Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb. 2012 The Maiden Without Hands – Part One

 John Constable   The Mill

A little rain must fall

            I am walking down a muddy path. I have been avoiding it for at least a year. Turn from it, though I have, the path remains and will not disappear until I have walked it. It’s the same path taken by “The Maiden Without Hands” so long ago. Who put us on this path? Wilhelm Grimm.

            The bones of “The Maiden Without Hands” are these: A miller, unwittingly, makes a pact with the devil to give him what stands behind the mill in exchange for wealth. The miller thinks it is the old apple tree, but the devil is thinking of the miller’s daughter, who at the time of their pact is cleaning the yard around the apple tree.

            To thwart the devil, the maiden cleanses herself and stands in a circle drawn on the ground. Furious, the devil demands that the miller not allow his daughter to wash. On the second day she has washed her hands with her tears. The devil demands the miller cut off her hands, which he does out of fear of the devil. Tears, again, are sufficient to clean the stumps of her arms, and the devil departs.

            The maiden leaves her father, wandering out into the greater world, where she is helped by an angel to find food—a pear from a tree in the king’s garden. There the king discovers her and they are soon married

            She bears him a son while the king is in a distant land, and the exchange of letters between the king’s mother and the king are intercepted by the devil. This ends with the king’s mother thinking her son wants the queen and the child killed. Instead she allows them to escape. The angel reappears and gives them shelter.

            Upon return, the king discovers the mistakes and goes off on a penitential search for seven years, declaring he will not eat or drink until he finds his queen. God preserves him and he comes eventually to the angel’s shelter, where the queen and his son, Sorrowful, await him. 

            Now comes a sharp turn in the muddy path I wander down. The above description is of the 1857 version of this Grimm tale. Their own 1812 version is quite different. It starts out the same, but in the 1812 version there is no angel. The maiden comes to the king’s garden, bangs her body against an apple tree to knock down fruit and eats it off the ground. Captured by the guards, she is thrown into prison, but the king’s son suggests she be employed to feed the chickens. (How she does this without hands is not explained.) The prince is, of course, in love with her and talks the king into letting him marry her.

            From here the versions are similar, with the devil intercepting letters, but the king’s mother is absent from the 1812 version, and the queen and her son are simply banished. She is now helped by an old man and her hands restored by wrapping her arms around a tree three times, rather than being re-grown in the presence of the angel. Her husband, when he realizes what has happened, goes off with a servant to find her. The old man has sheltered the queen and her son in a house no one can enter until they ask three times “for God’s sake”. This is the only Christian reference in the 1812 version. After the king, queen, and their son are reunited and they return to their kingdom, the house of the old man vanishes.

Jack Zipes, in “The Brothers Grimm, From Enchanted Forest to the Modern World,” attributes the changes to Wilhelm, and I’ll assume with Jacob’s consent. But why the changes?

Because the Grimms were bourgeois. That term carries a negative feel in modern-day parlance, but back in their day the Grimms struggled for the ascendancy of the bourgeois. And they had an agenda. They were in the forefront of rising German nationalism against the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire. The bourgeoisie composed the rising middle class, democratic in leaning. The Grimms had to flee at times to avoid being arrested for their stand against monarchy. 

The Grimms wrote and re-wrote the fairy tales to reflect the values of their radical audience and not the minds of earlier serfs and peasants. Between the 1812 and 1857 editions the revolutions of 1848 swept through Europe, carrying the Grimms in their wake. I will forgive Wilhelm for mudding the path. A lot of rain fell in his day.

Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb. 2012 The Maiden Without Hands – Part Two

 Leonardo da Vinci  Study of Hands

Musings on violence

What attracts my attention to “The Maiden Without Hands” is its title. The faint-hearted know better than to read such a story, but curiosity draws in the rest of us.

The faint-hearted prove correct in their suspicions, for we meet with wantonness brutality at the start of the story. But the actual violence ends there. Threatened violence occurs when the devil’s altered letters call for the queen and son’s destruction, but they are allowed to escape unharmed.

We, the reader, understand that the violence is not gratuitous. It has meaning. We read on, wanting to discover at least a hint of that meaning. We sense that the violence is code for something worse. In our case, the violence of amputation is a replacement for incest between father and daughter.

To prove this assertion I could safely stand on the shoulders of a number of scholars, Jack Zipes and Alan Dundes to name two. Or I could site the variants of this story that depict the incestuous elements more obviously. Instead I am going to look only at the internal evidence that the abuse heaped upon the maiden is code for incest.

When reading fairy tales, particularly Grimm, the first clue that we are dealing with code is when the story does not quite make sense. The father, after making a bad pact with the devil, is accused by his wife of betraying their daughter. The miller’s wife now disappears from the story. She is not there in a supportive role at the daughter’s time of need. Neither is the father supportive. If we see through the code, that makes sense, because the father is the problem.

After the maiden has gone through her ordeal with the devil, the father offers to provide for her material comfort. Hardly in any shape to take care of herself, she decides to leave home. On the face of the story and logically, this is a really bad idea. Looking again, deciphering the code, the maiden has to leave home to get away from her father’s abuse. Although she escapes, she leaves as a damaged person, handless, helpless, her healing still to take place.

In considering this “replacement code,” two points jump to mind. First, isincest less obnoxious than chopping off the maiden’s hands? Apparently so, at least in the Grimm’s time and in the Victorian mindset, vestiges of which still survive in American culture. This mindset holds what I consider to be an odd acceptance of blatant violence while blanching at sexual content. For example, commercial television will air scenes of death by horrific violence as long as none of the perpetrators or victims says the “F word.”

The second point, and more on topic than my first, concerns replacements and the psyche of the child who hears them used in stories. Bruno Bettelheim explains this notion with the example of the evil stepmother as a stand-in for the real mother, allowing a child to vent and defuse subliminal anger toward their own mother by directing it against the one-step-removed mother of the story.

There were far fewer stepmothers in fairy tales before the Grimms than afterwards; the Grimms all but invented character and situation replacement. They quickly saw its value in disguising harsh topics from children and making the story compatible with bourgeois sensibilities.


Fairy Tale of the Month: Feb. 2012 The Maiden Without Hands – Part Three

  Carl Larsson “Brtia as Iduna

Apple of my eye.

In “The Maiden Without Hands” there is an old apple tree growing behind the mill. If there is a fruit in a Grimm story it is an apple—OK, sometimes a pear. I don’t recall a peach anywhere (that’s French). Forget the apricot. Oranges, kumquats—nada.

Given that apples grow about everywhere and are easy to preserve, their favored status is no surprise. If not the first fruit to be cultivated by us, it is among the earliest. Genus-wise, the apple is in the rose family, which I find rather charming. Its medical properties are established in the popular culture. I grew up on “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

What I find the most fun about this compact, solid, shiny bit of fruit is all the symbolic baggage it has picked up during its travels through time and place.

The ancient Greeks certainly took to the apple. The goddess Eris, when not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, shows up anyway to cause trouble. (That scenario sounds familiar.) Into the midst of the wedding party she throws the apple of discord. It’s a clever design. She has written on it “for the most beautiful one.” Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite each assume that title is theirs. Hence the discord.

What better way to solve such a dispute than to bring in a mortal? They appoint Paris of Troy to be their victim—I mean judge. Well, these contacts between mortals and immortals rarely go well, and when Aphrodite bribes Paris with the most beautiful mortal woman, Helen, the specter of war between Troy and Sparta is not far behind. However, it made for a heck of a good story.

Christianity has its take on the apple, as it appears in the Garden of Eden, though technically it really doesn’t. The Bible speaks of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life. Genesis never mentions an apple and scholars differ regarding which fruit is meant. However, returning to the Greeks, Hercules had the task of getting the three apples from the garden of the Hesperides, the three daughters of Atlas. These apples grow on the Tree of Life. For the newly Christianized pagans it might have been easy to conflate the Garden of Hesperides and the Garden of Eden’s fruit.

Moving up into the cold lands, the apple comes up again in the lsunga saga.The goddess Frigg, wife of Odin, sends King Rerir an apple for his wife to eat and become pregnant. The apple is delivered to the king by a giantess in the form of a crow, who drops the apple in his lap.

That image of the crow dropping the apple in a lap is similar to a scene in the Grimms’ tale “The White Snake” when the hero is seeking an apple from the Tree of Life, which is given to him by three ravens whose lives he had saved. To say the Grimms were well versed in these mythic images would be an understatement given Jacob’s exhaustive work, Deutsche Mythologie (Teutonic Mythology). Whether the Grimms improved that particular scene or if the stolen images were already there, hardly matters. As soon as a story evokes the apple, all of its symbolic baggage is available to be plundered.

My above ramblings are a mere sampling of the near countless mythic, legendary, and story references to apples. By the way, the sound track you hear in the background (you hear it don’t you?) is the William Tell Overture. I thought it appropriate. (Well, it’s been running through my head.)

Your thoughts?