East of the Sun and West of the Moon


“East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is a Norwegian tale, though some say it has Celtic roots. The two cultures are not so far apart geographically and not without trade, so both claims may be correct. This is a less familiar fairy tale, which makes it a good choice for using with older students. You can click on the title for a simple online telling of the story (with separate beds), or find a longer one here, and the Sur la Lune annotated version here. East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon is available as a picture book, and Nancy Willard has done it as a play. Ice by Sarah Beth Durst is a YA novel based on the story. Jan Brett’s Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve? has elements of the story, and is a great picture book for the younger students.

A poor woodcutter lives in the woods with his children, and has trouble feeding them all. One night, a white bear comes knocking on the window asking for his youngest daughter, and offering to make the woodcutter rich. The woodcutter refuses, but the bear says he will come back, and when he does, the girl goes with him. They live in a castle, where the bear turns into a handsome prince by night. The girl, consumed by curiosity, lights a candle to look at him, and drops tallow on his shirt. This means that the prince/bear must go to the castle that lies East of the sun and West of the Moon, and marry a troll. The girl follows him, relying on the help of the winds, including the North Wind, who carries her to the castle. There she figures out how to release the prince from the enchantment by washing the tallow from his shirt.

A complicated story, admittedly, and probably not one that you can put on four sequencing cards. But for older students, it is a treasure trove of teachable moments.

One of the things we like best about this story is that the girl is resourceful. Her father does not sell her; she hears the bear’s offer and decides to go with him. She causes problems by disobeying the no-curiosity clause in the arrangement, but then she solves it through her own efforts. She is brave and persistent, even though people keep telling her she will fail.

Once you’ve read and enjoyed the story, bring in some cross-curriculum connections:

Social Studies Connections:

  • This could be a great time to study the cardinal directions. Print out a compass rose for each student. Have them color and label them and put them on the classroom floor. Have each kid stand on his or her compass rose and play Simon Says, limiting the instructions to “Simon says turn northwest!” and so on.
  • This is a Norwegian story, so why not study Norway? Here is a large collection of links, including a complete secondary-level unit plan.
  • The bear/prince’s reasons for choosing the girl as his bride are her beauty and, later, her ability to wash his shirt. She loves him because he is so handsome. Have students brainstorm and write about good criteria for choosing a spouse.

Math Connections:

  • The nose of the the troll princess is three ells long. An ell is equal to just about 45 inches. So how long is the troll’s nose?
  • Time and distance also come up in the story. Take advantage of the connection to bring in your time and distance lessons here.

Science Connections:

  • Polar bearsare an obvious choice. This page has links to lots of good information and printables on polar bears.
  • “East of the sun and west of the moon” is a poetic way to describe a place outside of normal space, but is the sun really east or west of the moon? Here is the Discovery School’s lesson plan on the moon, where you will find an answer to that question, and an excellent lesson about the phases of the moon.
  • How can you get candle wax out of a shirt?  Have students gather ideas from parents, and set up an experiment to work on their science process skills. If you want to skip the idea-gathering, compare ironing the fabric between sheets of waxed paper (use a press cloth) and using a commercial degreaser from the auto parts store. Focus on observation, accurate measurement and recording of data, and clear reporting of results. Since the candle in the story was made of tallow, not of wax, you might compare results with wax and with tallow (ask at the butcher shop).

Art Connections:

  • Enjoy Kay Nielsen’s 1914 illustrations for this fairy tale. Here you will find more information about this important illustrator. Many people see reflections of Nielsen’s work in modern anime. Use Venn diagrams to help students analyze this connection.
  • Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, and Diana Krall are among the singers who have recorded the song of the same name, composed by Brooks Bowman. Listen to Krall’s version. Compare the lyrics with the story.
  • Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King is a wonderful piece to know. Play it and have students listen for the sounds of the trolls exploding, as the troll princess does in the story.
  • Color Jan Brett’s troll pencil topper.
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