myth and poetry

Scholarly Essay


Seeking The Hands of The Handless Maiden: Reaching For The Felt Sense
by Stephanie Pope

David Niblack, "Hands"
At the end of his life Jung comments that what we are, we each are by way of our own inward vision.  At best, he says, we "tell stories" (3). How we love to tell the tales. Over and over we tell them. For, it seems, that in the telling of the story of our lives, the story becomes our lives. The poet, Lisel Mueller when considering why we tell stories adds that, "each of us tells the same story but tells it differently and none of us tells it the same way twice (Windling 4). Just as there are many ways to tell a tale, there are many ways to interpret one, and this has led Terri Windling to suggest that no single version of a fairy tale is the "true" one (1). At best, in this telling of the story of handlessness I share through the tale of The Girl Without Hands, I am simply offering another possibility among the multitude of possibilities, each of which in its own way is "true."

We may still think of the fairy tale, the conte de fee as children's fiction, but these wonder tales, or marchen consist of older variations that look at the darkest sides of ordinary people's lives while speaking through a world vested with magical properties, as if dreamlike. Such awareness of the darkness that underscores the wonder tale will form the foundation upon which Maria Tatar's The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales is formulated and discussed.

To know of this darkness requires awareness of something deeper in us working beyond the darkness itself. It is not enough to merely repeat the tale of one's woe or trauma, thus knowing  it as biography. This is memory as fact. Deep remembering requires a forgetting first of the literal dark event one has endured (the fact) and then a sanctification moment ---a purification moment that allows one to enter into a mystery zone of taboo that gives to this traumatized world a world of imagination with a kind of outside reality. This "other" kind of knowledge expresses what it is to be in touch with the power of Mnemosyne, the Musing mind.

To come to this "other world" one must first pass from the actual, sensible realm into this other place of dream and ecstasy where feeling, desire, fear and imagination are one. One "forgets the facts." This involves a "forgetting" that is a kind of preliminary purification step in a process of deeper transformation. Seen archetypally, a drink from the waters of Lethe (forgetting) belongs to the journey to the Underworld where soulfulness passes into liminal states in which transformation of consciousness may occur, where remembering signals a spiritual awakening in the sense that one's experiences have been incorporated into Psyche, and where the tale's telling is to be re-imagined. Harrison affirms this supersensuous reality calling it "a world in which anything and everything may happen, a fairyland of heaven and hell, a world too peopled with demonic ancestors and liable to a 'once upon a time-ness' denied to the present" [italics mine] (512).

The aforementioned characteristics belong to the narrative of The Girl Without Hands. The following is Tatar's telling

Once upon a time a miller, overcome with hardships, makes a pact with the devil in which he promises to give the evil one whatever is behind the mill in exchange for material security. Later the miller learns that it is his own daughter who has been promised in that moment. The daughter, Tatar says, succeeds in warding off the devil but this is accomplished at the expense of her own hands. Her father, under the authority of the devil, dismembers them from her body. Then, they are strapped to her back. In this condition she sets out to seek her fortune in the world (9).

Windling offers a variant telling of Tatar's tale. When the devil comes to collect the miller's daughter, he finds her so pure he cannot touch her. He commands the miller to take from her all access to water. However, she weeps, and with those very tears she cleanses herself. When the devil returns he is infuriated a second time by her purity. Angered again, he commands the father to chop off her hands (2).

Nelson continues the tale. Marriage to a king, the birth of a child, and silver hands cannot save the handless woman from the ire and persecution of the devil who pursues her relentlessly. When her child is born her mother-in-law, the Old Queen Mother sends the joyful news to the king by way of a messenger. The king is away. The messenger travels far, is weary, and resting by a brook, falls asleep. The devil switches the message the king receives. The king sends a return message. Again the messenger falls asleep by the water's edge and again the devil distorts the message asking for the death of mother and child. This the old woman cannot bear to do. Instead, she sends the handless woman and her child far into the wood (19-21).

Midori Snyder, in sharing the African version, refers to this motif of the twisted message as "a hiccup in the middle of the narrative" (2). I am more intrigued by the image of water that appears now for a second time. "Take from her all access to the pure waters," the devil tells the miller. This the miller does by chopping off his daughter's hands. This loss signals the loss of access to the pure waters. The messenger carries his message by way of letter and "sleepy water". If these second waters are the waters of forgetting (Lethe), is it possible that these pure waters are the waters of Memory or Mnemosyne? Plato's Phaedrus also links the image of the written word and the waters of forgetfulness, for it is said there that letters undermine Memory, producing forgetfulness (274e, 275b). The written message borne by the messenger works to reinforce a "forgetting" which then results in a foregoing of the pure waters signified by the theme of the demon-father and body mutilation.

Tatar associates the theme of bodily mutilation and the theme of the demon-father coloring the narrative of The Girl Without Hands with the themes of incest and child abuse or sex and violence themes in fairytales and folklore. She applies an objective approach to the sorting through of the psycho logic of the story. Her lens of interpretation is carefully chosen to elucidate the kind of censorship applied to the telling of the tale by the brothers Grimm, and this is done toward the purpose of re-enforcing her thesis statement that the sexual "facts of life" are less tolerable to Wihelm Grimm than "the harsh realities of everyday life" (9, 11). What Tatar is doing involves associating the images of the narrative by taking them back to the actuality of the historical and cultural conditions of the times in which the Grimm brothers are compiling and publishing their Nursery and Household Tales. This particular means of associating the images in fairy stories can be thought of as the objective level of interpretation of a tale, and it indicates that images have an objective relationship to reality.

Images also have a subjective relationship to reality as shown by Hillman in Dream and the Underworld. Hillman indicates that dreams can be interpreted subjectively by linking them back to the subject (in the case of dreams, this subject is the dreamer) as an expression of complexes in operation in the personality. Hillman refers to this method as a Jungian approach to the interpretation of an image (63). It confirms that your own personality will color the meaning you arrive at in any interpretation you do. Science refers to this phenomenon as the observer effect. Accordingly, no evaluation is quite as objective as we may think.

Hillman shares a third method, an archetypal method of interpretation of dream images, where images are associated back to the underworld of psychic images (63). This third approach must also be a legitimate approach toward unfolding the psycho logic  of the fairytale. Where applied, it will recover in the tale a sense for the deeper meanings within the story. For just as "the objective images or persons of the dream are essential for understanding the images or persons in the dream" (64), so too, the images or persons of the fairytale must be essential for understanding the images or persons in the fairytale.

At this point it is necessary to return to the specific image of water in the tale. The motif of water appears a third time in the narrative. Having lived in the wood for many days with her child, the woman stops by a stream to rest and refresh herself. As she bends over the water's edge, the child slips from her back and falls into the water. The handless one, knowing it is futile to reach into the waters to save the baby, shoves her stumps into the cold depths. When she does so, her hands instantly grow back.

Summarizing thus far, the handless woman first tries to forget the severing of her connection to the deep ground of "pure waters" or the painful situation she has endured. She does this by marrying a king and having a child. In other words, she substitutes a mechanical "silver-handed" solution to the problem of psychic maturation or wholeness, which entails the ability to live with the truth of what you know. Since this turns out to be no solution at all psychologically, she continues to be persecuted by the devil, or the demonic ancestral voice of the dark depths that twists and garbles communication to and fro in the messenger who falls asleep along the banks of the brook.

In Metamorphoses Ovid identifies the river Lethe as springing from the depths of a dark cave, the secret dwelling place of the god of sleep (262). Thus, the tale reveals the disguised first stage of purification in a journey to the underworld. This "journey" is equivalent of a rite of passage mimetic of death and resurrection in a stage of transformation that has also been described by Harrison in Themis (511-12).

Once the handless one "drinks" from Lethe (receives the garbled message) she enters the liminal space of the dark wood. Living there for a time readies her to receive the gift of Mnemosyne under the guise of a second trauma that shocks her soul awake. Because the child has fallen into the waters of Memory, the act of retrieval that seemed impossible before becomes a healing solution. This action of energy in motion---this image of e-motion reveals itself as an action of re-membering (her handedness).

In actuality, I realize this solution by considering the dialogic space of the tale to be of the same nature as dream. Therefore, I return to Hillman's Dream and the Underworld to discover that like the dream, sometimes the unnamed one of the fairytale is also situationally disguised. Such a one as a girl without hands can be seen through into her psychic reality because these situational names can be imagined as epithets. The name itself gives us an image. In other words, it suggests to us a mytheme at work (62-3).

One method for working with dream material is the process developed by Steven Aizenstat. It calls for making the kinds of associations that I have. Since I have linked the dream sphere and the landscape of the tale, it now seems proper to continue with the second and third steps of Aizenstat's process which is respectively, the amplification and animation of the material.

Amplification: Imagining Hands

At this juncture, amplification of the image begins by imagining hands. Hands are, indeed, an amazing piece of work. Hands reach. They take hold of something. We can say that hands grasp. Through our hands we touch and through our sense of touch we apprehend reality. Our hands tell us what we feel. Some of my friends say that I talk with my hands, so I can also consider that hands help me to dispose of or express feelings that can't be said any other way. One thing the loss of the use of my hands means to me (metaphorically speaking) is the loss of the ability to express my feelings.

Girl Without Hands has her hands strapped to her back, and she carries them out into the world in much the same way a wanderer carries about on their backs all their earthly belongings. The deeper reality the image conveys is, perhaps, the image of a very young woman who can no longer feel her own Be-longings. That is, she no longer relates to her deepest eros. Her quest initiated by her father, although negatively endowed, sends her in the direction of rediscovering the quality of depth through which she may care for and value life. All her experiences invite her reach toward deeper senses of aliveness. She suffers. Yet, each suffering returns to the surface of life a greater recognition of what she most sincerely treasures. In choosing to re-claim and re-value what is important to her life, Girl Without Hands thrusts her stubs into the water where her child has fallen. In the moment she consciously feels and chooses what is important to her life, her hands instantly grow back. She has remembered (re-membered) with true feeling. True feeling is not just having feelings but points to the feeling function of psyche that allows us to dispose of the feelings we have, express their contents, and set them in order (Nelson 146).

Dipping into the waters of Memory heals the handless maiden of our tale and allows her to re-tell the story of handlessness (which represents whatever qualities you in hearing the tale may attribute to such a psychic state) now in an artistic way. Handlessness can be animated through a re-imagining that releases one to the waters of new life. The story need not continue to be told fatalistically. it can be animated in a new way. Since this is the final step in Aizenstat's process, I, following this paper, offer a poem as tribute to "handedness", the boon of return in my quest through the hard facts in this tale told by Tatar and the brothers Grimm.

Works Cited

Greek Mythology Link. Ed. Carlos Parada. 18 Sept. 1997. Brown U. 14 July 2001. Plato, Phaedrus 274e and 275b.

Harrison, Jane Ellen. Epilegomena to the Study of the Greek Religion and Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religions. New Hyde Park: University Books, 1962.

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Jung, C.G.. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Ed, Aniela Jaffe. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Nelson, Gertrud Mueller. Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. trans. Mary M. Innes. New York: Penguin, 1955.

Snyder, Midori. "Finding Her Path: The Heroine's Journey From Armless Maiden to Whole Woman" Phantastes. Fall, 1998. 16 July 2001.

Tatar, Maria. The Hard Facts of the Grimm's Fairy Tales. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Windling, Terri. "Women and Fairy Tales." Endicott-studio. 12 July 2001. reprint of talk given in Tucson, Arizona in March, 1997.



While Looking At My Hands
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