Moominland Midwinter

Among other things, Tove Jansson's Moominland Midwinter is a sweet, funny fable of winter giving way to spring. In other words -- in more clinical or medical words -- it can be read as a story about depression and its ending. Which, perhaps not surprisingly given the pharmacopeia in my cupboard, is something I'm thinking about a lot these days.
It's winter in Moomin Valley, and all the Moomins are asleep. All the summer toys are stowed in the bathing house; sheets cover the furniture to protect it from dust; the stove is cold; the pantry is full of jars of Moominmamma's strawberry jam, waiting for the first spring breakfast. Moominmamma herself is snoring. The sun dips below the horizon and stays there.

A typical depressive, Moomintroll bolts awake in the middle of the night. The winter world is terrible. It's dark, it's cold, there's no one to play with, the sun is gone and it seems like it will never come back.

Moomintroll ventures outside. (Apparently his depression is not the agoraphobic kind.) He meets some funny characters in the shuttered bathing-house -- notably the steady, practical, if somewhat unimaginative Too-Ticky, who spends her time ice-fishing, and the irrepressible if somewhat self-seeking Little My (pictured, left), who responds to the apparent frost-bite death of a squirrel by observing that his tail would make a wonderful muff.

In their company, Moomintroll learns lots about the peculiar winter world of Moomin Valley, whose inhabitants, as charming as they are, correspond in various ways to the less charming bits of oneself. For instance, there is the fearsome Ancestor who is locked in the cupboard and should not, under any circumstances, be let out; there is the mysterious, cantankerous Dweller Under the Sink. Moomintroll must deal with these characters; they are either the keys to his release from sadness, or they are important distractions from that sadness, things to keep him busy while he waits for spring, just as one does wait, in a sort of antic hope, for the anti-depressant to kick in.

At the height of the winter, the creatures gather for a bonfire, a signal to convince the sun to come back. Too-Ticky asks Moomintroll to help, by sacrificing the "garden seat," a bench of which he is for some reason enormously protective, as fuel for the fire. Reluctantly, he relinquishes it, in exchange for a promise he has extracted from Too-Ticky: He will be allowed to meet the Ancestor.

But the Ancestor is not taking visitors. Frustrated, Moomintroll complains to Too-Ticky. She introduces him to the Dweller Under the Sink. Good-natured Moomintroll compliments the Dweller on his enormously bushy eyebrows. The Dweller takes offense, in a language that Moomintroll is dismayed to discover he cannot understand. He repeats the Dweller's words, in an effort to make things better that only succeeds in making them worse. The garden seat goes up in flames. A large cold creature named the Groke accidentally sits on the fire, extinguishing it. All the sacrifice is for nothing.

"Such things happen," says Too-Ticky, philosophically. Moomintroll is not convinced. He retires to a corner, frustrated and stuck. At this point, he might take some Prozac, or see a therapist.

Who should arrive next but -- the Hemulen! Blustery, vigorous, the Hemulen is a dynamo on skis who is suspiciously addicted to fresh air and physical thrills. In an effort to shake the group out of their winter blahs, he cheerfully recommends exercise, especially swims in freezing water. Naturally, everyone hates him -- except Little My, who sticks by him long enough to learn how to ski, and then, having no further use for him, skis off on her own.

The Hemulen's ambiguous success with Little My notwithstanding, the group decides they must free themselves from the Hemulen. But no one wants to be mean. So Moomintroll is given the task of kindly and tactfully sending the Hemulen on his way. But Moomintroll's nerve fails him. He finds he just can't do it. (Nobody said psychotherapy, which also includes resistance to psychotherapy, would be easy.) In the end, this is just as well: The Hemulen makes himself useful after all, by saving the life of the least of their community, a sad creature named "Salome the Little Creep." (Might the name be a clue to the psychoanalytic schema I'm claiming is at work here?) For this good deed, Moomintroll makes the Hemulen a gift of the last jar of Moominmamma's wonderful strawberry jam, a great prize, and the Hemulen leaves, on good terms with all, followed by the dog, Sorry-oo, who has finally found a master he can tolerate.

Inevitably, spring comes, the sun returns, and, crucially, Moominmamma wakes up. The house is a mess, all her jam is gone, so is her silver tray (Little My used it for a sled), some rugs, her furniture. She is delighted -- there is less to clean, less to worry about. Far from misbehaving, Moomintroll has done everything right.

"Mother, I love you terribly," says Moomintroll, grateful for Moominmamma's loving, skilled and discreet transformation of bad things into good.

"I love you terribly."

That is, of course, exactly what one wants to say and to hear. Among other things, the story is about two mingled wishes: the wish to offer a love one knows is flawed and terrible, and the wish to be made the object of love in return, despite or perhaps even (oh, terrible hope!) because of one's terribleness. Jansson's free, generous genius gives form to both wishes -- and then, bless her, she gratifies them fully. It's probably worth noting that Jansson dedicated this volume of the Moomin series to her mother. Can stories cure depression? Can lost mothers be brought back to life? No, and no. But there's something to be said for the comfort on offer here, for such consolation.