Boel Westin

Keynote 5

A Hundred Miles of Silence: The Moomin stories of Tove Jansson

Boel Westin

The beginning of Moominvalley in November depicts Snufkin’s departure from the valley. Autumn has come, it has begun to rain, everyone is inside except for Snufkin, who is heading for the exquisite loneliness of the forest. The chapter ends like this: “He entered his forest, with a hundred miles of silence ahead of him.” It is a beautiful sentence that also connects to the fact that Snufkin is a legendary loner, but what does it suggest in terms of interpretation? In other words, what does it mean?

In this lecture, I will discuss forms, expressions and contexts of silence in the Moomin stories of Tove Jansson, mainly focusing on the nine books published between 1945 and 1970. What is the function of silence or being quiet, and how does it work in the text? As Peter Burke says in his book The Art of Conversation “the meaning of silence varies – like other forms of communication, as rhetoricians point out – according to the occasion where silence occurs, according to the person who is silent […].” The moment and the place are equally important.

Burke is of course not the only one to have said this, but his cultural perspective is interesting to have in mind when it comes to an imaginary universe in text and pictures like Moominvalley and its surroundings. As for the function of silence in literature, I will link parts of my analysis to researchers such as George Steiner, Thomas Gould and others.

One might say that Snufkin is a practitioner of the fine art of silence – he knows a lot of things but never talks about them unnecessarily, as stated in Moominsummer Madness – and that is a fundamental part of his identity. But there are lots of other characters connected with silence practising different silent strategies, sometimes including what I call a sound of silence. Some are deaf and mute (the Hattifatteners), some exert a frightening silence (the Groke), some do not speak and may furthermore be invisible (examples in Moominland Midwinter, Tales from Moominvalley, Moominpappa at Sea) and some are just longing for silence in a noisy world (Tales from Moominvalley).

Silence can be a sign of independence, respect or expectation, it can be repressive and cause a trauma, or it can just be an emblem of order, and peace and quiet (Finn Family Moomintroll). The kinds of silences in the Moomin stories that I will consider in my lecture concern the following broad perspectives: senses, feelings, gender, time and nature.

Biographical information

Boel Westin is Professor Emeritus of Literature at Stockholm University in Sweden where she was chair of Children’s Literature between 1998 and 2018. Westin is an acclaimed international expert on Finno-Swedish author Tove Jansson and the author of the authorized biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (2007/2014), which has been translated into five languages. Forthcoming is Letters from Tove, which will be published in Great Britain in October 2019, and “Nostalgia” in the second edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature (2020). Boel Westin’s present research focuses on early modern literature for children and young people. She is Chief Editor of a new history of Swedish children’s literature, a work conducted in collaboration with the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books. She is the chair of the Jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Photo: Stefan Tell