Journey with a young woman who scours the earth to accomplish the impossible, plunging into the darkness that keeps her husband captive and wrenching him free from the enemy’s clutches, armed with a few household objects, a riddle of a clue, and a determined heart.
***PG for thematic elements***
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The Lost Husbands: Episode 1
“East of the Sun and West of the Moon”: Go the Distance
Welcome to Lost in the Woods Fairy Tales ™. I’m your host, Autumn Woods, and I’m so excited you’re here. If you’re just joining us, this podcast is about uplifting women through fairy tales and scripture. The two may not seem connected, but stories have always been an effective tool in ministry. Jesus spoke in parables constantly to make the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven relatable to people on earth. He designed the stories so that those that have ears to hear would hear. I believe that we have continued to do the same, and that these fairy tales from childhood contain so many symbolic messages for God’s children, who are seeking to find their place in this world, struggling to understand their relationships with others, and boldly overcoming obstacles in it. If you’re a fan of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, you’re my people! You understand that there are eternal truths in stories and archetypes that keep us coming back to them well into adulthood. And that’s what this podcast is here to celebrate: the fact that we can see God’s true love for us and reflections of our Christian walk in fairy tales.
In each episode, I read a favorite fairy tale from my childhood that explores these ideas and then provide an analysis of the things that the story reveals to us from a Christian perspective. Our current season is called The Lost Husband Stories and will explore tales of women who bravely venture forth, enduring extraordinary trials and tribulations to rescue the men they love from living anything less than an abundant life. While last season demonstrated that we are designed to protect everyone in our spheres, Season 3 zooms in on what our rescuer/warrior role looks like in a marriage relationship. I’m not trying to isolate any of my single listeners by taking this particular path. Not everyone is called to get married and some people have been waiting longer than they’d like to admit for God to introduce them to their future spouse. And that’s ok. You’re in a different season. But, chances are, you are surrounded by people who are married and from an outside perspective, their world may appear glamorous, frightening, or shrouded in mystery. Look at this next batch of stories as a sneak peek into both the loveliness and the nitty gritty of what it means when you agree to spend the rest of your life with someone. In fact, this is exactly why women began telling each other stories like this in the first place! To prepare unmarried women for this crazy phase of life that only makes sense to God, who invented the marriage covenant as a tangible symbol of our relationship with Him.
I’ve still got a lot to learn myself, but I can take you where I’ve been and show you what I know, and glean from women who’ve been in relationships longer than I have and pass on that wisdom, too.
Most of the women you’ll meet in this part of the woods are like Vasilisa the Beautiful and Katherine Crackernuts. They already know who they are. While they do learn from their adventures, they are not searching for their identities. This time like in “Katherine Crackernuts,” it is the men who have gotten lost.
In a Lost Husband story, the leading man has been enchanted and/or bound by an obligation outside of his true character. In his delusion, he may forget himself or push the heroine away, not realizing until it is too late that she is meant to help him win his most difficult battles. The heroine’s primary concern is grappling with the forces of evil besieging them both and encouraging the lost husband to remember the truth of who he is and what she means to him. These heroines act as agents of restoration, guarding the men where they are weak and helping them choose to recover their true natures. By the end of the story, the pair should be able to function as a healthy team once again.
Our first Lost Husband story is one of my all-time favorites: “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a Norwegian fairy tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjörnsen and Jörgen Moe. In it, we’re taken on a journey with a young woman who scours the earth to accomplish the impossible, plunging into the darkness that keeps her husband captive and wrenching him free from the enemy’s clutches, armed with a few household objects, a riddle of a clue, and a determined heart.
So, let’s get lost, as we read the story of (East of the Sun and West of the Moon).
Happy endings all around! Evil is defeated, the prince is no longer addicted to sleeping pills, and he and the heroine are able to share their freedom with everyone who was once imprisoned in the trolls’ castle. Don’t wander away from the campfire. We’re about to shed some light on the incredible treasure hidden in this story.
We begin, as we rarely do, with a loving father. Buried under a houseful of children, he can’t afford to give them much of anything but a roof over their heads and all the love in his heart. Unlike other fairy tale fathers, he does not disappear into a veil of ignorance or lose his sense of self due to hardship. Even when the white bear comes to bargain for the man’s youngest daughter, the father is sensible enough to understand that he should consult her first and give her time to consider the matter, rather than forcing her to go out into the unknown in order to relieve himself of the burden of provision. In this instance, he understands what is best for her better than she does herself, but, like God, he wants to give his daughter time to see the truth and make the right decision of her own free will. Will he press her to leave behind what she knows and choose new life? Of course! Even God persistently woos us to do the same. But ultimately, the choice is up to her.
Whether she realizes this or not, our heroine’s father provides her with an excellent example of strength, humility, and determination. He does not give up on his family because it is difficult to provide for them. He does not forget who he is in the face of adversity. Exposure to all of these qualities prepares his youngest daughter to face the hardships on her quest later on.
The heroine’s resistance is also crucial to securing the final outcome. She does not back down easily, and will not buckle under pressure right away. It is her obstinate refusal to give in in the beginning that proves she will go the distance to set everything right in the end. Every trait that we have is crafted to glorify God and be used to accomplish the good works He prepared for us to do before we were even born (Ephesians 2:10). A stubborn person is not meant to be tamed and broken. If you can get one of us on your side, we will be your biggest advocate. We’ll break down barriers to help you get where you’re going. Look at Peter. Many believers laugh and shake their heads at him because once he latched on to an idea, he took it so far past the edge that he often dropped off the cliff. Jesus never tried to stomp that out of him, because He knew that once Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and pointed in the right direction, his obdurate nature would catapult him forward in God’s purpose for his life. The next time Peter shot past the edge, he’d land cleanly on the other side holding the connecting end of a bridge for others to cross behind him and expand God’s kingdom. Peter had a pioneer spirit. He dared to go where other followers never dreamed of treading. As the rock on which Jesus built His church (Matthew 16:18), Peter needed dogged determination and fierce loyalty in order to push past the enemy’s opposition and encourage the body of Christ to thrive and grow. Without it, he couldn’t resist the pressure put on him by the Sanhedrin to stop speaking in Jesus’ name; he couldn’t defy cultural convention and bring the gospel to the Gentiles. The thing that could have wrought Peter’s destruction, God forged into a mighty weapon for His glory.
Our heroine has this same kind of tenacity. She’d have to in order to persist in hunting the world for the prince with only a vague clue as to his actual location. But for now, like Peter once did, she is using her gift to feed her pride while her family starves. She needs to have her obstinance pointed in the right direction, which at the moment, is out the door into the great unknown on the back of the mysterious white bear. The white bear is not our Christ figure, but as the protagonist’s future husband, he’s a fair enough stand-in. Like Jesus, he is the gateway to a more abundant life for the young woman. Her sacrificial decision to give herself to him will mean blessings for her and her family.
Why am I adamant that the white bear is not a true Christ figure? While he has similar symbolic qualities, the bear prince is constantly submitting to the authority of darkness, while Jesus submits only to the will of God (1 Corinthians 15:28). The prince is enchanted by an evil troll. He obeys the rules and laws of her spell. He also bows to fear and pride, because he does not share the truth of his circumstances with his bride. Rather, he keeps her at arms-length, avoiding her in his animal shape by day, and coldly turning away from her in his true, vulnerable form at night. Unlike in certain versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” we are never told that the prince is explicitly forbidden to reveal that he is bewitched or the conditions of his bondage. By that logic, it becomes clear that he does not trust our heroine with his vulnerability for fear that she will abandon him or exploit his weakness. However, something inside of him knows that she has the power to end his curse, because he is still drawn to her side every night when he is loosed from his fur mantle.
When a lost husband is transformed into an animal, it means that he is retreating into his wildness, mystery, and baser instincts, often as an unconscious defense mechanism against a perceived threat. In this story, we aren’t told the exact circumstances that bring about his transformation, but from what we know as former Lost Women, we can guess how it all began. In all likelihood, the prince angered his troll stepmother by refusing to bend to her will and marry her daughter. Perhaps the prince lashed out like a mama bear whose cubs have been threatened, fiercely protecting his people and his inner self from being trampled on by the troll queen’s ruthless pursuit of power. But her manipulative tactics cut him deeply in his manhood and identity, catching him off guard as the troll-hag curses him in retaliation. He accepts her curse because in his blind fury, he is no more civilized than a ferocious bear. Better to be a snarling animal than a sniveling man. At least the snarling will protect him from anyone who could get too close and hurt him again. But the wild animal is only a fraction of who he is. And the wounded man whom the bear guards is desperate for healing and freedom.
The message of the curse is that the prince is impossible to love. No one will put up with him long enough to save him. No one will value him enough to see beyond his vicious exterior and free the wounded man inside. His intractable, wild nature is the cause of his grief. Both men and women have a wildness about them because our Heavenly Father is wild Himself. Unfortunately, women are often given the impression that we are supposed to civilize wild men, even though it is their dangerousness that attracts us to them to begin with. We are not meant to tame the wildness of men, but to bravely love them with such ferocity that they are free to use their wildness for good. That is the way God loves both His sons and daughters. Perfect love casts out fear because it fills our hearts with courage; the courage to live an abundant life beyond the limitations of our wounds.
Even when He is angry because of the unfaithfulness of His chosen people, God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love… I will build you up again” (Jeremiah 31:3-4). He’s not above allowing the ones He loves to face correction and consequences, but the Lord will suffer anything if it means they will return to Him of their own free will. If we make room for God’s perfect love to come heal our wounded selves and lead us out of bondage, we will be free to share His reckless love with everyone around us, secure in the knowledge that God safeguards our hearts. That’s the kind of love husbands and wives are meant to share together when the Bible talks about submitting to each other. It’s not about masters and slaves and living under the curse of Eden. Jesus died to free us from all of that. It’s about following Jesus’ sacrificial example, knowing that the other person may never return your love, could even walk away from you altogether, and choosing to trust them with the depths of your love anyway. That’s how restoration happens.
Knowing that this young woman is the key to his restoration, the bear prince returns to the cottage brimming over with a hope he dares not convey. He asks her if she is afraid to go with him. Imagine his relief when she tells him “no.” Perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps she will set him free and come to love him in the end. I don’t advise you to become unequally yoked, but sometimes you do end up marrying someone who hasn’t fallen in love with God yet. Maybe neither of you were saved when you got married, and now you’ve taken the leap of faith but he’s still kicking stones around on the edge of the cliff. As a wife, you cannot take God’s place and bring your husband true salvation, but you can actively lead him to make the choice for himself without manipulation. You do this by going about your day to day as a holy and living sacrifice to God, demonstrating behavior that is pure and reverent (1 Peter 3:1-2). Your husband will be drawn to God in you, whether he realizes this or not. He will ask what makes you different, and that’s your cue to point to Jesus. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). It is only through losing himself in devoted relationship with God that a man can become his truest and freest self, brimming over with a love he can’t help but share.
Unfortunately, the bear prince doesn’t give his bride much of an opportunity to share her life with him. Burying his fragile hopes, he whisks her away to a richly furnished mountain castle dripping with silver and gold (purification, righteousness, perfection, and majesty). He gives her a little silver bell so that she may ring for whatever she wishes and then quickly disappears. After a grand supper, which she eats alone, she rings for her bedchamber and is instantly transported there. Slipping under the silver and gold bedding, she blows out her candle and curls up to go to sleep—only to feel a massive, sinking weight depressing the opposite side of the mattress. We know it’s the bear prince, but our heroine has no clue. All she knows is that someone is sleeping in her bed. This pattern continues throughout the course of our heroine’s stay, much to her chagrin.
At this point, it can easily be discerned that the prince and the young woman are acting out a sham marriage. Yes, they share a bed and she has all the beautiful gifts from the shower and access to his accounts, but she is being denied the thing that a heart—even a divine one—craves the most: intimacy. The creature created to solve the problem of loneliness has no one to talk to. No one to share with. She’s unable to do her job because there is a “no girls allowed” sign and a shark-filled moat around the treehouse of her husband’s heart. The prince feels like he’s holding up his end of the bargain by providing her with stuff, all the while, keeping the true treasure he has to offer under lock and key, allowing his affliction to excuse him from connecting with the one who is meant to rescue him from isolation. Like our heroine, God laments this shield of duty His beloved imposes between them in Isaiah 29:13 when He says, "These people come near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” This is devastating and frustrating for Him, because God desires a genuine, deep connection with the ones He loves. He made us for relationship with Him.
I know you’ve heard this before, but I’m telling you, it really is true. Marriage is teamwork. It is the body of Christ in miniature with unique parts (man, woman, and God) working together toward the same goal—God’s glory. If all three members of the union are not in open communication with each other, the body can’t move to get anything done. What do I mean by all these platitudes? How does a marriage show God’s glory? Men and women are imbued at creation with different facets of God woven into their forms and personalities. Some of these traits are the same, but others are unique to each gender. God is the Great I Am. He is whatever He needs to be at any given time. We aren’t that powerful. We are born fragmented so that we will naturally seek intimate relationship with God to find the pieces we are missing. When a man and a woman become one flesh, they are reuniting the separate facets of God they’ve been given into one unit. If this unit honestly commits itself to the Lord, it will reflect Him and become a powerful force for good. There is a mutual safety and protection provided for each spouse on the team, allowing them the freedom to fully operate in the gifts God has given them, with the knowledge that they have a partner to come to for help and support. The unit, in turn, is able to share that freedom with others, pouring into them and encouraging them to reach for what God has placed in their hearts to have, be, and do. This is not to say that you must be married to operate in your ministry. Most of the New Testament wouldn’t exist if that were true! But it does liberate you from pouring all your energy into finding someone to share your life with and allow you to focus on your God-given mission because you already have a symbol of the assurance that you will never be left or forsaken by God living life with you.
Another part of the freedom found in marriage has to do with the certainty that someone on the team is equipped with what the other is searching for. Where one spouse is weak, the other is strong. Weaknesses are not meant to be exploited in this dynamic. It exists so that we can understand our need for God’s provision, love, and grace in our lives. Where we are weak, God is strong. And our insufficiencies give Him opportunities to shine in power and strength (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Each spouse is uniquely gifted to assist the other to operate to the best of their ability and then some under God’s authority. But if you aren’t speaking clearly with each other, it’s difficult to know what needs to be done. You don’t know that your husband needs you to rush him to the hospital before his appendix ruptures if he doesn’t admit to you that he’s in excruciating agony. He won’t know that your relationship is about to implode if you pretend everything is ok and consult your girlfriends about your marriage more than the person you’re actually married to. By not letting your spouse into your vulnerable places, you deny them the opportunity to do the good works God gifted them to do. And you both get hurt in the process.
This even happens in our relationships with God. I’m very guilty of breaking the lines of communication with Him in one particular area: I don’t know how to let Him love me for myself, outside of what I can accomplish. It sounds silly, right? Because I can’t do anything without Him and the good opportunities in my life come from Him anyway. But it’s easy for me to forget that God is not just a boss and commander, but a lover. Like the prince, I get so caught up in what I can do for Him that when He just wants me to love and be loved, I swat away His efforts. “Yeah, yeah, that’s nice, but love is weakness and distraction and I’ve got stuff to do for You.” Go ahead and beat me with John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 13. You won’t be the first!
When my husband and I were dating, I internalized the idea that if people saw me in love, they would think I am weak, silly, and incapable of facing reality or being effective at my work. Therefore, in order to be respected and admired, I needed to kill love and bury it under my work and accomplishments. If I could prove that I am talented and capable and the hardest working person in the room, no one will think I’m weak or underestimate me or deny me anything that’s rightfully mine. You can imagine what a picnic this has been for my husband. Every day, for years, I’ve salted my food with this idea and stirred it in my bedtime tea. It informs a lot of how I operate and I’m going through an incredibly uncomfortable heart detox even now so that I can share this next season with you with some semblance of authority. This caustic line of thinking has bled into all my relationships, and God has been gently but severely dealing with me about how it affects my intimacy with Him. It’s been painful and heartbreaking for Him when I’ve chosen to shut out His favorite ways to bond and communicate with me because I’m afraid of making no impact and being dismissed as a nobody. I’ve kept parts of myself away because I was unable to accept that even the One who made me could love me for myself alone and not for what I can do. We’re working on that together, now. Me and my Ezer.
Similarly, our frustrated heroine is becoming sadder and lonelier by the day because she is unable to foster a relationship with her husband. She can’t be an effective ezer kenegdo when the only person in the house won’t spend any time with her except to sleep. It is interesting that she never tries to speak to the prince when he shows up at night, but he hasn’t shown any signs of initiating pillow talk, either. That’s why it’s so shocking to me that he talks about it being over between them if she follows her mother’s instructions. This isn’t “Cupid and Psyche.” What’s over between them? Deafening silence filled with expensive food and gifts for one? She’s lived her whole life without all that until he came along. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
After some time, the bear notices how quiet and forlorn his companion has become and finally asks her what’s wrong. When she confesses that she is lonely and misses her family, the bear tells her that she may visit them, but cautions her against speaking with her mother alone. Hmm, why would that be such a terrible idea? Mothers never stick their noses in the sore spots of their children’s marriages! Not you, Mom, you’re fine. Seriously, I do encourage everyone to glean wisdom from women who are more experienced than you. They are a wellspring of knowledge and gain a sense of fulfillment when they are able to pass their wisdom on to you and help you be the best woman of God you can be (Titus 2:4-5), but remember to be discerning and chew up the meat and spit out the bones. What rekindled the fire of someone else’s marriage might extinguish your own.
Normally, if a guy is trying to keep you away from your family, it’s because he’s abusive or knows he’s in the wrong about something and doesn’t want people who will advocate for your best interest to expose his true nature to you. I’m not talking about the two of you choosing to safely distance yourselves from toxic family members for the sake of your union and sanity. I’m talking about a man who uses isolation, a cowardly tactic of the enemy, to control you and keep you under his sway. Think the bad guys in Sleeping with the Enemy or “Fitcher’s Bird.” But the bear prince is not this diabolical. He’s actually a good guy, but he’s behaving like a villain because he is terrified of his curse never being lifted. He’s controlling the circumstances of their living situation because he has no power over the enchantment that keeps him bound. Our heroine can help the prince break free, he’s convinced, but only if they go about it his way. The unfortunate thing is that if this furry Rochester had only admitted to his Jane that there was a madwoman in the attic a little sooner, they could have actively worked together to end the curse with a lot less confusion and heartache.
Just like in Jane Eyre, it is the intervention of a family member that brings the truth to light for the leading lady. Once the bear has dropped the young woman off at her family’s now more opulent house, her mother makes it her mission to get her alone for some girl talk. The youngest daughter resists at first, but in the end, finds herself having a one-on-one conversation with her mother about the strange man who sleeps next to her every night who’s face she’s never seen. Appalled at the arrangement, the mother gives her daughter a candle to conceal in her bodice, instructing her to light it that night after the man goes to sleep so that she may see him at last. But she warns her not to let any tallow drip on him in the process. Shoving the candle down her dress, the young woman prepares to return home with the white bear. He asks if he was right about her mother, and she cannot deny that he was, but does not tell him the truth about the candle.
This is what we do when we are coping with a man who won’t open up to us. We talk to other women. We snoop. We search and dig for some link to intimacy. We say well-intentioned things that put a man off, like, “What are you thinking?” We look through phones or drawers or cars for some clue into the inner workings of his life that will give us an “in” to build a deeper relationship with this wild, mysterious creature who won’t trust us to guard his heart. When we aren’t given the chance to do what we are made to do, we get insecure. And when we’re insecure, we act out of character. We become the invading enemy we are meant to guard our husbands from. I’m not saying don’t do your research or confront someone who is out of line. But in your campaign to smash the barrier blocking your intimacy, make sure the wall around your marriage remains intact.
With that being said, sometimes a relationship has to be brought to the brink of total annihilation to be healed, like a body throwing itself into a fever to eradicate a disease, because there is so much rot and wrong inside it that only a catastrophic event can give any hope of a full recovery. We see this pattern throughout the Old Testament in the tumultuous relationship between God and Israel. In our story, this moment comes when the prince discovers that his bride has exposed his secret. Under cover of darkness, the young woman slips out of bed, lights her candle, and illuminates the form of the stranger beside her. Free from his bear skin, the handsome prince in his most vulnerable state captures our heroine’s heart completely. The longer she looks at him, the deeper she falls in love, until looking is no longer enough. She wants to be close to him. Forgetting the candle in her hand, she bends down to kiss him, accidentally “[dripping] three hot drops of tallow onto his shirt.” Instantly, the prince awakens and flies out of bed in fury and despair. Only now, when it is too late, does he confess to her the terms of his enchantment. Only now does he tell her that she could have set him free in a year if she had not forced the truth to come to light. Now he must leave her and marry the hideous daughter of his troll-hag stepmother, who cursed him, and dwell in their castle which lies east of the sun and west of the moon.
If it had been me, I would have been yelling, “Why didn’t you tell me?!” And also, why is he still giving in to the terms of the curse instead of fighting it? We see later from the interactions of the heroine with the trolls that they are not to be trusted. Who’s to say that the hag would have kept her word and released the prince from his curse even if the couple had played by her rules? And that begs another question. Under that supposition, the young woman would have spent a whole year with a man who does not trust her or make any effort to connect with her beyond providing her with food, shelter, and the vague sense that she has a roommate. And suddenly, at the end of that year, he would transform and expect her to fall madly in love with him and become his bride as a thank you for setting him free. Huh? What woman in her right mind would agree to that arrangement? It does sound a little like the old Jewish custom of engagement. You were basically handfast for a year and used the titles of husband and wife, but stayed away from each other while the man built an add-on to his father’s house for you to come live in after your wedding, which occurred when the groom’s father gave him the go-ahead to collect his bride. This custom symbolizes what we are living in now as the Bride of Christ waiting for Jesus to return and take us to be with Him forever at the Father’s signal. But I can’t even properly tie in this beautiful spiritual metaphor with what is going on in this story because the prince makes one fatal error—he doesn’t tell the bride the plan.
Because our heroine has no idea what is going on with the prince, she takes matters into her own hands and invades his inner sanctum in order to understand him. Feeling violated, the prince willfully retreats further into the curse, complying with the fine print of the enchantment and discouraging his wife from coming after him. No, she can’t go with him. Sure, she can try to find him, but there is no marked path to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon; she’ll never find her way there. Never tell a stubborn person never. Once we’ve finished crying, we sharpen our machetes and cut a path through the underbrush to never. And that’s exactly what this woman does. After her prince and the castle have been taken away and she cries until she is tired, she brushes herself off and begins her impossible quest.
Think for a second about the direction she is given to follow. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west and the moon comes trailing after. The space east of the sun and west of the moon, then, is utter darkness. And it is ever changing in precise local because Earth orbits the sun and the moon orbits Earth. According to astronomy.com:
“Each month, the Moon twice crosses the ecliptic [line of travel] on opposite sides of Earth. These intersections are called the nodes of the Moon's orbit.
The nodal points also wander along the ecliptic. An imaginary line connecting the nodes through Earth's center rotates around the planet every 18.6 years. When the Moon lies on a node, Earth, the Sun, and the Moon lie in the same plane. Rarely do the nodes line up exactly, but when they do — and if the Moon happens to be at new or full phase — total solar or lunar eclipses occur.”
So, unless you have supernatural powers, the exact spot east of the sun and west of the moon is only possible to catch every 18.6 years! Our heroine is being asked to plunge into utter darkness and pray that she arrives promptly in a tight window of time to stop her husband from being totally eclipsed by the enemy.
This is a task of biblical proportions, and as daughters of God, we find ourselves pitted against the impossible forces of evil on a regular basis. Addictions and perversions that sink their teeth into our husbands, friends, families, and even ourselves. Wickedness that glories in prejudice and senseless killing with words and weapons. Selfishness that coaxes you back into bed and away from your responsibilities because it’s just too scary out there and “who needs you anyway?” Everyone. Everyone needs you, because you are a child of the Most High God, ambassador of Jesus Christ and vessel of the Holy Spirit to a lost and broken world crying out for help from dead gods because they don’t know where to look for the living truth. Only God can give the gift of salvation, but part of that plan includes the appearance of a deliverer who points the way to the redeemer. And for a lost husband, who better for God to raise up to rescue him than his ezer kenegdo, his wife?
Is there an element of free will? Of course. You can’t save anyone who is determined to stay in darkness. But you can pray. You can exhort the forces of heaven to come and fight on your behalf for this man in your charge. You can be present and available and fortify yourself with godly knowledge and wisdom so that you are ready for anything that might come your way during this war. And if staying with him means that your life or the lives of your loved ones are in jeopardy, you get out and do these things from a distance. But our heroine’s situation is not quite this dire. There is enough of the prince’s true nature inside of him peeking out from underneath the spell and his wounded pride to encourage his wife to chase him down and fight to set him free.
Her journey is divided into eight main stops with many symbolic elements sprinkled throughout. Rather than dwell on each individual spot on the journey, I will group them together by overarching numeric theme. Here we go. The first three stops involve mountains. Notice that each old woman lives on a mountain. Even the bear’s sham castle was located in one. Mountains represent a higher perspective. When God wanted to draw someone near to Him, he often made a mountain their meeting place. Moses was conscripted, Elijah was redirected, and Jesus was transfigured on a mountain. They are holy places where heaven meets earth and the person who makes the trip acquires knowledge and revelation. Our heroine visits three old, wise women for advice, hoping that they have a better perspective on her situation than she does. Each crone is found playing with golden objects, which will be discussed later in detail. Three represents completion and confirmation. The young woman visits with three of her female elders for complete counsel before taking the next step on her quest. Even though these women are unable to tell her how to find the prince, they share what they do have and know. They agree that her quest is difficult. They confirm that she is the true bride. They admit that they can only take her so far, and then give her their golden objects and transportation to the next stop on the way.
In your own life, there will be difficult things you have to do that no one around you has ever done before, and even if they have, they haven’t done them the same way you will. There will be well-meaning people with more experience than you who can only take you as far as they have been themselves, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer you. Like Katherine Crackernuts and the heroine of our story, grab whatever gifts of perfect wisdom these guides offer you, and store them for later. You never know when they’ll come in handy. We see this dynamic in the relationship between Eli and Samuel in 1 Samuel, Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings, and between Naomi and Ruth in the book of Ruth. In each of these mentor/mentee relationships, internal struggles prevent the older generation from moving forward on the path originally set for them. Their mantles are gradually transferred to their young protégés who glean wisdom from both the successes and shortcomings of their seasoned counterparts and go further and accomplish more than the people who teach them.
The third old woman is a bit more informed than the other two, and directs the young traveler to seek help from the East Wind. Now she comes to a quartet of similar encounters with each cardinal current. Four represents government and authority. The sun, moon, and stars were created on the fourth day. The four winds assist the woman on her journey by transporting her to the “four corners of the earth” so that she may search for her husband. Her claim to him has been recognized by mortals and now by the good immortal governors of each section of the world. Her case is moving into a higher court. In all, she is granted support to continue her mission seven times, signifying completion and perfection. Her seventh visit is to the North Wind, who is more powerful and terrible than his brothers. Despite this, our heroine chooses to travel with him to the castle because he is the only being who knows the way there. Biblically speaking, God’s dwelling is said to be in the north (Job 37:22; Ezekiel 1:4). North, therefore, represents the terminus of human power, the point where our strength fails and God’s complete dominion begins. Our heroine has gone as far as she can on the earthly plane and now needs a divine boost to reach her eighth destination: the infamous castle itself.
If seven means perfection, eight means going the distance. It is the number of days that must pass before a male child is named and circumcised under the old covenant, setting him apart as one of the Lord’s people. Under the new covenant made possible by Jesus’ sacrifice, it is our hearts that become circumcised, consecrating us to God as His children. The young woman in our story consecrates herself entirely to this daunting rescue mission and to upholding the marriage covenant between herself and the prince. Like her father before her, she does not abandon her post because it is too difficult. Instead, she selflessly devotes all of her time and energy to finding her prince and setting him free from the enemy’s hold on his life. She’s come this far. She will not turn back now.
Bravely, she climbs on the back of the terrible North Wind. Because of the magnitude of his power, forests, houses, and ships by the hundreds are devastated in the wake of their journey. As the gale grows weary, the young woman even finds herself sinking closer and closer to the raging waters below. When we are on a mission like this, it can feel like we are destroying everything around us because we are so focused on reaching our goal. There will be hardships and trials set up to guilt us into turning back and giving up. But we have to stay the course. Fighting for your marriage and your relationship with God means that you are going to have to say no. A lot. No to calls and texts and emails that interrupt the quality time you’ve set aside for them. No to people pleasing assignments that get in the way of what God has planned for you to do. No to affairs and empty gods to fill the voids in your heart. No to hiding your needs and desires behind the religious fog of martyrdom. No to anyone who tries to control these crucial relationships from the outside. And no to the enemy when he whispers poisonous nothings in your ear about the One who made you and the one who promised himself to you.
If the young woman had forced the North Wind to stop and let her off so that she could attend to the mess that she inadvertently made, she would never reach her husband in time to save him. If she looked down into the monstrous waves too long, she’d be swept away into the depths of darkness, despair, and death. Just when it seems that she will be thrown into the sea, the North Wind reaches land and hurls his passenger onto the shore, where she tumbles under the windows of the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. As soon as day dawns, the young woman strategically places herself before the windows and plays with the golden apple in imitation of the old woman who initially gives it to her, hoping to attract notice. Sure enough, the wicked troll princess sticks her long nose out the window and demands to trade for the golden apple.
Like Katherine Crackernuts, our heroine intends to exchange the items in her collection for the means of rescuing her bewitched groom. Gold again represents perfection and majesty. Through her trials, the young woman has been purified and proven true. She has been cleaned and pruned so that she can produce much fruit (John 15:1-2). Because our heroine has endured hardship and cultivated the courage and tenacity it takes to get back up every time she gets knocked down, she has the basic training to hold her own as a wife and ruler who fights for truth, love, justice, and freedom. The troll princess has undergone no such correction and testing. By virtue of her mother’s cruel magic and her own skill at manipulation, this false bride leads an easy life and is unprepared for the hardships of marriage and queenship, but insists on having the benefits of these positions without the wisdom to operate correctly in them. This is partly why she cannot truly accept the golden apple in a fair exchange for the prince. Shas stolen him. Her claim to him is false and shaky at best. Beings in every corner of the world acknowledge our heroine as the prince’s bride. It is only in the enemy’s camp that the lie of the troll’s claim is upheld. This spoiled, selfish creature cannot possibly succeed on a level playing field, so she drugs the prince after agreeing to allow our heroine to see him.
That night, when the young woman comes to the prince’s chamber, he is dead asleep. She shouts and shakes him and cries hot tears of violent despair, but nothing rouses him. This is worse than when they shared a home together. He’s just as absent and unresponsive now as he was then, but it is even more terrible because he is right here in front of her. She’s given up everything for him, survived on nothing but hope and love to make it here, only to be cheated of her chance to save him and chased out of his room by the false bride the next morning.
Deliverance is not easy. It doesn’t matter how much work you do or how hard you pray if the person you’re fighting for rejects your efforts. There is a glimmer of hope though. Like the madman of the Gadarenes who worshipped Jesus in spite of the demons possessing him, there is enough of our heroine’s husband left to resist the trolls and join her in the fight. He has been overcome by the oppression of the enemy, but he does not surrender yet. When he is awake, he retains his own free will. As much as he can within the confines of his prison anyway. We get confirmation of this after the second time his wife visits his room.
After being forcefully ejected from her husband’s chamber, the intrepid traveler pushes past her pain and puts the next part of her plan into action. Once again, she begins flashing a shiny object under the palace windows: the golden reel. You may remember from “Thousandfurs” that in sewing, a reel is referred to as a bobbin, a little piece used to wind up thread to be pulled out or stored for later. The golden reel then, represents the trust between the prince and his bride. She has preserved the thread of their bond, and hopes that he will do the same. In fishing terms, she has cast her reel and caught a prince, and intends to draw him in. The long-nosed troll-princess has no such bond with the prince. While he hopes for rescue from his wife, he rejects the advances of the false bride. She cannot entice him to stay. Instead, she compels obedience from him through manipulation, trickery, and deceit. Once again, she cannot accept a fair trade, and continues to drug the prince while pretending to play fair with his bride. Our heroine once again finds herself screaming at a snoring brick wall that night and dejectedly departs in the morning with the troll-princess at her heels.
There is one last trade that she can make for a chance to save her love: the golden spinning wheel. The function of a spinning wheel is to bind fibers together in order to form thread. In saving this item for last, the young woman acknowledges that in her quest for secret knowledge of the prince, she broke his trust, but she has not given up on him. She wishes to mend their bond, but she cannot do it without him. She offers up the spinning wheel in exchange for one more night with the prince, hoping he will return to himself and reunite with his true bride.
Unbeknownst to her, the trolls are holding more than one person in bondage. A group of Christians are being held prisoner in the castle, and they share a cell wall with the prince. On the third day, the day of the spinning wheel exchange, they knock on the adjoining wall and inform the prince that they’ve “heard a woman in [his room] crying and shouting at him for two nights in a row.” At last, it dawns on the prince that the trolls have been drugging him with a sleeping potion at night, preventing him from accepting his wife’s attempts to rescue him. Armed with this revelatory knowledge, the prince determines not to drink the potion tonight. If his wife is tenacious enough to accomplish the impossible to set him free, who is he to wallow in his bondage and succumb to weakness?
Sometimes all it takes to change your heart is the realization of what someone has given up for you in the name of love. That’s why we’re encouraged to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). If people don’t know the truth about the heavenly war waged over our spirits and the covert rescue mission God completed because of His great love for us, He remains a distant figure of legalistic imagination. And distance is the last thing that our heroic Savior wants between Himself and His bride.
The recovery of lost people takes all believers seizing the opportunities we are given to set people free. Even if we are dealing with struggles ourselves, like the Christians imprisoned in the castle, God can still use us to speak the truth and set people free. We are told over and over again in the gospels that praying in agreement with other believers is one of the most powerful things we can do. James 5:16 says “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” By admitting out loud that we have issues in our lives that need to be resolved, we take the secretive power of those strongholds away. Multiple believers standing together against an evil will draw God’s attention and inspire Him to move on behalf of His children. Because the captive believers join in agreement with the woman’s cry and are faithful enough to tell the prince the truth, they in turn are set free at the end of the story.
Wisely avoiding the sleeping potion, the prince remains awake and alert when his true bride enters his chamber that night. Joyfully, he tells her that she has “arrived in the nick of time,” because the next day, he would be made to marry the troll princess. If she had not come for him, he would have lost all hope and given in, joining himself to darkness forever. But her bravery gives him the courage to fight back and reclaim his freedom. They concoct a plan by which all the evil creatures will be forced to recognize her claim to him and release him from their power. This really sounds like the crucifixion doesn’t it? Well, it should! Because we’re talking about washing the stains of transgression out of a garment until it is white as snow. And if we’re the garment, only the purity of Jesus’ blood can do that for us. Our heroine, being a believer, is representative of Christ in this scenario. Banish all thoughts about the “virtue” of domesticity saving the day. That doesn’t hold up in this court. This isn’t about washing laundry. It’s about removing iniquity and beginning a new life, which can only be done through rejecting sin and surrendering your heart to God. If you’re happily swimming in the filth of iniquity, how can you possibly attempt to remove it? That’s why the prince says, “it takes Christian folk to do that and not a pack of trolls like this.” We come to Jesus because He is the only one who can make us truly free. The prince clings to the true bride because only her purity can deliver him.
In the morning, the prince declares that he wants to see what his bride can do before he accepts her. He challenges the false bride to wash the three drops of tallow from his shirt so that he may wear it to the wedding, informing the entire court that he will only marry the woman who can purify the shirt. Arrogantly, the troll hag agrees, and her hateful daughter brings the shirt to the basin and begins scrubbing. But the more she scrubs, the bigger and blacker the spots become. Snatching the shirt from her daughter, the troll-hag insists she can do better herself, and proceeds to turn the rest of the shirt the color of soot. One by one, the troll women grab the shirt and rub it raw, blackening it further with every touch of their hands until it is filthier than ever.
Feigning frustration, the prince draws their attention to his true bride, whom he pretends not to know, and asserts that she will do a better job of washing the shirt than any of the trolls. Playing along, our heroine humbly takes the shirt in her hands. At her touch, the black begins to fade away. Once she dips the shirt in water, it rises up even whiter than newly fallen snow. She has removed all traces of transgression from her union with the prince, and their marriage has been rededicated through the symbolic baptism. Her claim to her husband is undeniable. Enraged at their loss, the trolls swell until they burst. At last, the prince is free. The lost husband has found himself. Eagerly, he and his bride share that freedom, releasing all the captive Christians from the dungeon. Like the Israelites exiting Egypt, they plunder the castle of all its silver and gold, and begin life anew “far away from the castle that [lies] east of the sun and west of the moon.”
The persevering love our heroine demonstrates toward her husband offers a brief glimpse of the eternal devotion that Jesus has for His Bride. That God has for us. As God in Three Persons, He is relational, and gave us the gift of earthly marriage so that we could gain an intimate understanding of how powerful and transformational His love can be. Part of marriage is being willing to fight for your partner even when they aren’t acting like someone worth fighting for. That’s what God did and continues to do for us every single day, and as His daughters, we are called to do the same. We have each been given a unique skillset by God to reach the people in our immediate spheres and beyond. It is woven into the foundation of the women God calls you to be. Sharpen your sword, ezer kenegdo, and use the tools you have to set captives free and speak God’s kingdom into this earth.
Thanks for stopping by. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode and rate the show on your favorite podcast platform. If you’d like to see what else is going on in the fairy tale forest or support the show, check out the Lost in the Woods Buy Me A Coffee Page. I’m Autumn Woods and I can’t wait to see you on the path next time you get Lost in the Woods.