The first butterfly…

moomintroll and the snork maiden by tove jansson

There was a loud buzzing coming from behind the willow screen, echoing in the narrow passage beside the house. I stood still and waited, watching with a smile as the first bumblebee of spring emerged from its winter quarters.

The fog had lifted, revealing a sky of clear blue. I took off my fleece to wash the car, for the first time this year, I was too warm… and it is only February. Everywhere you look there are signs of spring and it lifts the heart.

Looking up, I caught sight of the year’s first butterfly, a good month earlier than the last two years. Once again, it was a deep yellow… almost golden.

I thought back to something I had written a couple of years ago, because, as always, a yellow butterfly takes me straight back to childhood and Moomin Valley, for…

“…as everyone knows, if the first butterfly you see is yellow the summer will be a happy one. If it is white then you will just have a quiet summer. Black and brown butterflies should never be talked about – they are much too sad.” Tove Jannson, ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’.

I could even ‘see’ the old picture of Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden, sailing on clouds and, perhaps because of the underlying chill in the air, thought of the poor old Groke, a creature of darkness and ice whose passage froze the ground beneath her. I remembered another of Jansson’s illustrations; always misunderstood and inspiring fear, the Groke was chased away whenever she appeared, as unwanted as winter.

The Groke by Tove Jansson

Yet for all her unlovely appearance and her unintentional freezing of everything she touched, the Groke herself sought only light and warmth… and an end to the loneliness of her existence. I always felt sad for her. Something nagged at me about that.

It certainly wasn’t her appearance that upset the residents of Moomin Valley; given the rest of Jansson’s illustrations, the Groke should have been right at home. She didn’t bring fear deliberately either… no-one can be held responsible for the mechanics of their physical nature. It is no more the fault of the bird that it flies, than the fish is to blame for swimming.

Was her desperate quest for warmth and light overpowering? Was her lonely sadness too much to bear? It is possible… the pain of another often makes us uncomfortable. But those attributes were not a deliberate act on the part of the Groke, but a reaction to her own circumstances.

Maybe it wasn’t her that was the root of the problem. Perhaps it was simply her presence? Maybe it was the reactions of those who pushed her away that were really at fault? Reactions based only upon assumptions and partial knowledge… and the way her physical being interfered with the lives of the residents of the Valley. It meant that she was ostracised and isolated, thus compounding the problem and increasing her sadness, creating a vicious circle.

With a touch of tragic irony, it may even have been the actions of the enigmatic Snufkin and his magic potion that created the Groke in the first place. Dripping the potion onto an ant, it became a Groke, perhaps the Groke… and an ant, after all, is the most social of creatures and comes to life in the warmth.

The residents of Moomin Valley might have begun to see the Groke in a different light if they had known that…

Snufkin, on the other hand, is always admired for his wisdom and freedom of spirit, especially by the young Moomin. An attractive character, I admired him myself, but there was always a sense of a dangerous edge… like the time he planted Hattifattner seeds in the Park Keeper’s garden…

party hemulen

I don’t suppose for a moment Tove Jansson had such irksome ideas when she created her characters. She wrote weirdly wonderful children’s books that many of us loved and remember with fondness. Jansson wrote and illustrated the first of the Moomin books in 1945 as a reaction to the depression of wartime. She wanted to write something ‘naïve and innocent’ and in that she succeeded. They remain some of my favourite childhood tales and my granddaughters are now collecting her books… even if they haven’t realised it yet.

All the best books have something to teach and children’s books particularly so. It is sometimes only when looked at through the eyes of adulthood that those lessons really become visible… and the spark that illuminates the lesson must come from our own observations and experience. We put the faces and forms of those around us into the stories that we read as a child… and it is then that every storyteller becomes their own illustrator.

 All images by Tove Jansson. The final image is her self portrait.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She writes alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. Find out more at France and Vincent. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at and on Twitter @SCVincent. Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email:
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65 Responses to The first butterfly…

  1. Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
    One of my favourite authors, right up there with Maupassant and Thomas Hardy, as presented by Sue Vincent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for posting this, Sue. I needed a Moomin shot. I wanted to find our Moomin books because I thought the youngest ought to have read Moominland Midwinter by now, but I can’t find the box they’re packed in.
    The first butterfly here we all saw was a big yellow one.


  3. I’d never heard of this children’s author before – very interesting! I shall have to consider her when I buy books for my friends’ children. I especially enjoyed the Groke story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. joylennick says:

    What a beautifully written piece, Sue! Very insightful. I recall the characters as a child. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this piece that, yes, is lovely and so sweetly and adeptly written. Your nostalgia tightens my throat and makes my mind wander fondly to earlier days. Best wishes, David

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Gwen Plano says:

    Beautiful, Sue. You warmed my heart as memories flooded. ♥

    Liked by 1 person

  7. fransiweinstein says:

    Lovely post Sue. Nice to be transported back to childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Patty says:

    Reblogged this on Campbells World.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Mary Smith says:

    For some reason I was deprived of the Moomin books when I was a child. It’s odd because my parents and relatives were generous with gifts of books as I was a voracious reader but somehow no one bought me any Moomin books. I don’t even remember coming across them in the library. I was an adult before I heard about them.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I don’t know if I’ve read any of Jansson’s work. I know I haven’t read about the Moomins. I think I too would have felt sad about the Groke. The books sound delightful. And I’m happy to hear about the glimpses of spring in your neighborhood, Sue. It will be welcome here too.


  11. Lovely post, Sue…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Never read these, though I vaguely recall a TV series (that I didn’t watch either – obviously too busy with Gerry Anderson!). As ever, a good and thoughtful post, Sue

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have not heard of these books before, Sue. They sound very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. memadtwo says:

    Now I have to find where I’ve packed the Moomin books…my younger daughter, especially, loved them. And have you read the Summer Book? Also wonderful. Thanks for the smiles! (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Widdershins says:

    Did the Groke ever get her happy ending?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. willowdot21 says:

    I love these books and shared them with the boys. For some strange reason this brought sad feelings. Thinking of the Groke she reminds me of me inside ..

    Liked by 1 person

  17. macjam47 says:

    Sue, I feel like I’ve missed something. I’ve never heard of Moomins or of Tove Jansson. This is such a lovely post.


  18. macjam47 says:

    Reblogged this on BOOK CHAT and commented:
    Have you ever heard of Moomins? If you have, Sue Vincent’s post will bring back memories of your childhood. If not, well, you should definitely read Sue’s post. It is delightful.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Ste J says:

    I never read the books but watched the sinister TV show (the one before the cartoon). That was awesome!


  20. Sandra says:

    My aunt brought me “Finn Family Moomintroll” after a trip to Cuba in the 1970s. The book was translated into Spanish in Cuba and in my opinion, it is superior than the English translation. Anyway, I was obsessed with this book and read it many times. No other book surpassed this one in my young mind. I still to this day go out on the first days of Spring, to find my first butterfly. This causes me some anxiety because here in Florida, we have a LOT of brown butterflies. Today I saw my first Spring butterfly. It was blue. I hope this is a good sign! Thank you for the memories of this wonderful book.


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