East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales of the North by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen
Illustrations by Kay Nielsen
Originally published in 1914; 1976 edition
Genre: Mythology, folklore, Norwegian folklore
“Once upon a time there was a poor husbandman who had so many children that he hadn’t much food or clothing to give them.”
Like any good folk or fairy tale, the eponymous “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” begins with those four words we know so well and takes the reader from the world of the normal into a fantastic, northern landscape. Compiling six folk tales from Norway, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, focuses on the artwork of Kay Nielsen and its ability to bring these stories to life. Prepare to head north and remember your multiplication tables for the number three; in this realm tales of princesses, trolls, and triads abound.
The book begins with a preface describing the original collection and publication of the six stories in this volume. There were originally twenty five stories in the first printing back in 1914, but they decided to focus on six stories that had cards made for them in 1976. There is also an introduction into Kay Nielsen, his work, career, and the hope for his lasting legacy.
The first story, which gives its name to the collection, lays down many of the patterns that are found in the tales that follow. There is repetition, especially in threes, during a quest where the hero or heroine seeks a boon. “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” follows the myth of Cupid and Psyche very closely, with the young woman going to bed each night with a man she is not allowed to look upon lest bad luck and an end to their bliss come about.
The protagonists in these tales are often given instructions not to do something or go into a forbidden place by a character that presides over them under threat of punishment. Then, like clockwork, the powerful character leaves and the protagonist almost immediately disobeys (usually three times). I was a little surprised by the amount of references to Christianity in these tales, what with the inclusion of the Virgin Mary and by distinguishing humans and trolls by the religion. The focus on the number three, and its variations, does seem appropriate given its place of prominence within the religion.
The real showcase of the book is Nielsen’s art, which gives an ethereal quality to the thin characters. They bend and wind, just like the world around them, in a way that seems both natural and fantastic. I happened upon this book in a local bookstore and knew that I needed to get it. The tales are short and entertaining, though the repetition does wear on a bit when reading stories back to back, but it was overall a great purchase and one that I am glad to add to my little collection of mythology and folklore.
Verdict: 3 Norwegian folktales out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of folklore, those looking for lesser known illustrators, people interested in Norwegian folklore, fans of repetition, those who like the number three, and people looking for a short collection of stories.
Not recommended for: People who dislike princesses, the color blind, those who don’t like repetition, people afraid of the number three, or people looking for a long collection of stories.