East of the Sun and West of the Moon

Hurra for Syttende Mai! Today I'm going to talk about my favourite Norwegian fairytale, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon."

I meant to talk about this back when Beauty and the Beast came out, as one of several more interesting alternative takes on the same basic story, but just never found the time. I might still talk about a few more another time, but today it's all this one.

The story begins with a white bear encountering the heroine's father, offering endless riches to the poor man in exchange for his youngest daughter. The man likes the idea, but won't send his daughter away without her consent, so he tells her and she steadfastly refuses. The father tells the bear to come back in a week, and after a week of bribing his daughter with the promises of riches for her and their family, she consents.

At the bear's castle, she is given a bell to ring if she needs anything. After eating, she rings the bell and finds a bedroom in which everything is gold and silver, and her bed is beautiful and comfortable. As she turns out the light and goes to sleep, someone climbs into the bed with her and lays there wordlessly all night, but disappears before the sun rises.

This continues to happen every night, and the girl grows lonely and homesick. The bear agrees to let her visit her family, but makes her promise not to speak to her mother alone. Unfortunately, she does so, and her mother tells her to take a candle and light it to see who her night visitor is.

That night, when the visitor joins her, she lights the candle and sees a handsome prince. She leans over to kiss him and spills tallow on his shirt, waking him. In great distress, he tells her he is cursed to be a bear in the daylight and return to his true form at night, and had she not discovered the truth, he could have been freed in a year. Now he has to go marry a troll princess. Bummer.

He does tell her the way to get to the castle, however, so she goes after him. On her way, she encounters three old women who give her a golden apple, a golden comb, and a golden spinning wheel. They tell her the castle is impossible to find, but each sends her a little further on. The third woman sends her to the east wind, who then takes her to the west wind, who then takes her to the south wind, who takes her to the north wind, who finally drops her off at the castle.

The troll princess sees the girl with the golden apple and asks how much to buy it. The girl refuses to part with it for money, but offers to exchange it for a night with the prince. That night, the girl tries to wake the prince, but he is fast asleep. The same thing happens the next night with the comb, and though the prince does not wake, the prisoners in the dungeon below hear the girl's crying and tell the prince of it the next day. The spinning wheel is exchanged for one more night with the prince, and the prince this time merely pretends to drink the drink the troll princess brings him, suspecting it to be a sleeping potion.

The prince is awake this time when the girl joins him, and they devise a plan. The prince will refuse to marry anyone who cannot get the tallow stains out of his shirt - only Christians can get tallow out of a shirt, apparently, so the troll princess won't be able to. Sure enough, when he demands the troll princess clean his shirt, she only makes it dirtier. He calls the girl in to clean his shirt, and she is successful. The trolls explode, the prisoners are freed, and the prince and the girl live happily ever after.

The animated Disney Belle owes a bit to the heroine of "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." She is head-strong and adventurous, taking things in her own time. Though she is persuaded to go with the bear, she initially refuses and remains steadfast in her decision for a week, only relenting with the knowledge that her family will be taken care of - not unlike Belle's sacrifice for Maurice's well-being. Belle's forbidden entrance to the West Wing also shares some parallels with the heroine's forbidden discussion with her mother. Belle's bravery is echoed in this heroine; she is asked, first by the bear when he picks her up from her father's house, later by the north wind, if she is scared, and she always responds, "No." She never displays fear or hesitation - curiosity and bravery, yes, but never fear.

This version of the story was collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. Like the Grimms, they traveled around Norway collecting folk tales, and compiled them into a book, Norske Folkeeventyr, first published in 1845 (two years after the sixth edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, for context).

Christianity in Norwegian folklore as we have it is an interesting case. As with all folklore and fairytales, these stories came out of thousands of years of oral tradition, but the first writing we have of them is from Asbjørnsen and Moe. While the actual fairytales such as this one weren't written down before, we do have the Old Norse mythology that also heavily features trolls. Before Christianity came to Norway around 1000 AD, Norway's trolls were the jötunn, giant beings banished to Jötunheimr by the Æsir. Though not always, they were often in opposition to the Æsir - the Norse gods as we think of them (Odin, Thor, Frigg, that whole lot).

As time went on, the term "troll" became more generally applied to folkloric antagonists. Some were truly evil, some were merely dim-witted,  but all fell under the same umbrella. As with most Christian missionary missions, folklore and native religion was a major tool in conversion. Taking antagonists people were already familiar with - antagonists that came out of the old Norse religion - and setting them up as evil pagans in contrast to the good Christian heroes and heroines of the stories played a big role in conversion, and was evidently so successful that hundreds of years later it was still being told in the fairytales that survived to be written down.

"Beauty and the Beast" is one of my favourite fairytales in every form it takes, and this one is one of my favourites. There has actually been a live action film adaptation that I haven't seen, The Polar Bear King released in 1991. It does not...appear to have the highest production values. Which is why I'd have loved for Disney to do something new and different with their live action rehashes, but, as ever, Disney does not listen to me. It's also worth noting Don Bluth's studio began work on an animated adaptation in the early 80s, but never completed it. These things often have a way of coming around again...or maybe I'm just eternally optimistic.


  1. Nifty. I had heard the title of this tale before, but never had the chance to read it. It's nice to see a version of this faery tale that parallels the myth of Eros & Psyche even more closely than Beauty and the Beast.

    I didn't know that the trolls were originally synonymous with the Jotunns. I did know that sometimes the term refers to a specific type of beastie, and sometimes is as much of a faery catch-all as "elf" is in English. So, new knowledge for me. Yay!

    1. The full text of the story, if you want to read that, is available here: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/norway034.html It's interesting, I think, that even a hundred or so years after the French popularised Beauty and the Beast, that the Norwegian version stayed closer to Cupid and Psyche!


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