With a literary history that dates back to 793AD and more than a thousand recorded variants, ‘The Girl without Hands’ is one of the most widely circulated folk and fairy tales. Recent comparative analysis of typical and idiosyncratic textual events has revealed a forgotten narrative thread whereby a father sought his daughter’s ‘hand’ in marriage. The paper discusses Wilhelm Grimm’s excision of the ‘unnatural father’ episode in his 1819 revision of ‘The Girl without Hands’, concluding that the ambiguous motivations in his reinterpretation have paradoxically modernised and strengthened an ancient narrative in danger of being forgotten. Research into ‘The Girl without Hands’ narrative evolution helped to refine my creative processes in drafting and revising a novelised adaptation. Extending the narrative’s operation as an initiatory text, I introduced a sub-plot that incorporated a link to ‘The Girl without Hands’ earlier theme of a (young) woman’s flight from the threat of sexual violation.

‘The Tale is Not Beautiful if Nothing is Added to It’.

The poet W. H. Auden famously declared that fairy tales are ‘among the few indispensable, common-property books upon which Western culture can be founded . . . it is hardly too much to say that these tales rank next to the Bible in importance’ (Haase, 1991, 353). Jack Zipes, a sociological interpreter of folktales and fairy tales, describes classical fairy tales as ‘all pervasive, the secular myths of Western culture’ (1994, 6). With their concern for dysfunctional family structures and private and public rites of passage, it would seem that fairy tales have much in common with their mythical counterparts, offering archetypal structures that are recycled and reinterpreted by different generations, ages and societies. The notion that fairy tales are sacred texts which hark back to some ideal, pure time, their original tellers speaking in words of flowing revelation is not an uncommon one. This is because fairy tales are almost always encountered in forms radically divorced from their historical contexts.

One reason for fairy tales’ enduring appeal might be their ability to speak symbolically about journeying through different periods of life, for instance, the transitions from adolescence or puberty to adulthood. Folk- and Fairy tales can become interpretative tools, devices to explore and think with, not telling the reader or audience what to do or how to behave, but instead offering a metaphorical scaffolding upon which real problems might be modelled and solved. The texts tend to follow a pattern, a rite de passage, which unfolds as a sequence of stages: ‘a separation, a “liminal” or gestational period, and finally a return to society in a new form or with a new status’ (Orenstein, 2002, 78). Most end in marriage, a metaphor for sexual and social maturity, and the appeal of this resolution does not seem to have faded with time. Kate Bernheimer suggests that every fairy tale opens with the premise that ‘something is wrong in the house’ (Berhneimer, 2006, 82).

The thematic investments of fairy tales in the stages of growth, struggle, and maturity in a young person’s life—particularly a young woman’s—coupled with stereotypical representations of gender roles can produce ambivalence in contemporary readers. Continual renegotiation of one’s relationship to these narratives is often necessary, because of their enigmatic and symbolic operations. Fairy tale texts can provide adolescent girls with powerful, though not necessarily feminist, initiatory scripts, for example, the bourgeois, nineteenth century masculine ideals of feminine behaviour in the Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales. Yet the Grimm heroines’—‘The Goose Girl,’ ‘Rapunzel,’ ‘Little Red Cap’—triumphs over myriad public and private challenges do give women readers positive images of female agency. Contemporary audiences might embrace a heroine’s struggle to create an independent identity, while simultaneously ignoring or redressing thoughts and behaviours that do not align with twenty-first century notions of female freedom and possibility. Fairy tales and folktales, it can therefore be argued, produce multiple meanings in their audiences, another possible explanation for their continuing cultural currency (Bacchilega, 1997, 5).

In the oral tradition, both storyteller and audience perform functions of mediation and adjustment, a kind of dialectic, such that the story comes to reflect and embody the values of its receptor community. If a tale is unable to be adapted it dies, dropped from the folklorists’ repertoire and forgotten by its audience. ‘The folktale, regardless of its origin, tends to absorb something of the place where it is narrated’ says Italo Calvino, ‘a landscape, a custom, a moral outlook, or else merely a very faint accent or flavour of that locality’ (1982, xxi).

‘The Maiden without Hands’ popularity shows that it is an important story, and a resilient one, too. The folktale is listed in the AT Index as type 706 and has one of the highest levels of cross-cultural circulation. The narrative unfolds in four episodes: I The Mutilated Heroine. The heroine has her hands cut off and is cast from the family home, (a) because she will not marry her father, or (b) because her father has sold her to the devil, or (c) because her sister-in-law has slandered her to her brother. II Marriage to the King. A King finds her eating pears in the woods, (garden, stable, sea) and marries her in spite of her mutilation. III The Calumniated Wife. Again she is sent forth from her home, this time with her newborn child tied to her back, because (a) her father, (b) her stepmother, (c) her sister-in-law or (d) the devil have exchanged her letters to the king. IV The Hands Restored. By a miracle in the woods she gets her hands back again. She is reunited with the King (Thompson, 1955-58, 240). Traditional variants of ‘The Girl without Hands’, number into the thousands and have been recorded throughout Europe: Italy, the British Isles, France, Spain, Romania, Ireland and Germany, each country sporting several dozen examples. The story circulates in Russia, India, Canada, Mauritius, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, Scotland, Iraq, Iceland, Armenia, Nigeria, and Japan. An Indigenous Australian version exists, and contemporary variants have been collected in the US, South America, and Africa, the maiden and her bleeding arms whisked to hospital by car; indeed, some of the most compelling interpretations find voice for the fallout of brutal warfare, from countries such as Rwanda, Sudan and Sierra Leone.

There have been a number of contemporary adaptations, across a variety of media. In film, Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), with its themes of violent possession that overlap the fairy tale ‘Bluebeard’ and Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), a theatrical and highly stylised adaptation of Titus Andronicus. In fiction there has been Joyce Carol Oates’s 1974 popular novel, Do With Me What You Will; Drusilla Modjeska’s literary novel, The Orchard (1994); Midori Synder’s 1995 short story, ‘The Armless Maiden’, published in Terri Windling’s remarkable anthology of contemporary fairy tales, The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors; and Kate Bernheimer’s interpretation in the experimental frame-novel, The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold (2001). Several poets explore the archetype: Anne Sexton’s seminal 1971 adaptation of the Grimms’ fairy tales Transformations includes a poem; Margaret Atwood has written on the theme, as has Rigoberto González. In 1994, British poet Vicki Feaver published an award-winning collection (and poem), The Handless Maiden. Narrative photographer Caz Love created a conceptual piece which can be viewed online—a dress draped on a coat-hanger with red ribbons trailing from the sleeve cuffs. In August 2008, American McGee—producer and creator of Alice, a ‘point of view’ videogame—released a set of new PC-based games inspired by six Grimm fairy tales, including The Girl Without Hands. The tag line reads: ‘Happily ever after ends now’.

‘And Then the Devil Will Take Me Away’.

Folklorists Gardener and Newell wrote in 1906 that in order to properly understand the circulation and nature of ‘The Maiden without Hands’, it is necessary to take a series of popular Middle Age literary compositions into account, all of which feature the plot of a daughter sought in marriage by her father (276). The oldest version, concerning the Offa of Mercia legend, is a British text dated at 793 CE. Texts from the early modern period in Europe that contain a handless maiden fleeing her father’s advances include: Mai and Beaflor, a German poem in the Austro-Bavarian dialect (1256-1258); Vita Offae Primi, a Latin text by the monk Matheus Paris (d. 1259); and La Manékine, a French verse romance written by Philippe de Remy in 1270. The earliest published fairy tale to pick up the ‘unnatural father’ theme was the Neapolitan Basile’s ‘Penta with the Chopped off Hands’, published in The Tale of Tales (1634-36). This early fairy tale, influenced by La Manékine, is an allusive, bawdy satire about a brother who desires his sister’s ‘hand’ in marriage.

The mid-nineteenth century marked a European craze for fairy tales, which cannot be understood without reference to the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder-und-Hansmärchen or Children’s and Household Tales, published during a time of rising nationalism and increasing industrialisation. Arguably the most influential fairy and folktale collection ever published, it was printed in 1811, and then revised, edited and re-released in 1819 and 1857. In the half century that passed between the first and third editions, the initially scholarly parameters that inspired the brothers’ collecting had broadened significantly. Short of money, Wilhelm Grimm set himself the task of revising and selecting the tales so that they appealed to a bourgeois audience, including children. The Grimms’ conservatism had far-reaching consequences regarding the representation of women, gender roles, and sexuality, in particular for ‘The Girl without Hands’ – though in more interesting ways than might seem on the surface.

Jacob and Wilhelm’s most significant informants were not illiterate peasants, which their prefaces lead readers to believe, but middle class women from their local neighbourhood. These collaborators, mostly from the Wild and Hassenpflug families—the latter French Huguenots resettled in Germany and familiar with Italian and French fairy tales—were never given authorial acknowledgement in the Children’s and Household Tales. Marie Hassenpflug, the only known contributor of a version of ‘The Girl without Hands’, is referred to as a geographical location. Grimm scholars learnt of her existence by sheer accident, through archived marginal notes. Valerie Paradiz makes an interesting link between the lack of agency of ‘The Girl without Hands’ heroine and the brothers’ appropriative methodology:

the deep underlying message of [nineteenth century] male literary culture was that women as individuals did not matter. Indeed, it was as if the ladies of the Hassenpflug and Wild households had no hands. Although they could read and write, they were nonetheless robbed of holding the symbolic quill of authorship (1995, 99).

In an ironic twist, Marie Hassenpflug suffered seizures throughout her life which left her limbs paralysed. She was sickly and withdrawn, qualities, her family believed, that made her especially receptive to fairy tales.

The brothers’ marginalia refer to their discovery of an oral version of ‘The Girl without Hands’ that contained an ‘unnatural father’ episode. They printed this variant, which they regarded as ‘far superior’ to Hassenpflug’s French-Italian derived tale, in the 1811 volume of the Children’s and Household Tales (Tatar, 2003, 9). The fairy tale that Wilhelm published in the hugely influential 1857 text was not this traditional variant, but a hybrid, composed in part from Hassenpflug’s version, with the addition of a new opening episode. In a brilliant twist, Grimm has the Christian devil replace the father as the evil antagonist who motivates the mutilation of the maiden’s hands and her flight from home.

A poor, ineffectual miller is offered riches by the devil in exchange for ‘what lies behind the apple tree’ (Grimm, 1857). The miller accepts and everything within his house transforms into gold. His wife returns from the market and informs him that he is a fool; his only daughter has been sweeping under the apple tree all afternoon. When the devil shows up again to claim his due, the girl draws a chalk circle around herself and cannot be taken. Frustrated, the devil demands that the father chop off his daughter’s hands:

“If you do not do it, then you will be mine, and I will take you yourself”. This frightened the father, and he promised to obey him. Then he went to the girl and said, “My child, if I do not chop off both of your hands, then the devil will take me away, and in my fear I have promised him to do this. Help me in my need, and forgive me of the evil that I am going to do to you”. She answered, “Dear father, do with me what you will. I am your child”, and with that she stretched forth both hands and let her father chop them off (Grimm, 1857).

The emergence of the devil and the enigmatic reference to a chalk circle – these motifs do not appear in any variants before the 1857 text and yet proliferate after – can be traced to a creepy story told to Wilhelm Grimm by James McDonnell, the opening passages of which were published in an appendix to the Children’s and Household Tales.

‘In a lonely farm house […] dwelt a poor farmer with his wife and family. Things had gone ill with him, and he had for some time not been able to ‘make all ends meet’. [H]e was obliged to let his eldest daughter go out to service’ (Heiner, 2006). The girl travels to a place where domestics are employed and waits all day to be approached. About to turn for home, a stranger appears and asks her price. As he puts money into her hands the girl shivers, deciding there is something awful about him. Nevertheless she keeps her promise to meet with the stranger. ‘When night fell, she went to where the four roads met, and drew a circle and stood within it, repeating to herself the Lord’s Prayer’ (Heiner, 2006).

The trend of sanitising the folktale in the nineteenth century encompassed its traditional ambivalence towards interfamilial violence. Dysfunction in the nuclear family was shown at a distance, as seen in changes made to ‘Snow White’. In folk variants, the heroine’s cruel mother is biologically related, not a distant, and therefore easier to dismiss, stepmother. Marina Warner argues that fairy tales can suffer from censoring when they begin to coincide with real experience, constituting responses to profound, known threats (1995, 349). Tatar on the other hand, condemns the Grimms’ apologist strategy towards the sins of the father, ‘mutilating the folkloric text whose authenticity they so admired’ (2003, 10). However, the attempt at domesticating ‘The Girl without Hands’ does not entirely succeed; even with the devil as the explicit evil-doer, the silences and gaps surrounding the father’s involvement in the girl’s loss of her hands produce a disquieting effect. ‘Something is wrong in the house’ (Bernheimer, 2006, 82). Folklorist Ashliman contends that dropping the taboo motif of the unnatural father / brother might have contributed to the tale’s continued survival:

The father’s mutilation of his daughter […] and her subsequent exile are not well motivated in most tellings of [The Girl without Hands], but precisely therein lies the story’s proven power. Ambiguity in folktales, especially those dealing with taboo subjects, is a virtue, not a weakness (1997, 10).

Wilhelm Grimm’s 1857 revision of ‘The Girl without Hands’ stands today as the version par excellence. Because of the tale’s unusual beginning, it is not difficult to trace the many branches of its influence. At the turn of the nineteenth century, for instance, copies of the Children’s and Household Tales travelled by ship to a Japanese colony. Prior to this importation, ‘The Girl without Hands’ folktale did not exist in Japanese culture. Thus, of the forty-plus variants that can be found in Japan today, every single one is a direct descendant of the Grimms’ 1857 text.

‘The Only Thing She Doesn’t Have is Arms’.

My Penta, all of you is beautiful and flawless, from your head to your toes, but your hand, more than anything else, is what makes me swoon: your hand, serving fork that pulls my entrails out of the pot of this chest; your hand, hook that lifts the bucket of my soul from the well of this life; your hand, vise that grips my spirit while Love files it! O hand, O lovely hand, ladle that dishes out sweetness, pincer that tears out my desires, stick that sends this heart spinning! (Basile, 1634-36, 225)

Once upon a time, in a less technological and digitised world, people would refer to their hands to express loyalty and fidelity, just as today we might speak about our hearts. Although this sensibility has been lost, contemporary language is still iteratively tied to manual symbolism: a hand in it, lend me your hand, put your hand up, ask for one’s hand, hands down, hand it overand so forth. Hands are about action and agency, movement and motility. The practice of manual dismemberment as punishment for criminal activity, across time as well as various cultures and societies, might go some way towards explaining ‘The Girl without Hands’ early currency and popularity. The folktale articulated something inexpressible and taboo about a horribly real event. Indeed, reflecting the narrative’s changing cultural and historical contexts, representations of acts of dismemberment vary widely across different versions, ranging from the removal of a pinkie finger, to one hand, two hands, hands and tongue, hands and breasts, both arms, arms and feet (leaving just a talking trunk, which in a bout of transmutation is magically reassembled).

The ambiguous trope of handlessness is one of ‘The Girl without Hands’ narrative’s most striking features. Lorna Sage writes that ‘fairy tales, in their multiple reflections on each other, and their individual and internal layering of interpretations, exemplify and unravel something of the process by which meanings get written on bodies’ (1998, 74). From my first encounter with the Grimms’ variant, the motif of the handless maiden struck me as a compelling metaphor for lack and loss: tangible, personal and specific, but also something more general and vague. The mutilation of a young woman’s hands is a powerful symbolic statement, hands being ‘the human extensions that most directly allow us to manipulate and control the world outside ourselves’ (Ashliman, 1997, 10).

In planning my own novel, The Girl without Hands, I recoiled from representing the central character, Marina Fischer, with severed arms, figuring I might be pushing too hard against the reader’s suspension of disbelief by restoring her missing hands – at the appropriate moment – with a textual miracle. What worked brilliantly in the symbolic, suggestive world of the fairy tale chanced collapsing under the complex psychological demands of a novel. Therefore, I chose to depict the heroine’s handlessness in the form of a psychiatric illness. The central character’s intense grief over the death of her twin sister, coupled with her feelings of abandonment and guilt, express themselves through the hysterical paralysis of her hands and forearms, depicted in the form of a vivid dream:

Her arms were bent at the elbows, palms to the sky in offering. A surgically gloved hand appeared, driving a scalpel into the under skin of her forearms and hands. A bloody road formed, the skin shrinking back and in numb silence she watched as the wires of her nerves, the cords of her tendons and veins were eased out, carefully, but expertly, like boning meat. Her muscles went next, red and rich, leaving just the joints and bones and their outer skin casing. The gloved fingers held something, a substance like sand or clay, sawdust; they lifted the empty skin, patting it in around the bones, bringing back fistfuls from an unseen supply, pushing the stuff in, moulding and pulling at the bag of skin until it filled out, plump and firm, and who could tell what really lay inside? She watched as the gloved fingers wove a threaded needle through the leathery skin, digging and looping, tugging and stitching each arm and finger until they were knitted up good and tight. Wet cotton balls swabbed the wound, the blood sopped up, all the muck gone, just two neat black rows of stitches and she swivelled her elbows, back to front, but could do nothing more, her hands and lower arms transformed into wooden puppet parts, mannequin limbs, stupid rag doll skin and there was no blood no pain no feeling at all just two neat black rows of stitches. (Ashley, excerpt from manuscript, 2010)

My research into the narrative history of ‘The Girl without Hands’ altered my initial understanding of the fairy tale and resulted in several changes to the plot. The final draft of my novel contains a subplot that was not a part of my original idea. In order that Marina sustain her conversion for eight years, I added a new plot point involving sexual assault. I explored the notion that the people present at the time of the central character’s sister’s death developed an irrevocable connection to one another. Marina Fischer’s narrative arc of mourning her lost sister and becoming a mother and artist was further compounded by an abusive episode. In parts two and three of the novel I explore the loss of self and identity and the estrangement from one’s body that a (young woman) might experience following sexual assault.

It is not at all difficult to imagine how an abused or traumatised person could conceive of themselves as being without hands. Susan Gordon, a storyteller who uses ‘The Girl without Hands’ in her therapy with victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, interprets the physical mutilation depicted in the text as having a sinister psychological meaning. And yet it can also be generalised out. She makes the compelling point that while ‘The Girl without Hands’ can represent serious and extreme abuse, it is also more broadly a story about human development. Anybody can feel that they have lost their hands: ‘while the story provides the most betrayed in our society the opportunity to name wounds and envision recovery, it also offers and even insists on this process for all of us’ (Gordon, 1993, 273).

The most obvious (and confronting) association of ‘The Girl without Hands’ with rape and sexual abuse comes from a contemporary South African variant, ‘A Father Cuts off his Daughter’s Arms’, collected in 1992 from the Xhosa storyteller Nongenile Masithathu Zenani. The folktale derives from the ‘unnatural father’ strain. The following excerpt depicts the girl in the immediate aftermath of being mutilated (raped).

She sat there all that time, wanting to get up, unable to get up. Finally because she had no hands with which to grasp things, she moved herself by rolling. At last, she got support from something, and she was able to stand up. When she got to her feet, she found that everything that she had been wearing had become stiff because of the blood. Her clothes shrank, exposing her body. She had bled much, and now the blood had dried on her and coagulated. In the process it caused her clothes to shrink. Her body was exposed because her clothing had shrivelled up and become stiff. (Masithathu Zenani, 1992, 66)

While on one level, the story depicts the horrors of sexual assault, again, it has been interpreted as having a double meaning. Harold Scheub, the folklorist who recorded the variant remarks that:

It is essentially a puberty rite of passage tale, but it also has to do with a girl’s movement away from her home of birth […] The struggle with her father is a dramatic suggestion that she must leave her home of birth. She cannot remain there; to do so is tantamount to incest (Masithathu Zenani, 1992, 61).

Contemporary readers’ ambivalence towards folk- and fairy tales, a desire to both embrace and reject their plots, heroines and fantastical narrative operations, have made them irresistible vehicles for feminist literary exploration. Much is to be gained by becoming familiar with the evolutionary path of a particular folktale or fairy story; the comparison of cross-cultural and trans-historical variants exhibit both common and aberrant discourses, metaphors, and themes. The investigator learns, for example, which episodes and symbols have resisted alteration and the corollary of those that are more dispensable or interchangeable. Studying early variants of ‘The Girl without Hands’ helped me to appreciate how cultural responses to literary themes and preoccupations alter over time; the motif of the ‘unnatural father’, for instance, popular in the early modern period is deemed taboo at the beginning of the early nineteenth century. I understood how the Grimm Brothers’ revisions in 1819 preserved the disquiet at the heart of ‘The Girl without Hands’, reinscribing the motif of the paternal antagonist with that of the Christian devil.

Part of the folktale and fairy tale genres’ continued survival, therefore, can be connected to a chameleon-like ability to change the texture and colour of their skins, producing multiple interpretative possibilities. Folk texts can be approached as ‘riddles, and all readers change them a little, and they accept and resist change simultaneously’ (Byatt, 1998, 83). Fairy tales depend on readers’ abilities to imaginatively engage with the strong symbols, themes and images within. Each new version of a tale is just that, one version, but never the only way to tell the story. The history of the genre is one of adjustment, interpretation, and adaptation. Observes Angela Carter:

The chances are, the story was put together in the form we have it, more or less out of all sorts of bits of other stories long ago and far away, and has been tinkered with, had bits added to it, lost other bits, got mixed up with other stories, until our informant herself has tailored the story personally to suit an audience . . . or, simply, to suit herself. (Sage, 1998, 89)

It is no surprise that many female readers today look forward to relishing new editions and remixes of their favourite fairy tales. In this way, ‘The Maiden without Hands’ can be compared to classical tales like ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Cinderella’, with their special appeals to girls and women. And yet the narrative is not one I can recall hearing as a child. Despite a 1200 year old history, ‘The Maiden without Hands’ is still largely unknown. The loss of the girl’s hands, her flight from home, her self-imposed unattractive appearance, her escape from ‘culture’ into ‘nature,’ and her eventual return to wholeness, can be interpreted both as an initiatory narrative and as a text that bears witness to serious abuse and violation. Like the avian metamorphoses of Philomela, Procne and Tereus, the persecution and victimisation at the heart of ‘The Girl without Hands’ warns of the dangers of patriarchal violation and repression. In the words of folklorist Alessandro Falassi, regarding its traditional Italian custodians: ‘They did not like the story very much, but still they told it’ (Ashliman, 1997, 16). Yet this extraordinary tale of coping and surviving continues to be told today, adapted into conceptual art, poems, film, and novels by artists and writers such as Caz Love, Jane Campion, and Drusilla Modjeska. My own project of transforming and reinscribing the narrative into the contemporary literary novel, The Girl without Hands, can be located on the vast map of similar revisionary explorations.


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