A "Hermit" in Tove Jansson's Moomin books

Hermits and solitaries in children's literature are often depicted as either wizard-priest didactic elders (Ewing), spirited survivalists (Bewick, Defoe) or simple and endearing eccentrics (Hall). Grumpy edges must be softened and menacing appearance mollified. Children don't want hermit monsters; to this degree children's writers are fair-minded and sympathetic. Tove Jansson was especially so.

In her Moomin books, Finnish-born Tove Jansson (1914-2001) created warm, wholesome, adventurous imaginative animals, chiefly trolls. The first two books -- Comet in Moominland (1946) and Finn Family Moomintroll(1948) -- present the hermit and solitary character called Muskrat.

The gloomy Muskrat (Bisamråttan) is called a "would-be philosopher, likes to be left in peace." He first appears in Comet in Moominland. One night, Moominpappa hears a "plaintive noise" during a downpour. He finally goes to the front door with his flashlight (torch) and illuminates "something wet and miserable, with shiny black eyes." It is the Muskrat, who introduces himself as "a philosopher, you know" and complains that Moominpappa's bridge-building activities had ruined his home on the river bank. Moominpappa apologizes and lets Muskrat in. Muskrat declines a bed. Muskrat explains that as a philosopher, "I sit and think about how unnecessary everything is."

Later Moominmamma hushes little Moomintroll (their child) when she cries out that "There are hardly any unnecessary things," saying to her that "The Muskrat is a wise man who knows about everything, and why it is unnecessary." Muskrat predicts the arrival of a comet, and joins the family in a cave to which they have retreated for the comet's passing. After the comet's passing, they celebrate with a cake, first discovering that Muskrat has absentmindedly sat on it. He is irately obliged to sit in a tub of water to get clean.

In Finn Family Moomintroll, Muskrat is lying in a hammock with his book (titled "The Uselessness of Everything") when the cord breaks and embarrassingly he falls to the ground. Momminpappa is the only witness, but Muskrat is incensed: "I do not like to be put into a ridiculous situation. It isn't dignified for a philosopher!" He retreats to the cave, asking that his food be brought there, declaring, "I intend to retire to a deserted spot and live a life of loneliness and peace, giving up everything. I have made up my mind once and for all." He sits in the cave, thinking.

All was quiet and peaceful and through the crack in the roof the sun shone softly into his hiding place. ...

"Here I shall stay forever and ever," he thought. "How unncecessary it is to run about and chatter, to build a house and cook food and collect possessions!" He looked contentedly around his new home.

In the cave, Muskrat finds a top hat. The hat belongs to one of the book's characters, Hobgoblin, who plays tricks on all the characters by hiding their belongings. It is a magic hat but Muskrat takes it for a wastepaper basket. After thinking a while longer, he decides to nap. He rolls himself in his blanket and puts his false teeth into the hat so as not to get sand on them. Soon afterwards, Muskrat is heard running and screaming back to the house. The reader assumes that something has happened to his teeth (and probably has) but something has happened to his book. In the final pages of the story, Hobgoblin restores the book (as he restores all the characters' hidden belongings). But Muskrat shouts after the flying Hobglobin when the book reaches his hands. "'On the Usefulness of Everything,'" read the Muskrat. "But this is the wrong book. The one I had was about the Uselessness of Everything." Hobgoblin only smiles and flies away.

Unfortunately, Muskrat only appeared in these two books. But Jansson has achieved what better writers for children do. She created an entertaining children's narrative with an extra gift for literate adults. Clearly Muskrat is a satirical version of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the pessimist solitary philosopher whom the Muskrat even looks like, including the wild hair, bristly sideburns, and false teeth.

Philosophical and physiognomic analogies of Muskrat to Nietzsche, Spengler, or Sartre are not so likely. The "uselessness of everything" refers to Schopenhauer's pessimism, and his notion of the uselessness of individual will to counter the universe.