Imagine this: you are alone, and it’s night. There are no lights to be seen in the distance anywhere, because you’re nowhere near a town or a city or even a friendly homestead of sorts. No, you are somewhere wild – a forest, perhaps somewhere in the hills or crossing some moorland. It’s very dark, but there are a few stars out and you’ve remembered to bring a torch. You’re not too worried, because it’s a mild night and you can hear the sounds of wildlife scurrying around. Perhaps there’s an owl hooting, or some little creature rustling in the undergrowth or the sharp bark of a fox.
So you continue on your way. And after a little while, you suddenly realize that you haven’t heard anything for a while. It’s gone very quiet, all the animals and birds have fallen silent. The wind has picked up and whistles eerily. It’s gone cool suddenly, and you shiver. You quicken your pace.
Then… then, you hear it. A rattling breath, almost like a growl from somewhere behind you. And it’s turned cold, freezing, and the cold settles on you and wraps tentacles around you like a living thing. There’s ice forming underfoot and fear scrabbling at your throat like fingers. There’s something behind you.
You turn around.
There she is. Colder than winter, colder than death.
You’ve just encountered the Groke. And if you’ve got any sense at all, you’re going to get the hell of there and never, never return.
The Groke is the creation of Tove Jansson. Jansson was a Swedish-speaking Finn, who was a novelist, painter and illustrator. Her best-known creations are the Moomins, a merry little bunch of creatures who live in Moomin Valley and occasionally have adventures. Aimed primarily at children, like all good children’s literature the books had a dark, serious side and the most obvious example of this is Jansson’s creation of The Groke.
In the original Swedish she was known as Mårran; in Finnish as Mörkö. One of the downsides of the English translation is that it is not obvious the Groke is female. Mårran has an –an suffix, which often (but not always) indicates feminine gender in Swedish. Nonetheless, the Groke is a she, and it is still quite a cool name. It’s almost onomatopoeic, suggesting words such groan, growl, grunt and croak.
The Groke is an intimidating creature even before you learn what she can do. She is described as having large round staring eyes, a row of gleaming teeth and a large nose, and her body is hill-shaped, like a mound. She rarely speaks and has a habit of turning up uninvited and spoiling the party. She has no permanent home and wanders from place to place at will. The Groke seems to be a classic misanthrope, having no liking for anyone or anything.
So far, she’s unpleasant, but not truly scary. But the true horror of the Groke is that she is the personification of winter darkness, depression, and despair. She is so cold, so frozen, that she brings winter with her wherever she goes. If she sits or stands on a particular piece of ground for more than an hour, nothing will ever grow there again – yes, the Groke can be fatal. If she touches a light or a fire, it will instantly be extinguished. Unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of Moomin Valley hold her in absolute dread, and on one occasion chase her off with a shotgun.
The Groke makes her first appearance in Jansson’s book Finn Family Moomintroll, originally published in 1948, translated into English in 1950. She’s portrayed as a frightening villain in that book and most of the subsequent ones; she’s even accused of eating people in The Exploits of Moominpappa, though she’s never actually shown hurting anyone and it’s quite possible this is a scandalous rumour designed to make people even more afraid of her. But her coldness and sinister aspect means she is unwelcome wherever she goes. In fact, in an animated adaptation of a Moomin story, The Trial of the Groke, a legal ruling in favour of the Groke is protested on the grounds that ‘no-one likes the Groke!’
Yet, from her very earliest appearances, Jansson offers her readers a different way of viewing the Groke. Despite the terror she inspires, some characters express sympathy for her. The Groke, you see, is the loneliest creature in the world. No-one likes her, or will even linger near her. Even those who feel sorry for her are anxious not to encounter her.
But, as the character of Moominmamma acknowledges in one story, the Groke has never actually done anyone any harm. In fact, as one critic radically suggests, the Groke has the right not to like anyone else, so long as she doesn’t hurt them: ‘and in no way should we be afraid or intolerant of her even if she dislikes us. After all, it is the deeds that count, not what we think we know’ (AbdelRahim, 2015: 123). Rather intense philosophy for a children’s book… but that is Jansson’s genius at work. An unconventional woman in life, her Moomin books also contain the advice ‘you can’t ever be really free if you admire somebody too much.’ Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from the Groke here.
Despite the horror of the Groke, the series ends with the suggestion that she can find redemption. In Moominpappa at Sea, Moomintroll, the closest thing the books have to a central character, attempts to make friends with the Groke. Every night, he seeks her out, taking a hurricane lantern with him for light and spends a little time with her. His company becomes important to the Groke, and finally she expresses pleasure at seeing him by dancing, after which her presence becomes – not welcome, exactly, but people learn to live with her and she with them. She, unlike a lot of fictional monsters, is permitted to survive and potentially thrive.
The Groke is a very unusual monster altogether, come to that, and hence her place on this blog. That, and I am consumed with envy and admiration of Jansson for creating her. To conclude, the literary world is a better place for the Groke’s presence, and she deserves to be far better known than she currently is.
Till next time, everyone.
Don’t go out alone.
Layla AbdelRahim, Children’s Literature, Domestication and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2015.