There’s few who could deny that Tove Jansson led a life bursting out the borders and walls into which it was meant to fit. Considering her creative upbringing, her intensely emotional love letters, and the little glimpses of unconditional love for her partner Tuuliki Pietilä, it’s clear that Tove was a person who loved largely and was ready to bring a certain joy and queer message of being seen to the world — but I don’t think anyone would have expect for that message to come in the form of plump, rambunctious trolls. You may know them better as the Moomins.
When Jansson dreamed up the Moomins in 1945 — they were initially published as a series of picture books and a concurrent newspaper strip; the characters would also appear in television series and movies that were amazingly successful in Europe, with a theme park devoted to the property opening in Finland in 1993 — she dreamt of something soft, saying in later years that she created a world in which the character design and original Swedish name “mumintrollet” created something inviting, soft and gentle, and I think many readers would agree she did exactly that.
Though Jansson produced hundreds of paintings, novels, children’s books, political cartoons, librettos, and magazine covers in her career, which started with cartoons for the satirical magazine Garm in the early 1930s, it’s unmistakable that the majority of fans of the queer, militantly anti-fascist artist came to appreciate her messages and work by way of Moomins. Having become something of a staple throughout the international comics world, the lovable trolls have seen a serious uptick in readership in recent years, with the little trolls returning to print again thanks to publishers Drawn and Quarterly and King Features Syndicate in the North American market; it’s no coincidence that the wee Moomintrolls fit beautifully into the new frontier of queer comics despite the quieted, veiled past of Jansson’s preferences.
Until 1971, same-sex relationships of any sort were considered illegal, even considered a psychiatric condition, in Finland at the time, and worse —and likely most relatable even now to queer people in unfriendly communities — the harsh, pointed judgement from cohorts, peers, and employers was rampant. Luckily, Jansson was more than just a fantastically creative and open-minded woman, but a bold one as well; speaking the language of so many queer people before and after her by expressing her love through letters to friends:
“[…]what has happened now is that I’ve fallen madly in love with a woman. And it seems to me so absolutely natural and genuine — there’s nothing problematic about it at all. I just feel proud and uncontrollably glad. These last weeks have been like one long dance of rich adventure, tenderness, intensity — an expedition into new domains of great simplicity and beauty.”
The woman Tove spoke of, of course, was the very-charismatic, very-married theater director Vivica Bandler, whose passionate love affair (outside of her at-current relationship with parliament member and journalist, Atos Wirtanen) became a contrast between Jansson’s unbridled joy and love, and Vivica’s insistence on remaining entirely discreet; going so far as to have Tove send letters addressed by a third party as to not arise suspicions.
he relationship did — in the way that it always does with artists — find itself not-so-discreetly into the pages of the Moomins by way of two quirky characters by the names of Thingummy and Bob, whose names in the original Swedish are Tofslan and Vifslan, a match for their respective given names and the nicknames used to Tove’s letters. This is, unfortunately, one of the downfalls of translation during a period of bigotry, as Tofslan and Vifslan speak as the typical feminine diminutive name in Swedish, while Thingummy and Bob offer a slightly more heteronormative option for the otherwise sexless-characters. Regardless of their underlying name meaning, the characters were placed at the forefront of Finn Family Moomintroll, where Jansson made the characters intertwined and unmissable in love; acting as a secretly public declaration of hers and Vivica’s love.
The real gift of Jansson’s queer representation in these early books, however, is her ability to avoid a direct line to how lovers should behave. Letters found after her death prove even the smallest details such as Jansson’s use of romantic and vibrant pastels, flowing lines, and huge swaths of bold color to depict her characters in their relationships were influenced by the roaring passion and excitement over her love for Vivica. In contrast however, the Moomins feature an equal number of metaphors for the pitfalls of being queer and in love during a time of bigotry and judgement with a prime example being the dark, gloomy presence of The Groke.
While the Moomin characters never really experience evil, villains, or true antagonists of any kind in the stories, The Groke is as close as it gets, presented as the contrast and antithesis to Thingummy and Bob’s evergreen relationship. She appears throughout the book — ghostlike and mysterious with menacing eyes and an unknown past — and is pitied by the other characters for her loneliness in the world. With part of Finn Family Moomintroll concluding with Thingummy and Bob being permitted to keep the rubies that The Groke has been hunting for because their love makes them suitable for the honor, it’s no doubt that The Groke was the gentle commentary to empathize with and pity those who do not understand someone else’s brand of love.
Jansson herself was a creature of curiosity and empathy, constantly shifting through phases and growth of her life with curiosity and ease, including expanding her private life between relationships with both men and women while working on her line of Moomins and her successful —and truly breathtaking — painting career. That is until 1955, when she asked the future love of her life, Tuulikki Pietilä, to dance at a Christmas party.
Like the other beloved people of her life, Tove found a way to immortalize her love through the Moomins — creating Tuulikki into the lovable, calm, and clever Too-Ticky in 1958’s Moominland Midwinter. Similarly, Too-ticky also interacts with The Groke, pleading for readers to empathize and sympathize with the pain of a life burdened by having never experienced true love, as well as telling Moomintroll about the creatures of winter world— a symbolic place where queer people were safest secret, silent, and out of the light of day.
“There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kind of animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in,” says Too-Ticky in 1957’s Moominland Midwinter. “They keep out of the way all year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep…then they can appear.”
Through these continued messages, Jansson was able to reach out beyond her beautiful pictures and bombastic colors to give a message of understanding; particularly those who — much like her — faced a home life where her parents would not even “speak the difficult word, homosexual”.
Having searched for her true self and freedom of identity through her art, characters, and cartooning for a good portion of her young life, Tove found freedom, love, and curiosity in Tuulikki in a way that she has never had before; finding what seems like a profound sense of joy that would resonate for readers willing to see it through every Moomin story she would produce for the rest of her life.
While much of Jansson’s sexuality was unfortunately removed from her history for much of her lifetime, it is now something celebrated by diverse audiences around the globe. And from Moominmama and Papa, Snufkin, Bob, to Moonmintroll himself, the message and legacy of Tove Jansson — for queer readers and non-queer readers alike — is best summed up in a letter to Tuuliki in 1956: