It was a tattered little book. The original spine had been torn away, only to be mended later by some well meaning librarian. The pages, rough and uneven around their edges, were browned with age and the oils of countless fingers. The binding was so brittle that you could hear the book creak as she turned its pages, reading aloud.
The fingers turning those pages, the voice reading the words, belonged to the young woman who was teaching my 2nd-Grade class. Or was it 1st? It’s hard for me to remember for sure.
What I do remember, is that we were given a half an hour of every day for Story Time, and that each week our teacher would choose a new book to read from.
I remember little else from those long ago days.
I know that I got in trouble a lot. Teachers called me disruptive.
Mostly, I think, for my habit of talking in class.
Whenever I got bored, my mind liked to wander off on its own, which might have been fine if I hadn’t insisted on taking others along for the ride.
And here I am now, taking you down memory lane. Old habits die hard I guess.
I think my mind must have done a lot of wandering in those days, because I honestly don’t think I could tell you anything else that happened in those classes. I couldn’t name for you the children I sat with. I couldn’t hope to tell you what it was I was supposed to be learning, when I did bother to pay attention.
It was all just too long ago, now.
And yet, I do remember ‘story time’ as if it happened only yesterday.
That’s not true.
It’s just that I remember one particular week of ‘story time’.
If you asked me what stories our teacher read to us in the weeks that came before or after that one special week, I could not say.
So the truth, I guess, is that I don’t really remember ‘story time’ at all.
What I remember is ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’.
Have you ever read the story?
It is an old Norwegian folk tale, intended for children, but like so many fairytales, it’s packed full to bursting with deeper mythological content.
On an evening at the end of Fall, a poor farmer is accosted by a talking polar bear and asked to give up his youngest and most beautiful daughter in exchange for great material wealth. The girl at first refuses but is then convinced by her father to give herself willingly for the good of the family.
—At the beginning of that long transitional time between final harvest and first planting, a young girl, the symbol of the creative principal in its first flowering, is sacrificed to the totemic spirit of a white bear, bleak winter incarnate.
The great white bear returns the next day and, carrying our heroine on his back, takes her away from her home. Just as their hovel is about to pass out of sight he stops and asks her, “are you afraid?” She was not. They travel further across fields and forests, finally arriving at the base of a steep, snow covered hill. The bear taps against the side of the rock and a door is opened to an underground castle, filled with every luxury.
—Here we have the classic passage from the world of the living into the underworld of the fairy faith, where the great hills contain hidden halls and kingdoms which may only be entered by those who know the way or have cast off the fears and burdens of mortal existence.
Thereafter, during the day she has everything she could ask for, except the company of another living soul. In the night, when she has climbed into bed and put out the light, she is visited by a man who does not feel like a bear, and who vanishes again before the first light of dawn.
—Here we find common ground with countless other tales of fairy-folk who are said to exist in one form by day and another by night. The young lady is made queen of a domain that she cannot fully perceive, commanding agents which provide for her every need, but with whom she may not communicate. And if our young lady seems more put out by her daytime solitude than she does the nightly visits from her Bear Prince, well…,
I could go on at length, but I don’t want to give away the entire plot.
If you’ve never read the story (or any of the others that usually accompany it) you should. If you have read it, I’d highly recommend reading it again.
For such a short little story, there is a great deal of imagery to explore.
There is still the fabled (if temporary) return from the land of the dead, which always causes problems, a (magic?) candle smuggled in from the land of the living to cast a revealing light upon the nocturnal visitor, broken vows and dire consequences, a triplicate goddess who appears to guard the way back into the otherworld, living incarnations of the four cardinal directions, and just when you needed some comic relief – TROLLS!
I remember, as a child, thinking that the trolls were pretty crazy. My favorite part of the story, however, was always when the young girl makes makes her way to the home of the North Wind. I knew, even then, that there was supposed to be more to him than just a gust of cold air. I just knew that he must have other names. I simply had no way of knowing then, what those names might be.
But I wanted to find out.
I wanted the teacher to keep reading from that book.
I pestered her about it for the rest of that year, but she never opened it for us again.
Instead, on the last day of class that year, she handed it to me and wished me well.
And I have it still.
And I still read it, from time to time, although I’ve since bought a slightly newer copy, so as to better preserve that first one.
Those worn pages are special to me because they were my first introduction to some of the thoughts and ideas that form the very basis upon which the mythologies of Western Europe were built. So many of the things I’ve come to revere, to question and think deeply about, are hidden ever so skillfully, between the shabby covers of that little book.
I didn’t recognize them when I first heard them, but I must have known there was ‘something’ there that seemed important enough to me that I didn’t want the story to stop.
I think I was lucky.
I wonder about the kids of today, and I worry.
They have so many things available to them that I never dreamed of, information streams into their lives through computer screens and tablets and a million other sources. And that’s all for the good.
I wonder though, if anyone will take the time to sit down with them and read from a tattered little collection of folk tales that were old beyond memory when their words were first set to paper.
I dearly hope so.
Because there are answers there, and questions, and truths which have been long lost to us, blown like an aspen leaf on the north wind to land finally on the emerald lawn of the castle which lies east of the sun and west of the moon.