In contrast to Disneyfied fairy tales, let's take a look at an older tale that is rarely found in children's collections: The Girl With No Hands. The story goes something like this: A poor miller meets the Devil in the woods, who promises him a sack of gold in exchange for what stands behind his mill. The miller agrees, thinking he is only giving away an apple tree — but in fact he has promised his daughter, who stands behind the mill sweeping the yard. The Devil comes to collect the girl, but finds her so pure that he cannot touch her. "Take all water away from her," he instructs the frightened miller, "and I will fetch her when I return." The miller does so, but the girl weeps and washes herself clean with her tears. "Cut off her hands," the Devil instructs, "so she cannot wash herself with them." The miller cuts off his daughter's hands, but the girl still remains clean and pure, and the third time that the Devil returns, he loses all claim to her.
At this point, the girl's parents rejoice and prepare to live the rest of their days in splendor. But the handless girl refuses to be their daughter any longer. "You would have sold me to the Devil himself," she says. "I will make my own way in the world." Her hands bound, her feet bare, she lives like an animal in the wood, starving, unable to feed herself — until she comes to a king's garden, filled with trees dropping pears to the ground. The king's son investigates the nightly theft of the royal fruit, discovers the handless maiden, and brings her into the palace to live. Although she is not whole, she is kind and noble, and soon the prince has fallen in love. He has a beautiful pair of silver hands made for the girl, and then he marries her.
In a Disney film, this is where the story would end — but not in this old fairy tale. The transformation of the heroine is not complete, true healing has not occurred. The silver hands give the young woman the mere appearance of wholeness; the hands are useless, and when she gives birth to a child, she cannot care for him. The prince is off at war at this point, and a letter is sent to give him the happy news. But here misfortune strikes again — in the form of the prince's own jealous mother. A false letter is substituted, and the prince is told his wife has given birth to a horrid monster. He writes back to say that nonetheless wife and child must be treated tenderly. Once again, a false letter is substituted, containing instructions to kill the handless bride, or cast her out into the woods.
The handless maiden returns to the forest, her baby strapped onto her back. She cannot feed herself, and she cannot feed the child. When she kneels wearily by the river to drink, the baby plunges from its bindings and falls into the water. As she leaps in, desperate to save her child, her hands are magically restored. And an angel leads her to a hut, where mother and child live in solitude. Meanwhile, the prince returns from war and uncovers the whole deception. He goes into the wood to seek his family, but when he finds his wife at last, he doesn't recognize her — for now she is a healed woman, with two white, graceful hands. Before she will return to the palace, she insists he acknowledge this change in her. Last time, he courted her with his pity; now, he must court her properly. He does so, with pomp and ceremony, and trains of horses laden with gifts. And then their true marriage is sealed, and the story ends happily.
This story of a girl brutally mutilated by a family member (through weakness and carelessness in some versions, through rage and cruelty in others) is one that can be found in oral folklore traditions throughout the world. One finds variants of The Girl With No Hands in every European country, in China, Japan, Egypt, Persia, Turkey, and North and South America. Many of these versions are similar to a stark African variant of the tale titled "A Father Cuts Off his Daughter's Arms," in which the hero's arms are chopped off because she will not accede to her father's sexual demands. In each case, the girl is violently thrust out of her family background and into the world, where love or marriage alone cannot heal her. Only in solitude does healing come, when her own need demands it, when the time is right, when she is ready to embrace her destiny. It is a disturbing, haunting story — yet it is only one of a number of traditional tales with an unflinching portrayal of family violence. Donkeyskin is another, with its incestuous theme of a king determined to marry his own daughter despite her protestations and despair. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods; the son in The Juniper Tree is beheaded; Snow White's lovely mother orders her child's heart cut out, boiled, and served for dinner. In older versions of fairy tales, such acts were not foisted off on "wicked step–parents;" these were the acts of the parents themselves: of kings who are less than wise; of millers who are less than strong; and of queens, housewives and sisters slowly simmering with rage.
Our modern notion of fairy tales as simple stories for very young children is quickly disabused by a look at tales like The Girl With No Hands, unflinching in their portrayal of the complexities of the human heart. Here we find true wickedness — not a caricature of Evil, dressed in black. The Devil begins the chain of events that propels the story, but the maiden's own frightened father lets him in; the prince's mother continues the Devil's work; and the court stands by as mother and child are thrown back into the forest. In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, and the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance. But a close look at the stories reveals much more than a simple formula of abuse and retribution. The trials our heroes encounter in their quests illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state into wholeness, from passivity to action. It's this transformational subtext that gives true fairy tales their particular power: not as a quaint escape from the harsh realities of modern life, but in their symbolic portrayal of all the dark and bright life has to offer.