At Sea

When Moominpapa leads his little tribe away from Moominvalley he is trying to negotiate a new way of being the Father. In Moominpappa at Sea he has left his study and gone back to his childhood wanderings as depicted in his memoirs – except that this time he has family to deal with, and instead of hilarious annoyances like the Hemulen Aunt and Edward the Booble, settles on an island and is concerned with keys to the lighthouse, protecting his family, and the fact that – as we maybe all discover in some ways – that our shadows follow us when we make changes to our lives. Change in purpose, in attitude, in relationship (to one another, to the landscape we inhabit, to our selves) is at the heart of the story.

Following them in her inexorable, inexplicable, icy rage is the worst Nemesis in any book for children: the Groke. Symbol of crushing depression, she kills everything in any place she sits. This is perhaps the most terrifying illustration of the creature in all of Jansson‘s depictions (I am even fond of the darkening paper of my soon-to-fall-apart copy). She frightens me like the revenant in the final sections of Michelle Paver‘s terrifying Dark Matter.

The Moomin family have been described as “surprisingly complex and plausible.” Part of me wants to jump up and down at that “suprisingly,” but it does reflect something of my own disquiet when I first read this book – and I read it as an adult. In fact I did remark to one of my children that “I didn’t think it was a book for children.” I think my opinions about “for children” have changed now – but it reflects some of the themes Tove Jansson presents. These are characters with depth, full of love, sadness, frustration, loneliness: capable of wrong decisions, reconciliation, fear and delight – and because they are Jansson’s characters, able to worry too about the lack of paraffin and to enjoy a birthday tea.

Reviews on Goodreads go from a five-star “poignant and empathetic” to “a deeply distasteful story of toxic masculinity.” It is worth remembering this is a book from 1965, of course, but in the way that Moominpappa is trying to restart his life, and the ways Moomintroll is trying to make sense of the haunting chill of the Groke that has pursued him and the beauty of the seahorses he encounters, we are looking at an exploration of growing that goes way beyond the anachronism of “toxic masculinity.” If anything, these two male characters are asking for ways to make sense of their place in family and society: how can I be a “family man” when so much is beyond my control? asks the father. How do I tame the depression that seems to negate my inner need for beauty and transcendence? asks the son. Or perhaps I read the two characters like this because in some way those are my own questions… Let’s return to the text. (NB: It would take a lot longer than a blog post to bring in here a discussion of Little My, or Moominmamma or the sea horses – they need looking at in their own right. This post will have to be about Moomintroll and Moominpappa, and revisists/revises some of my thinking from an earlier post.)

The way Moomintroll and his father interact in Moominpappa at Sea appears to me to be an indicator of both characters growing. With his comfortable self-assurance, Moominpappa in Ch 4 (“The North-Easter”) starts off in control when he and his son go to bring in a haul of fish: Now you can see I know something about the sea, he says, but he is panicky, unable to direct Moomintroll effectively, and the nets are full of seaweed rather than fish. All the father’s expertise temporarily ebbs away – and their boat capsizes. Tove Jansson knows her boats, and takes us through this disaster assuredly – but even though father and son come through the crisis, here, in this brief interchange, her characters show they are less sure of themselves:

“Well, we managed that all right,” said Moomintroll, looking cautiously at his father.

“Do you think so?” said Moominpappa doubtfully.

It is a revealing little scene: the self-assured, bungling dad loses face with his growing son, and when Moomintroll looks cautiously for reassurance, it is at this point that Moominpappa expresses his doubt. Simply told, but in an effective few words.

The chaos of the botched fishing trip is a metaphor for frustration (as Keith Negley describes his pirate in an interview with Mat Tobin), and is followed by the usually imperturbable Moominmamma’s sighs as Moomintroll’s obsession with the lantern (and the demands of the Groke) interrupt her plans. It is as if in this landscape of frustration, nothing can come right.

Moominpappa is contending with his island, his family, his worries. Instead of a study where the family interrupt him, he has a crag on which to sit: this life change has not been the success he had expected.

The ending is ambiguous, Moomin Valley is (maybe) lost, the characters (certainly) challenged, and if their issue around the custodianship of the lighthouse are resolved, I still feel a chill when reading

The thought of the Groke crossed Moomintroll’s mind. But he didn’t feel that he must think about her. He would see her later as usual, but he didn’t have to.

It now reminds me (with important distinctions, of course) of the final of Dark Matter. The narrator, Jack, having been menaced and haunted (“It can open doors“) in Gruhuken in the blackness of an arctic winter where his friend has drowned, now lives in balmy Jamaica, and once a year visits the sea:

When I’ve mustered my courage, I can just bring myself to crouch at the water’s edge and di[ in my hand, and hold it there while I talk to Gus. It’s a kind of communion. But it’s a dangerous one, for I know that I’m also communing with Gruhuken, and with what walks there in the dark…

The worst is not knowing if you’re still there.

What has Moomintroll’s repeated encounters in the dark with the Groke, this vengeful granddaughter of Nordic Frost Giants, brought him? An appreciation of his father’s ennui? There is a significant change in understanding between Moomintroll and the Groke so that she

…started to sing. Her skirts fluttered as she swayed to and fro, stamping on the sand and doing her best to show him that she was pleased to see him…

and I would – maybe even ought to be – happy with that, but what is the Groke’s new relationship with the Moomins? Is she in some way healed? Changed? She appears to me a figure of terror, but gradually Jansson introduces other ideas: her sadness; loneliness the coldest thing that ever was… Why do I come back to her as something to be scared of negotium perambulans in tenebris, Scaduhelma…wan under wolcnum? Is it, maybe, that these frustrated monsters are for me like the thursen of our research – and that what I am looking for is the very opportunity to grow? Moomintroll himself has grown, it seems – but what of Moominpappa?

The title in English gives us the “at sea” of this blog post: lost, aimless, adrift. The title in Swedish translates as “Moominpappa and the Sea,” reminiscent of Hemingway. Moominpappa has uprooted his family, tried to rewrite their relationships, and come adrift from the way his family works. Who lives in the lighthouse – who controls this important part of the environment? Most crucially: whose job is it to do these things? Who is using all the paraffin (it is his son’s night time meetings with the Groke herself). In the dialogue with the raging sea – which parallels his son’s gradual reconciliation with the Groke – Moominpappa rebukes the sea which in turn gives him a sign that the family should stay. It is not the task Moominpappa envisaged, but it is a mission nonetheless, to settle down there and enjoy themsleves, although they were surrounded by a vast, never-changing horizon closing in on them. Settle into this new life, and accept what is offered: re-invent this landscape not as one of frustration but as one of change. Just as it is not Moomintroll’s job to tame the Groke, but to live with her, to accept her, it is not for Moominpappa to control his environment, but to live with its ambiguities. The crucial symbolic action for Pappa is therefore much closer to home (for him and me? – and do I wear a hat so much because he does?):

[The lighthouse keeper] completed the puzzle. It was a picture of birds flying round a lighthouse. He turned round and looked at Moominpappa.

“Now I remember,” he said.”We’re both wearing the wrong hat.”

He took off the hat he was wearing and offered it to Moominpappa. They exchanged hats without saying a word.”

The lighthouse keeper, the lost Ben Gunn-like fisherman, gets his old hat back, along with his role as lighthouse keeper – and Moominpappa, who had said he didn’t need his top hat any more, has his iconic hat returned to him.

The blurb at the start of the Puffin edition (1974) tells me it is “for readers of eight and over,” and describes it as a “haunting, moving, beautiful book…perhaps the most satisfying of all the Moomin stories.” But just as I take issue with the word “surprising” from the Guardian, I wonder quite what “satisfying” really means here. So many unanswered questions remain – not least whether they will stay in the end – and for me, the psychodrama of Moomin and the Groke, and his father’s loss of faith in his role, pound at my reading like the breakers on the rocks.

3 thoughts on “At Sea

  1. I’ve only just started my voyages with the Moomins and therefore haven’t got to this, but I’m loving it already: a good book awakes personal responses, mine being of my rather emotionally distant father who was a marine engineer, and of sea voyages the family took out of Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the sea stretching to the horizon. Looking forward to eventually getting round to this.


    1. I do find this, of all the Moomin novels, the hardest read. My dad was in the Merchant Navy at much the same time as your dad – but I never went with him. Like Moominpappa I think he still looks out to those wide, empty horizons. personal responses are v much around the ambiguities if the relationships – but as you go through the books, watch for the Groke! Maggie and I are reading Moominland Mindwinter together (her first time) and the Groke in that is spectacular.

      Liked by 1 person

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