"Can you tell me the way then, and I will seek you — that I may surely be allowed to do!"
"Yes, you may do that," said he; "but there is no way thither. It lies east of the sun and west of the moon, and never would you find your way there."
– Asbjørnsen and Moe, Popular Tales from the Norse, 1888
WHEN I WAS SIX, I saw a movie about a polar bear king.
I'd already experienced my fair share of Disney movies and fairy tales, and understood the formula. After the courtship between the princess and the Polar Bear King, I awaited the mistake that would part them, the steady love that would break the spell in time for a happy ending.
But early on, this story was different. She gets married; she loves her husband, she has children, and a life unfolds in front of her before tragedy strikes and she loses it all. But after her children had vanished, and her husband had been taken to fulfill the curse of the witch queen, The Polar Bear King cut from the princess sobbing on the floor to the princess marching through the forest in her nightclothes, storming into the river, fighting the current to get him back.
It seems such a small thing to bowl one over, but I was a small thing, too. I knew fairy tales where princesses were given in marriage. I knew fairy tales where princesses make mistakes, and lose big.
I'd never seen a fairy tale in which a princess stood up and did something about it.
So many fairy tales are cautionary; so many are warnings about curiosity, or pride, or beasts who lurk in the forest waiting for girls to be alone and lovely and near enough to catch. A remarkable number, in their older forms, feature a quick-thinking heroine — Bluebeard's new wife delays her execution until her rescue arrives, and Red Riding Hood manages her own escape from the wolf. But the industrious Victorians bowdlerized many stories, and the even more industrious Disney got its hands on several more, and one by one those edges were filed away. The versions of the stories we know today feature lovely maidens with wistful, passive centers in tales with the edges shaved off — Cinderella's sisters never slice off their heels, the Woodsman rescues Red Riding Hood, and the new Little Mermaid is missing her knife.
This tale is decidedly different, one reason, perhaps, it's less famous than some of its sisters.
“East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” like most folktales, is born from an oral tradition that provides as many variants as storytellers. (The enduring version might be the Norwegian iteration, though it's far from the only one; countries from Italy to Scotland have their own, while the narrative archetype originated in Greece, in the form of Cupid and Psyche.) There are so many versions, in fact, that the Arne-Thompson folktale classification — a Dewey Decimal system for your fairytale needs — gives “East of the Sun” and its fellows a label of their own: "Search for the Lost Husband."
And unique though “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” may be, plenty of the usual folktale tropes are present here. Beautiful maiden and enchanted beast? Check. Family members who mysteriously vanish in a way that reflects poorly on our heroine? Check. A wicked queen waiting in the wings for a shot at the throne? But of course! The story even opens with the appearance of the all-too-familiar monstrous bridegroom (he has a section all his own in that folktale filing system). But rather than being presented as a prize or a price, our heroine actively chooses the betrothal, the first sign this narrative is taking us east of the sun, west of the moon. In the Norwegian version, the White Bear King distinguishes himself from his “animal groomsmen” brethren by seeking consent in his courtship. When the princess's two sisters take her place in turn to prevent her leaving with him, they're stymied by his kindness: he asks each sister if she's happy. When the first two answer no, he knows they're not his true bride, and returns them home again until at last he achieves the bride who's pleased to be there.
Perhaps even more unusual is the way “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” presents positive relationships among women. Many fairy tales, despite last-minute suitors who represent a heroine's ultimate achievement, are narratively dominated by women. Typically, princesses and maidens play the protagonists while stepmothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and stepsisters serve as villains and object lessons. Women who don't rate heroine are motivated by jealousy or ambition, and part of the heroine's triumph often includes a chance to use her new position of power to punish those who have acted against her. (For the Grimms, the story of Snow White isn't over until her stepmother's danced herself to death in iron shoes.) In this tale, however, female relationships are sources of support and strength. To dissuade the Polar Bear King, two of our heroine’s sisters take her place — not to usurp her, as in Cinderella, but to protect her. The light with which the princess furtively looks upon her husband is usually gifted by a well-meaning mother or sister. Even the princess's mother-in-law, who often has a grasp of magic herself, spirits the princess's children to safety from the witch queen. In general, the women the princess encounters on her quest provide guidance, the occasional beast of burden, and useful magical items. Some of these gifts are symbols of domestic plenty (scissors that cut clothes out of thin air, a tablecloth that always fills), but one that appears across retellings is a pair of shoes, sometimes of iron, sometimes with claws, that directly aid her in the long climb to a far-off land. More than mere shortcuts to domestic bliss, these gifts are the tangible evidence of supportive bonds between women — rare in a canon filled with stepmothers swanning through dark castle hallways, casually polishing poisoned apples.
Though enabled by these kindnesses, the princess isn’t dependent on them; even alone, she's steadfast and brave. Her great mistake is her quest for knowledge (a common trope that one folklorist, Maria Tatar, calls the Prohibition/Violation principle: a door that must not be opened, a beloved who must not be looked upon). But the Polar King is no Bluebeard, a human monster laying traps and waiting to punish; he is the victim of this magic, not its master. The princess’s only punishment is that she loses a loving husband to her enchantress rival. And she's not a princess to take this sitting down: upon his loss, she seeks to free him from the spell — not to fulfill the supernatural edict, but in spite of it. Her determination wins her assistance from others; in some retellings, the winds themselves obey her will. And once in the palace of the witch, her weapon isn't her beauty or her virtue, but her wits: she outmaneuvers her rival to win her husband back.
Stories of princesses asleep or in glass coffins, princesses who wait, are all too common in the fairy tale market. The heroine in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is a remarkably active character who takes up a quest with no guide, no resources, and little hope. No wonder it caught my attention as a six-year-old; no wonder it captures my attention and admiration now.
In that movie I saw a long time ago, the princess stumbles through the forest and the river and the rocks. When she meets her mother-in-law and her children, they feed and clothe her; they give her advice, and magic shoes. None of them acknowledges that in order to reach their camp at all, she'd climbed halfway up the mountain barefoot and alone.
They take it for granted she'd make it that far.