tagNovels and NovellasEast of the Sun, West of the Moon

East of the Sun, West of the Moon


This is a re-telling of the Norwegian fairy tale, with a twist or two.

Once upon a time, there was a simple poor peasant but he was very handsome and had won the hand of the strongest woman in the country, Olga. She was strong of body, strong of mind and strong of character. She had given him many children and they were all above average; handsome and strong in different ways.

The youngest was the prettiest and the strongest, a true inheritance of the best in both her mother and her father. A smile from Ruth, for that was her name, could brighten the darkest of days and her laughter made their poverty seem like a blessing, for Ruth shone all the brighter for the darkness around. Ruth smiled the brightest at the scant meal set before her and laughed the loudest as she made a game out of mending the clothes that were no better than rags.

One day, on a Thursday evening late in the fall, the weather grew wild and rough outside. Darkness had come early and the rain was falling slantwise. The wind blew so that the walls of the cottage shook. The big family sat around the cheerful fire in the small house and busied themselves with this and that, trying not to listen to the thunder outside or notice the flashes of lightning and the rain that beat against the windowpane. Ruth told a story to distract her brothers and sisters.

"And then the ice queen said..."

Suddenly, three sharp taps sounded on the window. The group fell silent. Surely something had been knocked against the window. Perhaps it had begun to hail? But no, the sound came again... three sharp taps. The peasant pulled on his overcoat and hat then went out to see what was the matter. Outside, his eyes grew wide as he took in the great white bear that stood as tall as he, even though it was on all four paws. He thought of running back to the door but knew that no matter how large and ungainly the bear might seem, he could not outrun him.

"Good evening, my apologies if I have interrupted your evening meal," said the white bear genteelly.

"And to you, but you interrupt no meal," said the peasant, bobbing his head.

"Surely this is the dinner hour?" asked the bear diffidently.

"It is." The peasant nodded nervously. "But there was little for dinner and it was over long ago."

"Ah, yes. It is said that this is a poor household that houses the brightest gem in the country. I have a proposal for you that would lessen your burden. Will you give me your youngest daughter? If you will, I'll make you as rich as you are now poor," said the bear. "And your daughter will live in the lap of luxury."

The peasant considered the request carefully. Truly, the family was in a sorry state. Winter was coming and they would not make it through under the current conditions. Sacrifice one family member to this bear or certainly lose all of them to hunger? But could any of them bear to lose Ruth? She would have to go willingly in order for this to happen. None of them would force her.

"I must consult with my family in this matter," the old man said, bowing to the bear.

"Of course," the bear replied.

The man went inside and the entire family looked up at him with a question in their eyes. He sat down heavily and looked at his youngest daughter. She had just turned eighteen. Really, a child no more.

"There is a great white bear waiting outside, who has given his word to make us all very rich if he can only have... Ruth."

A chorus of "No!" went around the room. All except Ruth spoke. Her father looked to her for her answer.

She walked to her father and knelt before him, putting her cheek on his knee as she had so often done before. "Tell me truly, papa, will we make it through this winter without the money from this bear?"

The man had it in his mind to lie. He did not want his daughter to go but as she gazed up at him, he found he could not hide the truth from her. "No, my daughter, we would surely all perish."

"Very well, then, I accept. But please ask him for a week to make myself ready."

With a heavy heart, her father went outside and fixed it with the bear. He would come again the following Thursday. That week, Ruth washed and mended her rags, and made herself as ready as she could. Soon she was prepared for the trip, for she didn't have much to take along.


The next Thursday evening the family gathered in the small house sadly, waiting for the white bear who would come to take their Ruth from them. Again a tapping sounded at the windowpane.

The girl rose from her stool with her bundle and kissed her family each in turn good-bye.

"Good-bye brothers... good-bye sisters... good-bye father... good-bye mother. I pray God keeps you all well." She turned and went out the door to the great white bear.

"Get on my back," he directed her, kneeling down. She got on his back with her bundle, wrapping her legs around his massive back and burying her fingers in his thick fur. Off they went.

After they had gone a good way, the great white bear asked, "Are you afraid?"

Ruth thought for a moment, searching herself for any feelings of fear, "No."

The bear did not believe that she could be unafraid though. "Just hold tight to my shaggy coat. There's nothing to be afraid of," he said.

They traveled a long, long way. Ruth napped even as she held on and finally they came to a large steep cliff. The white bear walked up to it, raised a furry paw and knocked on it. A large wooden door, rounded at the top, appeared and opened. They walked into a castle. It was lit up with a hundred candles and gleaming with silver and gold. It was far grander than anything she had ever seen before.

The white bear let her down off his back, picked up a silver bell from a nearby table and held it out to her. "Take this, when you want anything, you only have to ring it, and it will be brought to you at once. Please make yourself at home. Dinner is laid on the table."

The bear gestured to a table at the end of the room. In her hunger and tiredness, Ruth walked toward it, not realizing the bear had turned and left.

There many grand delicacies layed out on the table; smoked salmon, gravlaks which is a sugar and salt cured salmon with dill and other herbs, the fermented trout called rakfisk, seafood... fresh, smoked, salted and pickled, lingonberry preserves, the slow cured lamb's leg called fenalar, the smoked sausage morr and so much more. There were breads and cheeses, pastries and even cloudberries with cream. She couldn't even identify some of the things on the table.

After she'd eaten her fill, the tiredness from her journey overcame Ruth but she didn't know where she was to sleep so she rang the bell. She had barely rung it before she found herself in a room. There was a bed made as fair and white as anyone would wish to sleep in, with silken pillows and curtains, and gold fringe. All that was in the room was either gold or silver.

Ruth was so tired that she could hardly take it all in. She washed in the basin provided and put on the nightgown that had been laid out for her. She was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Ruth woke during the night as the bed sank. She heard the sigh of a man as he laid down beside her. It seemed somehow familiar but she was still scared.

"Ruth? Are you awake?"

"Yes," she replied. How did he know her name?

"I am the bear who carried you this night. At night, my pelt is cast off but you cannot see me. I will only come in when it is dark and I will be gone again in the morning. Go back to sleep."

What strange magic was this? Ruth believed him for the voice was the same though filtered through the animal when he was in that form. She blushed in the dark as she thought of how she had wrapped her legs around his back, even though he had been a bear at the time. Ruth lay awake for a while, worried about what might happen next but when nothing did, her fatigue from the journey dragged her back down to sleep.


The day dawned brightly and Ruth woke to find him up and off again already, just as he had said. She set about discovering the castle that day. She explored many rooms but found no people. Any time she rang the bell, whatever she desired appeared. When night fell, she went to her room, prepared for bed and turned out the light. After a little while, the man came in again and laid down on the opposite side of the bed.

"How was your day Ruth?"

"Very good, thank you."

"That is good, goodnight."


Ruth became used to these strange events and even content with them. She had the run of a beautiful castle, sumptuous clothes and delicious food to dine on each day. At night the man came after dark and they began talking, getting to know one another. He told her such stories that she laughed and giggled until she was too tired to stay awake. Eventually though, she became quiet and sad. She was alone all day long, and she became very homesick to see her father, mother, brothers and sisters.

One night, the bear came to bed in his human form and found Ruth there sniffling.

"What is wrong?" he asked.

"I think I am getting a cold," she replied stoically.

He reached out in the dark and touched her face, feeling the moisture beneath her eyes.

"Tell me truly Ruth, what is wrong?"

"I am sorry. It's just that it is so lonely during the day here. I miss my family. I long to visit them. That is why I am so sad, because I can't go see them."

"Well," he replied, "that is simple enough. You can go, but you must promise me one thing. Do not talk alone with your mother, only when others are around to hear. She will want to take you by the hand and lead you into a room to talk alone with her, but you must not do that, or else you'll bring bad luck on both of us."

Ruth readily agreed.


The next Sunday the white bear came to her.

"We can now set off to see your father and mother." He knelt for Ruth to get onto his back as she had when they first came to the castle and off they went. They traveled far and long. At last they came to a grand house painted in beautiful colors with many windows. Everything was so pretty, it was a joy to see.

"This is where your father and mother live now with your brothers and sisters," said the white bear. "Now don't forget what I told you, else you'll make us both unhappy."

"No, heaven forbid, I shall not forget."

When they reached the house, Ruth dismounted from the white bear. He turned around and left her there.

Ruth rushed into the house and found her mother and father at their leisure. They jumped up and called for her brothers and sisters as they held her. There was such joy, that there was no end to it.

"We cannot thank you enough daughter, all you have done for us has made our lives good." Her father gazed at her with pride and joy.

"We now have everything we could wish for," her mother added. "Our life is as good as good can be, but... what about you? Are you well? Does the great white bear treat you well?"

Her mother's eyes searched Ruth's. How could she explain the life she led? Though she was happy enough, it would surely sound very strange to anyone else.

"Well," she said at last, "it is very good to live where I do. I have all I could wish for. There is a great castle and all the rooms are filled with gold and silver. Each night a sumptuous feast is laid on the dining table and I have beautiful clothes to wear, as you can see."

That afternoon, after they had eaten dinner, everything happened as the great white bear had said it would.

"Daughter, come with me into my bedroom. Let us talk privately together." Her mother took her hand and tried to lead her away from the large family group.

Ruth remembered what the white bear had said and wouldn't go with her. "What we have to talk about we can talk about any time," she demurred, putting her mother off.

Later, after a simple but delicious and filling dinner, Ruth's mother asked her to help clear the table. Ruth picked up some dishes and followed her mother down the hallway to the kitchen. As she set down the dishes and turned back to the door, Ruth found her mother standing before it.

"Daughter, you must tell me truly what has happened to you since you went to live with the great white bear." Ruth was an obedient daughter and faced with such an order and the concern written on her mothers face, what could she do but tell her the whole story?

She told her, how every night, after she had gone to bed, a man came and lay down beside her as soon as she had put out the light, and how she never saw him because he was always up and away before the morning dawned. She admitted that it made her terribly sad, for she wanted so much to see him. She also told her mother how she was by herself all day long, and how dreary and lonesome it was.

"Oh dear," said her mother; "it may well be a troll you are sleeping with! You must see him. I'll give you a candle stub, which you can carry home in your bosom. Just light it while he is asleep, but be careful not to drop any tallow on him."

Ruth took the candle, and hid it in her bosom, and that evening the white bear came and took her away.

But when they had gone a ways on their journey, the great white bear asked her the question she feared.

"Did it not all happen as I had said it would?"

She couldn't deny that it had.

"Take care," he said, "if you have listened to your mother's advice, you will bring bad luck on us both, and it will be finished with the two of us."

"No, I will do no such thing. I will not jeopardize our home."

When she reached home, and had gone to bed, it was the same as before. A man came and lay down beside her. They talked and laughed and eventually fell asleep. But in the middle of the night, when she woke and heard his deep and even breath, her mother's fearful words stole across her mind. What if he was a troll? She could be lying beside a terrible monster this very minute and not know it. Fear clutched at her mind and heart. For one who had never really known fear, it was a terrible feeling.

She got up and lit the candle. She let the light shine on him, and saw that he was the most handsome Prince anyone ever set eyes on. Her heart thrilled with the love she had found with this man, talking late into the night and she thought her heart would explode if she didn't give him a kiss at once. So she did, but as she kissed him she let three drops of hot tallow drip onto his shirt, and he woke up.

"What have you done?" he cried. "Now you have made us both unlucky, for had you held out only this one year, I would have been free! I have a stepmother who has bewitched me, so that I am a white bear by day, and a man by night. But now all ties are broken between us. Now I must leave you for her. She lives in a castle east of the sun and west of the moon, and there, too, is a Princess, and now I will have to marry her."

Ruth cried and grieved. This wasn't bad luck. This was a curse! If only he'd told her before, but there was no help for it, he had to go.

"Let me go with you," she wailed.

"You cannot," he replied stonily.

"Tell me the way, then" she said, "so I can look for you. Surely I may do that."

"Yes, you can do that, but there is no way leading to the place. It lies east of the sun and west of the moon. You will never find your way there." A single tear fell from his eye.

Seeing her grieving countenance, the Prince took her into his arms and held her, soothing her until her tears stopped and she slept.


The next morning, when she woke up, both the Prince and the castle were gone, and she was lying on a little green patch, in the midst of the thick, dark forest, and by her side lay the same bundle of rags she had brought with her from her old home.

Ruth felt the tears well up in her and she let them come. She cried and howled in her grief at what she had lost. She cried until she was spent and rubbed the tears away. She thought of her Prince and her heart grew strong again. She would find him, no matter how long it took. She found some berries to eat and set out on her way. She walked many, many hours, until she came to a high cliff. An old woman sat under it, and played with a golden apple, tossing it high into the air and catching it. A horse stood, hobbled, nearby.

"Excuse me, honored mother, you have lived many years and must have seen many things under the sun. Do you know the way to the Prince, who lives with his stepmother in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?"

"How did you come to know about him?" asked the old woman. She looked perplexed but then her countenance cleared. "Maybe you are the girl who should have had him?"

"Yes, I am," Ruth replied sadly.

"So, it's you, is it?" The old woman gave her an appraising look. Ruth stood as tall and strong as she could under the gaze. The old woman finally nodded. "Well, all I know about him is that he lives in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, and that you'll get there too late or never. Still... you may borrow my horse and you can ride him to my next neighbor. Maybe she'll be able to tell you something more heartening. When you get there, just give the horse a tap under the left ear, and beg him to be off home. You can take this golden apple along with you."

"Thank you, thank you so much," Ruth said as she accepted the apple.

She un-hobbled the horse and got on. The horse was raring to go after standing around so she rode hard for a long, long time. As the horse began to tire, they came to another cliff, under which sat another old woman, with a golden carding comb.

Ruth dismounted and gave the horse a tap under the left ear. "Be off home!"

The horse trotted off as she approached the old woman with the carding comb and repeated her plea.

"Excuse me, honored mother, you have lived many years and must have seen many things under the sun. Do you know the way to the Prince, who lives with his stepmother in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?"

Like the first old woman, she knew nothing about it except that it was east of the sun and west of the moon.

"And you'll get there too late or never. You must be the girl that was to have had him, since you come on my neighbor's horse. Therefore, you can borrow my horse to my next neighbor. Maybe she'll be able to tell you all about it. When you get there, just switch the horse under the left ear, and beg him to be off for home. Also, take this golden carding comb. Perhaps you'll find some use for it."

"Thank you, thank you so much," Ruth said as she accepted the golden comb.

So the girl got up on the horse, and again rode a long, long way. At last she came to another great cliff, under which sat another old woman, spinning with a golden spinning wheel. Wearily, Ruth climbed down off the horse and set it on its' way home.

She approached the old woman, spinning under the cliff. "Excuse me, honored mother, you have lived many years and must have seen many things under the sun. Do you know the way to the Prince, who lives with his stepmother in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon?"

But it was the same thing over again. Ruth was beginning to feel like she was caught in a dreadful nightmare loop.

"So, you are the one who should have had the Prince?" said the old woman.

"Yes, that is me."

The old woman didn't know the way any better than the other two. She knew it was east of the sun and west of the moon, but that was all.

"And you'll get there too late or never; but I'll lend you my horse."

This old woman, though, had a different suggestion to make. "I think you'd best ride to the east wind and ask him. Maybe he knows his way around those parts, and can blow you there. When you get to him, just give the horse a tap under the left ear, and he'll trot home by himself."

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