Since it’s October, the month of Hallowe’en, frights, ghouls and horror, I thought it might be fitting to take a look at one of the most horrific of fairy tales, “Girl Without Hands,” which features such fun stuff as dismemberment, the Devil, betrayal, legal separations, and mutilated deer. No pumpkins, admittedly—at least in the best known versions—but even a fairy tale drenched in horror can’t have everything.
I mention the pumpkins not just because of Hallowe’en, but also because “Girl Without Hands” is often associated with “Donkey Skin,” a tale written by Charles Perrault (and others), which in turn is often connected to Cinderella and her pumpkins, yet another tale written by Charles Perrault (and others), which in turn is often connected back to “Girl Without Hands,” thanks to the supernatural assistance found in both. But while some versions of Cinderella, particularly the one told by the ever cheerfully gory Giambattista Basile and the one recorded by the Grimm brothers in Household Tales (1812) have a bit of gore, none quite come close to the gore and brutality of “Girl Without Hands.”
The story that does is, perhaps not surprisingly, Basile’s own version of “Girl Without Hands,” titled “Penta with Maimed Hands,” which includes such fun bits as a princess arranging to have her own hands cut off and sent to her brother stylishly wrapped in silk, as a rather firm way of saying “hell no” to his marriage proposal, a proposal made a little less out of love and a little more out of not wanting to pay her dowry and not wanting to bring a strange woman into the house, continuing with, in classic Basile style, also including people thrown into trunks and then overboard, women accused of giving birth to dogs, betrayal, lots of food and drink, more betrayal and various mutilations. Also a touch of racism, and people responding to the dog birthing slander with, yeah, I can see it. Let’s not be too harsh to the lady, shall we?
Naturally, it all ends with what rather sounds like an incestuous threesome complete with a voyeuristic wizard because, why not? Well, I can think of a number of reasons why not, Penta, starting with the fact that everyone in the group apart from the wizard has been relatively to very awful to you, not to mention the fact that this story started with you arranging to have your own hands cut off in order to escape your brother, so maybe—I’m just spitballing here—caressing him at the end of the story is not your wisest move here. On the other hand, that move does show that you have emotionally healed, or, in this particular case, compared your brother’s initial desire to marry you to the horrific actions of everyone else in this story and decided that, comparatively speaking, the guy wasn’t too bad, so perhaps—perhaps—I shouldn’t judge.
Nah, I’m judging.
The version recorded by the Grimms centuries later is one of the longest, most intricate tales in their collection, in part because, as their notes admit, their tale combines two separate tales, both told in Hesse. The first tale, like “Donkey-Skin” and the Penta tale, starts with the story of a father who wants to sleep with his daughter; when she refuses, he cuts off her hands and breasts and drives her out into the world. This is not the tale that ended up in the main text of Household Tales. Instead, it was buried in the footnotes, with the Grimms instead choosing another beginning.
That beginning, too, can be seen as rather hostile towards fathers, but for a different reason. It echoes a different story, this one stretching back to ancient times, that of a man who promises a supernatural entity the first living thing to greet him upon his return—later deeply regretting that choice. One early version appears in the Bible, in Judges, chapter 11. It tells the story of Jephthah, a general who vowed to sacrifice the first living thing that came to greet him upon his return—which turned out to be his one and only daughter. A similar story, involving a son instead of a daughter, was told about Idomeneus, a character from the Iliad.
In both tales, the fathers honor their promises, and kill their children.
I’ll skip over the theological implications of all of this, and instead just note that both tales seem to have a similar warning: be careful what you promise to strangers or gods. Especially gods.
That inclusion in the Bible and the somewhat less known story from Greek mythology ensured that the story, and variations of it, circulated throughout Europe, with the tale of Jephthah in particular inspiring paintings, plays and oratorios. How familiar Marie Hassenpflug, credited by the Grimms for the original telling of “Girl Without Hands,” was with all of these versions is unclear. The Grimms, however, certainly were, presumably choosing this version in part because of those Biblical echoes—and in part because rather than relating the story of a father wanting to marry his daughter, not exactly the sort of pro-German values the Grimms wanted to promote, this tale, in all its forms, emphasizes piety and obedience—the exact sort of pro-German values the Grimms wanted very much to promote.
The miller who starts off this story is not thinking very much about any of this; indeed, it seems fairly clear that either he has never heard any of these stories, or if he has, he missed their very clear warnings. Struggling with poverty, he heads into the forest to collect some wood. Here, he meets an old man who promises wealth in return for what is standing behind the house. The miller assumes that the old man means his apple tree, and agrees to the bargain.
Standing behind the house is his daughter.
In a twist on the earlier Biblical story, the old man turns out to be the Devil. Which is the sort of the reveal that you would think would make the miller rethink his entire bargain, but not so much. Instead, he enjoys the wealth given by the Devil for three years, essentially telling his daughter, tough luck. The pious girl draws a circle around herself, to protect herself from the Devil, and keeps her hands clean through water and her own tears. The infuriated Devil demands that the miller cut off her hands, or die.
The miller does so.
At this point, the two stories start to merge, with the now-handless girls heading out into the world—one driven out, the second choosing to leave, aware that she cannot stay with a father who chose his life (and quite a bit of money) over her hands. Both arrive in the garden of a king. Starving, they have to try to eat the apples (in one version) or pears (in the published version) without their hands. They find themselves helped by an angel, both to enter the garden, and to eat.
The king finds all of this pretty hot, so, in defiance of the typical political protocols of the time, which would suggest marrying a princess, not a poor girl reduced to stealing fruit, he marries her. (In the earliest published version, the marriage only after helping out by watching the chickens, something else the king apparently finds hot, but let’s move on.) And then he takes off for war, because, war. At this point, one girl—the one lacking hands and breasts—finds herself in the usual fairy tale trouble with her mother-in-law. The other finds that the Devil is still out for revenge, sending forged letters ordering the girl’s death to her mother-in-law, who, horrified, tries to save the girl’s life—MUTILATING A PERFECTLY INNOCENT DEER WHO DID NOT ASK FOR THIS, THANKS, to do so.
(As a sidenote—I realize that eyeglasses were not universally available (though available) in the early 19th century, and therefore many people suffered from eyesight issues, and I also realize that one set of decomposed eyeballs on top of a decomposed heart probably looks pretty much exactly like the next set of decomposed eyeballs sitting on top of a decomposed heart, making it kinda hard to tell whether the eyeballs in question are from humans or deer without a DNA test, also not exactly universally available in the early 19th century, but I am still rather appalled by the number of people in fairy tales who assume that the dead body parts they are staring at or eating must be human.)
In both cases, after almost finding safety, they both flee to the woods, saved by angels again, living in exile for years—seven, in the published version, in classic fairy tale form—until the king, after rather belatedly returning home, and then spending some time wandering around, finds them, realizes their hands are now healed and regrown, and takes them to the palace, this time permanently.
Perhaps because of their disability, the girls are oddly passive, even for heroines of Grimm tales—since the Grimms also published stories of girls who travelled, did housework, or spun to save themselves. The girls in “Girl Without Hands,” in contrast, are almost always responding, rather than doing, and often saved by the actions of others.
Because as the published version makes clear (and the notes confirm) they are saved by their piety—which allows them to fend off devils, summon angels for assistance, and—eventually—have their hands healed. And like the other girls in fairy tales, they leave. They may not be quite as active as Penta, who arranged to have her own hands cut off, before giving them as a gift to her brother, rather than submitting to his whims, and who later becomes an expert at creating expert hair styles with her feet. But unlike Penta, who keeps getting thrown into chests and into the sea, they leave on their own, choosing their own path. And they do not have to return to the homes of the men who abused them—or even see these men again.
Reading these tales again, I was struck by just how many people don’t get their hands returned, and are never healed. Who are not saved by piety and faith, or helped by angels. Who do not have the good fortune to come across orchards laden with fruit, or find those owners willing to marry them. Who do not encounter an empty house in the wood, tended by angels, or trees able to heal them. And that too often, it is easier to blame acts of evil on the Devil than on the choices made by humans, to say that the miller was guilty of nothing more than foolishness in trusting a stranger, not the responsibility of removing his daughter’s hands. That is it easy to sanitize a tale of incest, of defiance, by replacing that section with a tale reiterating the need to submit to authority, that allows a father to survive at the cost of his daughter’s pain.
And I am struck by the combined choice to both sanitize the tale (something that only increased in later editions) while also using it as an example of positive German values, to excuse domestic violence as the work of demons, while upholding submission to that violence as an example of virtue to be followed by young readers.
But at the same time, I must credit this tale with acknowledging some hard truths: that sometimes, piety and obedience is not enough. Indeed, in one version of this tale also recorded by the Grimms in their notes, continuous prayer nearly gets a girl killed. (Though her father’s reaction to that prayer also helps explain why she felt the need to pray so much.) In the version they chose to highlight, the girl’s goodness and prayers save her from the Devil—but do not save her hands.
Credit is also due for acknowledging that trauma is not always healed by love, or a new marriage, and that marriage is not always the end of the tale. And that the scars caused by early family violence may need more that magic and acceptance to heal, or even the sacrifice of a deer, or a helpful mother-in-law. And for offering hope that yes, these wounds can heal, that victims can have a happy ending. Even if this takes time.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.