Moomins are a secret in our family, something private that only we know about, as secret as the ruby hidden on the underside of my engagement ring, on the side that hugs my finger, that no one else can see. It’s there just for us.
Except that Moomins are already a worldwide phenomenon, translated into 44 languages…though all but invisible in the US, where they remain almost totally unknown.
But with a Hollywood movie coming out soon, as well as an animated series in the works featuring Kate Winslet, the Moomin secret is about to come out of the bag.
Moomins, which are genial-looking, hippopotamus-like cartoon figures, are symbols of our honeymoon. As soon as we stepped off the airplane in Helsinki, there were Moomins wherever we looked. On posters, all over the gift shop, on books and journals. These weren’t advertisements, although I seem to recall a welcome message or public service-style announcement from the airport itself that featured Moomin. They are simply woven into the popular fabric of Finland. There was no tagline or logo to clue us in or even tell us what to call them, just the figures, because they were clearly already so well-known. We were so inundated, so immediately, that we had to figure it out right away or risk being hopelessly lost in Finland.
Seeking answers, we asked a salesperson at the airport gift shop – purveyors of dozens and dozens of said hippopotamus-type items – “Um, sorry, we’re not from here, but what are these figures?”. The hesitating answer was one word – “Moomin”, while the incredulous look she gave us said – “Dumbass”.
“Oh, Moomin. Thank you. But what are they?”
“Just…Moomin…”. Now she felt sorry for us, with no easy way to explain all that Moomin stood for in her country. We accepted that they were “just Moomin”, and carried on. Of course, I bought a Moomin journal, and we continued to see them everywhere in Finland. They remain a central ingredient and symbol of our honeymoon, confined to that time and place, with warm memories attached.
Fast forward five years, and they’re about to explode in the US. I’ll do you the favor of cluing you in ahead of time so you won’t be surprised.
Moomins are illustrations that were created in the 1940s by queer Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson. She drew anti-fascist political cartoons (Hitler and Stalin were her favorite skewers) while working for a left-wing magazine, and used the Moomin as an outlet to process anxiety over World War II, particularly the Russian bombing of Helsinki. My understanding is that they populate children’s books, but with a realistic darkness that isn’t often brought to juvenile literature; that adults also find something to love there is proven by the invitation to segue into a comic strip for a British newspaper.
Several Moomin are inspired by people from Jansson’s life: her brother, an old boyfriend. My favorite creative spark comes from the duo called Thingumy and Bob (I like their Finnish names better: Tiuhti and Viuhti), whose inspiration was Jansson’s secret, illegal relationship with a woman. (Gay relationships were forbidden by law in Finland until 1971, though they currently have one of the most progressive outlooks on LGBTQ rights). Thingumy and Bob are not hippo-shaped, by the way: picture more humanoid, less shaggy versions of the 1980s video game character Q-bert, with the bodies of elves. Thingummy and Bob are twins; they are never without each other, and are almost always seen holding hands. Like many twins, they share their own, secret language. They also share a suitcase, which is filled with only a very large ruby (remember my engagement ring!) – a symbol of their love. Their favorite places are confined ones – drawers, purses that they steal in order to sleep in, under rugs (and maybe in closets?).
Jansson met someone else, her life partner, in the 1950s, who also inspired a Moomin character. Jansson never called herself gay (remember that it was illegal for almost another 20 years). Her niece said Jansson’s secret name for being gay was “spook side” – as in, exploring her spook side, crossing over to the spook side. Jansson and her partner lived together, defying the law, even purchasing an entire island on which to be themselves, free from prying eyes.
Welcome, Moomin. You won’t be our little secret for much longer.