The dark fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands, hauntingly relays feeling scapegoated, alone, and disempowered. Yet it also has a happy ending. Somehow the protagonist prevails. It’s this journey from Once Upon A Time to Happily Ever After that mirrors transformation after trauma.
In Jungian psychology, the fairy tale is used to describe the process of transformation. The characters and their actions symbolize aspects of the self and inner conflicts. The next post uses this depth psychological approach to identify how The Girl Without Hands sheds light on recovery from sexual trauma and scapegoating. I’ll also look at social conditions that contribute to the making of such a tale, which also influence the process of recovery.
The Girl Without Hands
A miller had fallen into great poverty until all he had left was his mill and an apple tree. One day he went to the nearby forest to fetch wood where he met an old man. The old man said to him, “Why work so hard? I’ll make you rich if you promise me what’s behind your mill.” Thinking the old man wanted the apple tree, the miller agreed. Smugly, the old man laughed and said, “In three years, I’ll come back for what now belongs to me.”
The miller returned home where all the gold he could ever want had suddenly flowed into his house. His wife asked where the riches came from. When he told her about the deal he made with the old man, she gasped. “That was not any old man, but an Evil Spirit! He was not speaking of the apple tree, but your daughter who had been behind the mill sweeping the yard!”
The miller’s daughter was beautiful and pious. For the next three years, she lived in fear of the wrath of God. On the day the Evil Spirit was to return for her, she washed herself pure, and with chalk drew a protective circle around herself, which the devil couldn’t enter. In a rage, the Evil Spirit yelled at the miller, “Take your daughter away from all water, else she is too pure for me to touch!”
The miller did what the Evil Spirit demanded, but the next day when it returned, the daughter had cried so much her hands had become purified by her tears. The Evil Spirit demanded the miller cut off the daughter’s hands. The miller protested, “How can I cut off the hands of my own child?” The Evil Spirit replied, “If you don’t, I’ll take you instead!”
The miller told his daughter what the evil one said. She replied, “Father, do what you want with me. I’m your daughter.” So he chopped off her hands.
The next day the Evil Spirit returned. But the daughter had again cried so much that the length of her arms had been purified by her tears. The Evil Spirit was then obliged to give up all claims to her.
The miller, grateful for his daughter’s sacrifices and a rich man as well, told his daughter he would take care of her and she would live in splendor her entire life. But the daughter did not want to remain with her father. She replied, “I cannot stay here. I will depend on the kindness of people to give me what I need.” So she left, never to return.
With her arms bound behind her back, the maiden set off at sunrise. She walked the entire day before she reached the king’s royal garden. By the light of the moon, she saw a beautiful tree, its limbs heavy with fruit. She was famished, but couldn’t reach the tree, for it was surrounded by a deep pool of water. The maiden dropped to her knees and prayed. Suddenly, an angel appeared and parted the water. The maiden was able to walk on dry land to the tree and saw the fruit were numbered, so she ate only one.
Secretly, the king’s gardener was watching. He became frightened when he saw the angel, and believed the maiden was a spirit. He told the king the next day, “A spirit without hands came in the night and ate a pear from your tree.” The king asked, “How did she get through the pool of water?” The gardener replied, “An angel came down and parted the water for her.”
That night, the king decided to see if the maiden and angel would return. He brought the priest with him. Around midnight, the maiden once again approached the garden and the angel parted the water so she could reach the tree. The priest went toward the maiden and asked, “Are you a spirit or human?” She replied, “I am a poor maiden, forsaken by all except God.” The king came forth and said, “I will not forsake you,” and took her to his palace. He was so taken by her beauty and piety that he fell deeply in love with her. He married her and gave her hands made of silver.
After a year passed, the king had to leave his realm to fight in a war. Shortly after his departure, his son was born, whom the queen named Sorrow. The king’s mother wrote a letter to the king sharing the joyous news. The messenger, on his way to deliver the letter, stopped to rest by a stream. While he was asleep, the Evil Spirit replaced the king’s mother’s letter with one that said the queen had birthed a changeling.
When the king read the letter, he was greatly disturbed. Nevertheless, he wrote to his mother to take great care of his wife and son until he returned.
Once again, the messenger rested by the stream. While he slept, the Evil Spirit changed the king’s letter with one that ordered his mother to kill the queen and the child. He also demanded that she keep their tongues and eyes as proof she had obeyed.
The king’s mother was horrified by her son’s response, and could not kill the queen or the child. Instead, she killed two calves, cutting out their tongues and eyes as evidence of her loyalty. She then told the queen, “Leave this place never to return.” She bound the child to the queen’s back, who once again set forth into an unknown future.
Weeping bitterly, the queen left the castle. Soon she came upon a large forest. She fell to her knees and prayed. Once again, the angel appeared. This time, the angel led the queen to a small cottage. Above the door an inscription announced “Here May Everyone Live Freely.” A snow-white maiden came out of the cottage to greet the queen. The maiden said she was an angel sent by God to take care of the queen and her son. But she warned the queen, “Don’t open the door for anyone unless they say “For God’s sake” three times. For seven years, the queen and her son lived in the cottage. During that time, her hands grew back.
Meanwhile, the king returned from war. Only his mother was there to greet him. She began to weep, and told her son he was wicked. Thrusting the letter into his face, she cried, “Why did you make me kill them?” She then brought him the tongues and eyes of the two calves.
At the sight of these, the king broke down and wept. Seeing his sincerity, his mother told him his wife and son were still alive. Learning this, the king set out in search of them. He worried they had perished, but eventually found the tiny cottage in the forest.
The king’s servant saw a woman standing in the cottage window. He said, “That looks like our queen, except she has hands.” The servant then knocked on the door and asked for lodging. Since he didn’t say “For God’s sake,” the queen refused.
Then the king came to the door and demanded, “For God’s sake, let me in!” The queen replied, “Not until you say three times ‘For God’s sake’.” The king then said “For God’s sake” three times and the queen opened the door. Immediately he recognized his wife, and their son came skipping out to greet him.
After eating a meal with the angel, the king, queen and son left the house, which disappeared behind them. They returned to the castle and the King’s mother. There was great rejoicing in the land, and they lived happily ever after until the end of their lives.
Activities to ponder: Reduce stress by revisiting the Window of Tolerance Guide. Choose one of the exercises to integrate and use throughout your day. Even one minute of relaxed, focused breathing every hour or so can do wonders. Set your smartphone timer to remind yourself to check in with your body.
1 Franz, Marie-Louise von. (1993/1972). The feminine in fairy tales. Boston, MA: Shambhala and Grimm, Jacob, & Grimm, Wilhelm. (2014). The complete first edition: The original folk & fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (J. Zipes, Trans. J. Zipes Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).