I’ve been sifting through hundreds of stories in the process of creating The Story Finder, and so when it came to choosing one story for the upcoming THREADS workshop, I had a bit of trouble deciding! Prince Darling (from the Blue Fairy Book) was competing with Fairer-than-a-Fairy (from the Yellow Fairy Book) and the Blue Faience Hippopotamus (by Joan Marshall Grant). And they were all competing with the Grimm’s story, The Girl Without Hands.
It turns out, though, The Girl Without Hands kept quietly visiting and revisiting me, until I finally let her in. I did so with a bit of resistance; I’ll be honest. This is a powerful story about a girl whose father unwittingly sells her to the devil, and then, to keep himself from harm, cuts off his daughter’s hands.
What I find fascinating about the story, however, is that in the Grimm’s version, the negative, harmful work of the devil is balanced by the abiding presence of angels. When the prayerful girl goes out into the world with her arms tied behind her back, she is not abandoned, but guided, and, eventually, taken in and healed by her heavenly helpers. I will leave the interpretation of the story up to the people who are drawn to explore the story with me, but I would like to say just this.
When I go into the scene of the handless maiden venturing into forest, reliant on the compassion of others, I feel that I am witnessing the state of many beings whose futures rely on our humanity. It’s the state of tomorrow’s children, and children today, and people who are vulnerable because they are disabled, infirm, or otherwise powerless to change their conditions. It is also the state of the plants and animals on our planet. The octopus, for all her self-changing powers, has no power over the actions of human beings who pollute or over-fish the seas. She relies on us, on our choices–and that, for me, brings the story home.
So without further adieu, here is the story, in its entirety. I’ve only very gently edited it from Margaret Taylor’s 1884 translation to make it clear and accessible. (The illustration is mine.)
The Girl Without Hands
A certain miller had little by little fallen into poverty, and had nothing left but his mill and a large apple-tree behind it.
One day, when he had gone into the forest to fetch wood, an old man stepped up to him. He had never seen the man before, and the stranger said, “Why do you plague yourself with cutting wood? I will make you rich, if you will promise to give me what is standing behind your mill.”
“What can that be but my apple-tree?” thought the miller, and so he gave a written promise to the stranger. With a mocking laugh, the old man took the letter and said, “When three years have passed, I will come and carry away what belongs to me.” Then he went away.
When the miller returned home, his wife came to meet him and said, “Tell me, miller, from whence comes this sudden wealth into our house? All at once every box and chest was filled. No one brought anything in, and I do not know how it happened.”
He answered, “It comes from a stranger who met me in the forest, and promised to give me a great treasure. I, in return, have promised to give him what stands behind the mill. We can very well give him the big apple-tree for it.”
“Ah, husband!” cried the terrified wife, “that must have been the Devil! He did not mean the apple-tree, but our daughter, who was standing behind the mill sweeping the yard.”
The miller’s daughter was a beautiful, pious girl who lived in fear of God and without sin. Three years passed, and when the day came that the Evil One was to fetch her, she washed herself clean, and made a circle round herself with chalk.
The Devil appeared quite early, but he could not come near to her. Angrily, he said to the miller, “Take all water away from her, that she may no longer be able to wash herself, for otherwise I have no power over her.” The miller was afraid, and did so.
The next morning the Devil came again, but she had wept on her hands, and they were quite clean. Again he could not get near her, and furiously he said to the miller, “Cut her hands off, or else I cannot get the better of her.” The miller was shocked and answered, “How could I cut off my own child’s hands?” Then the Evil One threatened him and said, “If you do not do it, you will be mine, and I will take you myself.”
The father became alarmed, and promised to obey him. So he went to the girl and said, “My child, if I do not cut off both your hands, the Devil will carry me away, and, in my terror I have promised to do it. Help me in my need, and forgive me the harm I do to you.”
She replied, “Dear father, do with me what you will, I am your child.” Thereupon she laid down both her hands, and let them be cut off. The Devil came for the third time, but she had wept so long and so much on the stumps that they were quite clean. Then he had to give in, for he had lost all claim to her.
The miller said to her, “Because of you, we have received such great wealth that we can keep you comfortable as long as you live.” But she replied, “Here I cannot stay. I will go forth, and compassionate people will give me as much as I require.”
She had her maimed arms bound to her back, and, by sunrise, she had set out on her way. She walked the whole day, and when night fell, she came to a royal garden. By the shimmering of the moon, she saw trees covered with beautiful fruit. She could not enter the garden, however, for it was enclosed by a moat. As she had walked the whole day and not eaten one mouthful, hunger tormented her. She thought, “Ah, if I were but inside, I might eat of the fruit. Without it, I will die of hunger!”
Kneeling down, called on God, and prayed. Then suddenly an angel came towards her, and dammed the water so that the moat became dry and she could walk through it. She went into the garden and the angel went with her. She saw a tree covered with beautiful pears, but they were all counted. She went to them, and, to still her hunger, ate one with her mouth from the tree, but no more. The gardener was watching; but as the angel was standing by, he was afraid. He thought the maiden was a spirit, and so he did not dare cry out, or speak to the spirit.
When she had eaten the pear, she was satisfied, and went into the bushes where she concealed herself. The King to whom the garden belonged, came down the next morning, and counted the pears. He saw that one of the pears was missing, and asked the gardener what had become of it, as it was not lying beneath the tree. Then answered the gardener, “Last night, a spirit came in, who had no hands, and ate one of the pears with its mouth.” The King said, “How did the spirit get over the water, and where did it go after it had eaten the pear?” The gardener answered, “Someone in a snow-white garment from heaven made a dam, and kept back the water so that the spirit might walk through the moat. As it must have been an angel, I was afraid, and asked no questions. When the spirit had eaten the pear, the angel went back to heaven again.” The King said, “If it happened as you said, I will watch with you to-night.”
When it grew dark the King and the gardener came into the orchard. He brought a priest with him who was to speak to the spirit. All three seated themselves beneath the tree and watched. At midnight the maiden came creeping out of the thicket, went to the tree, and again ate one pear off it with her mouth. Beside her stood the angel in white garments. Then the priest and the King went out to them and said, “Do you come from heaven or from earth? Are you a spirit, or a human being?” She replied, “I am no spirit, but an unhappy mortal deserted by all but God.” The King said, “If you are forsaken by all the world, I will not forsake you.” He took her with him into his royal palace, and as she was so beautiful and good, he loved her with all his heart. He had silver hands made for her, and took her to wife.
After a year the King was at war, and he had to go to the field. His wife was pregnant, and he commended the young Queen to the care of his mother. He said to his mother, “When she is brought to bed, take care of her, nurse her well, and tell me of it at once in a letter.”
Time passed, and the young Queen gave birth to a fine boy. The old mother made haste to write and announce the joyful news to her son. The messenger who took the letter became fatigued by the great distance, and he rested by a brook on the way. He fell fast asleep, and then the Devil came along. The Devil had been seeking a way to injure the good Queen, and so he exchanged the letter for another, in which he wrote that the Queen had brought a monster into the world.
When the King read the letter he was shocked and much troubled, but he wrote in answer that they were to take great care of the Queen and nurse her well until his arrival. The messenger went back with the letter, and rested at the same place. Again, he fell asleep. Then came the Devil once more, and put a different letter in his pocket, in which it was written that the Queen and her child were to be put to death. The old mother was terribly shocked and could not believe it. She wrote to her son again, but this time, the letter came back with orders to preserve the Queen’s tongue and her eyes as a token that she had obeyed the King’s orders. She wrote back to the King, but received no other answer.
The old mother wept to think such innocent blood was to be shed. She could not do it, and instead, she had a hind brought in by night. She cut out the hind’s tongue and eyes, and kept them. Then she spoke to the young Queen and said, “I cannot have you killed as the King commands, but here you may stay no longer. Go forth into the wide world with your child, and never come here again.”
The poor woman tied her child on her back, and went away with eyes full of tears. She came into a great wild forest, and then she fell on her knees and prayed to God. Once again, the angel appeared to her and led her to a little house on which there was a sign bearing the words, “Here all dwell free.” A snow-white maiden came out of the little house and said, ‘Welcome, Lady Queen,” and conducted her inside. Then they unbound the little boy from her back, and held him to her breast that he might feed, and laid him in a beautifully-made little bed. Then the poor woman said, “How did you know that I was a queen?” The white maiden answered, “I am an angel sent by God to watch over you and your child.” The Queen stayed seven years in the little house, and was well cared for. By God’s grace, and, because of her piety, her hands which had been cut off, grew once more.
At last the King came home again from the war, and his first wish was to see his wife and the child. His aged mother began to weep and said, “You wicked man, why did you write to me that I was to take those two innocent lives?” She showed him the two letters which the Evil One had forged, and then continued, “I did as you bade me.” She showed him the tokens, the tongue and eyes. The King had not written the letters, and yet they were written in his own hand. He was so terribly distraught that his aged mother had compassion for him and said, “Be at peace, she still lives. I secretly caused a hind to be killed, and took these tokens from it; but I bound the child to your wife’s back and bade her go forth into the wide world. I made her promise never to come back here again, because you were so angry with her.”
Then spoke the King, “I will go as far as the sky is blue, and will neither eat nor drink until I have found again my dear wife and my child.” Thereupon the King travelled about for seven long years. He sought her in every cleft of the rocks and in every cave, but he found her not, and thought she had died of want. During the whole of this time he neither ate nor drank, but God supported him.
At length he came into a great forest, where he found the little house whose sign read, “Here all dwell free.” Then the white maiden appeared, took him by the hand, and led him in. “Welcome, Lord King,” she said, and asked him from whence he came. He answered, “Soon I shall have travelled for the space of seven years. I seek my wife and her child, but I cannot find them.” The angel offered him meat and drink, but he did not take anything, and only wished to rest a little. He lay down to sleep, and put a handkerchief over his face.
The angel went into the chamber where the Queen sat with her son, whom she usually called “Sorrowful.” The angel said to her, “Go out with your child, your husband has come.” So she went to the place where he lay, and the handkerchief fell from his face. Then said she, “Sorrowful, pick up your father’s handkerchief, and cover his face again.”
The child picked it up, and put it over his face again. The King in his sleep heard what passed, and had pleasure in letting the handkerchief fall once more. But the child grew impatient, and said, “Dear mother, how can I cover my father’s face when I have no father in this world? I have learnt to say the prayer, ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven.’ Thou hast told me that my father was in Heaven, and was the good God. How can I know a wild man like this? He is not my father.”
When the King heard that, he got up, and asked who they were. Then said she, “I am your wife, and this is your son, Sorrowful.” And he saw her living hands, and said, “My wife had silver hands.” She answered, “The good God has caused my natural hands to grow again.” The angel went into the inner room, brought the silver hands, and showed them to him. Then he knew for a certainty that he had found his dear wife and his dear child, and he kissed them, and was glad, and said, “A heavy stone has fallen from my heart.”
The angel of God gave them one meal with her, and after that they went home to the King’s aged mother. There were great rejoicings everywhere, and the King and Queen were married again, and lived contentedly to their happy end.