East of the Sun, West of the Moon (According to Cassie)
basically, there’s a poor family with lots of kids. They used to be able
to get by all right, but now their farm is failing, and they’re having
trouble doing things like keeping everyone adequately fed. You know,
minor stuff. Things keep getting more and more dire until one wintery
night, a talking polar bear shows up at their doorstep and tells them
that if they will give him their youngest daughter, he will make all
their problems go away.
In some versions, the father says,
“No way, you can’t take my daughter, are you crazy?” and in others, he
says, “Sure, sounds good to me,” but regardless of whether or not the
father gets labeled one of those crazy heartless fairy tale men, the
girl in question steps forward and accepts the terms since, really, one
would hope it’s up to her in the end, anyway.
As she rides
away on the back of the white bear, they speak only once. He asks, “Are
you afraid?” and she says, “No.” Proving that she’s either incredibly
courageous or incredibly naive. Or just putting on a good display of
Anyway, the white bear (and no. None of these
characters have names. I don’t think we get one name in the whole tale)
takes her back to his palace, which is hidden and secluded and magical.
And for a kidnaped fairy tale heroine, things could be worse. Her time
is her own. No demands are made of her. All her wishes and desires are
provided for. And the white bear isn’t ruthless or cruel or vicious. In
fact, as time goes on, they become friends.
The only strange
thing about the palace at all (apart from the magic) is that every
night, the lights are extinguished, and someone climbs into the bed with
her. She can’t see who, can’t light a light, can’t speak. But whoever
it is means no harm. Just climbs in and sleeps, and eventually, she
becomes accustomed to it.
But as time goes on, the girl gets
lonesome and homesick, to the point of making herself ill. And so the
white bear allows her to visit her family, on three conditions. One, she
has to come back in a month. Two, she can’t talk about her life at the
castle. And three, under no circumstances is she to allow her mother the
chance to talk with her alone.
So, needless to say, her
mother eventually gets her alone and gets the story of the nights with
the mysterious stranger out of her. The girl does return on time,
though, unlike Beauty and the Beast, but with an addition from her
mother – a magic candle that will light under any circumstance. Also, a
worry planted in her mind that she’s sleeping beside some horrible
monster every night.
Unfortunately, her mother’s words get
the better of her, and she starts to have nightmares about her sleeping
companion. Eventually, she can’t stand it anymore, and she lights the
magic candle and looks to see who it is that sleeps beside her. And lo
and behold, it’s a handsome young man, and not a monster at all! She’s
so captivated that she doesn’t notice her candle dripping, and three
drops of wax fall on the man’s nightshirt and awaken him (ow).
he realizes what she’s done, he is distressed and distraught because
(of course) he is the white bear, placed under a curse when he refused
to marry the Troll Queen’s daughter. White bear by day, man by night,
unless a human girl could sleep beside him for year and never see his
Oops. Icing on the cake? There was about a week
(or month, depending on the version) left before the conditions would
have been fulfilled.
And she’s in for it now because the
Troll Queen is coming to take him away to the land that lies east of the
sun and west of the moon, to marry the Troll Princess. And sure enough,
he’s whisked away.
Horrified at what she’s done, the girl
immediately sets out to find him and free him (because this is no
weak-ass Disney damsel in distress, ladies and gents). She doesn’t know
the way, but that doesn’t stop her.
She journeys along and
eventually comes upon an old woman picking golden apples. The woman asks
for her help, which the girl provides, and in exchange, she is given a
golden apple and advice to seek out the woman’s sister, who might be
able to help her find the land she is looking for. This happens twice
more, with two more old women and golden carding combs and a golden
spindle. The last old woman takes her to the East Wind.
the East wind can’t take her where she needs to go. Fortunately, the
East Wind has a brother stronger and faster, so the girl is taken to the
West Wind. And yes, this repeats as well, through the West Wind and
South Wind until we get to the North Wind, who has been to the land she
seeks, but long ago. If she is not afraid, however, he will journey
there again for her.
So, riding the back of the North Wind,
our girl finally makes it to the land that lies east of the sun and west
of the moon – a land at the top of the world where the Trolls live.
wouldn’t you know it, she’s arrived just in time. The prince is to be
married in three days. She takes her golden apple and goes to try and
strike a deal with the troll princess. Which she does – her apple for a
night in the prince’s room. But, predictably, when she gets there, she
cannot awaken him. So the next day, she trades her golden combs. But
again, she cannot wake him. Luckily, though, two human servants have
watched her and heard her tell her tale to the sleeping prince, and so
they sneak in to his rooms the next day and warn him not to drink what
he is offered by the trolls.
And so, when the girl trades the
spindle for one last night, the prince is awake when she goes to find
him. They confess their love for one another and hatch A Plan.
next day is the grand wedding. But! Before the prince and the troll
princess can be wed, he asks a favor of her. He says that in the land he
comes from, a bride offers a gift to her husband. The princess agrees,
and so the prince asks that she wash clean a shirt for him – the shirt
he was wearing the night the girl spilled candle wax on him. He says
that he will marry only the girl who can wash the shirt clean (so we all
know where this is going, right?)
Predictably, the princess
fails. In fact, she makes the stain worse. So the Queen tries next, but
the stain only grows bigger and darker. By the time she’s had her
servants at it, the whole shirt is black. Shaking his head in
disappointment, the prince says, “I’ll bet even this beggar girl can
wash that shirt clean,” and brings the girl up. Of course, under her
ministrations, the shirt is cleansed white as snow, and the trolls are
so infuriated, they tear themselves apart, leaving the prince and the
girl to return home and live happily ever after.
Thoughts on the original tale:
love this story. There’s a reason it’s my favorite fairy tale, and that
reason is almost entirely the main character. This girl is fearless,
adventurous, and curious, but she’s also headstrong, lacks forethought,
and is perhaps too curious for her own good. She is, in other words,
flawed in a very real way, and that makes her a much more human
character than many of her “paragon of virtue” counterparts in other
fairy tales. But what truly sets her apart from many of those other
fairy tale characters is that when she makes a mistake, she doesn’t
hesitate before going out to fix it. This story reminds us that our
actions have consequences, and that the world doesn’t come with a magic
wand to wave all our problems away. When we make mistakes, it’s our
responsibility to set them right. A far cry from the “sit back and cry
about your problems until someone comes to fix them” message of a lot of
I also love the motivation behind the girl’s journey.
It isn’t about rescuing her one true love. She doesn’t set off after
the man who was once a white bear because she loves him and has to find a
way to be with him. She sets off after him because he was hurt as a
result of her actions, and she has to set that to rights. The love story
is secondary in this tale, and I truly appreciate that.
So, what am I looking for in an adaptation?
The kick-ass heroine is the big one. I don’t want her to be simplified
or dumbed down. I want that rich mix of flaw and virtue.
Dimension given to all the major players. If there’s one thing the
original story lacks, it’s this. Even the white bear isn’t terribly well
defined, and everyone else is pretty two-dimensional.
with the last point, eliminating some of the repetition. This is a long
story, and part of what makes the middle drag a little bit is that all
three old women are exactly the same, and all the girl’s encounters with
them are exactly the same. Same goes for the winds, so that by the time
I get to the last of them, I’m saying, “Okay, let’s get on with it!”
The Line Up for the month:
Week 1: East by Edith Pattou
Week 2: Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
Week 3: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George
Week 4: Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis McKiernan
Feel free to read along, and I'll see you on Friday!