Wednesday, July 25, 2012

(Mostly) Obscure Fairy Tales: East of the Sun, West of the Moon

(Illustration for East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen)
As has been happening of late, I was yet again inspired by my last post for this blog.  Last week I introduced you to the whimsically magical fairy tale illustrations of Kay Nielsen and in so doing stumbled upon a collection of pretty amazing and rather obscure fairy tales.  This week (and for the next few weeks), I would like to introduce you to some of my favorite obscure fairy tales because, while Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are pretty awesome, there are so many wonderfully quirky fairy tales out there that hardly anyone has heard of because Walt Disney only got his hands on a few of them.  

This week's pick is the Norwegian tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, collected by  Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe.  Please let me gush over the title.  It may just be the most perfect fairy tale title EVER.  It is beautiful, whimsical, and suggests a tall tale of adventure and daring while at the same time hinting at the requisite magical component all fairy tales must possess.  The story itself does not disappoint.  

Once upon a time a great white bear  

Hello Polar Bear in a fairy tale!  You are officially off to a good start. 

came knocking on the door of a poor peasant man who had lots of children.  The great white bear told the man that he would make him richer than he was ever poor if the great white bear could have his youngest daughter.  

Tempting offer . . . but I would personally like to know what was to be done with my daughter first, thanks.  I mean, come on people!  It's a talking BEAR! Oh sorry, I forgot.  Talking bears are an accepted normality to characters in this genre.   

The daughter refuses to go at first but her family persuades her to leave so that they might have a happier life.  She goes with the bear and travels on his back until they reach a cave wall.  When the bear knocks on the cave wall it magically opens for him into a great castle filled with silver and gold. 

Jackpot! Maybe this whole kidnapped-by-a-random-talking-bear thing isn't so bad after all.   

He takes her to a beautiful bedroom with a luxurious bed that is purest white and fit for a queen.   

Okay, ignore previous comment.  What is the crazy talking bear actually after?  And why is this poor girl still ok with the situation?? 

That night, when all of the lights were out and it was too dark to see anything, the great white bear changed into a man and lay next to the peasant girl.   

Uh huh.  Sure.  I am thinking I know why Disney didn't go after this one; especially if he was looking for a G rating.  That being said, now I am extremely intrigued by this fairy tale! 

Life carries on like this for a little while.  Each night the great white bear visits the girl's bed as a man, and, though she can never see what he looks like, she is happy.   


One day the girl grows lonely and asks to be allowed to visit her family.  The great white bear agrees but warns her not to spend any time alone with her mother because she will try and ruin everything for the couple.  The girl promises not to. 

The foreshadowing in this tale is anything but subtle.  Why do heroines/leading ladies have to be SO idiotic and disobedient??  Who would ruin such a good thing?  Why did Sleeping Beauty touch the stupid spinning wheel and why did Snow White eat that dang apple?  HELLO ladies, this is not rocket science.  
Obviously, eventually the mother gets her daughter alone and warns her that she might be sleeping with a troll.  So she has her hide a candle stick in her dress and tells her to light it once the great white bear is fast asleep.  

SHOCKER:  She completely disregards what the bear has told her  

Can I just say that this is an extra dumb move as everyone knows that if there is a talking animal involved who changes back and forth into human form, then he is probably a prince so why would you screw that up?? 

and lights the candle while he is sleeping.  Lo and behold, he is the most handsome prince anyone has ever seen.  But the girl is so taken with his beauty that she accidentally spills three drops of wax onto his shirt and he wakes up.  He is furious (obviously) because his evil stepmother (who is actually a troll so maybe the mom had a point because this dude is related to trolls) had turned him into a bear and the only way to be set free from the spell was to sleep with a  woman for an entire year without her ever seeing him in human form. 

Okay, not such a terrible way to be forced to break a spell if you ask me.   

So the prince was banished to a castle that lay east of the sun and west of the moon. 

Fabulous title placement! 

He is going to be forced to marry an ugly troll princess with a horribly long nose (who also happens to be his stepsister.  Why must so many fairy tales contain a creepy familial relationship?  Ew.)
The girl decides she has to right her wrongs and get him back.  Eventually, after traveling very far, she runs across three neighbors who, while they are unsure of the location of the castle except that it lies east of the sun and west of the moon, give her three golden gifts to take with her on her journey.   

Because you never know when you might need a golden apple, a golding carding comb, and a golden spinning wheel, right? 

Eventually, the girl goes to the East Wind, the West Wind, the South Wind and finally the North Wind for help.  The North Wind says that he has been to the castle only once and that it is at the end of the earth and very far away.  He agrees to blow her there despite the distance because he feels that she and the prince should be together, that they are meant to be.  *Norwegian sigh 

Once the girl arrives at the castle, she meets the long-nosed princess who is interested in buying the girls three golden items.   

Well, of course she is!  Fairy tale wink, wink, nudge, nudge.  

The girl agrees to trade her items, not for money, but for three nights alone with the prince.   
My kind of fairy tale princess!  Again, no G rating here.  

Alas, the ugly long-nosed stepsister troll princess gave the prince a sleeping potion so that he would sleep through the visits.  But with the help of some Christians (yes, Christians) who are also imprisoned at the castle, he figures it out by the third night and only pretends to drink the potion.  Instead, he and his true love hatch a brilliant-in-only-a-fairy-tale-reality-kind-of-way plan to get him out of his unwanted betrothal so that he can marry his true love.  How do they do this?  Well, the prince decrees that only the woman who is able to wash the three spots of wax out of his favorite shirt will be suitable enough to be his wife.   

Yes, you read that correctly.  The climax of this story comes down to washing a shirt.  But I might be able to forgive this detail because the rest of it all is really a great story.   

Since trolls are incapable of washing anything (and hence are not fit to be wives), the Prince is able to marry his true love:  that poor, disobedient peasant girl who has a thing for polar bears.  But, by golly, she can wash a shirt!  And they live happily ever after.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that the trolls (both stepmother and stepsister) were so angry at all of this that they exploded.   

I don't know about you, but I find this to be one of the best villain demises in the history of fairy tales.  This is also a warning to us all to never get too angry at a stained shirt.  You never know what might happen.   

Needless to say this fairy tale is all sorts of awesome.  It has a handsome prince, a talking animal, midnight trysts, castles, non-sensical and illogical spells and rules for breaking them, and, finally, exploding trolls.  I am not sure why this is not a widely read classic nor can I find any reason for this not to have already been made into a recent blockbuster starring Kristen Stewart.  All I can say is that it is worth a read of the full version and a good giggle.  


  1. I love this fairy tale!!! I had a big book of stories when I was little and this was always one that I'd go back to. Agreed that is should be more popular!

    I'm so stoked for this series, Ali!!!

    P.S.- how GORGEOUS are those illustrations?

  2. Hahaha oh my goodness, what a tale! Like, like, like!

  3. Love this post! While this version isn't all that well known did you realize this is an imaginative retelling of a very famous myth? Take a look at the greek myth of Cupid and Psyche and you will see what I mean! there are some major changes made, but the premise is the same :)