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Manuscript vs Myth: North Child

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

First published in 2003, Edith Pattou’s ‘North Child’ (also published under the title ‘East’) retells the Norwegian fairytale, ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’. Pattou takes a deeper look at the classic tale, exploring the motivations and emotions behind the characters, as well as taking a fantastical story about magic, polar bears, and trolls, and managing to give it a greater grounding in reality by emphasising some of the fantastical elements, while explaining away others.

The original tale was one of many Norwegian fairy tales collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the 19th century. It tells the story of a husband and wife who had far more children than they could afford, the youngest of whom was the most beautiful. One day, the father was visited by a polar bear, who requested to marry this beautiful daughter, in exchange for the family gaining great fortune. The girl was reluctant and initially refused but was eventually convinced by her father.

Taking the girl with him, the polar bear returned to his castle. By day the girl had everything she could ever wish. By night, she found a stranger in her bed, the candles blown out and refusing to light, preventing her from seeing the face of her strange visitor. Each night, the two would sleep beside each other, until the girl grew homesick and begged for a visit. Finally relenting, the polar bear took the girl home to see her family, who were thriving and happy in a huge new manor. They were thrilled to see her safe, though the mother was greatly concerned when she learnt of the girl’s mysterious night-time visitor. She gave her daughter a candle and flint, so that she could light them next time her visitor came to call.

Returning with the bear, the girl kept her mother’s gift a secret. The night, she waited until her visitor was sleeping, and lit the candle. Sleeping next to her she saw the most beautiful boy she had ever seen, but as she leant forward her candle tilted, spilling tallow onto his nightshirt. The boy woke and revealed that he was the polar bear – and also a prince. He had been cursed into the form of the bear by his wicked stepmother, who wished him to marry her trollish daughter. If the girl had slept beside him a full year without trying to see his face, he would have been free. Instead, he is taken back to his step-mother’s castle – east of the sun and west of the moon.

Desperate to find him, the girl joes on a journey to find this castle. She is eventually carried there by the eastern, southern, western, and northern winds. Meanwhile the prince has declared that he will only marry whoever can remove the tallow stain from his nightshirt as only a Christian would be able to do so. However much the trolls try, they are unable to remove the stain. As soon as the girl steps forward and pulls the shirt from the wash basin, it turns a brilliant, blinding white. Together, the girl and the prince escape the castle and the trolls for ever.

While Pattou’s ‘North Child’ has many similarities to Asbjørnsen and Moe’s version, there are some notable differences. Pattou goes into the history of the family, and how their circumstances became dire enough to need the magic of a white bear.

Eugenia and Arne were the parents of eight children, one of whom had died of sickness when young. The youngest of the surviving children was named Rose.

Unlike the original tale, she was not necessarily the most beautiful, but she was the most adventurous, constantly getting into scrapes. Though the family loved each other very much, they seemed plagued with misfortune. Their farm gave them barely enough to get by and when rent went up they were facing imminent eviction. Things only got worse when another of their children fell ill. It was then that the white bear came. He does not just promise wealth if they let him take their youngest, he promises that their other daughter would be healed.

Even with these promises, in Pattou’s version of the story it is not Rose who is reluctant to take the bear’s deal, but her father. In fact, he refuses point blank to let Rose go. It is Rose who insists upon going with the bear and changing her family’s fortunes.

From there, much of the story remains the same. Rose is spirited away by the white bear to a magical castle where her every need is met. Every night the candle goes out and she is joined in bed by a strange figure. In Pattou’s version, however, Rose notices that the figure is always cold and, being a weaver, makes him a warm night shirt. Eventually she grows homesick, visits her family and is given a candle and flint, only to learn that her night-time visitor is a handsome prince.

Pattou dispenses with the prince’s wicked stepmother. Instead, he was kidnapped as a youth by a young troll princess who had fallen in love with him. The curse of the white bear was a punishment from her father, who had forbidden her from stealing the human prince. Pattou also goes into more detail about the nature of the trolls than the original legend. There are many different types of trolls that appear in Scandinavian myth. In some legends they appear inhuman, often giant and lumbering with craggy skin – in fact there are several rocky, geological features across Scandinavia that are said to be trolls who turned to stone when they encountered sunlight. In other legends however, the troll can appear almost entirely human, albeit with incredible magic powers.

The trolls from Pattou’s novel certainly have incredibly powers – transforming a man into a bear and enchanting a castle. They also appear almost entirely human, however they are very pale, and their skin is rough and swirled like tree bark. The troll princess takes the prince (formerly the white bear) to her magical home in the ice, so that she can make him her husband.

It is here that Pattou’s story diverges significantly from the original tale. Rather than hitching a ride with the four winds, Rose must undergo the journey alone. She travels by foot across the land that she found herself in when the prince and his castle disappear. When she reaches the coast, she boards a boat. Though Rose is not literally carried by the wind, the boat she boards is a sailboat, and it is a terrible storm blowing the boat off course that carries her to the shore of the land where the trolls live. It is still the wind that takes her where she needs to go.

This is not the only time that Pattou removes or downplays a magical element of the story. As in Asbjørnsen and Moe’s version the prince declares that he will only the person who can clean the tallow stain from his night shirt. Though the troll princess attempts to do so, all her magical crafts cannot clean it, and only make the stain worse. In ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’ it is said that the girl cleans the shirt because only a true Christian would be able to do so. Trolls in Scandinavian legends do have a rocky relationship with Christianity –they were thought to destroy churches as the sound of church bells would force them to leave an area.

Rose has no such divine intervention. Throughout the novel we learn that Rose has a love for weaving and sewing. The stained night shirt in questions is in fact one that Rose made for the prince earlier in the novel. Pattou makes a point that is no supernatural nor divine skill that allows Rose to clean the shirt, but instead her own knowledge of the cloth and stain that teaches her to clean the shirt in boiling water, and let the tallow melt off.

By minimising the magical elements that occur in the earlier story, Pattou creates a contrast between the magical world that Rose has found herself in, and her own status as a mortal girl. Rose is only able to rely on her own wits and skills – there is no magic to help her once the white bear prince is taken. In doing so, Pattou also places more emphasis on Rose’s own autonomy. It is her choice to go with the bear, it is her skills and resilience that allow her to locate the land of the trolls, and her own knowledge of an overlooked and understated skill – making and washing clothes – that allows her to succeed when magic cannot.

Overall, Pattou’s ‘North Child’ is an incredible homage to the early legend. It shows a clear respect for the source material, while at the same time building on and developing the characters’ motivations and skills. Though some of the fantastical elements of the story are lessened, this is only to allow Pattou to explore Rose’s journey further, and none of the magic of the original tale is lost.


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