Nota bene: My posts won’t always match up with the hashtag themes because I’m going straight through the Grimm’s 1812 edition, one after the other.
[CW: mutilation, sexual assault]
Well, this is one of those absolute bangers that is filled with so much meaning that I had to post it late because it took awhile to write about. We’ll start with the Grimm version from 1812 and then we’ll talk about the other variations and analyses.
A miller, who was so poor that he had nothing else but his mill and a large apple tree behind it, went into the forest to fetch wood. While there he met an old man who said: ‘Why are you torturing yourself so much? I’ll make you rich if you promise to give me what’s behind your mill. In three years I’ll come and fetch what’s mine.’
So the miller takes the deal, thinking that the old man was referring to the apple tree behind the mill. Unbeknownst to the miller, the man he was talking to was the devil, and the miller’s daughter was also behind the mill at that moment, sweeping the yard. When the three years were up, the devil came for his due but the clever girl thwarted him by drawing a circle around herself and purifying herself with water. The devil ordered the miller to take away all the water so she couldn’t wash. He did this and so she wept into her hands and washed herself with her tears. So the devil ordered to the miller to take a drastic step.
The father was so terribly scared of him that in his fear he promised to do what the devil commanded. He went to his daughter and said, ‘My child, if I don’t chop off both your hands, the devil will take me away, and in my fear I promised I’d do it. Please forgive me.’
With the standard calm and complacency of a fairytale heroine, the girl accepts her fate. Her father chops off her hands and she weeps so much that her stumps are purified, thus stopping the devil from taking her. After this, the girl asks her father to strap her hands to her back and she leaves, which, I mean, can you blame her?
Eventually she finds her way to a kingdom and a prince. She is hired to tend the royal chickens but the prince falls in love, they marry, and have a child. The prince eventually becomes king and has to go away to war. While the king is away, the devil plays merry hob with the couple and gets the queen evicted from her own court. She meets an old man in the forest who tells her to wrap her arms around a particular tree, which causes her hands to grow back. He then sends her into a nearby cottage and tells her not to open the door for anyone unless they ask three times, in God’s name.
And after the king asked another two times for God’s sake, she opened the door. Then his little son came skipping toward him and led the king to his mother, and he recognized her immediately as his beloved wife. The next morning just as they left the house and began traveling together to return to their country, the house vanished right behind them.
Ok, so that’s a lot, right? Well, this is actually a pretty mild version. In a study of German folktales, this variation of the story was singular out of 16 variations. Many of the other versions include attempted sexual assault on the part of the young woman’s father or brother. Her hands are removed as retribution for denying their advances.The variations of this tale include Giambattista Basile‘s Penta of the Chopped Off Hands, “The One-Handed Girl“, “The Armless Maiden“, and “Biancabella and the Snake.”
So, first of all, even though the Grimm version differs in that the girl is being sought after by the devil, the essential idea is still the same, right? She is being sexually harassed by a male “authority” figure and her hands are taken from her by force. However, In Penta of the Chopped Off Hands, Penta herself has her hands removed after she questions her brother about what he finds most appealing about her. He says that it’s her hands and so she has a servant chop them off, after which her brother attempts to do away with her by locking her in a trunk and throwing her into the sea.
This thing that made her beautiful in his eyes has been damaged and so she no longer has value. That, in and of itself, is a lot to unpack but we also have to look at the direct ramifications of the act. The maiden is now essentially helpless. She survives on the goodwill of others until a white knight rescues her by marrying her and making her royalty. Men who are disfigured in fairytales and folklore often continue on with their lives and journeys with little difficulty. Women, however, are rendered passive actors in their own stories. Their agency has been removed–quite literally–and so they simply wait.
This story, much like Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, is meant to exemplify a number of qualities that were desirable for young women in that era, including perseverance in the face of abuse and steadfast chasteness even if it means disfigurement or death. And too, it holds out the idea that if a young woman is pretty, chaste, and complacent, while also being competent, she will eventually be discovered by a handsome prince who will whisk her away from all that was wrong in her life. Because, when we read fairytales, we have to remember that these weren’t just fun and weird stories for children. They had a purpose and a place in society.
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.