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Right from its opening sentence, the first Moomin book (The Little
Trolls and the Great Flood, published in 1945) lets the reader know
that adventure lies ahead. The writer, Swedish-speaking Finn
For its first decades in existence, the Moomintroll family was mostly beloved by the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. The breakthrough came in 1960, when a Stockholm-based Bulls Presstjänst, which is the biggest licensing agent in the Nordic region, became the trolls' agent. Today Moomin stories have been translated into 34 languages and a 78-part animated TV series has been aired in about a hundred countries. In places such as Japan and China, the Moomins are better-known among children than Donald Duck.
Moomin has proved himself as a skilled salesman. The Moomin brand is big-time throughout Scandinavia. After Finland, Japan is his best-selling market as well as where his TV series and a film were made. A foretaste of the coming boom came in the mid-1980s, when a Moomin museum was opened in Tampere's new library building. A cartoon series was made in Poland at the same time. But the real craze got started with the success of the Moomin World TV series, produced by Dennis Livson in the 1990s, which firmly established Moomin as a household name in Germany, the UK and Japan.
"Usually these crazes last for two or three years and then fade away. But the Moomins are still going strong," says Christer Timgren, who pilots the Moomin Characters company that controls the commercial rights. Today 60 companies in the Nordic countries hold Moomin licences. Although the literary Moomin was born in 1945, he was conceived in Tove Jansson's mind much earlier. In 1930 Jansson, then just 16, visited the Hammarstens, relatives of her mother, at their holiday home on the island of Blidö in the Swedish archipelago.
Jansson's Uncle Einar scared his niece off night-time visits to the larder by telling her: "Watch out for the chilly moomintrolls. As soon as a thief gets close to the larder, they rush out of their holes and rub their icy snouts against her legs and make her cold." The trolls lived behind the old-fashioned tiled stove, he told her.
According to another version, Jansson drew the scariest beasty she could think of on the wall of the outhouse at her family's place in the Uusimaa islands after losing an argument with her younger brother, Lars.
In the 1940s a character resembling Moomintroll began to appear in Jansson's cartoons published by Garm, a newspaper favoured by liberals. It was only after the war that she completed her first Moomin book. After The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, eight more Moomin novels and four picture books followed. In all of them, from Comet in Moominland (1946) to Moominvalley in November (1970), the Moomin family live in an idyllic valley that keeps them together even after their adventures.
Helen Svensson is the literary director of the Schildt publishing house, which owns the worldwide publishing rights to the Moomin books. She has also been Tove Jansson's literary agent since 1980. She was born the same year the second Moomin book came out.
"Nobody knows exactly how many Moomin books have been sold because statistics of the editions have only been kept since the 1960s. The combined print runs certainly amount to over a million copies." In 1953, Associated Press contacted Jansson and obtained her permission to publish her Moomin cartoons in the London Evening News. The strip was translated into about twenty languages. In 1960 Tove's brother Lars started drawing the adventures of the troll family, and in the past few years the artwork has been done by a team of Finnish freelance artists.
While Moomintroll has proved himself as a salesman for Finland, Tove and Lars Jansson haven't done a bad job either. The quality of Moomin marketing is watched over by a family-owned company, Moomin Characters Ltd, the proprietors of which are Tove and Lars. There is probably only one other author who watches over her worldwide success so vigilantly - Astrid Lindgren of Sweden, another children's author.
The family-owned company makes a couple of dozen products in Finland, the most popular of which are Moomin reflectors. The range also includes various paper products and school supplies. Moomin goods are also made by 35 other Finnish companies, among them Arabia, Finlayson, Martinex, Kymen Sukka, Ibero, Teiado, Happy Caps, etc. The products are ceramics, textiles, toys, badges, ties, hats...
Moomin Characters Ltd also receives royalties from TeleScreen and TeleCable, owned by Mitshumi in Japan, for the distribution rights of TV series and the film.
The TV series is currently being rerun in Finland, Norway, Denmark, by ZDF in Germany, and by cable network in Belgium.
Physically the biggest Moomin product is Finnair's plane flying on the Osaka route. Finnair has gained a lot of good publicity in Japan through Moomin. On its first flight, the aircraft was greeted by Japan's four biggest TV channels, and it made the news on all channels that night. Groups of schoolchildren have made trips to Osaka airport to see the plane. More flying jumbo Moomins are being planned.
"The idea for the Moomin-look Finnair plane came from the Japanese Kinki Nippon travel agency," says Christer Timgren. Kinki put Moomintrips in its programme and scattered Moomin characters around its brochures. "If you ask about Donald Duck in a Japanese playgroup or daycare centre, few children will know who he is. But they recognize the Moomintroll family instantly," says Timgren with a satisfied chuckle.
Compared to the Finns, the Japanese take a surprisingly different view of the Moomin characters. Nordic fans love the members of the Moomin family Moomintroll, Moominmamma, Moominpappa, the Snork Maiden and a couple of others, while the Japanese go for Sniff, Too-Ticky, the Hattifatteners and the Fillyjonk. But the best-loved of all is that philosophical free traveller, Snufkin.
The TV series and music are of key importance in the marketing. One of the consequences of success has been an explosive increase in pirated products. "A couple of years ago our energies went on tracking down pirated goods instead of creating new things. We found 150 different pirated products in Finland alone, including 43,000 cassettes," Timgren complains.
The Moomins have also encountered setbacks in marketing, especially in Germany. There is plenty of competition for animations in continental Europe, and although Moomin has been backed by Finnish embassies and the Finnish Foreign Trade Association, Timgren suspects that the cash put into marketing will never be recovered.
The latest in Moomin products is a CD-ROM, out last December, part 2 of which is due this summer. For about four hundred markka you get to participate in a Moomin story.
Although she penned her last Moomintroll story in 1970, Jansson, with her 82nd birthday in August approaching, is still writing. She published a new book at Easter about the years on her beloved Klovharun island in the Pellinge archipelago off the coast of Finland. She tells what it is like to live on the outermost island, where the birds hated her and her longtime companion Tuulikki Pietilä, and where the sea always wrecked everything they built.
Not quite everything - this year Moomin is to be translated into a dozen more languages.
Matts Dumell (©)