Monday, February 10, 2020

Moominland Midwinter: A Book for All Your Winter Woes

Despite being published 57 years ago, Tove Jansson's fifth addition to the Moomin book series forever remains a heart-warming story filled to the brim with beautiful philosophies and restless yet reassuring introspect.

I should probably start by saying that this isn't going to be a typical, or particularly critical book review. This is not a new book, and my review of it is not particularly ground-breaking either. But after being hit this winter with the strongest bout of seasonal affective disorder I have ever faced, this book re-entered my life with an entirely new meaning than when I first read it many years ago.

*It is probably worth mentioning now before all the rest of my word-vomit that I did not actually read the book this time. Instead, I listened to an audio-book version on audible which was voiced by the incredible Hugh Dennis. The subtle sound effects and amusing character voices made for one of the most immersive audio book experiences I have ever had, so I definitely recommend using your free trial tokens on that!*

The story is centred around the beloved Moomintroll, who finds himself awake and unable to get back to sleep in the midst of the Moomin family's winter hibernation. The story progresses from his struggle with new-found isolation and despair at the dark and scary world around him, to an *almost* acceptance and embrace of change thanks to the help of his midwinter missfit friends. Though the age of Moomintroll remains ambiguous within Jannson's work, it is generally assumed he is in his mid-to-late teens, adding an entirely new perspective of young naivety to a tale of loneliness and depression. The result of this being an emotionally intricate piece of work that still remains understandable to almost everybody, no matter how well they may understand their own inner-workings.

Winter's loneliness and the beauty that comes with it

Moomintroll's first experience of winter is one of confusion and fear. He makes desperate attempts to wake his family so that he does not have to face this experience alone. Sadly for Moomintroll, everybody else remains in deep hibernation. Not long after that, an attempt to leave home to track down his migratory friend Snufkin results in Moomintroll being "helplessly thrown out in a strange and dangerous world". Only 16 pages in and this book already resonates with the often isolating feelings of misery winter brings about, feelings that not everybody has to face. Moomintroll is scared, confused, and angry at his situation, why he must be the only one to go through it, and his inability to change it. Seasonal blues often leaves one feeling like all the days blur into a big pile of grey dizzying mess, but this book is packed with little quotes and descriptions that remind us we aren't alone in how we feel.

'I don't belong here anymore,' Moomintroll thought. 
'Nor there. I don't even know what's waking and what's a dream.' And then in an instant he was asleep, and summer lilacs covered him in their friendly green shadow.

Despite the relative dark tone of this book, Jannson's imagery and descriptive language remains as beautiful as ever, particularly in her description of the snowed under Moominhouse. The smouldering peat and gliding moonlight creates a feeling of cosy warmth and protection against the harsh elements outside. Despite the warm home and vast number of syrup jars, Moomintroll can't help but remain distraught at his situation. Once again this rings true for anyone who struggles in the winter season, all the hot water bottles, mugs of hot chocolate and wooly winter gloves cannot replace the feeling of bleak dejection winter may bring about. Jannson creates a striking parallel between the rather beautiful winter world she describes, and Moomintrolls inability to see it.

Not better, not worse, just different

Thankfully for Moomintroll, he encounters other beings who remain awake during the winter months, among this band of misfits is my favourite character in the entirety of the Moomin series, Too-Ticky. Based on Tove Jannson's long-term partner Tuulikki Pietilä, and voiced by Hugh Dennis with a charming Scouse accent, Too-Ticky is a practical philosopher that lets Moomintroll learn of the realities of winter and why it is neither better nor worse than summer. When Moomintroll continues to despair at the cold bleak winter snow surrounding him, Too-Ticky's straight forward philosophy encourages him to see that change is not a bad thing. 

"There was a lot of apples here last fall," Moomintroll remarked sociably.
"But now here's a lot of snow".

Too-Ticky's sometime's candid, yet always insightful introspect is another reason why this book is a favourite of mine. She is a true example of how we may face our issues and accept each new problem with unwavering determination. Even the arrival of the Lady of the Cold (which fyi, terrified me as a child) does not scare Too-Ticky, she is precautious for her, Moomintroll and Little My's safety but never panics. Despite the tragic death of the squirrel with the marvellous tail, Too-Ticky's comforting yet blunt statement of 'When one's dead, one's dead' is yet another reminder that we may all face change we are unprepared for or unwilling to accept, but that change will happen nonetheless. 

It does get better

Even the saddest moment in the book (for me anyway) has a happy ending. When Sorry-oo, a little dog and one of the many guests to take shelter from the winter in the Moominhouse, realises he cannot become part of the longed-for wolf-pack, he is quickly saved by the Hemulen before the wolves attack. When reading (er, listening) to this book the Hemulen very quickly reminded me of the worst kind of people to deal with in a depressive episode, there are no real grounds to be annoyed by their unshakeable contentment with the trivialities of life, yet here we are, annoyed by it and wishing to be left alone in our misery.

'Oh, that kind of Hemulen,' Too-Ticky said earnestly. 'Then say goodbye to peace and all that.'

However, it was the Hemulen that saved both Salome and Sorry-oo, making me wonder if we ought to put a bit more faith in trying to enjoy the seemingly unimportant things that someone may offer in times of sadness, even if those things are skiing and igloo building.  

It will pass before we know it

For Moomintroll, the slowly increasing hours of sunlight, melting of snow and sounds of waves slowly coming ashore demonstrates that change is not immediate, and sometimes may not be noticed until it is right in front of us. Most importantly for Moomintroll, Moominmamma wakes up, she takes care of him and tells him not to worry about the now empty stores of jam. Moominmamma's inability to be there for Moomintroll when he needed her gave Moomintroll a new sense of responsibility, he still takes comfort in her and a return to normal life, but has learned that he can cope with new and scary experiences on his own. Finally, when Snork Maiden awakens she finds an early budding crocus, and suggests putting a glass over it to protect it from the cold. Moomintroll replies 'No, don't do that. Let it fight it out. I believe it's going to do still better if things aren't so easy'. Moomintroll has learned that one may face difficulties, but when things get better they will come out stronger than they were before. 

Moominland Midwinter is a book I will never feel too old to read. Jannson did not fear writing about the harsher sides of life, yet continues to keep these darker storylines entwined with the beauty and dreamy escapism the Moomins bring about. These are raw realities thoughtfully wrapped into a heart-felt story which reminds us that although we may face difficulties, and may even be alone when facing them, we can make it through to the other side, and see the sun start to shine once more.

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