Riffs on Myths and Fairy Tales

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Some creative twists on myths and fairy tales…

When my daughter and I chose to read East, we did not know it was based on the title story in the collection East of the Sun and West of the Moon — Twenty-One Norwegian Folk Tales (EOTSAWOTM) and were unfamiliar with all of the Norwegian fairy tales in it.

We loved reading East, which describes in great detail the life of Karen (well, she’s called Karen in EOTSAWOTM; in East, she mostly goes by Rose), who is implored by a mysterious white bear to leave her family and come to live with him in his magical castle far away. East hews to the plot of the fairy tale, but adds evocative details, including fully realized supporting characters such as an adorable, shy troll who helps Rose defeat the Troll Queen and an Inuit wisewoman who equips Rose with the skills and equipment to survive in wild, cold Trontenheim. East also gives voice to the passionate Troll Queen, the White Bear, and Rose’s father and brother.

Reading EOTSAWOTM after reading East got us thinking about how fairy tales differ from novels. One obvious difference is that in a fairy tale, the plot/moral is what’s important and all else is de-emphasized — supporting players, for example, and so, their deaths or disappearances are not necessarily cause for dismay so long as the hero and heroine triumph in the end.

In East, we get to know all of the characters, and the happily-ever-after is tinged somewhat with regret for the losses of the \”minor\” players we’ve come to love.

The moral lesson of the original folk tale, EOTSAWOTM, is that the union of a man and woman needs to be closer than the the relationship of the woman to her family. The woman owes her unquestioning love, loyalty, and trust to the stranger, not to her mother, for example.

This moralizing is softened a bit in the treatment in East, but is still there.

On the other hand, the variety and humor of the Norwegian folk tales, and the wonderful illustrations by the D’Aulaires make it a collection that necessitates re-reading.

In EOTSAWOTM, as in Nancy Farmer’s Sea of Trolls, the Norse gods and their temporal neighbors, the trolls, unwillingly share the lands of snow with the more modern people of the North.

Farmer’s tales, like fairy tales, adhere to strict conventions, except that, unlike in fairy tales, in Farmer’s universes, humanity always trumps greed. Which is why, in Sea of Trolls, the Beserker Viking heathen finds common cause against his own Norse gods with the Christian child. And that’s also why, in The Eye, The Ear, and The Arm, the woman known as the She Elephant, who is willing to enslave and exploit her own people as well as kidnapped innocents, becomes nearly heroic when she recognizes true — inhuman — Evil.

Here are more of our reviews of other takes on myths and fairy tales.

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