Moominreview 3: Finn Family Moomintroll, by Tove Jansson

17 04 2016

Finn Family Moomintroll was the third Moomin book Jansson wrote (I’ve reviewed the earlier ones here and here), but was the first to be translated into English. The version I’m reading is the translation by Elizabeth Portch; it’s referenced in the book’s publication details as the original translation, dating from 1950, but I suspect it may include some modifications which were made to the text in the mid-1960s. (A Jansson biography, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words, by Boel Westin, makes plain that the author modified the original Swedish text at that time, as she did several of the other early books. The chief change in this one is the inclusion, in the updated manuscript, of an appearance by the Hobgoblin during a storm midway through the book. This episode, absent from the original text, does indeed feature in the version I’m reading, although as noted in my review of Comet in Moominland, some modifications made to that book at around the same time have not been carried across to the current English translation.)


I should note that the book established a pattern, largely resisted by Jansson for the Swedish titles of the books, of diligently including the term ‘Moomin’ in the title somewhere so as to assist with its identification. (The Swedish title of FFM is Trollkarlens Hatt, in which hatt is simply enough ‘hat’, but trollkarl, which hinges on the other sense of the Swedish troll, not the mythological bridge-dwelling caprivore but the practice of magic, means ‘conjuror’ or ‘magician’, so the title in Swedish translates to ‘The Magician’s Hat’. The magician here is the Hobgoblin to whom I alluded above.)


And I want also, before I actually get into the review itself, to detail another difference between the original Swedish and the English translations, and this is on the naming of characters. It’s appropriate to raise this issue with FFM in particular because it was the first translated, and therefore the book in which the decision had to be made: what are these creatures’ Anglicised names? This isn’t quite as straightforward as you might expect. In the original Swedish, very few of the characters are actually named, they are instead described as types. This does indeed carry across to the English version to some extent, as in ‘the Muskrat’ (bisamråttan), ‘the Snork Maiden’ (snorkfröken), and ‘the Hemulen’ (straightforwardly enough, hemulen, which should however just translate as ‘the Hemul’). Note that, as types rather than names, the Swedish descriptors are not capitalised. But lower-case descriptors are also given in place of names for some central characters who do feature names: snusmumriken (‘the snusmumrik’, I suppose, where a snusmumrik is a literary invention of Jansson’s, translated into English as the name ‘Snufkin’) and mumintrollet (‘the moomintroll’, rather than the English ‘Moomintroll’) and his parents. In fact, of more than a dozen characters in the book, only four bear actual names in the Swedish text: Sniff (conveniently enough, Sniff), the Groke (Mårran), and Thingumy and Bob (Tofslan och Vifslan).


One more thing, and then there will, I promise, be an actual review. The edition I’m reading this time around is the recent Puffin hardback, dating from 2009, and something strange has been done with its typesetting. Almost without exception, the other volumes in this uniform edition feature a layout that is a faithful reproduction of that of the early-1970s paperbacks, with modestly-sized chapter headings in all-caps and with fully-justified text in (11 pt, I suspect) Linotype Plantin; this one has chapter headings in a block bold font, and left-justified text in 13 pt Baskerville. The text here sits big on the page, and the ragged right edge (appropriate for an e-book that might be viewed on a small screen, but thoroughly out of place in printed fiction) makes line-by-line reading more of an effort than it should be, since paragraph breaks are less obvious. Here’s a comparison, to scale, of the same pages in my old and yellowed paperback edition, and the new hardback:


But now, to the review itself. (Which means I must refrain from further distraction, such as any mention of the two ‘lost chapters’ tantalizingly alluded to in the Boel Westin biography of Jansson …)

Finn Family Moomintroll occurs, it seems, some months after the events of Comet in Moominland, and in contrast to the two earlier books, it is not a ‘quest’ novel of any kind. (Or, perhaps, it is a quest, but the quest, undertaken by a minor character, is so peripheral that it can properly be ignored as an impetus for the narrative.) Such structure as is imposed upon the storyline derives from Moomintroll’s and Snufkin’s discovery, atop the nearby mountain, of a hat — the ‘Hobgoblin’s Hat’ alluded to in the Swedish title — which transpires to have magical, if not rather disruptive, properties. Aside from the repeated hat-related hijinks, the story is largely episodic, and could probably be described as aimless — which is not intended as a criticism. It’s a fun-filled book, with a strong sense of adventure but without much overt tension; much of the joy of the book arises from the character interplay (something that grows sharper in each successive book) and from Jansson’s enchanting and highly-expressive illustrations. There’s not a great deal of plot-driven character growth, but there is quite a bit of understated situational humour, and some early indications of the subtlety that would become progressively more of a hallmark of Jansson’s fiction. It’s possibly the most idyllic of the Moomin books (although Moominsummer Madness, the next-but-one volume, might just edge it out). I do find myself wondering, however, whether it’s too much ‘of its time’ to be fully satisfying as a children’s book today, and it does feel distinctly more of a children’s book than an adult’s — something that’s not true of the last few books in the series.

Notwithstanding the above, it is the book which probably did most to establish Jansson’s reputation, and it has, I think, a rather quaint freshness that still endures today.

Next week, I’ll review The Exploits of Moominpappa.



4 responses

8 08 2020
My Reading – July 2020 | Catherine Meyrick

[…] Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove JanssonOne grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins. […]

8 12 2020
Tommi Uschanov

I’ve just read your entire series of extremely interesting blog posts on the Moomins and Tove Jansson. The novelist Alison Lurie died a few days ago, and reading her obituary I recalled that she’d written something on the Moomins decades ago in the New York Review of Books; googling that led me to your blog as a byproduct.

I wish to question the importance of your observation that “[i]n the original Swedish, very few of the characters are actually named, they are instead described as types”. First, in the later books the same names appear in capitalised form, which indicates that Tove Jansson herself came to think of them for all intents and purposes as personal names.

Second, about snorkfröken. While the definite article in Swedish is expressed by the suffix “-en” or “-et” on the noun, the seeming “-en” in fröken is in fact the Germanic diminutive suffix “-ken”, a cognate of the English “-kin”. Both indefinite and definite forms of the word are the same: ‘a maiden’ is en fröken and not en frök. So it is in fact completely ambiguous as to whether snorkfröken is supposed to be “the” Snork Maiden; even if it’s in lower case, the fröken part can be interpreted as a honorific (‘Miss’), in which case it can lose the indefinite article while remaining grammatically correct.

I think this ambiguity is in some way quite Moominish, and more generally I wouldn’t worry too much about the proper rendering of names. The problem is largely just a quirk of Swedish grammar, where some categories of names just naturally tend to take the definite form indicated by “-en” or “-et”. I’d say that worrying about this is a bit like insisting that something is somehow lost when Jansson’s Lyssnerskan is translated as The Listener and not as The Listeneress.

You may wonder who’s taking the trouble to write all this. I’m a Finnish-speaking Finn, and a professional translator, of books from both Swedish and English into Finnish, and of documents from Finnish into English. So I first encountered the Moomins in Finnish, where indefinite and definite forms only differ in the plural and where capitalisation is the only way to distinguish personal names from names of types. And I can tell you that in the Finnish translation of the same vintage, by Laila Järvinen (whose work Jansson must have overseen, as she was fluent in Finnish), the names of basically all characters with more personality than a Hattifattener are rendered unambiguously as proper names of individuals, on a par with names such as yours or mine. In fact I was taken aback when I first discovered that English translations speak of “the Mymble”, “the Snork”, etc.; to me that sounded not only children’s-book-ish in precisely the wrong way, but almost like an attack on the characters’ individuality!

8 12 2020

Tommi, thank you very much for a detailed and highly-informative comment. I must confess my observation about names versus types was something which occurred to me mainly on my most recent rereading of the books, just before writing the reviews; I’d read and enjoyed the books several times before that, without thinking along quite those lines. (There’s a saying I’ve seen somewhere, to the effect that the clearest understanding one can have of something comes only when one writes about it; I suppose reviewers can aspire to that…)

I agree that the ambiguity in naming (e.g. the way ‘Mymble’ can be both an individual name and a type) is part of the charm of the stories, and something which adds detail and depth to the world Jansson created.

I’m a little envious of those who, like you, are properly multilingual — I have only a smattering of Swedish, having not persevered enough to properly learn it, and Finnish has always seemed daunting. But I’m deeply indebted to translators for the work they do; without those in your line of work, readers would have much less colour in their lives.

Thanks again / Simon

2 01 2021
2020 – A Year of Reading | Catherine Meyrick

[…] by Tove JanssonThe Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove JanssonComet in Moominland by Tove JanssonFinn Family Moomintroll by Tove JanssonThe Exploits of Moominpappa: as described by himself by Tove JanssonMoominsummer […]

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