The Sublime Alice in Wonderland Illustrations of Tove Jansson, Creator of the Globally-Beloved Moomins (1966)

Some­times describ­ing a clas­sic work of lit­er­a­ture as “time­less” draws atten­tion, when we revis­it it, to how much it is bound up with the con­ven­tions of its time. Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land emerged from a very spe­cif­ic time and place, the bank of the Thames in 1862 where Charles Lutwidge Dodg­son first com­posed the tale for Alice Lid­dell and her sis­ter. The future Lewis Carroll’s future best­seller became one of the most wide­ly adapt­ed and adopt­ed works of lit­er­a­ture in his­to­ry. It nev­er needs to be revived—Alice is always con­tem­po­rary.

Those who have read the book to chil­dren know that Carroll’s non­sense sto­ry, though filled with archa­ic terms and out­dat­ed ideas about edu­ca­tion, requires lit­tle addi­tion­al expla­na­tion: indeed, it can­not be explained except by ref­er­ence to the strange leaps of log­ic, rapid changes in scale and direc­tion, and anthro­po­mor­phism famil­iar to every­one who has had a dream. Dodg­son was a pret­ty weird char­ac­ter, and prim Vic­to­ri­an Alice is not exact­ly an every­girl, but every read­er imag­ines them­selves tum­bling right down the rab­bit hole after her.

As far as illus­tra­tors of Carroll’s time­less clas­sic go, it’s hard to find one who is more uni­ver­sal­ly beloved, and more Alice-like, than Tove Jans­son, inven­tor of the Moomins, the Finnish series of children’s books and TV shows that is, in parts of the world, like a reli­gion. How are her Alice illus­tra­tions not bet­ter known? It’s hard to say. Jansson’s Bohemi­an biog­ra­phy is as endear­ing as her char­ac­ters, and she would make a won­der­ful sub­ject for a children’s sto­ry her­self. As James Williams tells it at Apol­lo Mag­a­zine:

The artist, Tove Jans­son (1914–2001), was a great colourist who lived a rich­ly plur­al life. Born into Finland’s Swedish-speak­ing minor­i­ty to a Swedish moth­er and a Finnish father, both artists, she grew up on both sides of the Baltic. Jans­son trained as a painter and illus­tra­tor in Stock­holm and Paris, and made an ear­ly liv­ing through com­mis­sions and piece­work. She was an acer­bic and wit­ty anti-fas­cist car­toon­ist dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, send­ing up Hitler and Stal­in in cov­ers for the Swedish-lan­guage peri­od­i­cal Garm. Descend­ed on the one hand from a famous preach­er, and on the oth­er from a pio­neer of the Girl Guide move­ment, she was raised on the Bible and on tales of adven­ture (Tarzan, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe). In her thir­ties she built a log cab­in on an island and was a capa­ble sailor. She lived vis­i­bly and coura­geous­ly with her part­ner, the Finnish artist Tuu­lik­ki Pietilä, at a time when les­bian rela­tion­ships did not enjoy pub­lic accep­tance. She con­sid­ered emi­grat­ing at var­i­ous times to Ton­ga and Moroc­co but, despite trav­el­ling wide­ly, remained root­ed in Fin­land where she became (dread acco­lade) a ‘nation­al trea­sure.’ She wrote a pic­ture book for chil­dren about the immi­nent end of the world and spare, ten­der fic­tion for adults about love and fam­i­ly. She nev­er stopped draw­ing and paint­ing. She was Big in Japan.

We’ll find dream log­ic woven into all of Jansson’s work, from her ear­ly Moomin-like crea­ture paint­ings from the 1930s to her illus­tra­tions for The Hob­bit and Alice decades lat­er. Her Alice, in Swedish, was first pub­lished in 1966, then released in an Amer­i­can edi­tion in 1977. Sad­ly, her illus­tra­tions “did not receive such a great recep­tion,” notes “Read­ers already had their own imag­i­na­tions in their minds about these clas­sics.”

Blame Dis­ney, I sup­pose, but there is nev­er a bad time to re-imag­ine Alice’s jour­ney, and the artist has left us with an excel­lent way to do so, “craft­ing a sub­lime fan­ta­sy expe­ri­ence,” Maria Popo­va writes, “that fus­es Carroll’s Won­der­land with Jansson’s Moomin Val­ley.” See more of Jansson’s time­less­ly weird draw­ings at Brain Pick­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The First Film Adap­ta­tion of Alice in Won­der­land (1903)

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Orig­i­nal Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed Man­u­script for Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land (1864)

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, Illus­trat­ed by Sal­vador Dalí in 1969, Final­ly Gets Reis­sued

Ralph Steadman’s Warped Illus­tra­tions of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land on the Story’s 150th Anniver­sary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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