Friday, 27 February 2015

East of the Sun and West of the Moon, or Fifty Shades of White

Today is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, so despite technically being in the wrong nation I am in the mood to be telling a fairy tale.


Once there was a poor man, who lived with his wife and three daughters in a state of perpetual penury. The eldest daughter was hard-working, the second daughter was clever and the youngest was the looker, which should in no way be taken to imply that any of them were defined by a single character trait. That would be pretty shallow.
Husband material?

One day, a great White Bear appeared at the man's front door and told him that he would make him rich, if the man would give him his youngest daughter, which is the kind of entitlement that one doesn't usually expect from the larger carnivores, but they do say that money changes you.

The daughter was naturally reluctant to be sold off like a side of meat to a wealthy apex predator, but her parents sat her down and reminded her that her eldest sister needed treatment for her crook knees and they were hoping to get the middle daughter into University, and that there were much worse fates for a girl like her than being a WAG, and the White Bear seemed to have much better manners than a Premier League footballer at least.

Eventually, the daughter was persuaded, and before Philip Larkin could say 'I told you!' she had climbed onto the White Bear's back and was whisked away into the night, because in case we'd forgotten, fairy tales are creepy, yo.

The White Bear took the girl to a fabulous castle in the mountains, where she was waited on by dancing tableware and given all that she could possibly desire (aside from her freedom, of course, because what would she do with that?) At this point in the cultural milieu we should probably just be glad that the Bear didn't show her the playroom and ask her to sign a D&S agreement. He does come to her bed every night, in the dark, and when he does so he turns into a man, although she can't see what he looks like.


So, assuming a degree of consensuality for the sake of my own sanity - maybe before they start sleeping together there are some touching getting to know you scenes; maybe they dance while a teapot sings to them - this goes on for some time, with the Bride - which is a crappy name, but slightly snappier at least than 'youngest daughter' - never once asking to see her husband, or even ask in any way what gives with this whole deal. You know what, I may have to retract that disclaimer; I'm not sure this girl does have much going for her besides looks.

Eventually, however, she got a little homesick, and asked if she could visit her family. The bear agreed, but on the condition that she never talked to her mother alone. She agreed to this readily enough, which is understandable since her parents did pimp her out across the taxonomic orders, and the White Bear dropped her off at the gate, apparently having no interest in taking tea with the in-laws.

The family were delighted to see the Bride, and told her how well they were all doing with the money they got for her. After several attempts, the mother managed to get the Bride on her own - promise notwithstanding, although I'm not going to be too critical of the Bride for not keeping a promise to the bear who bought her like a chattel without so much as a by-your-leave - and persuaded her to tell her whole story.

The whole story. Including how the bear comes to bed every night and turns into a man. Who talks to their mother about this sort of thing? Is it really that different for girls?

Well, the mother listened to the whole story and said to her daughter: "My poor child; I fear that your husband is a troll." Because it's okay to sell your youngest daughter to a bear, but heaven forefend that that bear turn out to be a troll.

Okay, so this isn't just fairy tale racism; trolls are bad. They get inside people's heads, control their thoughts and actions and eventually eat away at everything that makes them human. They're like the Goblin King from Labyrinth and by their big eighties hair and makeup shall ye know them, so the mother gave the Bride a candle and told her to light it when her husband was asleep and make sure that she wasn't sharing her bed with a troll. Just a bear. Which is way safer.

The White Bear swung by in the evening to pick up the Bride and he asked her if she spoke with her mother on her own. The Bride swore that she didn't and the Bear whisked them back to his castle.

Joshua Reynolds' Cupid and Psyche, with a creepily young-
looking Cupid and the apparently obligatory Psyche side-
boob. The Bride could have learned from this story, and not
just an important lesson about covering up around Rococo
That night, when the White Bear was asleep, the Bride lit the candle and held it up, and saw that her husband was in fact the most handsome man she had ever seen, dark and beautiful, without a trace of big hair or glittery guyliner. Unfortunately, having never heard the story of Eros and Psyche, she leaned forward and dropped three drops of tallow onto his chest, which woke him with a start.

Angrily he explained that he was the prince of the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. He was enchanted by his wicked stepmother into the shape of a bear, and could only be free if he found a woman who could be constant for a year without giving in to curiosity, which is a bit like the whole Pandora's Box bit, but even more unfair since she didn't have any kind of warning to ignore. Now, however, the second part of the curse would fall and he would be forced go back to his own land and marry his stepsister, which would be creepy enough if she wasn't also a monstrous trollop (by which we mean here a female troll, rather than her just being a bit of a slapper,) which she was.

In the morning, the prince and the castle were gone and the Bride set out to search for them, Stockholm Syndrome having set in irrevocably by now.

After walking for a whole day, she came to the slope of a mountain. At the foot of the mountain was a cave and in front of the cave there sat an old woman, passing a golden apple from hand to hand.

"Good mother," said the Bride, "please help me. I have lost my husband and must find him before he is wed to another. Do you know the way to the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon?"

Beware of Greeks bearing apples. Fortunately, this old
woman is Norwegian. Norse golden apples are the good shit.
Just ask Idun.
"I do not," the old woman replied, "but my neighbour might. She lives many leagues hence, but I will lend you a horse, and for fortune take this golden apple, which might serve you in your hour of need."

The Bride thanked the old woman and rode off, the horse running hard and sure to another mountain, and another cave, where an even older woman sat carding wool with a golden comb.

"Good grandmother," said the Bride, "please help me. My husband is enchanted and I must find him. Do you know the way to the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon?"

"I do not," the old woman replied, "but my neighbour might. She lives many leagues hence, but I will lend you a horse, and for fortune take this golden comb, which might serve you in your hour of need."

The Bride thanked the old woman and rode off, the horse running hard and sure to a third and even taller mountain, and another even darker cave, where an even older woman sat spinning with a golden wheel.

"Good great-grandmother," said the Bride, "please help me. My husband has been taken from me by a trollop and I must find him. Do you know the way to the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon?"

"I do not," the old woman replied, "but the East Wind might know, if ever he has blown there. He lives many leagues hence, but I will lend you a horse, and for fortune take this golden wheel, which might serve you in your hour of need."

So, loaded down with golden treasures, the Bride rode off to visit the East Wind, because by now she just wasn't questioning anything anymore. She'd married a bear who turned out to be a prince enchanted by a trollop and now forced to marry another trollop, so talking to the Wind didn't seem that odd.

Unfortunately the East Wind proved no more able to help than the old women, and was apparently all out of golden plot devices as well, but he did carry her to visit his sister the West Wind. "Because she is stronger than I am, and blows in more places."

Alas, the West Wind didn't know the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon, so she carried the Bride to visit the South Wind, who in turn took her to visit the North Wind, where finally the Bride was able to ask her question and be told: "Yes; I blew there once. I blew a leaf there, and it almost killed me, but I'll take you there as a favour to someone in love." Because the Winds at least are romantics.

And so the North Wind blew his best and carried the Bride to the edge of the land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. She thanked him and left him to recover his strength, while she walked on into the eerily still land until she came to a dark castle with closed gates. There she sat to think. As she did so, she took out the golden apple and began passing it from hand to hand.

A Trollope
Suddenly, a harsh voice rang out above her: "What's that! I want it, I wantit, IWANTIT!" In the window over the gate was a hideous figure, whom the Bride knew must be the trollop daughter. She smiled and called up:

"What would you give me for it?"

"What do you want?"

"How about your Prince?" the Bride asked, because turn about is fair play and since she'd been bought and sold why couldn't he.

"No! He's mine!"

"Then how about just one night with him?" the Bride suggested, playing with the apple a little more ostentatiously.

"Sold!" the trollop snapped. She disappeared from the window and appeared at a doorway below, ushering the Bride in and snatching the apple from her hand. "One night!" she insisted. "Wait in here until nightfall."

So the Bride waited, and at nightfall a servant showed her into the prince's bedchamber. She ran to his side, but he was fast asleep and would not wake, not even when she dripped candle tallow on him. All she could do was sit by him all night, crying and shaking him and hoping against hope that he wasn't as Stockholmy as she was, especially with the trollop getting inside his head and all.

The next morning she left the room, but before the trollop could throw her out she took out the golden comb and began to draw it through the air, carding wool out of nothing.

"IWANTIT!" the Trollop cried, and again they agreed to trade, the comb for a night with the prince. Again the Bride waited and again she was taken in to find the price practically comatose. She wailed in despair and drained the last of a cup of wine beside the prince's bed to try to numb the pain, and boy howdy did it ever work. She was out like a light and the next thing she knew the servant was all-but carrying her out of the room.

"Oh, that cheat!" the Bride cried out. "She drugged his drink."

The trollop came to throw her out again, but again the Bride whipped out another golden gift from... wherever a largely unprepared girl travelling alone and, for all we've been told, in her nightshirt, carries her golden spinning wheel, and began spinning thread out of the air.

Naturally, the trollop wanted the wheel and again she agreed to the deal, and the Bride set about thinking how she could possibly wake her drugged husband. Luckily, while he cries had not roused the prince, they had touched the heart of the servant. That day, while the prince was walking in the gardens, the servant sidled up to him and whispered: "Let your drink go untouched tonight, sire; you won't regret it."

So it was that when the Bride went in that night, she found her husband awake, and at the sight of her he knew her and embraced her.

"But what can we do now?" the Bride asked. "I only have you for the night and then you have to go back to the trollop."

The prince shivered, for as soon as he had seen his Bride the spells that the trollop had cast on him melted away and he saw her as she was and felt the emptiness in his soul where she had already begun to gnaw at his humanity.

"I will set her a challenge," he declared. "Wait outside the castle; you will know what to do when the time comes."

In the morning, the Bride left, wailing and weeping, and the trollop cast her out of the castle. Then the trollop went to her husband-to-be, who pretended to still be under her spell.

"Did you sleep well?" she asked.
My Bowie/Labyrinth bit means that the trollop and her
mother look more like this. The third one is probably an aunt
visiting for the wedding.

"I did not," the prince replied. "I had a nightmare. I dreamed that at our wedding my shirt burst into flames from the three drops of tallow that stain it, and I heard a voice saying 'woe and thrice woe should you wed she who can not wash this stain away.' I can not marry anyone but the woman who can wash these three stains off my shirt, which I wear in bed and must also get married in, being a prince and therefore only having the one shirt."

Amazingly, the trollop fell for this and she took the shirt away. But trolls can not abide water, and so the trollop had no luck cleaning the shirt. Finally, in desperation, she called out to the girl outside the walls: "You! I'll trade you another night with my prince if you'll wash his shirt clean for me."

The Bride agreed, and she washed the shirt until the tallow was gone, because another of the dodgy morals of this story is that girls who can do housework deserve husbands.

The trollop took the shirt to the prince and told him she'd cleaned it, and he called her a liar and demanded that the woman who had actually cleaned the shirt be brought in. This the trollop and her mother reluctantly did, and the prince declared that this was his bride who had shown true and unquestioning constancy, and with that his stepmother's curse was broken and the two trollops exploded. As they do.

And the prince and his Bride lived happily ever after.


For those of a less cynical bent, I highly recommend North Child (or East, in the US) by Edith Pattou for a retelling of the same tale with a much more modern sensibility. Many of the same elements are also used in the Storyteller episodes 'The True Bride' and 'Hans My Hedgehog'.