This is the third article I have written about stories from the Brother Grimm collection, but what I have realise is that not everyone knows about them…admittedly I assumed everyone did… simply because it is so common place for me.
The Brothers Grimm did not write the stories that were in their books. They were German researchers and philologists. They were interested in cultural traditions, and gathered European folklore in a series of books, which we now commonly refer to as their fairy tales today. Obviously Ludwig and Wilhelm Grimm were very intelligent guys, and what they achieved in documenting these folk stories was to cement the fundamentals so the stories ceased to change. Their versions did include all the grim (yes it is a pun) and gruesome details of the folk lore, which later got diluted down to less twisted tales, but still retaining the base stories.
This story is one that has proved a lot less popular in the retelling, potentially because it is impossible to avoid the fact that someone is maimed in it. Probably why disney has never really wanted to retell this one… It is not absolutely clear where this story sprang from, but the brothers documented this one for the first time in 1812.
Once upon a time there was a miller. The country he lived in was in the middle of a recession and he was finding it harder and harder to make ends meet. One day while he was out in the forest gathering firewood, he met an old man that he had never seen before. The man asked the miller “why do you struggle so much? I could make you rich beyond belief if you give me what is behind your mill”. The miller thought about it briefly and assumed the man was talking about his old apple tree that was behind his mill. Excited, he was only too happy to give the man the apple tree in exchange for riches, so he agreed. The man said that he would come to collect his payment the next day.
The miller returned home to be met by his wife, who was confused. She asked him why all of their cupboards which had been bare were now filled with gold and jewels. The miller explained what happened and the wife began to cry. The millar was now the one to be confused, and when he asked his wife why she was crying, she told him to look behind the mill. To his surprise he found his daughter out their sweeping the yard; she had been there all morning. The wife explained that the man the miller had met was the devil.
Falling at his daughters feet, the miller explained what he had done. The daughter said “I am your child, you can do with me what you must”. (I must note here that in some stories, it wasn’t the devil that forced the actions that happen in the rest of this story, but some tell of how she was trying to avoid the sexual advances of her father and brother). The daughter was a beautiful and pious girl. She woke early the next morning, washed herself from head to toe, and then waited in the yard with a chalk circle drawn around her.
When the devil arrived he was furious. “I cannot take the girl like this” he fumed. “Tomorrow do not allow her access to water as she must be unclear to allow me to take her”. As requested the father didn’t let his daughter wash the next morning, but she cried so much that she cleaned her hands in the process. Again, the devil was unable to take her because of her clean hands. The devil ordered the father to cut off the girls hands so that she would be unable to clean herself and to have it done by the next morning. The father, again explained to his daughter, and her only response was the same as before. So the father chopped off her hands. The girl cried so much that she washed her bloodied stumps in her tears.
The next morning the devil was beyond angry when he realised that we was unable to take the girl again. As this was the third attempt, the devil was unable to take the girl (you have heard the term “third time’s the charm”…). The father promised to look after his daughter until his dying day because of the horror she had been through in having her hands cut off due to his greed, but she said “there is nothing for me here. Please tie my hands behind my back, and I shall go out into the world and God will provide for me”. The miller did as she asked and she left.
The girl, travelled by foot through the land, but after a while she realised that he had not eaten or drunk anything. coming across an orchard surrounded by a moat, she could see pear trees in fruit. She stood staring at the fruit and asked God if she could have just enough to ease her thirst and hunger. With that and angel appeared. The angel closed a lock that was on the moat to stop the water flowing so that the girl could cross. Once entering the the angle held down a branch with a pear on it, so that she could eat the fruit. When she had finished eating, she lay down in a bush to sleep.
Unknown to the girl, there was a gardener tending the grounds and saw her eating. The gardener was so frightened by the appearance of the girl with the angel, as he thought it was a spirit that he didn’t dare disturb them. What the girl also didn’t know was that this was the orchard of the King, and all the fruit was counted.
The next day, the King turned up to count his pears (apparently the monarchy wasn’t busy back then), and asked the gardener why one was missing yet not one the floor. The gardener explained what happened. The king agreed with the gardener that he would come and watch that evening to see if it happened again.
As the King suspected, the girl emerged from the bush and started to eat a pear. The King realising that she was just a girl with god in her heart, fell in love with her beauty straight away. He took her back to his palace and looked after her, he even had silver hands made for her.
Eventually the King and the girl married and she fell pregnant. Unfortunately the King had to go to war during her pregnancy, but he asked his mother if she would look after the girl, and ensure that she had everything she wanted. Off he toddled to war. Eventually the girl gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. The mother wrote to the King to tell him the news.
As the war was a long way away, the messenger who was carrying the letter needed to stop to rest. As the messenger slept beneath a tree, the devil spotted his opportunity to get revenge on the girl. He changed the letter that the messenger was carrying to tell the King that his wife had given birth to a changeling (if you aren’t sure what a changeling is – it is a child that has been swapped at birth by fairies). The King, was obviously upset but this news, but wrote a letter back, saying it didn’t matter what the child was, he would love and support it. He also instructed his mother to look after them with great care while he was still at war. He gave the letter back to the messenger to deliver on his return.
The messenger, rested in the same place on his return, allowing the devil to change the letter again. This time, it was changed to instruct the King’s Mother to kill the wife and child, and to cut out their eyes and tongues to prove that they were dead.
When the Mother received this news she couldn’t understand her sons reaction. Devastated the mother took the girl and her child out to the woods, explained to them what the King has said in his letter and then told them to leave. Before returning to the palace she killed two deers and cut out their eyes and tongues.
The girl, once again, out in the world on her own, wandered the woods, until she came across a cottage. Knocking the door, it was answered by an angel, who said that she could live their. Through her devotion to god, over time her hands grew back.
A few years later the King returns from war, eager to see his wife and child, but he is greeted by his Mother who is furious at him. Questioning why he would ever order her to kill his family, the King looks on confused. Eventually they figure out that the letters were changed, and the mother reveals that she, in fact, didn’t kill them and she let them go in the woods.
The King starts the hunt for his wife and child. He too eventually finds the cottage, and knocks the door. The angel answers, and shows him to his wife, but the King is once again confused, explaining that his wife had no hands. The angel explains that they grew back, due to her relentless devotion.
When the son, who is now 7, sees the King, he is initially angry at why he would treat them in this way, but the King explains what has happened. All is forgiven and they go back to the palace to live happily ever after.
This is quite the story, and it boils down to the point that being devoted and god fearing will see you through life. The girl in the story representing that pious, innocence that has unwavering faith in God. I find it quite interesting that the story was changed to this, from the father having the girl’s hands and breasts cut off because she wouldn’t sleep with him, apparently incest was even a step too far for the Brothers Grimm. This is theorised that the Brothers wanted to rid the story of any pagan connotations, therefore the introduction of the devil supported the Christian outlook that they wanted to portray.
As you can image, this is a story that not even Disney could clean up, but an animated film has been made of it, by Sébastien Laudenbach. The animation is dramatically stylised and minimalist, but I have added the trailer below, so that you can make up your own mind about it… I will say that the girl appears to be a lot less pious in this version.
Sadly, I have been unable to find any historical events that truly link to this story, but I find it a fascinating one nonetheless.
Finally I need to give a shout out to Mallory Wolk, who did the amazing piece of art I have used for this article. It beautifully encapsulates the story in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. The stark ink drawing, highlighting the very black and white nature of the themes within.
What do you think of the story of The Girl without Hands? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?