While I’ve been reading fairy tales, myths, folklore, and legends since I was a young child, I first developed a deep love of the cultural significance of different stories when I bought an old collection of fairy tales at a used book store called East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It is a collection of fairy tales simply called “from the northern lands” and portrays a land that was much more exotic than the Grimms’ and Perrault’s fairy tales from my youth. The title story, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” bears a structure that I have since seen repeated in other cultures’ stories, most notably in one of my favorite stories from Classical mythology.
I’d like to share a little bit more personal background on this one first. When I was a child, there was a second-hand bookstore in town that also sold records where my dad would take my sister and me pretty regularly. This is probably part of where I learned a deep love of used bookstores, which is neither here nor there. But looking at used books one day (and dodging the shop’s cats, who were not as friendly as hoped), I stumbled upon a treasure: a collection of “Old Tales from the North” that was first published in 1914. Now, I don’t know if I have an original first edition, although the condition of the book wouldn’t rule that out, but it was like a new world of stories for me. The stories were similar in some ways to the stories I knew, but different enough to be exotic and exciting. And the accompanying illustrations showed a world of lush furs and rich embroidery. I was entranced, and those stories became my favorites, as I would return to them over and over again, especially the title story of the book.
“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” starts like the classic Beauty and the Beast story with a poor but lovely and sweet girl being sent to marry a thoroughly unsuitable suitor, this time in the form of a giant white bear. She finds herself living at a sumptuous palace, with everything she could ever want, but at night, when it’s too dark to see, she realizes that instead of a bear, she’s joined in bed by a young man. She goes on like this for sometime until it becomes apparent that she’s lonely and misses her family. Now, because in this story, she was traded for wealth, and not sent as a prisoner for some transgression, the bear allows her to go and visit her family on one condition: she must not listen to the advice her mother gives her when they speak in private. Well, this being the beginning of a fairy tale, she listens to her mother, who tells her she really should know with whom she sleeps at night and gives her a candle to take back with her. Fortunately, she lights the candle and realizes she’s been sleeping with a handsome prince! Unfortunately, she drips hot wax on him, waking him. He informs her that he was cursed and if she had gone a year without trying to look at him at night, he would have been freed, but because of her curiosity, he was going away forever to be wed to a woman with a nose three ells long (incidentally, an ell is an outdated unit of measurement most commonly accepted to be equivalent to a cubit, which is the length of a man’s forearms, or about 18″ long, so he’s about to go marry someone with a more-than-meter-long nose).
From here, the young woman decides that she’s going to brave the journey to find her prince and rescue him from the princess. The only thing she knows is that it’s east of the sun and west of the moon and that she’s never find it. On her journey, she meets three hags who give her three golden gifts as well as horses who seem to know where she needs to go. She comes to the houses of the winds, first the West Wind, who takes her to his brother the South Wind, who takes her to their brother the North Wind. The North Wind finally says that, yes, he knows where this place is and agrees to try to take her there. Upon arriving, she sets herself up at the window of the long-nosed princess and gets herself noticed while playing with a gold apple that she got from one of the hags. Long-nose asks to buy the apple and the young woman says it’s not for sale for gold or money but that she’ll trade it for one night alone with the prince. Long-nose agrees and the young woman finds that, when she goes to the prince, he’s asleep and she can’t wake him not matter how hard she calls to him. This goes on again, with a gold carding comb, and again the prince is asleep and unable to be woken. After the second night, some “Christian folk,” as the story calls non-trolls, tell the prince that a young woman has been crying and calling out in his bedroom the last two nights, so when Long-nose comes to give him a sleeping potion, he doesn’t drink it. The young woman trades her final gold gift, a spinning wheel, for one more night with the prince, where she finds him awake. He says she’s come in the nick of time, for their wedding is tomorrow.
In order to forestall the wedding, the prince tells Long-nose that he won’t marry her unless he can wear his favorite shirt, which happens to be spotted with candle wax. He asks her to wash it for him because, of course, as a proper wife, she must know how to do as simple a thing as wash a shirt. But of course, because these are trolls, they can’t do it and it just gets dirtier the more they wash it. The prince then says he bets this young woman could do a better job. The young woman simply has to dip the shirt in the water and it’s all clean (because she’s a good Christian girl and not a troll). They then get married, live happily ever after, and free all the good Christian folk who had been trapped by the trolls.
This is a really interesting story in that it starts like Beauty and the Beast, but actually becomes much more complex. It has a journey and trials for the hero, who in this case is a young woman. She comes to find the object of her quest (a man) not by being virtuous and meek, but by going out and looking for it. But after all that, her final trial is the wash a shirt. So it’s not entirely feminist. It’s also interesting to see such strong themes of Christian=good, non-Christian=troll in this story because it comes from Norway, where Christian missionaries did a lot of work to turn the local population against the old Norse pagan gods. Perhaps stories like this served to Christianize the idea of folklore.
Interestingly enough, the oldest story I know with this structure comes from Classical mythology. The original written version is from a Roman writer, so most of the characters are called by Roman names, but the original story obviously came from the Greeks. It’s the story of Cupid and Psyche, and it’s one of my favorite stories from Classical mythology. Like the young woman, Psyche is sent to marry a beast, although in the myth, she’s not so much betrothed as sacrificed to what her family thinks is a dragon-like creature (incidentally, she’s brought to the palace of her betrothed by the West Wind, which I found an interesting parallel). She realizes that she’s not sleeping next to a dragon at night and gets an oil lamp from her mother to see who it is. She realizes that her husband is actually Cupid, but in revealing him, dooms them to be parted by his mother, Venus, who disapproves of the union. She travels to Venus, who gives her three trials to complete, the last of which leads to her falling into a death-like sleep. Eventually the other gods decide they’ve had enough of Venus’ stubbornness and Jupiter brings her back to life and gives her the food of the gods so she can live as an immortal with Cupid.
Again a young woman is sold into a terrifying marriage, and again she finds out it’s not so bad by doing a bit of snooping, only to be disproportionately punished by losing her husband. This probably hearkens back to the fear women had when entering into a marriage. In fact, the original story of Beauty and the Beast was meant to be a commentary on how dangerously uncertain marriage could be for a young woman. But, through her own ingenuity and perseverance, each heroine is able to regain her husband, and on better terms than before. In the first story, the heroine is able to live with her husband as a man without being with him as a bear for part of the day, and Psyche is able to live openly with Cupid because her trials convinced the gods to stand up to the one who wanted to keep them apart. So perhaps they’re not such old-fashioned stories after all. Yes, each woman has the ultimate goal of an attractive and prestigious husband, but each also has the knowledge that they were the ones who rescued their husbands from those who wanted to keep them apart.
I always liked these stories because the heroines were neither too completely perfect, nor too demure. Yes, they’re both supposed to be beautiful beyond compare, but it actually does them more harm than good. And they have real journeys and tasks to complete. While Psyche’s first task is pretty mundane, the second is to get a golden fleece and the third is to go into the Underworld itself, something that are trials repeated by various Greek heros. And, unlike at least one man from mythology, she succeeds in regaining her love after going down into the Underworld.
“East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” from East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North by Peter Christen Asbjornsen, translated by George Webbe Dasent [link]
“The Marriage of Cupid and Psyches” from The Golden Asse by Lucius Apuleius, translated by William Adlington [link]