Hello, everyone! I’m back with another book review about a fairytale adaptation. Today we’ll be discussing Edith Pattou’s novel East, which is a re-telling of the traditional Norwegian fairytale “East O’ the Sun and West O’ the Moon.” I read this story frequently as a child, so I had high expectations for Pattou’s adaptation. Although her prose is simple and elegant, and her love for the original story shines through the pages, I found East to be a far more superficial adaptation than I expected for such a fascinating fairytale. The lack of character development, as well as Pattou’s seeming disinterest in exploring the more unsettling aspects of the original story, make for a retelling that is a pale imitation of the Nordic fable.
Synopsis: Born to a superstitious mother and a mapmaker father in 16th century Norway, Rose spends her childhood seeking adventure, and dreams of traveling the world on the back of an imaginary white bear. When her family is on the edge of eviction from their farm, and Rose’s sister Sara falls ill, it seems that the family will fall into ruin, until a mysterious white bear appears at their doorway, promising to restore the family’s luck if Rose will agree to live with him. Fearing for her family, Rose agrees, and travels with the white bear to a magical mountain castle, where she begins a strange new life with the bear. As Rose and the bear grow closer, Rose starts to wonder at the bear’s true identity, and her curiosity sets her on a journey that will unearth the truth and mend the mistakes of the past.
My thoughts: Pattou’s novel starts off strong by grounding the “East O’ the Sun” fairytale in a tangible world. Rose grows up in a rural part of Norway that is no stranger to the harsh realities of disease, famine, and death, but is also touched by threads of magic. Tales of trolls who live in the icy, inhospitable world of Niflheim, and Rose’s dreams of a talking, almost-human white bear, make it believable that Rose would trust that a magic white bear could cure her family’s ill luck. It also helps explain Rose’s unflappable attitude towards every hardship that comes her way, whether that be magical enchantments, shapeshifting Inuit shamans, or a seemingly impossible journey to the land “East O’ The Sun and West O’ the Moon.”
As the protagonist of an epic fairytale, Rose fits the bill in some areas, and falls short in others. She’s amazingly resourceful and a competent navigator, which is well explained by her upbringing on a self-sufficient farm, and her schooling at the hands of her mapmaker father. But she’s also almost inhuman in her ability to conquer any obstacle in her path. Her journey to find The White Bear, which sets her on a path from Germany to the Arctic Circle, is full of difficulties, ranging from sailing across the icy North Sea, to crossing Greenland on foot, to traversing the impossible “ice bridge” connecting the human and troll worlds, and yet, Rose never faces any challenges other than minor setbacks. When a storm renders her ship useless, Rose quickly learns how to rig a sail and steer the ship. When she’s attacked by a polar bear, she recovers almost instantly. And when she’s faced with the “uncrossable” ice-bridge, she crosses it by simply attaching seal’s claws and hooks to her feet to give her better grip on the slippery surface. And at each leg of her journey, Rose always seems to find a character who will give her all of the tools and skills she will need, as if these paper-thin characters only exist to aid her on her quest.
For such an epic journey, the stakes should seem thrilling, but Rose’s uncanny ability to overcome any challenge in a matter of paragraphs snatches away any suspense from the story. Some of this could be blamed on the original story, where the heroine is aided by similar one-dimensional characters, but the point of a fairytale adaptation is to embellish and elaborate on a fairytale’s conventions, not rely on them like a crutch. Because Rose is given or taught everything she needs to succeed, it feels like she never grows as a character. Her main static personality trait, adventurousness, is all she needs to accomplish her goals, and because her mettle is never truly tested, Rose never evolves.
Static characterization isn’t limited to the protagonist in East. For some perplexing reason, Pattou divides the novel into five perspectives, sharing the story between Rose, her father, her brother Neddy, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. While I enjoyed Rose’s perspective and that of the Troll Queen, who is the engine behind the story’s conflict, the other three perspectives served no purpose, and were almost indistinguishable from each other. Rose and the Troll Queen are the only active characters in the novel, while the other three simply react to the events around them. Neddy and Rose’s father might as well just be deus-ex-machina in corporeal form, popping up at the end of the novel to magically save Rose instead of giving Rose a chance to do something herself.
The most compelling character in the novel is the Troll Queen, whose chapters provide us only brief glimpses at a thrilling magical world. Pattou characterizes trolls as beautiful creatures with rough ridged skin who live in Niflheim, and steal “softskin” humans to work as mindless slaves in their ice palace. Instead of being enchanted by an evil stepmother as in the original tale, Pattou writes that the White Bear’s enchantment was set by the Troll Queen’s father as a punishment for illicitly stealing a “softskin” boy to be her husband instead of a slave. I appreciated Pattou’s description of the troll culture and their inhuman treatment of humans, and I also liked that she portrayed the Troll Queen as something of a sympathetic villain, driven by love rather than jealousy. This was a successful example of her building out from the original story.
Unfortunately, Pattou fails to embellish the parts of the original fairytale that need it the most. For me, that’s the part concerning the White Bear sleeping in the protagonist’s bed after she goes to sleep. In the original story, the bear transforms into a man every night after dark and sleeps beside the protagonist, who is curious about the man’s identity, but is never able to see who he is. When the bear allows the girl to visit her family, he warns her not to listen to any of her mother’s advice. And of course after telling her mother about the mysterious man in her bed, the mother advises her to light a candle when the man has fallen asleep to discover his identity. This advice always made perfect sense to me, because why should a defenseless girl be forced to share a bed with a strange adult man (?!!), but when the girl lights the candle in the fairytale, she discovers it’s a handsome prince, and in doing so, drips tallow on his skin and breaks the enchantment, forcing the prince/bear to go live with his evil stepmother.
Now, this bizarre series of events only makes sense when it applies to characters in a fairytale and there is no time or space to delve into the logic behind their actions. When the same story applies to characters in a novel, the author needs to provide rational, or at least, emotional motivation for their decisions. When I read this story as a child, my greatest quibble revolved around the protagonist committing some sort of “sin” by attempting to get a glimpse of the stranger in her bed. The girl knows nothing of the enchantment, so she doesn’t know that the bear will gain his freedom if he can sleep in the bed of a willing maiden for a year without her seeing him. The bear can’t tell her the details because of the conditions of his enchantment, so how is she at fault for breaking the rules of an enchantment that she didn’t know existed?
I always got the feeling that we were supposed to blame this girl for her faithlessness and her suspicion, as if the act of curiosity was an evil thing. But why is this poor girl supposed to trust in the goodness of a stranger who she can’t see or speak to? How can we blame her for telling her mother about this strange bed-fellow, or for taking her mother’s logical advice and attempting to discover the man’s identity? The key theme here is faith: that for some reason, this girl is supposed to have undying faith in the White Bear because he helped her family, and that to do otherwise means she’s doubting this “blessing” and looking a gift horse in the mouth. From my perspective, however, I could never understand why this girl was to blame for trying to gain some control over her situation.
I was hoping that Pattou would remedy this twisted fairytale logic by providing better motivation for Rose in this situation. Rose, however, reacts to the event of a stranger sleeping beside her with the same passivity as the character in the fairytale. She never really questions it, and pretty much immediately understands that the stranger is benevolent and most likely the White Bear himself, which I think is an unrealistic reaction for a 16th century teenage girl who would have been warned from childhood not to be in bed with a man until marriage. And when she does give into curiosity, she follows the same script as the fairytale heroine, immediately blaming herself for breaking the enchantment and feeling guilty for not simply following the status quo, which seems at odds with Rose’s prior characterization as an independent-minded person. She also immediately comes to the conclusion that she needs to find the White Bear in the troll world to make amends for breaking the enchantment, which, again, she had no idea existed and had no hand in causing. The plot is guided completely by fairytale conventions, without lending any additional narrative development to make the actions of these characters seem grounded in reality.
East’s greatest flaw is its lack of deeper meaning. The original story posed questions about the extent of blind faith, and whether one person has a duty to help end the suffering of another. Pattou’s novel includes these questions because they’re inherent to the original tale, but she doesn’t try to explore them through the actions of her characters, nor does she tie them to the overarching story. Rather than Rose wondering why she trusts the stranger in her bed, she simply trusts him. Instead of facing an intense dilemma over whether to obey or ignore her mother’s advice about lighting the candle, she lights the candle with barely a second thought. And instead of wondering whether it is her responsibility to help the bear end his enchantment, she knows instinctually that it’s her duty to aid him. Pattou never questions the conventions of the fairytale, and consequently, Rose doesn’t question those conventions either, which leaves East feeling like a transposition of the original story, rather than a standalone adaptation.
Final Consensus: East might be a suitable introduction to “East O’ The Sun” for young readers, but for older readers or anyone familiar with the story, the novel feels lackluster. Pattou’s writing style is is enjoyable, and her setting is well-crafted, but her characters suffer from static personalities, and the story lacks any real stakes. For those wanting a light adventure, East might suffice, but for readers wanting a more mature adaptation of a beloved tale, the novel will fail to meet your expectations.