Written by Tatiana Sokolova
Have you read Tove Jansson’s Moomin books? If you haven’t, you must, and if you have – re-read them. Not only are they beautifully written, subtly philosophical and thoroughly entertaining – I believe they reveal the Northern soul. In this article, I explore the connection between the Moomins and the Swedish/Nordic mentality – if there is such a thing.
I have to start with some disclaimers. First of all, Tove Jansson is a Swedish-speaking Finn. I will use the notation ‘Swedish/Nordic’ in the text. ‘Swedish’ – because as a child I saw her illustrations to the stories, with Swedish words in them, and for me they represented Sweden.
But of course, there are a lot of similarities between the Finns and the Swedes, just as there are many differences. Therefore I use ‘Nordic’ as a container for the Nordic mentality. There is some discussion on the Swedish/Finnish nature of Moomins here.
Secondly, the excerpts from the books are my translations from Swedish to English. It was easier to find the Swedish texts than the English, and it was fun to finally read them in the original, after decades of knowing them in my own language. But in terms of translations – please excuse and bear with my amateurism.
First things first: there is no Moomin story without coffee. All throughout, they talk about it, make it, drink it and plan to do things after drinking it. All this coffee-drinking and coffee-talk was very exotic and novel to me as a child. And even as a child I could not help noticing that there is a much deeper meaning to it than what it appears on the surface.
Coffee is often called upon in an existential crisis. From easy cases, such as an early onset of melancholy, to tough ones – when the world is on the brink of destruction, coffee is a remedy, and a coffee break is in order. It is also a way to understand if strangers can be trusted, and a way to transition between different domains of experience. Here are some examples.
When Tofslan and Vifslan arrive at Moominhouse in Finn Family Moomintroll, they jump up in surprise when Moominmamma shouts ‘Coffee!’ from the veranda, and at first they mistrust the Moomin family, but then immediately assume that the Moomins must be safe.
‘I alla fallsla kokslar de kofsla’ (‘They are making coffee, in any case’).
…says Vifslan, which contextually means ‘They must be at least somewhat normal’.
Earlier in Finn Family Moomintroll, Sniff says: ‘My stomach is screaming for coffee. Do yours?’ ‘You bet!’ answer Moomintroll and Snufkin ‘with feeling’. Sounds like an everyday kitchen conversation, albeit a notch dramatic?
It would have been, but this wasn’t happening in a kitchen. At this very moment, the three friends were climbing some crazy mountains, on some crazy adventure or the other. Even more: this was the key moment of the whole story.
‘And that is how they found the Magician’s hat and took it home, without suspecting that by doing so they were turning the Moominvalley into a place of magic and mysteries of all kinds’.
So it was no overdramatisation – quite on the contrary, it was a UNDERdramatisation of an inciting moment of the story. As if the exposition had become too tense, and they had to quite literally come down to earth for a coffee-break.
But the most dramatic/ironic coffee moment we find in ‘Moominsummer madness’. Everything is covered in ash due to a volcano eruption. The Muskrat, true to himself, is predicting an apocalypse, while Moominmamma is saying to Muminpappa conversationally:
‘The Muskrat is a little upset – that’s what happens when you lose your home [She is referring to a hammock whose string had snapped]. After coffee I will go and dust a little’.
’After coffee I will go and dust a little’ is Moominmamma’s reaction to something which looks like a literary representation of a nuclear winter. (Farlig midsommar was published in 1954, when the nuclear fear was on the rise around the world.)
Coffee is to Swedes/the Nordic people what tea is to Brits. That is to say, the alpha and the omega of being able to function, both as society and as individuals. However, as opposed to the American culture, where it seems as if coffee is necessary for productivity and is meant to raise the energy levels, in the Swedish culture it seems to work the opposite way: rather to settle the nerves and give a nice good cheerful foundation for lagom. (Just what tea does in Britain, only what is the equivalent of lagom? Ship-shape and Bristol fashion, perhaps.)
Alongside with coffee, pancakes are the staple diet of the Moomin family. We find them eating pancakes on a lovely early summer morning in Finn Family Moomintroll, while Tove notices in passing, true to the subtle irony that amused me greatly as a child, that they also had porridge from yesterday, but since no-one wanted it, it was kept for tomorrow. (One can’t help wondering how old that porridge will end up being.)
The culmination of Finn Family Moomintroll is the coming of the Magician himself to the Moominvalley at the end of the book. He represents an elemental force, eternity, infinity, something cosmic, and as such he is enigmatic and formidable. Until that is, he is served pancakes with jam, which Moominmamma had rolled out by the cart and barrel for all the guests at the feast. This is what happens:
‘While the Magician ate, everyone dared come closer. Someone who is eating pancakes with jam cannot be so terribly dangerous’.
[Remember Tofslan and Vifslan’s presumption about the normality of those who drink coffee?]
The Magician says: ‘I haven’t eaten pancakes for the last eighty-five years’, and as a result ‘everyone immediately felt sorry for him and came even closer’.
Even the strangest families and the most enigmatic Magicians drink coffee and eat pancakes, and that’s what makes them safe, part of the normal order of things.
Although the scene described above is prominent and many perhaps remember it, it may skip one’s attention that Tove had already earlier in Finn Family Moomintroll tried out the taming power of pancakes. More specifically, she used them as fishing bait. And not just for any fish – the Great Fish, the Mameluke.
I don’t know what Tove was playing at here, and whether she was toying with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but in any case, they catch that giant of a fish, which prior to surrendering takes them on some rollercoaster rides through the waves, by way of putting some pancakes as bait on Snork’s Swiss army knife (or a Moomin equivalent of that).
It feels like Tove tests pancakes as a bait for wild creatures on Mameluke, before she feeds them, by Moominmamma’s hands, to the Magician, the wildest creature of all, the one who transcends space and time and travels between planets as easily as the Moomins go around their garden.
Would you like to know about the contents of the Moominmamma’s bag and the Moomins/Swedes/Nordic people’s relationship with the sea? Click here to read the continuation of this article!
About the Author
Tatiana Sokolova is an investigator, collector and classifier of cultures, places, and ways of expression – the very things which often defy classification. She lives in Stockholm with her intercultural family. She is a researcher, a freelancer of various trades, and a little bit a photographer. Also a little bit a writer of short stories, and an aficionada – a lover of flamenco song, guitar, clapping and dance.