East of the Sun, West of the Moon

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Edith Pattou: North Child (first published by Harcourt Brace and Company in 2003 under the title East)

Everyone knows the story: a cursed prince who takes a girl to his castle to live with him. However, the girl breaks her word, but eventually falls in love with the prince and breaks the curse. The most famous such story is the Beauty and the Beast, which many people know from Walt Disney’s movie, but this is only one of the many adaptations.

The origin of the story is the Norwegian folk tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon, which is basically followed in Edith Pattou’s novel, here, too, a white bear is the cursed prince who takes Rose, a lively, inquisitive young girl, to his castle. In return, the girl’s family gets rich and her sister recovers. Rose is lonely in the palace and does not know who the mysterious stranger is appearing every night, but when she finds out, she unleashes the fate of the white bear. To save him, she has to go on a long journey. The characters in the novel are much more developed than in the original folk tale, even we can follow a different perspective from chapter to chapter and get a glimpse into their thoughts.

As I was researching the roots of the folk tale that forms the basis of the novel, I came across the ATU (Aarne–Thompson–Uther) Index, which is a folk tale categorization system. The categories were first developed in German by a Finnish folktale researcher Antti Aarne, translated to English by an American folklorist Stith Thompson, and then expanded and revised by the German Hans-Jörg Uther. In the index, the related tales were organized into groups based on their main motifs. The ATU 425 group summarizes those tales where the heroine searches for her lost husband. The special feature of these tales is that the female protagonist does not play the usual passive role here, but is the active party, the savior.

Subsection 425A includes an animal as a bridegroom who wears a disguise or is cursed. The girl burns the animal skin or disguise, thus putting her husband in danger, and then she has to go on a journey and endure several difficult trials, during which she is assisted by the Sun, Moon or other natural forces. This includes East of the Sun, West of the Moon. 425B is the “Son of the Witch” group, where the bride is tested by the husband’s family (mostly her mother-in-law). The ancient story of Cupid and Psyche can also be classified here, and today this story is considered as the basis of all fairy tales belonging to the 425 group – this is a significant thing: there are 1,100 fairy tale versions. This also includes the Slavic Baba Yaga stories. 425C is the well-known Beauty and the Beast group, while 425D and E are the lesser-known “Vanished Husband” and “Enchanted Husband” categories.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon and Beauty and the Beast are also special because their versions can be found all over the world. The Scottish Black Bull of Norroway (can also be brown or red) and the Irish The Great Bull of Irvaig are also versions of the former, but in the USA three girls go to seek their fortune in a New England version, or a girl marrying an ox is also in this category. In Canada, the figure of the bull (Black Bull of Hollow Tree) returns, and in Jamaica, the lord of all lands is a king who lives as a bull by day and as a man by night. The common motif in the versions of Beauty and the Beast is the gift that the girl asks her father, which he steals from the cursed prince, forcing his daughter to bargain with the beast. Such a gift is a rose in the French version, a carnation in an Italian one, or an apple in Faroe Islands. The prince appears in the form of different animals: a wolf in Spain, a bear on the island of Sardinia, a dog in Moravia, a bear in Slovenia, and a pig in Hungary (the title of the tale is The Speaking Grapes, the Smiling Apple and the Tinkling Apricot). The tale also reached China, where the monster is a snake. But surprisingly, the Brazilian version is very similar to the original collection by the Brothers Grimm, where the beast asks the father to give him the first person who rushes to greet him when he returns home.

Did the tales travel so far by people, or do we have so much in common that we made up the same stories sitting around the fire in distant places of the world?