Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | Study Guide

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

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Grimms' Fairy Tales (Selected) | The Girl Without Hands | Summary

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Summary

A miller has become so poor that his only remaining possessions are his mill and the apple tree behind it. One day he's collecting firewood in the forest when an old man comes up. "Why do you plague yourself with cutting wood?" asks the old man. "I will make you rich, if you will promise me what is standing behind your mill."

Believing the old man is referring to the apple tree behind his mill, the miller signs a pledge to obey. When the document is signed, the old man laughs mockingly and promises to return when three years have passed.

Back at home, the miller is met by his wife, who asks how the sudden wealth has come into their house. When the miller describes the pledge he's made, his wife is terrified. "Ah, husband, that was the devil," she wails, going on to say that the devil wanted their daughter, who was sweeping the yard behind the mill.

The miller's beautiful, pious daughter accepts her fate with resignation and spends the next three years behaving well and praying to God. When the devil finally comes to claim her, she bathes and then makes a circle around herself with chalk. The devil is furious: if the girl is clean, he has no power over her. He commands the miller to take away all water from his daughter, and the frightened father agrees.

The devil returns next day to find that the girl has wept all over her hands, which have been washed by her tears. Again he can't approach her. "Cut her hands off," he orders the miller, warning that if the father disobeys, the devil will take him instead of his daughter.

The miller tells his daughter he has promised the devil to cut off her hands. "Dear father, do with me what you will," says his daughter, laying down both her hands so he can chop them off. Once again the devil comes to claim her, but the daughter has cried so hard that the stumps of her arms are clean. Having failed three times, the devil must give up his claim to the girl.

The miller promises to keep his daughter comfortable for the rest of her life, but she refuses. "I will go forth," she tells him. "Compassionate people will give me as much as I require." She asks that her maimed arms be tied behind her back and then leaves home.

After walking for a day, the daughter arrives at a royal garden filled with beautiful fruit trees. She's hungry and longs for some fruit, but the moat surrounding the garden prevents her from entering it. The girl kneels and prays to God. Immediately an angel approaches and makes a dam in the moat so that the girl can walk across it; then the angel accompanies the girl into the garden. Once inside, the girl eats a single pear.

The gardener is standing nearby and witnesses all this. Fearing that the girl is a spirit, he remains silent. The girl hides herself in the bushes. Next morning, the garden's owner—a king—walks in and immediately notices one pear missing from the tree.

The gardener explains that a handless spirit ate the pear after an angel had guided the spirit across the moat. "I was afraid, and asked no questions, and did not cry out," he confesses. The king decides to return to the garden that night and help the gardener keep watch. At nightfall, he returns, bringing with him a priest to speak to the spirit. The three men wait under a tree until midnight, when the handless maiden—again accompanied by the angel—creeps out from behind the bushes and eats a pear.

The priest approaches the girl and asks whether she's a spirit or a human being. "I am an unhappy mortal deserted by all but God," the girl replies. Hearing this, the king comes out of hiding and promises that he will care for her and never forsake her. In fact, the girl is so good and so lovely that the king decides to marry her after he's had her fitted out with silver hands.

A year later, the king must make a journey. He asks his mother to watch over the queen. Shortly after that, the young queen gives birth to a fine boy. The king's mother writes to give the happy news to her son. Unfortunately, the messenger entrusted with the letter falls asleep on his way to the king. The devil—who now wants revenge against the queen—switches the messenger's letter for one saying the queen has given birth to a monster. The king is horrified by this false news, but he writes back that his mother must take care of the queen until his arrival.

Unfortunately, the messenger now falls asleep on his way back to the queen and the king's mother. Again the devil steals the king's letter, replacing it with one ordering that the queen and her child be put to death. The king's mother, horrified by this request, can't do as the letter directs. She writes back to her son, but the devil intercepts the letters, repeating the evil command and demanding the queen's tongue and eyes as proof of her death. Instead, the king's mother banishes the queen and her baby, warning them never to return, and uses the tongue and eyes of a hind, or female deer.

The queen makes her way until she comes to a "great wild forest." Here, once again, she kneels and prays to God. The angel returns and leads her to a little house. A sign hanging over the door announces, "Here all dwell free." The angel helps mother and baby inside, holds the baby to the queen's breast so he can nurse, and places him in a beautiful little bed. "How did you know I was a queen?" the queen asks the angel. The angel replies that she's been sent by God to watch over the mother and baby. This arrangement continues for seven years, during which time the queen's hands magically grow back.

Now, finally, the king returns. When he asks to see his wife and child, his weeping mother shows him the two letters that were forged by the devil and the tongue and eyes taken from the hind. Seeing the king's distress, she tells him that she banished the queen rather than kill her.

The horrified king vows to search for his wife and their baby. "I will go as far as the sky is blue," he says, "and will neither eat nor drink until I have found again my dear wife and my child." He searches for seven years without success. Finally, in a great forest, he spies the angel's house his wife found so long ago. He settles down and falls asleep with his handkerchief over his face.

When the angel tells the queen that her husband has arrived, the queen takes their son into the room where the king is sleeping. The handkerchief slips off the king's face. "Sorrowful," says the queen, "pick up your father's handkerchief and cover his face again." The boy replies, "I have no father in this world," explaining that the only father he knows is the one in heaven, referring to the prayer "Our Father." Hearing this, the king gets up and asks the names of the queen and her son. "I am your wife, and this is your son, Sorrowful," says the queen. The king is confused. "My wife had silver hands," he says, to which she replies that God has caused her own real hands to grow back.

The king is ecstatic. The reunited family eats a meal with the angel before heading home. The king and queen remarry and live happily ever after.

Analysis

"We have carefully removed every expression inappropriate for children," write the Grimms in the preview to the second edition of Household and Children's Tales. Sometimes the Grimms may snip too much material out of a story. "The Girl Without Hands" is one example.

This story is difficult to read and difficult to parse. The miller's treatment of his daughter is so cruel that it overshadows the rest of the plot. The daughter's pious acceptance of her fate is baffling. When the devil returns to torment her with fake letters, drawing her mother-in-law into the struggle, it may strain the reader's patience. And when the reader learns that an earlier version of the tale has the miller mutilate his daughter because she refuses to marry him, the dark themes become unbearable.

But they also become easier to understand. If "The Girl Without Hands" is read as an account of thwarted incestuous desire, some of the story's confusing elements become clearer. The miller's cruelty to his daughter becomes more understandable if he's angry at her. As dreadful as it is, his mutilating her out of furious, frustrated lust makes more emotional sense than his passively agreeing to do whatever the devil tells him. Reframed this way, it becomes clear that the devil is a symbol in the story, not an actual character. Devilish instincts are what drive the miller—instincts he can't suppress.

The devil's interaction with the king's mother, who is of course the girl's mother-in-law, also makes more emotional sense if the devil she's fighting is a symbol of her own vicious instincts. The daughter/mother-in-law relationship is traditionally a tense one. In the Grimm version, the subplots of devil's letters and the mother-in-law's distress don't quite mesh. But if the mother-in-law is battling her own devilish desire to be rid of her son's wife—if she's the one actually writing those lying letters—her role in the story becomes clearer. She wants the girl out of the way when the king comes back, and she sends the letters to further that end.

Incest is not overt in the Grimms' version; nor does it need to be. The father's treatment of his daughter is already bad enough. When he chops off her hands, he severs her ability to take care of herself. As long as she stays at home, she's utterly reliant on him. Losing her hands also makes it harder for the girl to pray. God is more powerful than her father, but now she can't access God as easily. Just as wounding is the fact that the miller expects his daughter to understand what he's doing. "Help me in my need," he begs, "and forgive me the evil that I am going to do to you." This is monstrously selfish, but his daughter doesn't realize it.

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