Fairy Tales: East of the Sun and West of the Moon
Where is home, and whence our destination? The questions are basic. We conceive for ourselves beginnings and ends, but our goals remain forever contingent upon forces beyond our control. We owe a death at the moment of birth. Our hopes and dreams, it seems, repose east of the sun and west of the moon.
Where is that and how do we get there?
Andrew Lang recounts a fairy tale entitled "East of the Sun and West of the Moon:" A beautiful young woman lives with her family oppressed by poverty in a forest. One day a white bear knocks on the door and asks if he can have the young girl. The father relents, after being promised wealth and ease if she will go with bear.
Bear and girl arrive at a castle filled with opulence. Each night, when the lights are out, a man comes to the girl's bed. He is the white bear. She longs to see him, and she is homesick. She begs to go home to see her mother and her father.
The bear relents, but upon the condition that she never speak with her mother alone about the life she shares with bear. She agrees, but, of course, once home, tells her mother of the mysterious man-bear with whom she lives. The mother counsels use of a candle to sneak a peak at the man at night.
Once back in the castle with the bear, the girl looks at the sleeping figure and discovers he is a handsome man. He awakens and some of the wax from the candle stains his shirt. He is crestfallen and explains that he has been bewitched, condemned to live for one year as a bear by day and a man by night. Because the girl had looked at him, he must now return to castle of the witch who cast a spell on him. The castle is far, far away, east of the Sun and west of the Moon. The man-bear must now marry a woman with a nose three ells long. The girl cannot go with him. He vanishes, and the girl finds herself now alone in a forest, with no family, no friends and no one on whom to rely.
The girl searches for the man-bear. She enlists help of strangers, and then trusts her fate to the winds, arriving, after a long and exhausting journey, outside the castle where the man awaits his wedding to a woman he does not love. The girl's journey spent even the power even of the North wind, the most powerful force of all.
She longs to see the man-bear, but his captors deny her access to the castle. The man-bear is enchanted with a toxin each night to keep him from hearing the girl's forlorn weeping.
Finally, moved by the sound of her weeping, strangers tell the prince about the girl's presence. The prince avoids the toxin and resolves a plan. He is to marry the hideous long-nosed woman on the morrow. He decides his only hope is a ruse. He announces he will marry only the person who can clean the bed-shirt stained with wax from the tallow the girl spilled on him long ago. Of course, only a Christian can succeed in this task, trolls cannot. His betrothed tries to wash the shirt, but soils it further. The girl cleans the shirt, however, and the two marry, and set captive those poor souls held captive at the castle.
The tale is rich in symbol and frustrating in complexity. Device upon device is piled upon one another. Belief must not merely be suspended to follow this tale from beginning to end; normal moorings must be abandoned altogether, lest the story's incredible nature leave the reader cold. And yet, belief is so easily suspended; the heartache of the girl and her hope for comfort and love sustain and nourish the reader. When she searches for what she has lost, and rides the winds in search of her love, we are comforted by the very form of the genre: in fairy tales, dreams do come true: it is only really a question of how the the girl will find her hope redeemed. And what is that hope in the end? Simply love. Or, perhaps, a little bit more: faith, hope and charity, the great gifts Paul wrote of in his letter to believers in Corinth.
I've read this tale a few times before writing about it. My normal style is scornful in tone. It as though I no longer want the seduction of hope. I am old enough now to realize that illusion is necessary, and, yet, somehow, I don't want to succumb to the illusionist's siren song. But I must, as must we all. The simple facts of the life-cycle are too difficult to be borne: from nothing we come at birth, we acquire share and form during youth, we spend our energies in our prime in search of goals and dreams most often only inchoate in form, and then, as energy wanes, we sit quietly facing and inevitable and incomprehensible end. The bare bones of existence require more than this bleached out truths; we require hope. We are, really and truly, such stuff as dreams are made of.
Thus the appeal of those simple words that summon us to suspend critical moorings and float alone to silent hopes: "Once upon a time ..." Those words have power.
East of the Sun and west of the moon is nowhere and, hence, everywhere at once. It is where we find ourselves amid the poverty that comes of simple being: sentient beasts born to die, we require more, and so we hope. Like a white bear, illusions offer solutions. We accept these solutions because we must, and test them because we survival requires it. Yet, once tested, the illusions vanish, and then, alone, we are cast to a wide, wide world buffeted by strange winds and filled with omens and portents. If we are lucky, we find our way back to our illusions, although now we do not accept them at face value: a bear is not a bear, after all. With faith and hope and charity, we seize the truth behind our illusions and remember that without the gift of love, there is nothing. So we love those whom we find willing to accept our gifts, and go on, never really forgetting the painful truths that make fairy tales necessary, but accepting with an open heart the sting the world delivers, realizing, finally, the the truths worth knowing come from within. The wise among us, and I do not claim to be such, can truly say "come sweet death."
Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book