• Yehoshua Paul

1946 - Comet in Moominland

1946. In Finland, the greatest Finn of all time, Baron Carl C. G. E. Mannerheim resigns as President. The great task which he was assigned is complete – the country is united and independent, and the Finnish spirit is still burning strong.

The Second World War was a period of great uncertainty in Finland. What for the rest of the world was basically a single war was for Finland three separate wars. The first war was the Winter War which took place in 1939, when the Soviet Union attacked the country and failed to annex it. After three and a half-months, in which the Soviet Union suffered heavy losses, the countries signed the Moscow Peace Treaty in which Finland agreed to cede 11% of its territory to the Soviet Union. The second war was the Continuation War, which took place from 1941 to 1944. Finland and Nazi Germany joined forces with the goal of reclaiming the territory lost in the Winter War. The Finns succeeded, in their initial goals and even participated with the Germans in the Siege of Leningrad. However, when the tide turned against Germany in 1944, the country lost all the territory it had regained and was forced to sign a ceasefire with Moscow. The terms required the country to return to the borders established in the 1940 treaty, and to expel all Germans from its territory. This led to the third war, the Lapland War fought between Finland and Nazi Germany from September to November, 1944. This war ended when the Germans completed their organized retreat from the country. In 1945, Finland retroactively declared war against Germany for the 1944 conflict. Overseeing the Finnish armed forces during these three wars was Mannerheim, who at age 72, and with declining health, became commander in chief of the Finnish army.

A Finnish machine gun crew during the Winter War

When the Continuation War ended with Finland being forced to sign an armistice with the Soviet Union, Mannerheim was asked to become president, negotiate peace terms with the Soviet Union and oversee their implementation. It is thanks to him that the country managed to maintain its independence when many other neighboring countries ended up being occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II ended. He is also credited with preserving national unity during what was a very difficult period for his country. At the same time, Mannerheim was 77 when he became president, and he was frequently forced to absent himself from his duties for medical reasons. Therefore in 1946, once he feels his task is complete, he steps down from the presidency and Juho Kusti Paasikivi succeeds him. Paasikivi is a realist, and he will be willing to do whatever it takes to keep the Soviets happy and preserve Finnish independence.

The World War II years are considered in Finland to be a triumph of the Finnish spirit. “The Spirit of the Winter War” is the term for the national unity which is credited for having saved Finland from disintegrating along class and ideological lines when the Soviet Union invaded in 1939. It is this spirit which kept the people optimistic and proud in what was essentially a period of very great uncertainty, and you can see the effects of this spirit resonating in Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland, the second book in her famous Moomin series.

Cartoon cover illustration for Garm magazine in which European leaders offer crybaby Hitler pieces of cake representing countries

Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001) was a Swedish speaking Finnish author, painter, illustrator, and comic strip author. Jansson is best known for her Moomin books, (which she illustrated herself), but she also wrote several other novels and short-story collections including the semi-autobiographical Sculptor's Daughter and the much admired The Summer Book (1972; added to reading list). As an illustrator, Jansson is responsible for the images that appear in the Swedish translations of The Hobbit, The Hunting of the Snark and Alice in Wonderland.

Jansson was raised in an artistic family. Her father was a sculptor, her mother was a graphic designer and illustrator, one sibling was a photographer, and the other was an author and cartoonist. Jansson herself was already writing and illustrating when she was a teen, and spent nine years studying art in Stockholm, Helsinki and Paris, from 1930 to 1938. During this period, and until 1953, Jansson produced satirical cartoons for the Swedish magazine Garm, several of which heavily ridiculed Hitler and Stalin. One of them even received brief international fame: she drew Adolf Hitler as a crying baby in diapers, surrounded by Neville Chamberlain and other great European leaders, who tried to calm the baby down by giving it slices of cake – Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.

As a writer and artist, Jansson constantly tried to refine and improve her style. When she was young her painting style was classical impressionism, but it later became more modernist and abstract. In her writing, we can see this in Comet in Moominland, the second book in her Moomin series, which has three separate versions.

This book begins by reintroducing several old characters: The sociable Moominpapa, the kind-hearted Moominmama, their son the adventurous Moomintroll, and their adopted family member, the cowardly small animal Sniff who has just discovered a hidden path. Sniff and Moomintroll follow this path through a forest and it leads them to the sea, where Moomintroll goes pearl diving, and Sniff discovers a cave and tries to befriend an antisocial cat. Later that evening, after their adventure is over, storms pound Moominvalley and the gloomy Muskrat arrives on the Moomin’s doorstep. His house had been inadvertently destroyed by Moominpapa. After Moominpapa invites him in and offers him wine, the Muskrat warns the Moomins that danger is approaching. The next morning the entire valley is covered in dust and the Muskrat tells Moomintroll that the earth is going to be destroyed by a comet. Moomintroll is distraught and scared so to help restore his spirits Moominmama sends him and Sniff to find the observatory and gather more information. This journey will then proceed to introduce the characters of the wandering Snufkin, the organized and bossy Snork and his sister the Snork maiden who Moomintroll likes. The comet itself is an ominous red circle whose inevitable presence looms larger and larger, and the group is forced to find creative ways to cope and maintain their spirits. This is the original version of the story, and one I read in Hebrew. However, there are two other versions out there.

First edition cover

Jansson originally wrote the book in 1946 in Swedish with watercolor illustrations. In 1955, the book was translated into Finnish, and Jansson replaced the watercolor illustrations with ink drawings. And in 1968, she rewrote several sections to update the book and characters with how the series had evolved over the years. The previous paragraph describes what she wrote in 1946. However, I also read the 1968 version in English.

There are several differences between these versions. The original version only had ten chapters. The 1968 version had twelve. In Moomintroll’s and Sniff’s beach adventure, the character of the cat is replaced with a friendly silk monkey. The characters learn about the comet through various hints and omens. However, it’s ominous red presence is never felt. It is Moomintroll’s idea to go visit the observatory, not Moominmama looking to raise her son’s spirits. Also, Jansson added various additional random encounters, which did not appear in the original story.

Personally, I liked the original version better. I understood the red comet to be a reference to the Soviet Union and the threat the country posed. This reference helped make the optimism and hope displayed by the characters feel even more real, and I was genuinely moved by it. There are many small moments that show character development, such as Sniff’s attempt to befriend the cat and the concern he shows for it later on in the story. The 1968 version gets rid of all of this, and makes it into a more generic children’s adventure, which while still fantastic and fun has lost a lot of the deeper meaning that made the book really great in the first place - in my opinion at least.

Sniff offering milk to the cat - later replaced

The Omer today is eternity in kingship, and these attributes more than match the year and the book. Finland is still with us proud and independent, and so are the Moomins which are still in print, have been adapted several times into films and television series. The most recent being the Moominvalley TV series which was released in 2019 after being successfully crowdfunded by Indiegogo. There is a famous Jewish saying: “Labor and find success, believe”. The Finns worked hard and managed to outlast the Soviet Union. Their efforts paid off, and their hope was justified. But if any of you still have any doubts, wait two years – the best is yet to come.

Also, check out the opening theme to the 1990 animated Moomin series!

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