Thursday, January 9, 2014

the girl without hands / das mädchen ohne hände

Never too early in the year to be Grimm. This isn't a story from my grandfather's book, but one that a friend said is a favourite. I warn you that it's a long and I had a lot of objections to how it unfolded.

"The Girl Without Hands"

Slowly a miller grew so poor that he had nothing left but his mill, and behind the mill, a large apple tree.

--that sets the stage--miller, mill, apple tree--but I can't help wondering how he got himself into this fix. Did he lose his job? Well, no. There's the mill: still in the picture. Did he gamble? Did he have expensive tastes? Maybe the price of grain increased more than he could recoup from the flour he milled. Just now, at the beginning of the story, I'm not sure how I feel about this guy.

He went into the forest to collect wood to burn, and an old man he'd never seen before approached and said, "Why are you bothering with chopping wood? I can make you rich if you promise to give me what's behind your mill."

--doesn't this sound like a setup? Shouldn't the miller have a quick look behind his mill before he promises? Oh, right, this was the early 1800s when the world was a smaller, more gullible place.

The miller said, "Great, it's a deal."
The stranger gave a mocking laugh. "I'll be back in three years to get what's mine."
When the miller returned home, his wife said, "How did all these fine things suddenly appear in our house? Crates and chests filled with treasure."
He said, "I met this stranger in the forest. He promised me riches if I gave him whatever was behind the mill. What's there except for the old apple tree?"
His wife was horrified. "What were you thinking? That could only be the devil. He didn't mean the apple tree, but our daughter who was sweeping the courtyard behind the mill."

--So how is it that the wife knew the stranger was a devil and the miller didn't even hesitate? Foolish, foolish man. I do not I like him.

The miller's daughter was a pretty and a pious girl who lived in fear of god and without sin. As the three years passed and the time came for the devil to come get her, she washed herself with pure water and drew a circle of chalk around her. The devil appeared but couldn't approach her.
Angrily he told the miller, "Take away the water so she can't keep washing herself. I haven't any power over her when she's clean."

--were this a different kind of story, now would be the time for the music to soar, and the miller to realize he had a chance to defy the devil and let his daughter keep washing herself. Were it a Bollywood movie, all three could have broken into song and dance, only for the pious girl to unveil a flirtatious attraction to  the devil. Were it a French movie, well, there would be lots of conversation and pensive film shots, and the crisis might be left unresolved. As things stand...

The miller was afraid and took the water from his daughter.
The next morning the devil returned, but the girl had cried all night into her hands so they were clean. He still couldn't approach her and in a rage he told the miller, "Chop off her hands, or else I can't get to her."
The miller was appalled. "How can I chop off my own daughter's hands?"
The devil said, "If you don't, then you are mine, and I will come get you tomorrow."
The father was so frightened he promised to obey.

--What to say to this? A father who would sacrifice his daughter's hands to save his own skin? As always, when reading historical material, we should be careful not to judge values from our particular perspective. Times were different then. Devils roamed the countryside like Vegas gangsters. Children were... hey... probably not even as important in the family hierarchy as a cow who at least produced milk, butter and cheese. Children, as we often see in Grimms, are expendable. The question for me is: are the Grimms brothers so insensitive to filial feelings, or are they just telling it like they see it? Note that up to this point in the story, the miller is called the miller. Just now, when he has to decide what to do, he's identified as der Vater--the father.

To his daughter he said, "My child, if I don't chop off both your hands, the devil will take me away. Please help me and forgive me for how I have to hurt you."

--PLEASE HELP ME AND FORGIVE ME FOR HOW I HAVE TO HURT YOU??? Why are children put in these impossible situations vis-à-vis the adults who are supposed to take care of them?

She answered, "Dear Father, do with me what you will. I am your child."

--I am grinding my teeth.

She held out both hands and let him chop them off.
When the devil came again, she had cried so long and hard over the stumps of her arms that the devil still couldn't approach her. He had to yield then and thereby lost all right to her.

--But the damage was done, right? I don't like the devil, but he was just being a devil. The miller, however, chopped off his daughter's hands. On a scale of 1 to 10, he gets a negative from me.

The miller told the girl, "I have gained such great wealth through you that you will have the best of everything for the rest of your life."
She said, "I can no longer stay here. I will go away. Compassionate people will give me what I need."

--first sensible words in the story. Better to rely on the mercy of strangers than this parent who endangered her through his own stupidity then hacked her hands off.

At sunrise the next day she set out. She walked the whole day until it was dark when she came to a majestic garden. In the light of the moon she saw how the trees were full of fruit, but the garden was surrounded by a moat. Since she had been walking all day without a bite, she was very hungry.

--sure, her useless father didn't even send her off with a packed lunch!

She felt that if she couldn't get into the garden and eat a piece of fruit, she might faint. She knelt down and called upon god for help. An angel appeared and made a bridge across the water so she could walk across.

--I've changed the words here. In the story the angel makes a lock that holds back the water so the ground is dry and she can walk across. To me it seems easier if the angel makes a bridge. However, as this story has more religious content than the stories in my copy of Grimms, I'm mentioning the lock and the water because maybe there's a parallel with the parting of the waves and Moses which escapes me.

She walked into the garden and the angel came with her. She saw a tree laden with beautiful pears, but they had all been counted. Yet she was so hungry that she walked up to a tree and with her mouth ate the closest pear on a branch.

--"with her mouth" seems an obvious detail, but I'm guessing the Grimms brothers are reinforcing that she doesn't have the use of her hands.

The gardener saw her, but with the angel standing nearby, he thought she was a spirit. He was afraid, kept silent and didn't dare call out or speak to her.

When she had eaten the pear, she was satisfied, and hid in the bushes to sleep.
The next morning the king, whose garden this was, came to count his fruit and saw that a pear was missing.

--a man who numbers and then counts the fruit on his trees? I'm hoping he's not going to be the man who ends up being her true love because I don't want to imagine how he's going to mete out his kisses and other caresses.

The king asked the gardener what had happened to this pear. It wasn't in the tree, it wasn't on the ground under the tree, and yet it was gone.

--this is a seriously anal man who needs to be seen by a shrink tout de suite!

The gardener recounted how a spirit had entered the garden in the night. "It had no hands and ate the pear with its mouth."
"But how," the king asked, "did it cross the water?"
The gardener explained what he'd seen--and how he'd been afraid to call out since he saw a white-robed figure that he thought had to be an angel.
The king said, "If this be true, what you say, then tonight I will stay in the garden with you."
When it grew dark, the king returned to the garden with a priest who would be able to talk to the spirit. The gardener, the king, the priest sat under the tree and waited.

--now here we might have had an interesting conversation to report, but the Grimms brothers didn't turn on the mike.

At midnight the girl crept out from the bushes, approached the tree and again ate a pear with her mouth. Beside her stood the angel in his white robes. The priest walked over and said, "Have you come from god or do you belong to the world? Are you a spirit or a person?"
She said, "I am not a spirit. I am a sorry girl, abandoned by all except for god."
The king said, "If everyone else has abandoned you, then I will not." He took her with him into his castle and since she was so beautiful and pious, he loved her with all his heart, had silver hands made for her and took her to be his wife.

--this quick solution leaves me dissatisfied. I don't trust it. Unless he had a complete change of personality the instant he saw the girl without hands, this is the same man who counts the fruit on his trees and expects his gardener to account for each one. Nor did they have the technology in the early 1800s to make functional prosthetic hands. Silver, so what? What could she do with these hands? Maybe he's a stump fetishist. But I'm being too literal, right? And the story isn't over yet...

A year passed and the king had to go out into his realm. He asked his mother to watch over the young queen. "If she has our baby, take good care of her and write me immediately."
The queen bore a beautiful son and the king's mother quickly wrote a letter to tell the king the happy news. The messenger stopped to rest by a river, and since he was tired from his long trip, he fell asleep. The devil came along and exchanged the letter with another that said that the queen had borne a changeling.

--two small points: was this the same devil? In the world of Grimms many devils seem to be cruising through the forest. Note, too, that the archaic meaning of "changeling"--Wechselbalg in German--is an intellectually deficient or retarded child.

When the king read the letter, he was shocked and worried, but he wrote to his mother that she should take good care of his wife and child until his return.
On his way back to the castle, the messenger stopped at the same place by the river for a nap. Again the devil exchanged his letter for another with the order to kill the queen and her child immediately.
The old mother was horrified. She couldn't believe what she read and wrote the king again, but again the devil exchanged the letters, sending her one requesting that she keep the queen's tongue and eyes as proof that she'd done as he requested.
The old woman cried at the thought of innocent blood being shed, and in the night had the tongue and eyes cut from a dairy cow.

--a cow? A cow's tongue is 12 inches/30 cm long. The average human tongue is 4 inches/10 cm. Who would ever believe that a cow's tongue was a woman's tongue?

She told the queen, "I cannot have you killed, as the king ordered, but you can't stay here anymore. Go with your child into the world and don't ever return." She tied the child to the queen's back and the queen left with tearful eyes.
She walked until she came to a large, wild forest, knelt down and prayed to god. An angel appeared and brought her to a small house with a sign that said, "Here all live free". A snow-white virgin came out of the house and said, "Welcome, Queen" and led her inside.

--mixed signals here. All live free but royalty keeps their title?

The baby was taken from the queen's back and held to her breast. After he drank, he was laid in a small, neatly made bed.

--so those silver hands aren't functional. As I said. She can't even hold her baby.

The poor woman asked, "How do you know I'm the queen?" The white virgin said, "I am an angel sent from god to take care of you and your child." And so they stayed in the house for seven years and were well taken care of, and the woman was so pious that through god's grace her chopped-off hands grew again.

When the king finally returned from his voyage, his first wish was to see his wife and child. His mother began to cry and said, "You bad man, why did you write to tell me to bring two innocent souls to their death?" She showed him the letters she'd received and said, "I did what you ordered" and showed him the tongue and eyes as proof.
The king began to cry so bitterly over his wife and young son that his old mother felt sorry for him and said, "Don't worry. Your wife is still alive." She explained what she'd done and the king said, "I will go to the end of the blue sky, and I won't eat or drink until I find my darling wife and child again, if they haven't starved or perished."

--we already know the queen lives for seven years in her little house. Are we to believe now that the king isn't going to eat or drink for seven years? Because he will find her. If the queen's chopped-off hands have grown back, then we know this is going to be a happily-ever-after story.

For seven years the king searched through every cliff and cavern, but he couldn't find his wife and child, and thought they had died. He didn't drink or eat this whole time, but god preserved him.

--this is perverse. If god could keep him alive without food or drink for seven years, why didn't god just put him on the path to the little house? ...Right. Because this is a test. The king has to spend seven years on the rack--as punishment for letters he never wrote?

Finally the king came to the large, wild forest.

--the queen arrived at the large, wild forest on the first day of her exile. Why did it take the king seven years to find it?

He found the little house with the sign, "Here all live free." The white virgin stepped out, took him by the hand and said, "Welcome, King." She asked where he came from and he told her that he'd been looking for his wife and child for seven years but couldn't find them. The angel offered him food and drink, but he didn't want any. He only wanted to rest. He lay down to sleep and covered his face with a cloth.

--covered his face with a cloth? The significance escapes me. Any ideas?

The angel entered the room where the queen sat with her son whom she called Sorrowful, and said to her, "Go see with your child. Your husband has come."
The queen went to where he lay and the cloth fell from his face. She said, "Sorrowful, pick up the cloth and cover your father's face."
The child picked it up and did as he was told.
The king heard everything in his sleep and let the cloth slide off again.
The child became impatient and said, "Dear Mother, how can I cover my father's face, since I have no father in this world. In my prayers I say, Our father, who art in heaven. You told me my father was in heaven because he is god. How should I recognize a wild man like this one? He's not my father."
When the king heard this, he sat up and asked who she was. She told him she was his wife and this was his son, Sorrowful.
He saw her living hands and said, "My wife had silver hands."

--the kind of line I'd expect from a man who counts fruit on a tree. Instead of looking at her face, he looks for the hardware he's given her.

She told him, "God let my real hands grow again."
The angel went into the bedroom and brought out the silver hands to show him.
And then he saw with certainty that this was his dear wife and his child, and kissed her and was happy.
The angel prepared them a meal they all ate together and then they went home to the old mother, and in their great joy the king and the queen married again, and lived happily ever after.

The End

So I have a few problems with the male characters in this story.
I realize, too, that I prefer my magic straight up--not as a reward for piety.
Although with piety as the through-line, it's easy to find a moral for the story: be good, pray, and god will return your missing parts and your missing husband.
Since this story doesn't come from my grandfather's book, I didn't have an illustration. I asked R to draw whatever caught his fancy.


  1. Your annotations made me laugh and laugh. Maybe we don't have the same taste in Grimm's? I can't wait to see what you think of The Twelve Brothers.

    I think what I like is the forebearance of the girl, in spite of her terrible father, and the happy ending in spite of so much devilry. I also love the unexpected magical rules the prevent the devil from taking her. Always keep a piece of chalk in your pocket. And some soap.

    1. Saleema, all the Grimms' get up my nose. I think of legions of kids reading them and believing them. I think of myself reading and believing them. Maybe I was too literal as a child. (What does that say about me as a writer now?) At the same time, these fairy tales fascinate me--all of them. I'm glad you pointed out one I didn't know. I will look for The Twelve Brothers.