Friday, September 28, 2012

Beast and SuperBeast: Superman and Folktales part 2, East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon


Here's a story related to Cupid and Psyche. It's Norse, and it's called East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon.

A poor man had the prettiest daughter in all the land, but couldn't feed his family. So when a great white bear came to his cottage one day and offered to make him rich if he'd marry that daughter to the bear, the man agreed. The girl didn't want to go, but she had no choice. The bear took her to a castle where all her needs were met as if by magic. And every night a man came in the darkness to her bed and lay with her. Soon the girl missed her family, and the bear agreed to let her go if she agreed not to talk to her mother about what happens in the castle. She said yes, but at home her mother cornered her and got the whole story. The mother convinced her that she was married to a troll, and told her to take a candle to bed with her to find out the truth. The girl did so, but when she saw how handsome her husband really was, she couldn't resist kissing him. Leaning over, three drops of candle wax fell onto the man, and he awoke. Furious, he told her that his step-mother had cursed him to be a bear by day and man by night, and the spell would have been broken if they'd been married a year. But now he had to return home to the troll castle east o' the sun and west o' the moon to be married to a troll-witch with a frightfully long nose. Off he went.

The girl followed, and along the way got help from three old women, who gave her golden trinkets. And the four winds guided her to the troll castle. There, she gives the troll-witch with the long nose her trinkets for three nights with the bear. The bear is sleeping for the first two nights, but we soon learn that the trolls are in the habit of kidnapping Christians and keeping them in the castle. Some of these good folks hear what's going on, and they tell the bear. The bear realizes he's being drugged, and so avoids it on the third night. He and his true bride make a plan: the next day, when he is to be wed to the troll-witch, he will insist that he will only marry the woman who can clean his shirt with the candle wax stains. Apparently, this sort of thing can only be done by a good Christian. So the troll-witch and all her family fail, but the pretty girl succeeds, and the trolls burst from the anger of it all. The bear becomes a man again, and he and the girl are married. They and all the good Christians leave the troll castle behind forever.

I first encountered it in a collection of the same name edited by George Webbe Dasent, based on the collection of Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe.

This story has been rewritten for kids a lot.

So again, we've got the secret identity, the woman seeking the truth, but this time we've also got the transformation of the bear man. Cupid may have been invisible when he visited Psyche, but he didn't undergo a transformation. Some of the differences are interesting, such as the fact that the bear is cursed by a stepmother, will have to marry a troll, etc. Superman has sometimes been the target in a devious marriage plot, often by trollish women (aliens, if I'm recalling correctly...Maxima?). In this version, the bear prince is saved by the girl, whereas Cupid was never in any danger.

We need more stories where Lois saves Superman.

Pullman invents excellent names for his characters in this series.

You know, until I did an image search for East o' the Sun, I never once made the connection to a certain other popular story about a girl and a bear. The literary resonances are much more Milton than folktale, but it might be interesting to revisit this series with East o' the Sun in mind.

Anyway, East o' the Sun is one of my favorite folk tales. The similarities to Superman are less obvious than we saw in Cupid and Psyche, but they're interesting nonetheless. And I think Frank Quitely's Superman is something of a big bear.

And there's that image of the girl on the bear. It's not explicitly Superman flying with Lois Lane, but I think the same emotions underlie them both.

I love this picture, but can't find any indication who the artist is.
Here's a link to the previous post about Superman and Folktales, and next and the beast.

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