East of the Sun, West of the Moon

My favorite fairy tale is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a lesser-known (in America, anyway) Norse story similar to “Beauty and the Beast.” I’ve wanted to write my own version for a while now, but wasn’t sure what direction it would take. I did know that I wanted to mess with gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, since I thought the original fairy tale had some pretty effed-up things to say about upholding traditional gender roles. Last school year, however, I did a research paper on it (see below for the full paper) and discovered that it’s actually way more empowering than I had given it credit forwho would’ve guessed that my favorite fairy tale was all about sex? (Don’t tell 18-year-old Me, it’d break her poor puritanical heart.)

There was still one problem: fairy tales in general have a tendency to indulge in the “pure good vs. pure evil” narrative and treat certain nonhuman species as evil (in Norse stories these are often trolls). I’m not a fan of thisvillains that are evil just ’cause they are (lookin’ at you, Sauron) really bug me. So I thought, “What if the trolls in my version behave like internet trolls, who actually are evil?… Wait… What if they were literally internet trolls?!” Thus the idea to set this story in an MMORPG.

This idea is still very much in progress, and I’m not yet sure what all the rules of this particular world are. I want the game to be similar to other MMOs that are already out there, but with a self-generating, self-policing, communal feel. Artists and computer programmers and writers can submit their designs for landscapes to explore, quests to undertake, items to buy and sell. If you start acting like a troll, you get banished. Not sure how this part works—do they get banished to a specific area of the game that’s full of glitches and other people as horrible as themselves? Do they get banned from the game entirely but manage to hack their way back in?

I think the way a person gets to design their avatar is the perfect way for me to play around with gender. A 10-foot-tall bearded giant who uses she/her pronouns. An anthropomorphic orange tabby cat who uses xe/xey pronouns. A genderless, speciesless character who’ll have breasts and a beard one day, and a mermaid’s tail and hawk’s head the next. The story’s character of the white bear who sheds that form at night to become the human he really is—there’s a lot of potential there. I see the story starting out with a destitute guild (instead of a destitute family) whose latest battle has left them with the bare minimum of equipment and gold. I can’t wait to start writing up character profiles and figuring out how to convey all the different audio-visual aspects of gaming into a novel.

What I need from y’all are recommendations for games to try out, as I’ve never actually played in an MMO before. Back in middle school when my best friend and I were really into Redwall novels, she played Furcadia and I wanted to soooo badly but couldn’t because I had a Mac. These days the closest I’ve gotten is watching “The Guild.” So what games would you recommend to me? I love fantasy landscapes and creatures and stories. Any games that are geared specifically toward women, gender-nonconforming folks, and other marginalized demographics are a plus.

February 27, 2014

East of the Sun, West of the Moon

The story starts with a poor husband and father who has many hungry children, and the youngest daughter is of course the most beautiful. One night during a howling storm, a White Bear knocks on the doors and promises the man that if he will give the bear his youngest daughter, the family shall be as rich as they are now poor. The girl refuses at first but finally agrees, and she packs her meager belongings and leaves with the White Bear, riding on his back.
They come to a hidden castle in a mountain, where all is of silver and gold, and the girl needs only ring a silver bell to instantly receive whatever she desires. At night, after she climbs into bed and blows out the light, a strange man climbs in bed with her. This is really the White Bear, who has shed his animal form and returns to his human form at night. This happens the same way every night.
When she returns home for a brief visit, the White Bear makes her promise that she will never talk alone with her mother, or she will bring great misfortune upon herself and him. Sure enough, her mother convinces the girl to talk with her alone and tell her everything about her time in the castle. The mother warns her daughter that the mysterious man could be a troll, so she gives her daughter a bit of candle to sneak back with her so she can look at the man while he sleeps.
The girl returns to the castle with the White Bear, and that night she lights the candle to look at him as he sleeps. She sees the most beautiful prince, and as she leans down to kiss him, three drops of tallow from the candle fall upon the prince’s shirt. He wakes, crying, “What have you done?”
He tells her that he had been cursed by his wicked stepmother into taking the form of a bear, and had the girl only stayed with him for a year without seeing his true form, the spell would have been broken. Now he must travel to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon and wed a troll princess with a nose three ells long [ell: a unit of measure equal to six hand breadths, or roughly 45 inches].
After he is gone, the girl begins a long journey to find him, but no one knows where to find the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. She is aided by three old women who she meets along the way, each of whom gives her a unique gift: a golden apple, a golden carding comb, and a golden spinning wheel. From there she travels to ask each of the four great winds if they know where the castle lies, ending with the strongest, the North Wind. He is the only one in the world to have ever traveled as far as the castle she seeks, and he takes her there.
The girl sits outside the castle window on three consecutive days, playing with each one of the golden items she received. On each day, the troll princess appears and wants to buy the item, but the girl will only give it up in exchange for spending the night alone with the prince, and the troll princess agrees. The first two nights, the girl goes to the prince’s room to find him fast asleep, and no matter how she shakes him and cries out to him, he will not wake. On the third night, he has been warned by helpful staff in the castle (fellow humans who were likewise abducted by the trolls). He pretends to drink the drugged wine that the troll princess brings him, but he really throws it out. That night, when the girl arrives, they rejoice and make their plans.
The next day, before his wedding, the prince requests a test of his bride. He asks her to wash his favorite shirt, which has gotten three drops of tallow on it. The troll princess, thinking this an easy task, agrees. She rubs and scrubs, but the spots grow bigger and blacker. Two more trolls try until the shirt is as black as soot. The prince brings in the girl sitting outside the castle to try to wash the shirt, and as soon as she dips it in the water, it is as clean as snow. The trolls explode in fury, and the prince and his beloved rescue the captured humans and return home.
In my initial interpretation of the symbols in this story, I pondered how the White Bear might represent danger, mystery, transformation, power, the promise of wealth and adventure, and the wildness of human nature. In fact he represents all of these things, but much more.
In my late teens, I loved that this story has a strong heroine that goes on a dangerous journey to rescue her man and not the other way around. In my early twenties, I began questioning what the story was saying about gender and traditional gender roles, in that the girl was expected to sleep with a stranger for a year without questioning it, and that she proved her worth by doing laundry, the task of an obedient little housewife.
I gained a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for this story by reading about it in the book Spinning Straw into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life by Joan Gould. Heroines in fairy tales are always on journeys of transformation that mirror the journeys we take in our real lives. A little girl longs to prove herself as a young woman. A young woman yearns to be a lover or wife. A wife longs for a child. An old woman can serve to either aid or terrorize the young as they begin their own journeys. “Wicked or foolish females, by contrast, are those who fail to develop, so that their consciousness does not match their current stage of life” (Gould, xviii).
In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” our heroine is a young maiden noted for her splendid beauty, a sure indicator that she will begin her journey to becoming a lover. Her father, poor and without prospects, cannot provide for her, and so he has fallen in her esteem from the grand hero that she saw in him when she was a little girl. “He is no longer King, as he was in her childhood; his throne sits vacant, waiting for a younger, more potent male to claim it” (144).
Enter the White Bear. Like in “Beauty and the Beast” and other variations of this story,
The Beast-god, or the human who considers himself a Beast, comes out of his hiding place lusting for a female virgin, not any virgin but the particular one he has his eye on. All-powerful in his own realm, he is needy and suffering in ours, locked in a grim picture of himself that isolates him from humanity. His life cannot take on meaning except through the body of a human female (138).
The girl doesn’t have to go with him, but she does. She is intrigued, compelled, and ready to move on to the next stage of her life. In the original story, the girl is asked more than once. “Are you afraid?” and she always replies “No.” It is open to interpretation whether she is telling the truth or not.
During their time together in the castle, the girl now experiences the new realm of sex. The man is mysterious, and she only encounters him in the complete darkness of night as he enters her bed. As long as she does not disturb the mystery and deliberately ‘cast light on it’ by questioning who her lover is, they can remain together in blissful ignorance and lust indefinitely. But, once again, she is ready to move on. She feels compelled to go back to her family.
At this point, the heroine wakes up from her trance with a start, wondering if it’s right to enjoy herself in this palace with a male so shockingly different. Suddenly her blood family, particularly the circle of women, has a renewed hold on her. Only through them will she find out if she’s leading the life she ought to be leading in this obscure paradise, if she’s as happy as she thinks she is… Separation and return. The shift from blood family to lover and back again. The schism illuminates what is lacking in each of them (171).
The circle of women is often represented by sisters, but in this case it is her mother. The daughter has grown into a woman, so the mother provides her daughter with the tools she needs to protect herself. She lights the candle and sees her lover for what he really is.
Like Bluebeard’s wife opening the forbidden door, she breaks the taboo by shining her light on what she’s not permitted to see, and her curiosity isn’t weakness, as men think, but strength. How can she understand what she doesn’t see, and how can she transform what she doesn’t understand? In particular, she casts light on sex, which is a form of activity that does not like the light. Her love affair may end because of this defiance, but that doesn’t stop her, since she has discovered that happiness, which is what she thought she wanted, is not as powerful as consciousness, even though consciousness brings suffering in its wake, for which men will blame her (180).
The moment of insight is the moment of transformation, during which the two protagonists switch roles. Once the Beast has been seen for what he is, he never appears as the lord of the forest again. Stunned by his new condition, he lies indoors in a trance, waiting to be roused like a male Sleeping Beauty, while the heroine, burning with her new consciousness, displays an energy as purposeful as any mythic hero’s in order to save him (182).
The three golden items were of particular interest to me. In the ordinary world, an apple, a carding comb, and a spinning wheel are certainly ordinary items. In that context, they are symbolic of women’s work: feeding and clothing her family. Add in the magical element of gold, however (symbolic of eternity), and they become something entirely new: keys to another world. The heroine is not tempted by them, for she is motivated by a much higher purpose, but she holds onto them knowing they may be of use to her in her travels, which of course they are. The troll princess, worldly and greedy, is tempted by the golden objects and must have them at any cost.
The three old women who give the heroine these objects are, I believe, symbolic of female knowledge, wisdom, and power. They are the gatekeepers at each stage of the heroine’s journey, judging her fittingness to pass and continue with her mission. Similarly, the elemental forces of the four winds are symbolic of male knowledge, wisdom, and power. They also serve as gatekeepers, in a more wizard-like form, possibly representing fate.
The washing of the shirt I no longer see as a menial housewifely task for the heroine to prove her worthiness of the prince. Because the trolls cannot perform the job, only a human, it is proof of her humanity. It is a seemingly lowly task, showing at once how the work of running a house is both humble and noble. She ultimately rescues her lover and husband not by outside magic, brute force, or trickery, but by being what she is: human, woman, lover, wife. In that, she has truly earned her happy ending.

One thought on “East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: