One of my first commissions as a picture book illustrator was an old Norwegian folk tale, namely East of The Sun, West of The Moon. The title brings to mind some beautiful images made by the illustrator Theodor Kittelsen, who illustrated The Polar bear King. The two stories probably have the same origin, but there are also differences. And Kittelsen, who I admire very much has chosen a slightly different angle. In his images the white bear have features that makes him resemble the trolls he has drawn several times and that served him the fame he later achieved.
The princess riding on the back of the bear is strangely anonymous, her features are so vague.
To me, the girl herself was essential and I wanted to show her development.
The story tells of a girl who is youngest of all her sisters. We hear in the story the sisters are out playing, so we understand she is probably under age when the story starts. Even so her poor parents promise a white bear to marry their daughter. In return they will have economical compensation that will end their poverty. A stormy Thursday night the bear comes to collect the girl, who much against her will has to depart from her family.
The bear installs her in his castle and in the night he comes to her in the shape of a man. The next day he is again a bear, and she must promise never tothrow light at him in his human shape. Despite a good life, she is homesick, and finally the bear agrees to letting her visit her family.
Her mother soon manages to get the full story of her life with the bear, and convinces her she should light a candle to see who he is.
Coming back to the caste she lights the candle in the night and immideately falls in love with the beautiful prince sleeping at her side.
Spilling wax from the candle on his shirt he wakes up, and in anger and sorrow tells her he now must part. Had she waited only three days he would have been a free man: Now he must go east of the sun, west of the moon, to marry a troll princess. Her mother has cast a spell on her so he has the shape of a bear in day light. The girl cries bitterly, and she wakes up the next morning alone in a green slope in the forest. This is the turning point of the story. Having been a passive victim of other peoples decisions, she now starts to take action and to accept the concequences of her choices. Through long struggles she finally travels with the wind, finding the troll castle. She negotiates with the trolls, and is reunited with the prince on the eveneing before his marriage to the ptroll princess. The trolls try to wash off the wax stains from his shirt, but every attempt just makes the shirt look worse. Finally the girl has a possibility to try, and she removes all stains until the shirt is shiny and white. The trolls explode in fury, turning to stone.
And the prince and the girl are free to leave - and marry.
About the illustrations
The commission was part of a serial Cappelen made in the early nineties. All the other boks were in colors, so they opposed the idea of making penicl drawings, as I had wished. I chose a technique that was both time consuming - and expensive:
First I made pencil drawings, photographed them, developed them on photo paper. The photos were bleached, sepiatoned - and finally retouched with aquarelle and oil colors. A very slow process, and I would never have don ehte same today! The drawing above is inspired by a place I am very fond of, in the valley Hemsedal. Seeing the drawing in my archive now, I immediately want to go back to this wonderful place.