by Kathryn McMahon
[Content warning: This essay mentions sexual assault.]
The protagonist’s motivation in “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” has taunted me since childhood and needled my writing. To my feminist mother’s delight, by age three I was pointing out sexism on what little TV I was allowed to watch. We lived in Maryland with my Norwegian grandfather, in whose kitchen hung a witch to ward off evil. At Christmas, tiny elf decorations called julenissen abounded. With a heart for magic and an eye for criticism, I read Scandinavian fairy tales, and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” drew both my wonder and scorn.
In the fairy tale, a peasant gives his youngest daughter to a polar bear in exchange for gold. The polar bear takes her to his castle and forbids that she speak to her mother alone. The bear is secretly a prince cursed by the troll queen. He only resumes his human form in darkness when he sleeps with the girl. She endures this until she visits home and, “disobeying” him, confides in her mother, who gives her a candle. One night while the man is asleep, the girl lights the candle and accidentally wakes him. The troll queen whisks him away to marry her daughter. How sad that our heroine has lost her handsome, royal rapist! She must go rescue him—and suffer constant victim blaming along the way—finally winning him back with her ability to clean his shirt. Whoo.
I loved the idea of traipsing through the frozen north with someone to protect me, and would later discover what a maternal archetype bears are with origins in Paleolithic bear worship. Mother bears emerging from hibernation with their cubs made bears symbols of rebirth and fertility. The “great she-bear” constellation Ursa Major has a storied past that existed long before its Greco-Roman myth. And then there is Artio, fierce protector and ultimate mama bear Celtic goddess, whose influence trickled down to my own Irish surname (McMahon means “son of the bear”). While the fairy tale evoked a Jungian response in me, I didn’t understand why the prince’s disappearance was the girl’s fault, or why she wanted him back. Stockholm syndrome was not something I knew of yet, and I remain unconvinced that wealth was her motivation. So what changed? What drove her to face death—via troll predation—to rescue her captor?
While this depends on the retelling, at an essential level, these questions spur my fiction. I write to understand people. What causes characters to act in ways that surprise themselves and even the reader? And how is this made believable?
The answer to both is rich character development made possible by feminism. To craft fully realized characters of any gender is a feminist act. This doesn’t mean the characters proceed as feminists. But giving them the capacity for the breadth of human emotion and behavior undercuts traditional forms of gender and thus creates compelling, multi-dimensional actors. And as a reader or writer, it only makes the story more satisfying when I don’t simply face the trolls, but demand to, prince or no prince.
Kathryn McMahon’s fiction has appeared in Three Drops from a Cauldron, CHEAP POP, decomP, Necessary Fiction, Menacing Hedge, and Rose Red Review, among others. She lives in Vietnam with her wife and dog and tweets at @katoscope.