Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan. 2012 East of the Sun And West of the Moon – Part One

 Kay Nielsen

Marriage and parentheticals

A rather disproportionate number of fairy tales end in marriage. (Divorce never comes up.) On occasion “false brides” are cast aside (or worse), and mothers die to be replaced by stepmothers. (Are there ever any stepfathers in these tales?) But the marriage that dominates fairy tales is one that ends in bliss.

My wife points out that these fairy-tale marriages are usually between someone poor and someone rich. That, she claims, is why they are called fairy tales.  (She married someone poor who stayed that way.)

Why the consuming interest in marriage? Why is it the focus of such popular tales as “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”?

Our fairy tale of the month falls into the same category as “Sprig of Rosemary” and “Beauty and the Beast.”  (In the Aarne-Thompson fairy tale index this is type 425A, the search for the lost husband.) I mention two examples above, but could entirely fill this blog post with the titles of others. They all harken back to “Cupid and Psyche.”

(We think of “Cupid and Psyche” as one of the Greek myths. Actually, it is a good canidate for the first literary fairy tale, written by Lucius Apuleius in the second century AD, told in the context of another story.)

The events of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” are typical of the pattern of the Animal Bridegrooms. In this pattern, the father gives/surrrenders/loses the youngest/only daughter. (In our story a white bear promises her father riches.) The girl goes willingly (an important character attribute). She is well treated (our heroine rings a bell to get all her wants) and is surrounded by wealth. She need only adhere to one promise (the white bear tells her not to listen to her mother’s advice), which is invariable broken. (I am not sure not listening to your mother is a good message.) The bridegroom (under some sort of enchantment) is whisked away to marry someone else (a troll with a nose three yards long in our tale). The abandoned bride must now go through an ordeal to reclaim her husband (what I called in an eariler post “the marriage test”). (The best known of these animal bridegrooms is the beast in “Beauty and the Beast”, although it does not exactly follow the usual pattern.) (Probably because it’s very literary and introspective.) (And French.)

I return to my question: why the interest in marriage? Or, am I asking the wrong question? Are these tales about marriage? I am going to suggest that these marriages are being used as a device (the McGuffin if you will) for illustrating a different dilemma. I am thinking of loss and recovery.

A much more common experience than having to find a husband who has suffered magical memory loss (the cause of distracted husbands has nothing to do with magic, as my wife will tell you), is the experience, or better yet, feeling, of something being lost: a long-ago friend, an irreplaceable book you once had, a time and place gone by. Tales like “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” hold out the hope (even if in vain) we too can recover what is lost: hold again in our hands the hand of another, feel the weight and open up the pages of that book, or grasp that feeling we once felt in that almost forgotten place.

Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan. 2012 East of the Sun And West of the Moon – Part Two

 Kay Nielsen

 So Who…?

            There exists a thoughtless habit, to which we may easily fall victim: The assumption. I call it thoughtless because if we thought about if for a moment we would see the error. 

            How many of us assume Elvis Presley wrote “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog”? How many of us have heard of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who actually wrote it, or “Big Mama” Thornton, who first recorded it? 

            How many of us thought Kay Nielsen wrote and illustrated “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”? I for one.

            Illustrate it, he did. Kay Nielsen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1886, of theatrical parents, studied art in Paris from 1904 to 1911. A good part of his career he spent designing and painting stage scenery. In 1914 he produced twenty-five color plates and twenty-one monotones for “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, generally recognized as his most popular accomplishment and  one of the great gift books of the early twentieth century.

I quote here from Wikipedia: “Gift books, literary annuals or a keepsake, were 19th century books, often lavishly decorated, which collected essays, short fiction, and poetry. They were primarily published in the autumn, in time for the holiday season and were intended to be given away rather than read by the purchaser.” 

Classed along side of Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, Nielsen’s rise to fame was cut short by the advent of World War I, during which the gift book industry devolved, never to recover. While Dulac and Rackham were the kings of the gift book illustrators, Nielsen was only the heir apparent. 

1936 found Nielsen working for Walt Disney. The mark he left behind can be seen in the sequences “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” in “Fantasia”, one of Disney’s early feature-length animated films. The film did not do too well when first released in 1940, partly because of the outbreak of World War II. Nielsen left Disney in 1941. 

By the end of World War II, art nouveau had run its course, and Nielsen’s style was no longer in demand. He and his wife took up chicken farming, unsuccessfully. He died in poverty in 1957. It would be another twenty years before his work would again be recognized for its worth.

For me, Nielsen’s illustrations told me the story, but, in truth, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” was collected by Peter Christen AsbjØrnsen (1812-1885) and JØrgen Engebretsen Moe (1813-1882). Professionally, AsbjØrnsen was a zoologist, and Moe a theologian, but they both held a lifelong abiding interest in Nordic folklore.  They were, as well as boyhood friends, Norway’s “Brothers Grimm”. Unlike the Grimms, they both actually wandered out into the hinterlands and collected stories from the folk. 

The names Peter Christen AsbjØrnsen and JØrgen Engebretsen Moe do not trip off the tongue like the Three Billy Goats Gruff tripping over the bridge. How many times have we read and listen to that folktale without an acknowledgement of AsbjØrnsen and Moe? 

The companion of false attribution is no attribution. With no attribution given, we assume “it has always been there”.  These foktales have “always been there” through the efforts of the Brothers Grimm, AsbjØrnsen and Moe, Joseph Jacobs, Andrew Lang, Jeremiah Curtain, Thomas Crofton Croker, W.B. Yeats, Lady Wilde, Sir George Douglas, R. M. Dawkins… I could fill up another blog entry with names. There is a legion of writers and illustrators who have helped to keep these stories alive in words and images. They have my undying gratitude, even if I conflate, confuse and forget who they are.  

Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan. 2012 East of the Sun And West of the Moon – Part Three

 Kay Nielsen

Loose Ends

Unlike other literature, the fairy tale is allowed to be downright sloppy in matters of internal logic and in character development and motivation. And no one cares.

I’ll take the bear in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” to task. Don’t worry; I’ll keep my distance. Is he a bear, a man or a troll? Clearly, he appears to be a bear as the story starts, but we quickly learn the white bear can throw off his bear shape at night and take on the shape of a man.

Against the bear’s warnings, the heroine lights a candle and looks upon a prince lying in their bed. The logic of the story starts to unwind with this scene. How does a sleeping prince look different than a run-of-the-mill handsome man? We are not told how she knows him to be a prince.

Further, upon waking, the prince declares she has ruined their happiness. He has been under an enchantment put on him by his stepmother, and now he must return to her and marry a long-nosed princess.

Let’s look at this from the stepmother’s point of view. One day she says to her stepson, “Look, I’m going to change you into a bear by day and a man by night. If you can get someone to sleep with you for a year and not look on your man-shape, I’ll let you go. Otherwise, you must come back here and marry Long Nose.” Why would she say that? What is her motive for this strange arrangement? Why not say, “Marry Long Nose or I’ll change you into a newt.”

Toward the end of the tale we learn that the stepmother and the long-nosed princess are trolls. If the prince’s stepmother is a troll, was his father a troll? Everyone else in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, outside of captive Christians, are trolls. If he, too, is a troll, then the heroine’s mother’s fear has come true.

Here is the important point: It doesn’t matter. Nothing I have stated above matters to the fairy tale. And more, everything I have written these past months doesn’t matter to the fairy tale. I am holding up the wrong measure. Willingly and knowingly I have done so and will continue to do so from time to time, but to the fairy tale itself…

Although we have what are called literary fairy tales, these tales are not literature in my view. The literary writer spends 80,000—90,000—100,000 words to get the reader to see, hear and feel what the author wants the reader to sense and understand. Characters need to be developed: have names, have clear motives, and follow long, logical, exciting, interesting progressions. The reader is allowed into the heads of the characters and experiences the progressions with them.

Fairy tales are short, compact, and sketchy on details. We never get inside the hero or heroine’s head; we may not even know their names. We see them on the surface. Motivations and logic are optional.

If we are to measure the fairy tale as an artistic form—not that it cares—we would do better to use the terms we use to describe paintings. What are the images? What does it say to us? What is the atmosphere of the work? What memories does it evoke? What is the impression it leaves behind?

For me, a fairy tale is more like a still life than a novel.

Your thoughts?


2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale of the Month: Jan. 2012 East of the Sun And West of the Moon – Part One

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