Fairy Tale Facts: East of the Sun and West of the Moon

I was shocked to realize that I haven’t yet covered this story in my Fairy Tale Facts series. After all, it’s one of my favorite stories and partly the inspiration for the novel I’m writing! So let’s get to it!

East of the Sun and West of the Moon is a Norwegian fairy tale, first collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe and later included in Andrew Lang’s 1890 The Blue Fairy Book. It has similar themes and plot points to Beauty and the Beast and the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.

The Story

A White Bear approaches a peasant man, asking for his prettiest (and youngest) daughter. In return, he will make the man rich beyond imagining. The girl is understandably not enthused about this offer, and the White Bear oh-so-graciously tells them to take a week to decide. In that week, the girl is persuaded by her family to take the White Bear’s offer and, when he returns, she agrees to go with him. While it’s not always explicitly said, the implication seems to be that he wanted her to marry him.

The White Bear brings the girl (who, strangely enough, is never named in the whole story) to an enchanted castle where she received anything she could think to ask for. Each night when she goes to bed, all the candles are magically extinguished and a man arrives to sleep in the room with her, disappearing before dawn. The translation I read (which can be found here) doesn’t make it clear how much the girl knows, but readers are told that it’s the White Bear, shapeshifted into human form.

After some time, the girl grows lonely and homesick. The White Bear agrees to take her to visit her family under one condition: she must never speak to her mother alone, for that would bring ruin on their situation. The girl eagerly agrees and is returned to her family, who are more than happy to see her. Eventually, the girl’s mother pulls her aside for a private conversation. She coaxes out the details of the girl’s situation and grows worried that the man might be a troll. She gives her daughter a tallow candle to light after the man joins her, to see who or what he really is.

The girl returns with the White Bear to the castle and, just as her mother instructed, lights the candle to look on her companion. She finds a handsome man (the story immediately tells us he’s a prince, though I don’t know how that’s obvious when he’s probably in only his pajamas) and leans in to kiss him. As she does, the candle drips onto his shirt, staining it and waking him. He is upset by her actions, telling her that he was cursed by his wicked stepmother and must now return to her and marry a woman of her choosing: a princess with a very long nose. The prince is taken away, but not before telling the girl where he’ll be: a palace east of the sun and west of the moon.

In the wake of the prince’s departure, the girl is determined to get him back, and so she sets out on a journey to find the impossible place he’s been taken to. Along the way, the girl wins over and gets help from three strangers, who each give her a treasure, and the four winds. She finally arrives at the castle.

The girl trades a treasure to spend the night with the prince, only to find he’s been drugged into a deep sleep. The next night, she trades her second treasure and again tries in vain to wake him all night long. Her efforts are overheard and the prince, now suspicious, only pretends to drink the drugged drink that night. The prince is delighted to be reunited with the girl and proposes an idea to save them both: the next day is set to be his wedding to the long-nosed princess, and he will ask her to prove her worth as a wife by washing the tallow-stained nightshirt.

The plan goes as expected, and both the long-nosed princess and the stepmother fail to properly wash the shirt. The girl offers to give it a go and is able to clean the shirt. The stepmother and princess quite literally erupt in their rage, and the prince and girl are free to leave the castle, carrying all the treasure and riches they can.

Fun Fact #1

The washing-the-tallow bit has always been interesting to me. In some cases, it’s simply a magic-type solution, reflecting the goodness of the girl’s heart. But it could also be read as a product of hard work: as the daughter of a poor peasant, the girl would have been experienced in washing a variety of stains out of clothes, unlike the stepmother and princess, who had probably never washed a garment in their lives.

Fun Fact #2

In some versions I’ve seen, either the stepmother, the princess, or both are trolls.

Fun Fact #3

Not so much a fun fact, but more just commentary. This has been a favorite story of mine for years because it’s rare that we see a girl going on a journey to save a prince in distress.

If You Like This Story . . .

I first discovered this story when I was in middle school and came across Edith Pattou’s retelling of it, East. I can’t tell you how many times I reread that book, and I absolutely recommend it. I’m also about halfway through another retelling, Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer, which I plan to review next week. So stay tuned!

What more obscure fairy tales do you love?

Until next time, word nerds!

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