Books

‘Thither You’ll Come, Late or Never’: The Richness of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon

(Andrea Izzotti/Getty Images)
The myth of Cupid and Psyche and its literary offshoots teaches us to delight in the mysterious.

‘Curiosity killed the cat.” How frequently have we heard that saying? So often, we bristle when told to curb our own curiosity, and we argue that we’re just wondering. But is there a distinction to be drawn concerning curiosity and wonder? A Greek myth and an old Norse fairytale, both dear to me, seem to demand this distinction.

It is curiosity that plunges two lovely but sadly underrated heroines into strange adventures — adventures that test their ingenuity and determination. The first heroine is simply named “lassie,” and we follow her journey in the old Norse tale East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon. In return for wealth for her family, our lassie agrees to live with the White Bear in his palace. She is given every comfort in her new home, but she is alone — except for the strange man who comes and sleeps on the other side of her bed each night. This is the White Bear, who sheds his furry skin and takes a human form. Unhappily for our lassie, she heeds bad advice from a scheming mother — advice that the White Bear told her to disregard — and tries to discover the identity of her strange bedfellow. This plan goes horribly wrong when she sees that the man is a handsome prince, falls in love with him, but wakes him by dripping hot tallow from her candle onto his shoulder. He then tells her she has failed, and that if she’d only let a year run out, he would’ve been freed from an evil enchantment. Now, he must leave her and marry an ugly troll princess.

Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book opens with this story, and it may be many people’s first exposure to the tale. Told in a straightforward, almost tongue-in-cheek manner, his narrative makes the reader nearly take for granted that our lassie is in a strange predicament, that one can travel on the back of the wind, and that there could be a place east o’ the sun and west o’ the moon. Adding to the enchantment of the tale, P. J. Lynch’s illustrated version is enthralling. With his detailed watercolors, this master of the light and shadow captures the determination of our lassie, the immensity of the winds, and the vileness of the troll princess.

Curiosity is also nearly the downfall of Psyche, the heroine of an old Greek myth wherein East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon has its origins. Those familiar with Greek myths will remember Psyche, whose beauty was said to rival Venus’s — a fact which enraged the goddess. Sent by his mother, Venus, to make the girl fall in love with something hideous, Cupid accidentally pricks himself with his own potent arrow and falls in love with Psyche. Poor lonely Psyche, adored by many but loved by none, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that she will fall in love with a terrible monster, and to leave her family and go to the top of a mountain to meet him. Much like our lassie, Psyche is led to a gorgeous palace and given every comfort. Her host (Cupid, but cloaked in invisibility) is kind and engaging, but nothing Psyche can say will make him reveal himself. Psyche also listens to scheming family members and betrays her host by spying on him with a lamp while he slumbers, then waking him when she spills oil on his shoulder.

This story, too, has a stunningly illustrated version, done in oil over watercolor by K. Y. Craft and retold by M. Charlotte Craft. Meticulous attention is paid to details in the pictures, from pomegranates near Persephone to the period hairstyles of Psyche’s sisters to the splendor of Venus. But most heart-wrenching is the image of Psyche weeping for her lost love, after being turned out of the palace for her betrayal.

“These are lovely stories,” one may say, “but why must the heroines be punished so? Why is each forbidden to see her host?” It seems unfair that they are penalized for simply wanting to understand their circumstances. Possibly, but entwined with this theme of curiosity is the potentiality that these tales are begging readers to also consider the importance of obedience and trust. Remember Adam and Eve? God, who has proven Himself a trustworthy figure, requires they not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He does not explain why, nor should he have to. Wrestling with questions of faith is perfectly legitimate (and even necessary), but only to a point. When the serpent appears and sows seeds of doubt in the minds of Adam and Eve, instead of turning to the one they can trust for guidance, they disobey His command.

Certainly, pursuit of knowledge is important, and both our lassie and Psyche strive to right their wrongs and go to great lengths to be reunited with their lovers. But as Cupid tells Psyche after her initial betrayal, “love cannot live without trust.” To come to true understanding, our heroines must learn trust.

To take this another step further, perhaps our desire to defend curiosity comes from our loss of a sense of the mysterious. Nothing is allowed to remain unprobed. First, this defeats the power of a fairytale. “A fairy story is one that takes place in the realm of Faerie, an enchanted world, Fairy-land, a place that creates a sense of marvel and mystery by describing things that are beyond an explanation from nature,” says Peter J. Schakel. Precisely so. And Madeleine L’Engle, in A Circle of Quiet, quotes Einstein as saying that, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, can no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.” Our lassie and dear Psyche want to possess the mysterious, and in trying to take it, they destroy wonder and trust.

Notable authors have taken the premise of these tales and either retold them or woven their themes through other novels. Louisa May Alcott plays with Cupid and Psyche in Rose in Bloom, and Jessica Day George retells East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon in her YA novel Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow. Though clever in some ways, George’s story can’t hold a candle to the best retelling of either tale, written by C. S. Lewis. His Till We Have Faces is a powerful story, one whose riches many a wiser head than mine have already pondered. Suffice it to say, his retelling adds depth and intensity to the tale of Cupid and Psyche and is well worth the read.

Pictures or text, retelling or the original, the tale of our lassie and the myth of Psyche are worth reading and rereading, pondering and probing, as we strive ourselves to delight in the mysterious.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children's literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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