of the Moomin
books of Tove Jansson
, published in 1946 as Kometjakten
(the Comet-hunt) in Swedish, and translated into English (by Elizabeth Portch) in 1951. The Finnish title (1950) is Muumpeikko ja pyrstötähti
It introduces the Moomin family - Moomintroll and his Moominmamma and Moominpappa - who, surprisingly perhaps for the feel of later books, have not lived in Moominvalley since time immemorial, but have only just arrived and settled there, as the result of a flood. With them lives the small animal Sniff.
Young Moomintroll and Sniff in exploring their new valley and forest notice signs of a star with a tail. The Muskrat, a morose philosopher living nearby, tells them it is a comet and the people who know what it threatens or portends are the professors in the Observatory, high up in the Lonely Mountains far to the east.
They begin travelling there by raft, on the way seeing the mysterious Hattifatteners, who have sensed the danger, and meeting a Snufkin, a wanderer who enjoys solitude and music. Together they have adventures, learn from the professors the exact date and time the comet will hit the Earth, and begin their arduous return journey.
As the comet approaches it becomes balefully hot, and dries up water everywhere. They rescue the Snork Maiden, and she and her brother the Snork join them on the way back to refuge in Moominvalley, crossing the dried up sea on stilts.
Another character first introduced in this book is the Hemulen: two of them in fact, one a butterfly collector in the mountains of the east, and one a stamp collector near home.
Beginning to re-read Tove Jansson chronologically, I found this first book a bit disappointing. She had not yet worked out what these creatures were or how they wove their special magic. Comet in Moominland is a beast-fable, not a fairy story, anchored slightly more in the outside world (trains, police, money, cigarettes, and Mexico are mentioned). The creatures flit about from one adventure to the next without the sense of a seamlessly woven whole that we expect from her. The small animal Sniff comes over as a mentally defective Piglet, and the hemulens are too stereotyped even for hemulens. Naturally enough: she didn't know what they were until she had experimented with them and let them live a little.
This is not to say that the depths of magic of the later books are entirely absent. I was awed by one of the pictures, all in the dark shadings she uses for night and moonlight, of the drained valleys of the sea, the hulk of a drowned ship, scattered treasures suffering a sea change; and in the distance five tiny figures stalking across the seabed on stilts, lit up by the ghastly fire of the comet.
1. Actually second. The first, The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, is not available in the familiar English series in Puffin.