Thursday, January 15, 2009

Obscure Fairy Tale: The Blue Belt

As I write this, I am wearing knee-high polar bear socks. I think this is awesome. I've never worn knee-high socks before, and it feels like I have a secret because no one knows there are polar bears all the way up to my knees.

I am easily amused.

The socks were a present from my husband (because he is awesome and because a talking polar bear features prominently in my next book).

Another present from my awesome husband this holiday season was this book: East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North, illustrated by Kay Nielsen. It's a gorgeous book of Norse tales, originally collected by Asbjornsen and Moe and translated by Sir George Webbe Dasent in 1859. The edition I have is a recently-released replica of the 1914 edition that has been out-of-print forever, and I totally squealed like an overexcited piglet when I opened this present.

My next book, ICE, is inspired by the titular tale in this collection, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." So I thought I'd share with you some of the other Old Tales from the North over the months leading up to ICE's release. Enjoy!

The Blue Belt (from Asbjornsen and Moe)

Once upon a time... a lad finds a blue belt. His mother, an old beggar-woman, says, "Leave it alone. It's probably evil." Secretly, the boy puts the belt on anyway.

Beware the evil belt! It shall make your trousers fall down at inopportune moments.

A little while later, the lad sees a light from a house. His mother says, "Don't go there. It's probably a troll house." But the boy insists, and they knock on the door anyway.

Paranoid much? Sheesh. "Don't touch that; it's evil. Don't go there; they'll eat you."

A troll answers, and the old beggar-woman faints in fear. The boy has a pleasant chat with the troll, while his terrified mother cowers in the corner. The troll feeds them a lovely dinner of an entire ox and a cask of wine and invites them to spend the night. The lad agrees.

My apologies to the old beggar-woman. Like the saying goes, "It's not paranoia if a troll really is about to eat you."

In the night, the troll says to the beggar-woman, "If only your son were gone, you and I could live here happily-ever-after." And the woman says, "Sounds great, but how do we kill him?"

Excuse me?

"I have a plan," the troll says. "Tomorrow, I'll ask him to help me in the quarry, then I'll roll a rock on him and squish him." The boy overhears all of this.

Hang on. Rewind a bit. Okay, yes, one of the hallmarks of fairy tales is that a fairy tale doesn't dwell on character motivation. But throw me a bone here. A hint that the boy is evil or the that the woman is crazy... I suppose we have the fear-of-belts thing which isn't entirely normal, but being afraid of random fashion accessories is not enough motivation for accessory to murder.

The next day, the troll invites the boy to the quarry and asks him to go down to the bottom and check for cracks in the rocks. The boy says, "No, thanks. You're planning to roll a rock on me and squish me. You go down to the bottom." So the troll goes down to the bottom, and the boy rolls a rock down on him and breaks his leg.

Troll = not so bright.

The boy carries the troll home. That night, the troll and the woman again conspire to kill the boy. The troll says he has twelve lions in the backyard who would tear him to bits if the boy were to get close. The old woman says she'll pretend she's sick and needs lion's milk.

So he just happens to have twelve man-eating lions in the backyard? Cool.

Next morning, the woman feigns illness and pleads for lion's milk. The son enters the backyard, grabs the largest lion, and bashes him to bits. The other lions are so frightened by this that they are instantly tamed.

He's not exactly the Lion-Whisperer.

He returns with the milk, but the troll doesn't believe it's really lion's milk. So the boy tosses the troll into the backyard. The lions bite the troll until the boy makes them stop.

It occurs to me that perhaps our boy is not exactly Prince Charming.

That night, the troll and woman plan again: this time, the troll will send the boy to fetch an apple from the troll's brothers. The catch is that if the lad eats the apple, he'll sleep for three days and nights, and during this time, the troll's brothers will tear him apart.

And then they'll toss him into a pool with sharks that have laser beams attached to their heads...

So the next morning, the woman pretends she's ill and only the special troll apples will help. Off the boy goes. He picks the apples, eats a bunch of them, and falls asleep. The lions guard him and tear the troll's brothers to bits.

If you knew that someone wanted you to eat an apple so they could murder you, wouldn't you simply not eat the apple? Bring a snack. Or a picnic. Picnics are nice.

When he wakes, he discovers a princess trapped in the troll's brothers' castle. They live together happily for a while until she, homesick, decides to return to her parents.

Note that they don't marry. Kind of unusual for the hero and princess of a fairy tale to shack up. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

After she leaves, the lad, now lonely, returns to his mother and the troll. His mother asks him how he became so strong, and he tells her it's all due to the blue belt. She asks to see it and then tears it off him. She then announces she's going to kill him.

Ah, motherly love.

The troll suggests they burn out his eyes and set him adrift in a boat instead.

Really? You think that's the best plan? Really.

So they do. The lions swim after him and, when he lands on a deserted island, take care of him. He eats a lot of raw meat, but he survives.

I love the lions. Hands down, best part of the tale. Not the raw-meat bit, but the life-saving bit. My cat wouldn't walk across a puddle to save me.

One day, a lion chases a blind rabbit. The rabbit jumps into a stream and emerges with his eyesight restored. So the lion fetches the lad and dumps him in the stream. He regains his eyesight.

Clever lion. Convenient stream.

The lad then convinces the lions to swim side by side while he stands on their backs as if they were a raft.

Remind me not to hire the lad to design any boats.

He rides them all the way home, where he promptly kills his mother and then burns out the troll's eyes and sets him adrift in a little boat. No lions follow the troll.

Seems a wee bit extreme for a fairy-tale hero. I could be wrong, but I don't recall Prince Charming ever indulging in such atrocities.

Lonely again, the lad misses his princess. He sets sail, but due to bad weather, is forced to land on a deserted island. He and his fellow sailors find a large egg, break it open, and out comes a chicken the size of an elephant.

It's Horton the Elephant's baby elephant-bird! That's awesome!

They leave the island. When they reach the mainland, the lad tells the sailors to bury themselves in sand up to their necks. They do. A little while later, a giant bird flies by with an island in its talons. It drops the island and sinks all the ships in the harbor.

And then? And then... And then nothing having to do with any part of this last scene is ever mentioned again at all. No giant bird. No island. No mention of why they buried themselves in the sand. Nothing. Seriously. It's like the storyteller had to take a bathroom break and designated someone who hadn't been paying attention to stall for time until he/she returned to resume the tale.

After that, the lad proceeds to the princess's castle. He learns that her father (the king) has hidden her and promised her hand in marriage to anyone who can find her.

Fairy-tale kings always seem to like these games. Did any actual king in the history of the world ever offer their daughter up to the winner of a Medieval Amazing Race?

He buys a white bear-skin, dresses himself in it, and begins to dance comically around town. Eventually, the king hears of the entertaining bear and summons him to amuse the court. A sailor (acting as the bear's keeper) warns the king that the bear isn't dangerous unless someone laughs.

Odd plan. Clearly, the lad took notes from the troll.

The bear comes to court, and a serving-maid laughs. The bear tears her to bits.


Everyone is distraught, but the king says, "Quit whining, everyone. It's just a maid." And he brings the bear to entertain his daughter, the princess, in her hidden home under the sea.

There are so many things wrong with those two sentences that I don't know where to begin.

The king warns the princess not to laugh, but as the bear begins to entertain the princess, one of the princess's maids laugh. The bear tears the maid to bits.

Our Prince Charming is not very good at wooing women. Slaughtering your lover's companion... not as romantic as one might think. Note to the lad: next time, just bring flowers.

The princess is upset, but the king tells her, "It's just a maid. Nothing to cry about." And he leaves the bear there to spend the night because it's now night-time and he doesn't want to guide the bear back to his castle in the dark.

The king clearly missed a few lessons in child-rearing: always use seatbelts, don't let your kid run with scissors, and don't leave man-eating bears in your child's bedroom.

Once the king leaves, the bear reveals himself as the lad she once knew, and the princess rejoices.

What a charming reunion. "Oh, I've missed you, you great homicidal maniac, you!"

The next day, the lad presents himself to the king and says he wishes to find the princess in her hidden home. The king tells him if he fails in twelve hours, he'll be killed.

Wait -- you mean the whole thing with the man-killing dancing bear was an elaborate plan for the lad to find out where the princess was hidden? And it worked??

The lad dances for eleven hours, and then he leads the king directly to the princess's hidden home under the sea. With one minute to spare, he kicks open the door, and the lovers are reunited.

And there you have it, the moral of the story: arrogant, disobedient, matricidal, homicidal, and faintly ursine wins the girl.

They marry and live happily ever after.

Hey, what happened to the lions?

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.

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At 11:12 PM, Blogger Q said...

That is so bizarre... I can't even begin to describe it. But it's still not as disturbing as The Juniper Tree.

"Oh, I've missed you, you great homicidal maniac, you!"

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Juniper Tree definitely has the most disturbing family issues of any tale I know. But it lacks an inexplicable elephant-bird...

At 11:41 AM, Anonymous Georgina said...

I love this blog, it's kept me going through all my exams! Thankyou so much! (I do creative writing at uni and fairytales is something I'd love to explore - so I can genuinely say this is research as well as entertainment!

At 12:40 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Georgina: One of the best things about being a writer is how many things you can chalk up to "research." :) Glad to hear you're enjoying my blog! Good luck with your writing.

At 2:52 PM, Blogger Saints and Spinners said...

I wonder if the extent to which a fairy tale makes sense depends upon how often it's told. The more popular ones get whittled and polished while the less popular ones retain many of their burrs and bumps (how many metaphors did I mix here?). "The Blue Belt" has the pattern of an oral round-robin story. Thanks for sharing it. As always, I appreciate your wry commentary sprinkled throughout.

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Saints and Spinners: Cool way to think about it -- the less-well-known tales have been through fewer rounds of editing than the popular ones. I wonder if the more popular ones are the ones that have been made more logical or the ones that started out more logical... Probably a combination of both.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger belgatherial said...

Doesn't everyone cover themselves with sand up to their neck and watch giant birds fly around? I mean, come on!

I love these, thanks for making me giggle - again!

At 9:43 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Belgatherial: That was on my schedule of things-to-do tomorrow...

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Erin said...

Ok, this is one of my favorite of your "retellings" - if not very favorite. So hilarious. I love the lions.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Erin: Glad you liked it! I keep asking my husband for a pet lion, and he keeps saying no... He's probably right. We do already have a cat with a lion-like personality, and if she were lion-sized, we'd be in real trouble.

At 10:26 PM, Blogger Lucas B. said...

Horton's Elephant-Bird.
Read my blog!
I like Pie! Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

At 10:27 PM, Blogger Lucas B. said...

Sorry about th tiny moment there. Had a frustrating day. Needed to do something odd and/or creepy.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Lucas: I always liked that little elephant-bird, though I can't decide if the Horton story is depressing or actually an uplifting response to the Giving Tree...

At 5:30 AM, Blogger AndraRossana said...

I think this might be the archetypal start to the accessories craze :D . Never say no to a nice free belt.
Loving the randomness, it reminds a little of Arabic tales, Sindbad's journeys and the like (also the lion part might be a clue that it's a Viking-grabbed story from more exotic lands :D).We might find an Oriental tale where neck-buried sailors suddenly appear out of nowhere with a giant bird on their tracks :D.
Also WANT polar bear socks!

At 5:35 AM, Blogger AndraRossana said...

And I was wondering if you'd mind me posting a link to your Blog on my Facebook. I just want to share the goodness. Thought I'd ask first :).Thanks.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

AndraRossana: I like the idea of archetypal accessory-obsession. :) Please feel free to post a link to my blog wherever and whenever you want.

At 7:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'Wait -- you mean the whole thing with the man-killing dancing bear was an elaborate plan for the lad to find out where the princess was hidden? And it worked??'
You are brilliant.
(Also...IMO this is way weirder than the Jun. tree. I mean, that one is weird and disturbing in normal Grimn-fairy-tale ways...but this one's just NUTS...)

At 12:37 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Anonymous: Yeah, the Juniper Tree (while disturbing) is at least a logical narrative. This one... not so much.

At 4:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read Little Claus and Big Claus from Andersen? It's not as disturbing as the ones you've posted but i hated it as a child.

This one was great!

At 9:02 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Anonymous: Yeah, that one is quite disturbing. I actually find a lot of Andersen's tales to be disturbing, but Little Claus and Big Claus feels very similar in tone and structure to a Grimm's to me...

At 3:00 PM, Blogger MusicaChick said...

This story illustrates my absolute favorite thing about fairy tales: Total Lack of Character Motivation. All of the baseless action makes me giggle.

I really love your commentary, too.

At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Does anyone realize that the blue belt has soooooo little to do with the story. a better title would have been the overprotective mother that wants to kill her son , or maybe the lad that dresses up as a killer dancing bear in order to get a girl, or perhaps return of the only felines willing to go into water:)

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

MusicaChick: That is exactly what makes these stories so much fun to retell. (Well, that and giant elephant-birds.)

Anonymous: It is a bit like calling Cinderella "The Pumpkin." On the other hand, I suppose the story wouldn't be possible if the kid hadn't gained super-strength from the belt... Then again, it's certainly not the most memorable part of the story.

At 6:39 PM, Blogger Hedgi said...

oh it's been ages since i came on blogspot- and i did only because i wanted to see what YOU were up to.
another 'lovely' tale. cracked me up.
"it's only a maid'
i think all the innocent victims of fairy tales need to rise up from their graves and take revenge.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Hedgi: Glad you stopped by, and glad you liked the tale! There are quite a lot of innocent victims. And older siblings whose only crime was not being the third (or seventh) child. Perhaps they should all form a support group...

At 5:52 PM, Blogger Alessia said...

Te blue belt has given creeps to the mother at first. Why?
I'll tell you.
Blue, in many countries like France, was considered the devil's colour, back then.
Note: not red.
Red was considered instead a rich good colour.

P.S. I ADORE your 'bsite! :)

At 6:17 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Alessia: Ooh, cool fact. I didn't know that. Thanks!

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Alessia said...

Delighted to share (my tiny amount of) knowledge :D

As a coincidence, just today for french we read an old folk story (form Yugoslavia) about this king that would give his daughter's hand and half his kingdom to the man that would guess what birthmark his daughter wore and where. The unfortunate people who got it wrong would either be transformed into a sheep or had their heads cut off and stuck on sticks. Ouch!
It was disturbing but in the end it was kinda of.. nice! (No, scratch that it was just downward weird, and I think there was also some perversion: lots of double-meanings going around. :D )

At 10:29 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Alessia: Ooh, I've never read that one. Must go find it...

At 4:09 AM, OpenID azurelunatic said...

I loved this book! My father read stories from it to us when I was very small, and then I read the whole thing, cover to cover, including the naughty stories at the back.

At 11:19 AM, OpenID conuly said...

Wow. That story is certainly very... special.

At 3:17 PM, Anonymous UZ said...

Am I reading the gendering of "Lion" correctly in this story? Because if I am, then that almost sounds like some kind of misguided attempt at cunning by the mother, a la:

Beggar-Woman: We should tell him to milk some kind of dangerous animal.
Troll: I have some lions in the back.
BW: Stoopid! You can't milk a... waaaaaait. That's perfect!


Son: I milked the lions. It took all day.
BW: You... what?
Son: They're so friendly now!

At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

love ur comments!
this story is not suggested for a bedtime story huh?

At 3:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This obscure fairy tales with commentary are hilarious! Write some more, please!

At 3:01 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Emma said...

what did happen to the lions


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