As I write this, I am wearing knee-high polar bear socks. I think this is awesome. I've never worn knee-high socks before, and it feels like I have a secret because no one knows there are polar bears all the way up to my knees.
I am easily amused.
The socks were a present from my husband (because he is awesome and because a talking polar bear features prominently in my next book).
Another present from my awesome husband this holiday season was this book: East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, illustrated by Kay Nielsen. It's a gorgeous book of Norse tales, originally collected by Asbjornsen and Moe and translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent in 1859. The edition I have is a recently-released replica of the 1914 edition that has been out-of-print forever, and I totally squealed like an overexcited piglet when I opened this present.
My next book, ICE, is inspired by the titular tale in this collection, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." So I thought I'd share with you some of the other Old Tales from the North over the months leading up to ICE's release. Enjoy!
The Blue Belt (from Asbjornsen and Moe)
Once upon a time... a lad finds a blue belt. His mother, an old beggar-woman, says, "Leave it alone. It's probably evil." Secretly, the boy puts the belt on anyway.
Beware the evil belt! It shall make your trousers fall down at inopportune moments.
A little while later, the lad sees a light from a house. His mother says, "Don't go there. It's probably a troll house." But the boy insists, and they knock on the door anyway.
Paranoid much? Sheesh. "Don't touch that; it's evil. Don't go there; they'll eat you."
A troll answers, and the old beggar-woman faints in fear. The boy has a pleasant chat with the troll, while his terrified mother cowers in the corner. The troll feeds them a lovely dinner of an entire ox and a cask of wine and invites them to spend the night. The lad agrees.
My apologies to the old beggar-woman. Like the saying goes, "It's not paranoia if a troll really is about to eat you."
In the night, the troll says to the beggar-woman, "If only your son were gone, you and I could live here happily-ever-after." And the woman says, "Sounds great, but how do we kill him?"
"I have a plan," the troll says. "Tomorrow, I'll ask him to help me in the quarry, then I'll roll a rock on him and squish him." The boy overhears all of this.
Hang on. Rewind a bit. Okay, yes, one of the hallmarks of fairy tales is that a fairy tale doesn't dwell on character motivation. But throw me a bone here. A hint that the boy is evil or the that the woman is crazy... I suppose we have the fear-of-belts thing which isn't entirely normal, but being afraid of random fashion accessories is not enough motivation for accessory to murder.
The next day, the troll invites the boy to the quarry and asks him to go down to the bottom and check for cracks in the rocks. The boy says, "No, thanks. You're planning to roll a rock on me and squish me. You go down to the bottom." So the troll goes down to the bottom, and the boy rolls a rock down on him and breaks his leg.
Troll = not so bright.
The boy carries the troll home. That night, the troll and the woman again conspire to kill the boy. The troll says he has twelve lions in the backyard who would tear him to bits if the boy were to get close. The old woman says she'll pretend she's sick and needs lion's milk.
So he just happens to have twelve man-eating lions in the backyard? Cool.
Next morning, the woman feigns illness and pleads for lion's milk. The son enters the backyard, grabs the largest lion, and bashes him to bits. The other lions are so frightened by this that they are instantly tamed.
He's not exactly the Lion-Whisperer.
He returns with the milk, but the troll doesn't believe it's really lion's milk. So the boy tosses the troll into the backyard. The lions bite the troll until the boy makes them stop.
It occurs to me that perhaps our boy is not exactly Prince Charming.
That night, the troll and woman plan again: this time, the troll will send the boy to fetch an apple from the troll's brothers. The catch is that if the lad eats the apple, he'll sleep for three days and nights, and during this time, the troll's brothers will tear him apart.
And then they'll toss him into a pool with sharks that have laser beams attached to their heads...
So the next morning, the woman pretends she's ill and only the special troll apples will help. Off the boy goes. He picks the apples, eats a bunch of them, and falls asleep. The lions guard him and tear the troll's brothers to bits.
If you knew that someone wanted you to eat an apple so they could murder you, wouldn't you simply not eat the apple? Bring a snack. Or a picnic. Picnics are nice.
When he wakes, he discovers a princess trapped in the troll's brothers' castle. They live together happily for a while until she, homesick, decides to return to her parents.
Note that they don't marry. Kind of unusual for the hero and princess of a fairy tale to shack up. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
After she leaves, the lad, now lonely, returns to his mother and the troll. His mother asks him how he became so strong, and he tells her it's all due to the blue belt. She asks to see it and then tears it off him. She then announces she's going to kill him.
Ah, motherly love.
The troll suggests they burn out his eyes and set him adrift in a boat instead.
Really? You think that's the best plan? Really.
So they do. The lions swim after him and, when he lands on a deserted island, take care of him. He eats a lot of raw meat, but he survives.
I love the lions. Hands down, best part of the tale. Not the raw-meat bit, but the life-saving bit. My cat wouldn't walk across a puddle to save me.
One day, a lion chases a blind rabbit. The rabbit jumps into a stream and emerges with his eyesight restored. So the lion fetches the lad and dumps him in the stream. He regains his eyesight.
Clever lion. Convenient stream.
The lad then convinces the lions to swim side by side while he stands on their backs as if they were a raft.
Remind me not to hire the lad to design any boats.
He rides them all the way home, where he promptly kills his mother and then burns out the troll's eyes and sets him adrift in a little boat. No lions follow the troll.
Seems a wee bit extreme for a fairy-tale hero. I could be wrong, but I don't recall Prince Charming ever indulging in such atrocities.
Lonely again, the lad misses his princess. He sets sail, but due to bad weather, is forced to land on a deserted island. He and his fellow sailors find a large egg, break it open, and out comes a chicken the size of an elephant.
It's Horton the Elephant's baby elephant-bird! That's awesome!
They leave the island. When they reach the mainland, the lad tells the sailors to bury themselves in sand up to their necks. They do. A little while later, a giant bird flies by with an island in its talons. It drops the island and sinks all the ships in the harbor.
And then? And then... And then nothing having to do with any part of this last scene is ever mentioned again at all. No giant bird. No island. No mention of why they buried themselves in the sand. Nothing. Seriously. It's like the storyteller had to take a bathroom break and designated someone who hadn't been paying attention to stall for time until he/she returned to resume the tale.
After that, the lad proceeds to the princess's castle. He learns that her father (the king) has hidden her and promised her hand in marriage to anyone who can find her.
Fairy-tale kings always seem to like these games. Did any actual king in the history of the world ever offer their daughter up to the winner of a Medieval Amazing Race?
He buys a white bear-skin, dresses himself in it, and begins to dance comically around town. Eventually, the king hears of the entertaining bear and summons him to amuse the court. A sailor (acting as the bear's keeper) warns the king that the bear isn't dangerous unless someone laughs.
Odd plan. Clearly, the lad took notes from the troll.
The bear comes to court, and a serving-maid laughs. The bear tears her to bits.
Everyone is distraught, but the king says, "Quit whining, everyone. It's just a maid." And he brings the bear to entertain his daughter, the princess, in her hidden home under the sea.
There are so many things wrong with those two sentences that I don't know where to begin.
The king warns the princess not to laugh, but as the bear begins to entertain the princess, one of the princess's maids laugh. The bear tears the maid to bits.
Our Prince Charming is not very good at wooing women. Slaughtering your lover's companion... not as romantic as one might think. Note to the lad: next time, just bring flowers.
The princess is upset, but the king tells her, "It's just a maid. Nothing to cry about." And he leaves the bear there to spend the night because it's now night-time and he doesn't want to guide the bear back to his castle in the dark.
The king clearly missed a few lessons in child-rearing: always use seatbelts, don't let your kid run with scissors, and don't leave man-eating bears in your child's bedroom.
Once the king leaves, the bear reveals himself as the lad she once knew, and the princess rejoices.
What a charming reunion. "Oh, I've missed you, you great homicidal maniac, you!"
The next day, the lad presents himself to the king and says he wishes to find the princess in her hidden home. The king tells him if he fails in twelve hours, he'll be killed.
Wait -- you mean the whole thing with the man-killing dancing bear was an elaborate plan for the lad to find out where the princess was hidden? And it worked??
The lad dances for eleven hours, and then he leads the king directly to the princess's hidden home under the sea. With one minute to spare, he kicks open the door, and the lovers are reunited.
And there you have it, the moral of the story: arrogant, disobedient, matricidal, homicidal, and faintly ursine wins the girl.
They marry and live happily ever after.
Hey, what happened to the lions?
For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.
Labels: Obscure Fairy Tales, Old Tales from the North, Polar Bears