From the first moment she saw him, the girl knew the bear had come for her. How many times had she dreamt of him, of riding on his back, sleeping wrapped safe in his paws, walking beside him? How many times, on their terrifying journey, had she imagined the bear walking beside her, guarding her family while they slept? Now he was here, as if spelled from her dreams.You may have heard me say before that “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is my favourite fairy tale. The reasons why range from my not so secret love of stories set in snowy Northern landscapes and featuring talking polar bears to its memorable protagonist, a determined girl who seeks, finds, and rescues her prince. So imagine my excitement when I spotted a new retelling by author and illustrator Jackie Morris on this year’s Carnegie Medal nominations list (sadly the book didn’t make it as far as the longlist, which was announced earlier this week). I knew I’d have to get my hands on it as soon as I possibly could.
However, I have to be very careful when I approach retellings of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”: I have this very concrete idea of what I’d like one of them to do in my mind, and it can be really easy to slip into the trap of resenting a perfectly good book for not being your Dream Book. Let me tell you a little bit about what my Dream Book does: it approaches the nighttime encounters between the protagonist and the cursed prince as an opportunity to explore unspoken desires and the reasons why they remain unspoken; it addresses trust and consent; it looks at the enormous vulnerability of sexual intimacy; and it conveys that feeling of wanting to know more, more, more about someone but having to balance that longing with the knowledge that trust will come at its own pace and in its own time. These are some of the themes and feelings I project onto the empty canvas of this fairy tale I love so much. The retellings I’ve found so far never quite hit the mark, but that’s the magic of individual readings — the thematic resonances of a story won’t ever be quite the same for two readers.
Let’s begin by getting this out of the way, then: unsurprisingly, Jackie Morris’ East of the Sun, West of the Moon did not turn out to be my Dream Book. This isn’t to say, however, that it isn’t a very good book. As I said above, I’m always excited to find new versions of this story, even if my ideal one remains unwritten (or at the very least undiscovered by me). Additionally, this is a fairy tale that particularly lends itself to feminist retellings, with its emphasis on female desire and agency and its heroine who gets to act on what she wants and set the terms of her own story; Morris’ beautiful version makes the most of these elements.
The setting of East of the Sun, West of the Moon mixes aspects of real world grounding with the temporal and geographical vagueness that a lot of fairy tales share, and it does so to excellent effect. The story opens with the large white bear making his way towards the family of the girl who called to him. The family, we learn, are refugees who have recently arrived in a new land. While they wait for the papers that will make their status official, they live an uncertain existence on the margins of society:
They had come for him one night. A knock on the door — then they burst into the house and dragged him away. Days later they brought him back, broken and bruised with threats of what would happen to his wife, to his children, if he continued to write. So they had fled, a frightening journey over land and sea, to claim asylum in this new country.I loved this — I loved how, from the very beginning, Morris establishes the heroine’s background and makes it clear that this is a fairy tale about a girl who belongs to a group of people whose stories we don’t often get to hear. And yet that doesn’t mean that the struggles that brought her here, to the moment when the “once upon a time” begins, are going to be the only thing this tale is about.
Yet things were little better here. They were treated as criminals ‘while their case was investigated’. Over and over, her father was interrogated about his torture at the hands of the government, was forced to relive the horror and humiliation until he sand into despair. Unable to work, feed or clothe the family, they lived off charity, little more than beggars.
The promise that the papers will come and the girl’s family will be safe is part of what the white bear has to offer, yet we know that there’s more to why she’s following him than concern for her family. There’s an element of pure raw longing to her decision — this is a girl who wants to travel through snow-covered forests on a white bear’s back, who wants to see what lies beyond the boundaries of her world, who needs to leave even as the leaving breaks her heart.
Perhaps because I’m older, or perhaps because Morris’ retelling brings it to the forefront, I found myself more drawn to this aspect of the fairly tale now than I had been in previous readings. This story about a girl who follows a white bear because she wants to see the world, and then later follows a cursed prince to a place that lies east of the sun and west of the moon, is also a story about leaving and homesickness and tough choices that are nonetheless right for your life.
Before I read East of the Sun, West of the Moon I was mostly familiar with Jackie Morris for her work as an illustrator — as you can see through the samples I’ve included in this post, her art is no less stunning here than usual, and the result is an absolutely gorgeous book. It was interesting to also get acquainted with her work as a writer, though. There are moments of great beauty in this retelling, though I found that her prose occasionally veered too close to purple for my liking. For example: “The days were long, but the journey was pleasant, through silver-bitched forests where golden leaves of autumn played a beautiful tune with the breeze, and the light planted dappled gold pennies on the rich earth beneath the horse’s hooves.”
But of course, your mileage may vary. The line that divides ornate writing from purple prose is different for each reader, and there’s no absolute standard defining what succeeds and what fails. And even for me, these moments were few and far between — overall the tone of the story was just right.
Morris’ East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a fairly faithful adaptation of the fairy tale until (spoilers ahoy) we get to the end. The girl — Berneen, as we eventually find out she’s called — rescues the cursed prince as in the original, but that doesn’t mean she’s now irrevocably tied to him forever and ever. If along her journey she happens to have met someone she finds more exciting, she’s perfectly free to pursue him once the rescuing is done. I absolutely didn’t see this ending coming — to explain why I found it so significant, allow me to quote what Jodie was saying about Frozen just the other day:
There are a lot of tragic love stories where fate and other people get in the way of romance. There are a lot of books where it turns out that a first romantic partner wasn’t so perfect and the hero or heroine flies into the arms of someone less awful. There aren’t very many stories where love goes wrong due to general human issues and the protagonist moves on to a new relationship, but is still able to say they loved that first person even if they would never go back to them.Friends, I’m absolutely delighted to report that I’ve found one such story. I have to say had some reservations about Berneen’s new love interest (alluring yet dangerous male romantic leads are such a can of worms), but my joy at having found a story where a girl is allowed to leave a partner for someone else with no shaming or reproach won the day.
Just for once, could we have a grown up conversation about girls in love? Could creators stop using “he was evil all along” as a way to resolve a dramatic love triangle? There’s no need to justify the fact that girls fall in and out of love, and got and do it all again with someone new. Often the first guy is just a regular guy who no longer floats that girl’s boat. It would be nice if we could see that reflected in media because it happens. A LOT.
They read it too: Charlotte’s Library
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