January 29, 2014

A Tale Across Time (East of the Sun, West of the Moon), By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

My favorite fairy tale for many years has been “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” A few different things conspired to make it so. I love that the hero of the tale is female--it is she who undertakes the quest, she who rescues the prince, and she who defeats the evil. I love the illustrations by the great Kay Nielsen that are associated with it.

Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun and West of the Moon:Old Tales from the North

I also love the conundrum it presents when compared with the classical myth of “Cupid and Psyche.” To be so similar, yet so far removed in time and space! What is the connection? I decided that whether or not I found an answer, I would address this problem in my next Fairy Tale Vintage Sleuth column . . . so let the sleuthing begin!

Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North

ESWM was originally collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, two famous Norwegian folklorists, who were born about 30 years after the Grimm brothers and drew on the work of the latter for inspiration in their own endeavors. Asbjørnsen and Moe began publishing their collection of stories, Norske folkeeventyr, in 1841 (ESWM is tale number 41).

Cover of Norske folkeeventyr, 5th edition, 1874
Like Kinder- und Hausmärchen, this anthology of tales was incredibly well received by the reading public. Like the Grimm brothers, Asbjørnsen and Moe transcribed the stories they collected into language more suited for literary publication, though with perhaps less overt changes than in the German collection.

Theodor Kittelsen

Summary: A young farmer’s daughter is taken from her home by a large white bear and born on his back to a grand castle, where an unknown man comes to her every night after dark. The girl’s mother convinces her to peek at the man when he is sleeping, so she lights a candle and sees that her lover is a handsome prince; but she drips wax on his skin and he wakes, thereby cursing him to travel to a castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon and to marry a troll princess. On her journey to rescue him, the girl meets three old women, is given three golden gifts, and rides the four winds. She uses the gifts to trick the trolls and then performs a task that only she can do in order to win her prince back.

The earliest extant version of “Cupid and Psyche” is found in Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (not to be confused with Ovid’s), also known as The Golden Ass. Apuleius was a Latin prose writer and traveler, born in North Africa in 125 BC. Images of Cupid and Psyche, however, appear in Greek art as early as the 4th century BC.

 Cupid & Psyche, Roman replica
of Hellenistic (2nd c. BC) original, Capitoline Museum

Summary: A beautiful mortal girl, Psyche, is given to an unknown “monster” in marriage. A wind bears her away to a beautiful estate, where a man comes to her only at night after dark. Although he has forbidden her to look upon his face, her sisters convince her to peek. She lights a lamp and sees before her Cupid, the very god of love himself, but she spills oil on his skin and he wakes. To punish her doubt, he leaves. To reclaim him, Psyche (while pregnant) goes to a vengeful Venus, who sets before her three impossible tasks, which Psyche completes with the aid of various friendly entities. In the end, Cupid asks Jupiter to grant Psyche the gift of immortality, and they live forever after as husband and wife.

Psyche in the Garden of Amor, illustration of Apuleius Metamorphoses
 c. 24. Manuscript Vat. Lat. 2194 in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana 
in Rome, circa 1345

Apuleius’ tale had spread to western Europe in the Middle Ages, as evidenced by the above illumination from a 1345 manuscript. “Cupid and Psyche” was first translated into English by William Adlington in 1566. The story was referenced in Milton’s Comus in the first half of the 17th century, suggesting a certain familiarity with the tale at this time. The famous sculptor, Antonio Canova, dynamically captured the mythical lovers in the late 18th century, just decades before Asbjørnsen and Moe collected ESWM. Fascinatingly, even as Asbjørnsen and Moe were transcribing ESWM, a descendant of “Cupid and Psyche,” the original story remained popular across Europe.

Canova, Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, first commissioned 1787

Is the similarity between these two tales an example of medieval (or earlier) literature trickling down to the “folk,” being altered to fit the culture of that specific group of people, and turning into a folktale? We saw evidence for this in my very first post with the similarities between the medieval story of Emaré and the two later fairytales “Maiden Without Hands” (Grimm) and “Donkeyskin” (Perrault).

It’s fascinating to wonder about when and where the exact exchanging and changing of the original story took place--very likely it was a much more complicated process than I summarized just now.

What are your thoughts? Can you think of other instances where stories like this changed over time and became folk/fairy tales? 

(The citations on these Wikipedia entries are surprisingly thorough.)

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day. 


Tyrean Martinson said...

It is fascinating to see how a powerful story can change over time and yet keep it's inner theme and beauty.

Lissa Sloan said...

I really love this fairy tale too (and the art on this post)! It's always intriguing to wonder how exactly these tales went from place to place.

Laura B. said...

I love the illustrations. I have enjoyed re-telling the version 'White Bear King Valemon' with the golden wreath. Outstanding column!

Anonymous said...

I’ve only read the summaries listed above, but between those summaries and the extremely enchanting artwork that accompanies them, I’m already swept away by this one. Psyche must be one heck of an immortal woman, since Cupid seems to be the prince (and a God!) who loves her. Interesting that Psyche somehow manages to fall in love with him, even though she’s only been asleep with him, and never held a conversation with him or been allowed to gaze upon his face. Maybe it’s a love out of necessity, but somehow it’s a strong or intriguing enough love that she feels enough responsibility and motivation to rescue him from a seemingly awful marriage. The fact that she’s a woman doing the rescuing is a modernization that most fairy tales don’t have. Usually, women are damsels in distress, so this take on a classic is extremely refreshing.
Rachel B.