Tuesday, May 1, 2012

East of the Sun, West of the Moon (According to Cassie)

East of the Sun, West of the Moon (According to Cassie)

So 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 bravado.

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).
When 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 mortal face.
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.
But 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.
And 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.
The 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:

I 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 tales.
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.

    Along 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!

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