This telling of the Norwegian story comes from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. A poverty-stricken father is visited one night by a white bear who offers to make him a rich man if only he gives up his youngest daughter. The father wins parenting points by going to his daughter with the offer instead of agreeing for her, but loses them all when she gives an unequivocal ‘no’ and he tells the bear to come back in a week for a different answer. Over the following days he works on her sense of family loyalty, eventually convincing her that going off with an inexplicable carnivore is actually a good idea. When the bear returns she goes with him obediently.
He has her climb on his back and for a long time they travel, until at last they come to a steep hill that opens at the bear’s knock and reveals a beautiful castle. The girl is given a bell and told to ring if there’s anything she requires; when she experiments, she finds herself transported to a luxurious bedroom, and lies down to sleep.
She is not, however, alone. In the darkness of the room a man comes to her and lies down beside her on the bed. He neither speaks nor touches her, and by dawn he is gone. Every night it is the same, while every day the girl is alone in the palatial rooms that are her gilded prison. She misses her family so badly that eventually the bear agrees to take her home for a visit, on one condition: she must not speak alone with her mother.
He brings her to a beautiful house – an upgrade purchased with her departure – and leaves her to be welcomed inside by her brothers and sisters. It’s an awkward visit. The girl doesn’t know how to explain her new life, or how to keep the bear’s secrets. This is her mother, for pity’s sake. At last the story comes out about the man who comes by darkness to her room, and naturally her mother is concerned. She sneaks her daughter a candle so that she can identify her secretive visitor, but warns her to be cautious of the dripping tallow. The girl hides the candle in her bodice.
When the bear comes to collect her, he guesses she broke their terms and tells her only ill luck will come of following her mother’s advice, but he’s so damn mysterious about it all that it’s hardly surprising when the girl doesn’t let that warning stop her. The man comes to her room that night as usual; she waits for him to fall asleep, then rises and lights her candle. What she finds in her bed is the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, and impetuously she stoops to kiss him. This is not a good idea for many reasons. Sure enough, the tallow of her candle drips on his shirt and the burn wakes him.
“What have you done?” he exclaims, horrified. It turns out that if she had only held out for one year, he would have been freed from the spell that keeps him a bear by day and a man by night. Now he must return to the wicked stepmother who trapped him this way in the first place, to marry her daughter in the castle that stands east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon.
Of course, if he had EXPLAINED HIMSELF, instead of dropping stupid hints, she wouldn’t have needed to resort to spying. I despise curses that punish girls for perfectly healthy curiosity by setting arbitrary standards by which they can only fail.
The next morning the girl wakes in a dark wood with only the rags she brought from home at her side. Her first reaction is to cry, as you might expect, but eventually she pulls herself together and sets off to find her prince. At length she comes to a crag and an old woman sitting underneath it, carelessly juggling a golden apple. The girl asks if she is on the right road to the castle east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon. The old woman knows of the prince and his stepmother, but not where the castle is to be found. Very kindly, she gives the girl a horse and and the golden apple and advises she ride on to her neighbour, who may know more. This is another old woman under another crag, who is in possession of a golden carding-comb. She does not, as it turns out, know any more, but she’s happy to donate her own horse and the comb to the cause of true love and the girl continues on her way to a third crag, where another old woman is spinning on a golden wheel. Breaking all the rules of the old lady spy network, she can’t give any better directions than her neighbours before her. Instead she gives the girl her spinning wheel and a new horse, and sends her off to ask the East Wind.
All this travelling is exhausting, but the girl persists. At last she reaches the house of the East Wind, and he doesn’t know either. To soften the blow, he offers to take her to the house of his brother the West Wind and inquire there. At least this time the journey is fast. From there she is shuffled to the South Wind, and from him to the North, who is a foul-tempered, loud-mouthed bully. The girl’s stamina is extraordinary, and she is finally rewarded when the North Wind admits he knows how to find the castle. She climbs on his back and they whirl away at a terrifying pace, across wild woods and stormy seas, coming in time to the fabled castle.
The girl has had a long time to come up with a plan; now she can put it into practice. The next morning she sits underneath a window and plays ostentatiously with the golden apple. The stepmother’s daughter, a princess with an remarkably lengthy nose, comes to watch and is so charmed by the pretty toy that she agrees to let the girl into her fiance’s room for the night. It’s all to no good, though, as the prince sleeps through all her efforts to rouse him. The girl tries again with the carding-comb, to the same result. Now all she has left is the spinning wheel. She knows it will be pointless trying to see her prince again, but what can she do except try?
Ah, and maybe it isn’t quite as hopeless as she thinks. The prince isn’t the only one to have been kidnapped; there are a pair of guests in the room beside his who have heard the girl’s tears and pleas, and they happen to mention it to him. He realises the princess has been drugging him and throws out the drink she gives him that night, so when the girl comes in expecting one last night’s fruitless watch, she finds her prince awake and waiting for her. What’s more, he’s come up with a plan of his own. Tomorrow is the day his stepmother has scheduled for the fake wedding, and he has every intention of thwarting her.
In the morning, he gives his terms. He wants to wear a very specific shirt to the wedding, but it is marked by three drops of tallow, and he has sworn to marry only the woman who can wash those away. The stepmother sees no reason not to agree. Instead of shrinking, however, the spots of tallow only grow. The princess tries, then the stepmother, then all their troll servants, until the shirt is a blackened greasy mess. The prince mocks their lack of laundry skills and calls in the girl to show them how it’s done. Well, the odds are stacked in her favour; no sooner has she dipped the shirt in the water than it’s restored to snowy cleanliness. The prince announces his love and his audience is so outraged that they all spontaneously burst. With that, the prince, the girl and all the other kidnapped guests strip the castle of its gold and silver and escape for their own happy endings.
Burst? Seriously, who came up with that ending? This story has much in common with the French fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and even more so with ‘The Lady and the Lion’, but has a completely different vibe. The sexual tension between the heroine and her prince practically sizzles and nothing can match the evocative magic of those directions ‘east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon’. I don’t care if everybody there is evil, I want to move in right now and invite all the magic old ladies to tell me their life stories.