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My search for the real Moominland

My search for the real Moominland

Dan Richards visits the landscape that inspired Finland’s most famous export, “The Moomins”, and traces the footsteps of the books’ author Tove Jansson

Dan Richards visits the landscape that inspired Finland’s most famous export, “The Moomins”, and traces the footsteps of the books’ author Tove Jansson

Dan Richards | December/January 2020

It was a land of lush meadows, dark woods and dazzling rivers, flanked on one side by “the Lonely Mountains” and on the other by cave-studded coves where “every wave that dies on the beach sings a little song to a shell.” Moominvalley was the fictional creation of artist and writer Tove Jansson, who first presented her hippo-like trolls to the world in the 1940s. The kind, philosophical Moomins are now among Finland’s most recognisable exports. Far less is known about the original Moominland, the landscape that inspired Jansson’s children’s stories.

On bright mornings when the Baltic Sea is still and silver, a heat haze makes the outermost islets appear to float above the horizon, just like the mysterious island that hovers at the top of the map in the Moomin books. This is the Pellinge archipelago, around two hours east of Helsinki, where the Finnish coastline frays into myriad isles and dots in the sea. The larger isles are forested and inhabited. Some are linked by bridges and ferries to the mainland but many of the smaller islands are mere hummocks of bare rock.

This was perhaps a surprising destination for Jansson’s family holidays in the 1920s, when she was a child. But her father, a bohemian sculptor, and her mother, an illustrator, found fellowship in the coastal community and returned each summer. Pellinge became her summer playground and a wellspring of ideas for her work. Some of the Moomin stories emerged out of Jansson’s early experiences there. “Moomin, Mymble and Little My”, published in 1952, reimagines her childhood errands to buy milk from the village – a trip that, in its fictional form, turned into a phantasmagoric adventure of rock falls, monsters and magic vacuum cleaners.

Tracing Jansson’s footsteps, I walked a path that weaves through birch woods, reed beds, sticky firs and lingonberry bushes, just like in the book. Bright lichens growing on the rocks reminded me of the Groke, a hill-shaped character who freezes everything she touches. As I stood in the pine forest, cut red with the late sun, I recalled Little My’s words of warning: “Don’t hang around in woods like these. Strange creatures lurk between the trees.”

Jansson’s studio in Helsinki, where she spent half the year, was full of books and box files of clippings about the sea, pictures of waterspouts and glowering storms. Sketches of paddle steamers were pinned to the walls and models of fishing boats sailed the window sills. These landscapes were Jansson’s muse. The first Moomin book came out in 1945. Five years later, with the translation into English of her third book, “Finn Family Moomintroll”, the creatures gained widespread acclaim and by 1956 a Moomin comic strip had been syndicated to 120 newspapers around the world.

The islands offered a personal outlet as well as a creative one. Jansson came here with her girlfriend, an artist called Tuulikki Pietilä. At a time when same-sex relationships weren’t just outré but illegal in Finland, the pair found the local community more tolerant.

This was a place where they could be themselves. Kim Gustafsson shows me the attic room where Jansson stayed in the winter of 1970 to write “Moominvalley in November”. He points out a roof where she practised sliding off “as research” while his family looked on in bemusement. Many people in Pellinge have similar anecdotes about the shy, childlike lady. “Even as children we knew they were exceptional,” said Gustafsson.

As Jansson’s fame grew, the world encroached. The post office on Pellinge became inundated with fan letters; visitors arrived in search of the famous author. And so she retreated farther out into the archipelago, to another, smaller, barren outcrop.

She built a small cabin on the island of Klovharun, a rock that resembles the back of a great black whale. In readiness for the summer, she would wire the local shop with an idiosyncratic roll-call of provisions, as well as the ever-vital coffee and cigarettes, to keep her going in her hideaway.

The night before I was due to sail to Klovharun, I looked out into the moonlit gulf and saw tens of blinking lights guiding ships far out at sea. The winters are harsh here – the Moomins mostly slept through them – and spring is greeted with joy and often hordes of Jansson devotees. Visitors to the larger islands can enjoy year-round activities such as a hike interspersed with puzzles, known as “Islands Riddles”, which follows the paths Jansson took as a child.

Access to Klovharun, and Jansson’s cabin, is more restricted. Though it takes 15 minutes to sail from the archipelago’s largest town, tourists are allowed onshore only on a handful of days during the summer months. The waiting list for guided tours is long. This rationing is partly about the environment – the weather is harsh and rare birds nest there for much of the year. But it is also a means to prevent Moomin-seekers from overrunning the site.

I was particularly lucky to make a winter visit. On the morning I set sail, frost lay on the pine trees and rocks around the beach house where I was staying. As we left Pellinge’s natural harbour, the wind grew and the water looked like torn golden silk in the wake of the approaching vessel. Soon I could see Klovharun ahead, the little square cabin growing larger by the second. I scrambled onto the slippery rocks from the jetty. The island was tiny, a wind-skimmed nub of bristly grass. You could walk around it in a minute.

In “Moominpapa at Sea”, Moominpapa decides to uproot his family and move out to a lighthouse on the high seas. The stout shed that Jansson built is no lighthouse, but the small square room has large windows and the feel of a ship’s cabin, with sunlight streaming in through the windows and the cries of birds audible overhead. Jansson wrote at a spindly table by the stove, and her girlfriend sketched and printed at a more solid, wooden, built-in one. Though the cottage had no running water and no electricity, this far-flung fort was a refuge from the rest of the world.

These island landscapes were the setting not just for the Moomins but also Jansson’s books for adults. In 1972 she wrote “The Summer Book”, an exquisite story of love and mortality about an elderly woman and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia, who spend a summer on a tiny Finnish island. The character of Sophia was based on Jansson’s niece, who shares the same name as her fictional counterpart, and now chairs the company that licenses the use of the Moomin characters. Her aunt, says Sophia, was exhilarated by the beauty and power she saw here: “She loved the sea, like we all do, Moomintroll included.”

And it was her view of the sea that I had come for. I travelled to Klovharun with two locals, Jon Englund and Lisbeth Forss. Looking out at the surrounding islets and tumps with fir Mohicans, I asked Forss if the island that inspired “The Summer Book” was nearby. Yes, she said, but she preferred not to show me: Jansson’s privacy was important. Englund wandered over after tying up the boat. “That is Sophia’s island over there,” he announced, pointing to an emerald isle lit, at that moment, by a shaft of sun. Forss had a word. “Oh,” said Englund. “Well, there it is. Never mind.”

The rocky outpost is a far cry from the other Moominlands that exist today: due west of Helsinki is Moominworld, a theme park for children that offers birthday parties, face painting and sweet shops; a second Moomin park opened near Tokyo in 2019.

The distinctive creatures Jansson created have certainly travelled far since their inception. The works are available in more than 50 languages. You can buy lamps in the lumpen form of a Moomin and their silhouettes adorn everything from cashmere jumpers to the side of Finland’s national airliners.

People often come to these books for the charming figures, but they stay for the magical stories within. Yet a menacing undertone runs beneath the apparent innocence (when I asked my own mother why we had no Moomin books, she replied that they always seemed “too dark”).

In the real Moominvalley that sense of threat behind the beauty is ever-present; Pellinge is a harsh place in the depths of winter. But for the most part life in the area is quiet. “I only want to live in peace, plant potatoes and dream,” Moomintroll remarks in one of his eponymous comic strips. Small wonder that, in a clamouring world, the Moomins and their landscape hold such allure.