Old Books, Old Stories, Old Memories

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“An inviolate circle of light from the lone lamp encompassed mother and child, she in a chair reading aloud from an old tan book of stories, he sleepy-eyed beneath covers hearing about trolls, witches, winds that talked, a castle, and a prince, the stuff that dreams and futures are made of before seasons matter and life hardens the soul. While she liked reading ‘Why the Bear is Stumpy-Tailed’ and his father liked reading ‘Why the Sea is Salt,’ David asked each night for ‘The Lad Who Went to the North Wind’ or his favourite  ‘East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.'” – Malcolm R. Campbell in “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey”

I grew up in a house filled with books. Many of the older books were owned by my parents all the way back to their college years. When I was little, they read stories to me out of fading editions of Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Mother Goose, and others. My favorite folktales were the Norwegian stories collected in a 1912 volume by Gudrun Thorne-Thomsen (1873 – 1956) with illustrations by Frederick Richardson (1862 – 1937) called East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.

While I heard the following stories dozens of times, the excerpt from my novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey tells you which ones were my favorites:

  • East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon
  • The Three Billy Goats Gruff
  • Taper Tom
  • Why the Bear is Stumpy-Tailed
  • Reynard and the Cock
  • Bruin and Reynard Partners
  • Boots and His Brothers
  • The Lad Who Went to the North Wind
  • The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body
  • The Sheep and the Pig Who Set Up Housekeeping
  • The Parson and the Clerk
  • Father Bruin
  • The Pancake
  • Why the Sea is Salt
  • The Squire’s Bride
  • Peik
  • The Princess Who Could Not Be Silenced
  • The Twelve Wild Ducks
  • Gudbrand-on-the-Hillside
  • The Princess on the Glass Hill
  • The Husband Who Was to Mind the House
  • Little Freddy with His Fiddle

You can read these stories in multiple collections, including a version on Project Gutenberg and in reprints available on Amazon. Or, you can see the Wikipedia synopsis here. Even though the book is in poor condition, I like the old copy on my shelf the best. I grew up with it. It’s a link to my childhood. According to the inscription “Kathryn Gourley from Aunt Mary and Aunt Margaret,” my mother was given the book long before she was married.

Chicago School Teacher

My mother’s side of the family came from Illinois, so I’m guessing my aunts heard about the book because Thorne-Thomsen (shown here) was a librarian and school teacher in Chicago. Or, perhaps they heard about the illustrator first: Richardson was probably best known for his work in L. Frank Baum’s books. I’m fairly certain my parents never read me the book’s foreword when I was little. I came to appreciate the author’s rationale behind the book much later:

In recent years there has been a wholesome revival of the ancient art of story-telling. The most thoughtful, progressive educators have come to recognize the culture value of folk and fairy stories, fables and legends, not only as means of fostering and directing the power of the child’s imagination, but as a basis for literary interpretation and appreciation throughout life.

Storytelling was a powerful influence in my early life because that’s what people did before radio, television and the Internet infected their homes with the latest, greatest and most awesome of what’s happening right now. My two brothers, my parents and I read stories, made up stories, shared stories around the table, and wrote them down on notebook paper and kept them until they were crumpled beyond recognition.

As was the practice in those days, some of the stories in East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon were accompanied by illustrations. The first drawing shown here goes with “The Princess on the Glass Hill.” Before I learned how to read, I could spend hours looking at the pictures, remembering the stories.

East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon

The title story begins like this: Once on a time there was a poor woodcutter who had so many children that he had not much of either food or clothing to give them. Pretty children they all were, but the prettiest was the youngest daughter, who was so lovely there was no end to her loveliness.

And it ends like this: But the Prince took the lassie by the hand and they flitted away as far as they could from the castle that lay East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.

Obviously, it’s a “happily ever after” story. Or, to be more formal about it, this is a type 425A story (search for the lost husband) in the Aarne-Thompson classification system, that was originally collected by Asbjörnsen and Moë.

As a child, I liked the White Bear in the story. Who wouldn’t want a friend like that? According to Mary Lou Mitchell, “In Norse tradition, the bear is a valiant warrior, representing ‘the lonely champion, fighting in single combat and leading his men.'” (Later on in my own novels, I used a great black horse as a friend of the main characters.) Long before I knew anything about totem animals and their traditional meanings, my appreciation of “animal helpers” began with this story.

I think, perhaps, that my love of stories and storytelling began with old books and old stories and then remained a part of my psyche via the old memories. Now that I’m a grandfather, I begin to wonder if there will be a day in the future when my four-year-old granddaughter Freya with her Norse-inspired name will hearing these Norwegian folktales as much as I did.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Celebrate Glacier National Park, a free e-book released this week by Vanilla Heart Publishing. Available as a PDF download, the 49-page book covers the famous red buses, the land, the personalities and the park’s history.

Campbell, who worked in the park while in college, wrote the articles for this e-book during Glacier’s 2010 centennial.

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6 responses

    • I’ve seen a number of versions of that story, too. Seeing them is sort of like finding other recordings of a song made by someone other than the first singer one heard singing it.

      Malcolm

    • A friend of ours is a professional storyteller. When we go to her presentations, both adults and kids enjoy her old stories. Most of the ones she tells come from the south. From time to time, read that storytelling is popular elsewhere as well. I hope so.

      Malcolm

  1. I still have half a dozen books on my shelves that belonged to my father when he was a young boy. They are my treasures. I want to look up some of these stories you list that I’m not familiar with. Interesting post, Malcolm–thank you!