She would follow him to a land that lay East of the Sun, West of the Moon . . . but there was no way there.
Having participated in the Scandinavian Festival near Duluth this past weekend, it seems an appropriate time to post this picture. By far my favorite Scandinavian fairy tale is East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Some would describe it as a variation on Beauty and the Beast, but there are some significant differences: trolls, betrayal, a quest for redemption . . .
It all starts when a white bear shows up at the home of a poor man with many children, and the bear offers wealth in exchange for the man’s youngest daughter. Given their poverty, she willingly leaves with the bear, and he carries her on his back far, far away to an enchanted castle where all she must do is . . . abide. Just abide.
Or, you could say it began much earlier–the day a troll princess caught sight of a human prince and desired him for her husband. But the trolls were not pleased with the notion of a human king, so a test was created first. The man was cursed to become a white bear by day and return to his human form by night, and if he could find a human woman to live with him for one full year without ever seeing his true form, then he would be free and the troll princess could not have him. But if he failed, then the queen-to-be could claim him as her own.
Of course, the girl knows none of that–all she sees is a lonely lifetime stretching before her in a castle that sees to physical needs but not emotional, a bear her sole companion. She grows more homesick by the day, and then . . .
And then she messes up.
She does something that she knows she shouldn’t, even if she doesn’t know why she shouldn’t. And her actions have no real consequences for her–she’s freed to go home, no more obligation on her part, and her family doesn’t lose their new-found wealth. She’s not even emotionally devastated–she had only known the bear to be human for a few moments before he was whisked away by the troll queen, and she certainly wasn’t in love with a talking bear.
But she knows that she has desperately wronged him and condemned him to a fate he feared more than any other. So she doesn’t go home to her family and the comfortable living awaiting her, but instead sets forth on a hard journey to make things right. She pursues him to a land that lies east of the sun, west of the moon–even though such a place cannot physically exist. Yet she persists and ultimately rescues him, and not just him, but a palace full of humans that the trolls had enslaved.
I love Beauty and the Beast and the theme of learning to love that which the world considers unlovable, but this–repenting of the wrongs one has done and then choosing to do the right thing even though it’s hard–that is a story worth retelling again and again.
It reminds me of how God sees us–sinful, broken by our selfish choices–and yet He uses us not just in spite of our bad choices, but through them. The girl wouldn’t have saved a palace full of people if she hadn’t messed up and repented of her choice; someone else may have filled in the gap, but it wouldn’t have been her. God is able to take what was meant for evil and use it for good in ways beyond what we can imagine.
For a full-length retelling of the story, I highly recommend East, a young adult novel by Edith Pattou.
Danish artist Kay Neilsen also made a beautiful series of illustrations for the story, along with other Scandinavian tales in his 1914 version of the book East of the Sun West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North.