MARCH 21, 2014
“ONCE UPON A TIME there was a poor farmer with many children.” In a classic fairy tale, chances are that the poor farmer’s wife has died, leaving him with a fragile but beautiful daughter in a kingdom reigned by a handsome bachelor prince. However, imagine a fairy tale where the wife is alive and fiercely protective of four beloved children, her youngest daughter is more fearless than she is beautiful, and the prince is a bewitched foreigner. Such is the plot of East, Edith Pattou’s adaptation of the obscure Norwegian fairy tale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
Pattou’s rich adaptation, true to the original, follows the story of a farmer’s family who is approached one night by a white bear. The bear eloquently offers the family wealth and wellbeing in exchange for their youngest daughter, who in Pattou’s edition is Ebba Rose, a fearless 16th century Norwegian farm girl. The family finally acquiesces, and Rose is carried west to the bear’s castle in a forest, where two mute maids provide her with plenty to eat and a loom on which she can practice her unique craftsmanship for weaving. She is content in the castle, aside from her incessant nightmares and incurable homesickness.
The original fairy tale, typical of its genre, provides a matter-of-fact account of fantastical events that culminate in a final didactic moral. Pattou’s version adheres to this outline, but provides substance to its skeletal frame. While the original fairy tale begins in medias res with the sudden arrival of the white bear, Pattou’s story starts several years earlier with the birth of Ebba Rose. By the time the white bear arrives, Pattou has crafted a foundation rich with complicated family dynamics, conservative gender roles, and family secrets, including the mysterious “circumstances of Rose’s birth.”
Ebba Rose, named for her Eastern birth-direction, should have been born Nyamh Rose, for North. Her mother Eugenia, a true East-born, lives in denial of her daughter’s actual directional origin, fearing that the true circumstances of Rose’s birth will ultimately cause her to leave home. North-borns, she believes, are “wandering and wild,” ill behaved and prone to exploration, in comparison to her other children, representations of the calmer cardinal points. When Rose leaves with the white bear, her mother is pulled deeper into her superstitious neuroticism. Rose’s parents begin to resemble a husband and wife who grow increasingly detached at each fruitless vigil for their missing child. As Eugenia takes refuge in her superstitions and spells, Rose’s father submerges himself in his work and assumes the role of a detached husband.
While Pattou’s story contains many relatable normalcies of everyday life, the plot progresses with aberrant undertones worthy of Grimm. In a flashback a century prior to Rose’s abduction, a beautiful troll queen — a northern derivative of humans with enchanting powers and skin as tough as sandpaper — watches a southern “softskin” boy playing catch in a meadow. As the boy — a French prince — approaches the queen, she is overcome with lust for him; a “strange breath-losing feeling,” inspires her to kidnap him.
The troll queen’s father; however, will not allow the queen to keep the boy unless she meets conditions similar to those mandated in the Norwegian tale’s French predecessor, Beauty and the Beast. The boy must live in a castle for 150 years as a white bear by day and a man by night before the queen can marry him. However, if the boy is able to find a young maiden willing to sleep in the castle with him for six months without her ever seeing his human face, he will be set free. As in the French version, homesickness nearly kills Rose, and like Belle, she must temporarily return home. However, while Belle’s reunion with the beast and admission of love is enough to unite the couple “for happily ever after,” Rose’s reunion, combined with an execution of ill-given motherly advice, separates the unorthodox couple. His ambiguous directions, “East of the sun, west of the moon,” initiate her expedition to find him.
Here, Pattou’s tale diverges from the original folklore. While fairy tale maidens are traditionally fated to be with princes, Rose is physically repelled by her shared northern pole and must actively fight against her predestined anti-magnetism to reach her prince. Fortunately, Rose encounters a rich cast of characters along her journey who facilitate her northern expedition to the land of the trolls to rescue her hostage prince. Of course, true love triumphs over all, and the couple settles down in a French cottage with their two adorable daughters: an East-born and a North-born.
Pattou’s combination of relatable normalcy with fantastical fairy tale elements is exactly what makes East so enchanting. Told in the style of The Princess Bride, with a self-conscious awareness that it is a fairy tale, Pattou presents to us a surprisingly plausible world of trolls, enchantments, and true love (albeit devoid of R.O.U.S.’s), told through a collection of handwritten notes found in a box in an attic. The result is a beautifully woven craft, worthy of the fabrics spun from Rose’s loom.