In the complex frame of "The Land East of the Sun," a certain Gregory, star-gazer and servant to King Magnus of Norway, dreams that a 'gold-clad ... other self' tells Magnus's court about the shepherd John, an unjustly despised younger son who found love in a realm "east of the sun and west of the moon."
In this twice-removed inner tale, John's father has found his fields mysteriously trodden during the night, and when his older brothers sleep through their attempts to guard the fields, John offers his services, in the hope that "I shall not see/ Men-folk belike, but faerie," (l. 251-52). Seven swan-maidens do indeed appear, shed their feathers and dance before him, and John rather fecklessly seizes one of the maiden's swan-vestments. She offers him a distinguished life or seclusion with her in exchange for their return. He makes the obvious erotic choice, and the rest of the plot works out the consequences.
John and the swan-maiden live happily together for several years, but at length she informs him that he must return home. In parting she gives him a ring which permits him to seek a message from her each twilight, but adds that he must never summon her, lest "both of us [be] undone," (l. 1061). His family greets John with wary respect when he returns, but he breaks the taboo when he accidentally encounters his amorous sister-in-law Thorgerd in the mist one night, and cries out for his swan-lover. The swan-maiden appears soon afterwards in the family hall and spends a last night with him, but departs with the ring before dawn.
After a brief dissolve of the inner frame, John wanders in search of his lost love throughout northern Europe. At one point he pauses in the monastery of St. Alban's, where he tells his story and hears those of others. At length, he makes the eerie observation that he is becoming invisible, and senses that he may be approaching his swan-lover's "Land East of the Sun, West of the Moon."
When he finally arrives, his swan-love takes pity on him, embraces him, and assures him they will never part. At this point, the innermost frame dissolves, and the star-gazer Gregory, newly awakened from his narrative slumbers, concludes that"an idle dream it is."
May Morris cited two sources for this tale: "The Beautiful Palace East of the Sun and North of the Earth," in Benjamin Thorpe's Yuletide Stories, and the "Lai de Lanfal," one of the Lays of Marie de France. Morris could also have referred to the Middle English romance of Sir Launfal, which was reprinted several times in the nineteenth century. Still another, otherwise unrelated narrative, George Webbe Dasent's "East 0' the Sun and West 0' the Moon" in Popular Tales from the Norse, may have influenced Morris's choice of title.
In "The Beautiful Palace"--which Thorpe tells his readers came from South Smaland in Sweden--a peasant sends his eldest, middle, and youngest sons in succession to watch over a mysteriously trodden meadow. When the youngest son sees three dove-maidens cast aside their plumage and dance, he steals their garments, and demands two favors for their return.
The dove-maidens reply that two of them are servants and the third a princess, and all three come from "the palace which lies east of the sun and north of the earth." The princess rather obligingly consents to marry her admiring voyeur, but tells him she must leave the wedding feast before dawn, for a Troll has killed all the other members of her family, and forces her to return each day at sunnse.
Aided in a long sequence of adventures by an old woman and a bird, the bridegroom finally finds the palace, kills the Troll, restores the princess's relatives by touching them with the hilt of his sword, and lives happily with her ever after--ample evidence, according to the narrator, that "true love overcomes everything."
The first part of this story closely resembles "The Land East," but its later development suggests "The Man Born to Be King." Morris also removed some elements of easy prowess and boy's-own adventure from Thorpe's tale, embedded it in an inner frame, and added John's story-telling ability and capacity for visionary introspection.
The eponymous hero of Marie de France's "Lai de Lanval" meets a beautiful fairy-woman who agrees to live with him, but orders him never to reveal "the secret of our love," and enjoins him to summon her only where she may be found "without reproach." Unjustly "misprized" by King Arthur, Lanval later blurts out that he loves another as he rebuffs illicit advances by his Qyeen, and his fairy-lover vanishes from his life. When Arthur finally imprisons Lanval for having failed to produce his elusive lady, the tale's abrupt dea ex machina ending anticipates certain aspects of Morris's "Story of Ogier":
The Bretons tell that the knight was ravished by his lady to an island, very dim and very fair, known as Avalon. But none has had speech with Launfal and his faery love since then, and for my part I can tell you no more of the matter.
Morris infused a very early extant draft for "The Land East of the Sun" with a number of later refinements in the published tale, and developed the echeloned dream-narratives which relativize the cycle as a whole, and suggest that such frames may open out to encompass us all.
These dream-wavefronts also relativized the tale's "happy" conclusion, of course, when its idyllic embrace recedes to the vanishing point of an "idle dream," but they also anticipated similarly imbricated structures in Love Is Enough and News from Nowhere. Morris clearly considered them better expressions of his evolving beliefs and preoccupations than earlier plot-lines of linear failure and success. The tale's otherworldly northern landscapes also prefigured similar settings in his Icelandic diaries, Love Is Enough and the later prose romances. Like Morris, John is also a lover of stories, and the tale's inner frame grants him second-sight, before its final dissolve subsumes his story in a widening gyre of dreamers and seekers after ideal love.
Heedless of all but his receding vision, finally, John resembles the sensitive male heroes of "The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice" and Love Is Enough. Unlike them, however, he does find an internal measure of "idle" happiness, in his oneiric "land east of the sun and west of the moon."
Critical discussions appear in Boos, 118-29; Calhoun, 195-99; Kirchhoff, 180-89; Silver, 66-69; and Oberg, 60.
1 The English text is from a later translation of the Lays of Marie De France and Other French Legends, by Eugene Malon (London: Everyman's Library, 1911), 76.
An early draft, titled "The Palace East of the Sun," is preserved in the Fitzwilliam Library FW EP25. B. L. Add. M. S. 45,299 contains a pencil draft.