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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

Dark side of the Moomins

The cartoon trolls are a children’s favourite but as a new exhibition reveals they haunted their creator, says Jane Shilling

As a child, I heartily disliked the Moomins. A well-meaning aunt bought me Tove Jansson’s book, Finn Family Moomintroll, but the bulbous, mild-mannered, hippopotamuslike Moomins and their extended social circle of fantastical beings, who all seemed to be either tiny, spiky and furious, or vast, amorphous and depressed, failed to cast the expected spell. Instead of being captivated, I was overcome by a feeling that I hadn’t yet acquired the language to express. These days I would call it dread.

Much later, as a parent in search of books for my own child, I was at last beguiled by the Moomins’ strange charm. But my initial reaction was perhaps not entirely perverse. In the first Moomin book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, written in the shadow of the Second World War, Moominmamma tells her son, Moomintroll, stories of her youth, when Moomins lived behind the stoves in people’s houses. “Did the people know we were there?” asks Moomintroll. “Some did”, replies his mother. “They felt us mostly as a cold draught on the back of their necks sometimes— when they were alone.”

The cold draught on the back of the neck is an unmistakable feature of Jansson’s work across a wide range of media. In her illustrations and political cartoons, her paintings and her later writing for adults—as well as the Moomin stories that made her an international celebrity—there exists an unsettling tension between safety and danger, the comfort of the familiar and a yearning for adventure, the potent tug of nostalgia and the risky allure of an uncertain future.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Joris Luyendijk and Stuart Ward try to uncover the way Britain is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world. Luyendijk—who lived in Britain for six years before recently moving back to his native Netherlands—explains that the Brexit vote has shown Europe that Britain needs time alone to find its identity again, while Ward—a native Australian—argues that its Britain’s imperial backstory that stops it from truly understanding what the world thinks of it. Elsewhere in the issue Jeffrey Lewis argues that US foreign policy has helped North Korea develop the nuclear bomb and we explore the effect that the Palestinian museum near Ramallah is having on the creation of a national identity. Also in this issue: Sameer Rahim profiles Armando Iannucci, Joseph Stiglitz on Britain’s tricky political situation.