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

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(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

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