson’s own views on the real-world demagogues such as Hitler. 

Underneath its seemingly harmless and flowery appearance, The Moomins is an ode to humanity; a collection of Jansson’s beliefs on preserving peace, happiness, and liberty. Particularly in times like today, with the rise of right-wing leaders and the fissures they have created among various social groups, Jansson’s tale is a much needed remedy for reminding ourselves that we need to unite, to be caring to one another even in the darkest of times. Image: a scene from the new Moominvalley series; values of love and balance are further explored in Snufkin and Moomin's relationship