The Armless Maiden, despite her vulnerabilty, her violent history, and her arduous solitary journey, has also inspired a wonderful rebellious and rejuvenating spirit in the new interpretations of her tale in modern poetry. In Rigoberto González's sensual poem The Girl With No Hands, the armless maiden is one of those rare creatures, a female trickster. The girl compares her severed hands to the stolen good luck charms of desiccated rabbit's feet but plans her own revenge. This is a clever armless maiden: "Resolute, you age with ingenuity, learning to eat/ right off the branch, nibbling apple, apricot, and pear without separating fruit from stem." She finds pleasure and sex in the garden with a hunter's son: "the piano that's played with elbows and knees and four clumsy/ heels that for all their random reaching make the sweetest rhythms." This armless girl has no fear of her father, but rather gathers her strength from her trickster heart with a "delectable defiance." She can not only self–generate a second pair of hands, but even more, she has "legs, torso, head, and a bear trap of a jaw to bite the hands that feed her."
In Conversation With My Father, Elline Lipkin offers a canny and wise girl who will not surrender her hands to her father. She "interlopes" down the aisles of a hardware store, a masculine world if ever there was one, intending to purchase a drill. Yet here amid threatening tools with "metal shapes that brag of power" she contemplates her relationship with her father. How much easier it might have been to born like the goddess Athena, "blasted out" of her father's head like a "sweep of clean logic." But she is not Athena, and her father has shaped her as something more fragile: a Thumbelina, a girl with breakable porcelain arms. In the hard violence of the folk–tale, it is the father's will to sever his daughter's hands because he wants it, he needs it. But in this poem, the would–be armless maiden refuses to comply. She will not allow the essential nature of her adult identity to have been initiated by an act of power over her. "Each pointed finger is my true weapon," she proclaims, refusing to allow her father to memorialize this defining moment in her life by bronzing "the cut cups of my palms." In the traditional versions of the narrative this violent act is essential to separate the girl from home and family and turn her out on a journey of maturation. But the modern armless maiden has begun to question whether we should permit our lives to be defined by such external acts of power, acts that emphasize our vulnerability rather than our personal strengths.
I have come to believe that robust narratives such as the Armless Maiden speak to women not only when they are young and setting out on that first rite of passage, but throughout their lives. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés presents a fascinating analysis of this tale, demonstrating the guiding role the armless maiden plays in a woman's psychic life:
'The Handless Maiden' is about a woman's initiation into the underground forest through the rite of endurance. The word endurance sounds as though it means 'to continue without cessation,' and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means "to harden, to make robust, to strengthen," and this is the principal thrust of the tale, and the generative feature of a woman's long psychic life. We don't just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.
To follow the example of the armless maiden is an invitation to sever old identities and crippling habits by journeying again and again into the forest. There we may once more encounter emergent selves waiting for us. In the narrative the armless maiden sits on the bank of a rejuvenating lake and learns to caress and care for her child, the physical manifestation of her creative power. Each time we follow the armless maiden she brings us face to face with our own creative selves. In an interview with Vicci Bentley of Poetry Magazines.org.uk, the British poet Vicki Feaver discusses the influence the Armless Maiden tales had on the way she perceives her writing process:
I read a psychoanalytic interpretation by Marie Louise von France in her book, The Feminine in Fairytales in which she argues that the story reflects the way women cut off their own hands to live through powerful and creative men. They need to go into the forest, into nature, to live by themselves, as a way of regaining their own power. The child in the story represents the woman's creativity that only the woman herself can save.
Writing as the restored mother in her poem "The Handless Maiden," Feaver celebrates the resurgence of a woman's creativity. Restored to wholeness, the young woman sits on the bank, reveling in the newly discovered pleasures of attending her beautiful child. But as the child sleeps, "her heat passing/ into my breast and shoulder/ the breath I couldn't believe in," the new mother begins to cry, recalling the painful journey she has endured to reach this river. But the poem ends triumphantly, for even as she recalls with tears "my hands that sprouted/ in the red–orange mud" these are now also the hands that "write this, grasping/ [the child's] curled fist." The handless maiden has become the poet, articulating her own creative process, grasping the fruits of that work in the child's resilient "curled fist." Feaver writes, "In the end I chose the voice of the Handless Maiden herself — as if I was writing the poem with the hands that grew at the moment that she rescued her work, her child . . . I suppose I go through the process of endlessly cutting off my hands and having to grow them."
In the end this may be the most illuminating lesson of the armless maiden. She teaches us not to fear; for even wounded, sometimes abandoned, there is strength in our power to restore ourselves to wholeness — not once but many times throughout our lives. She illuminates the missteps that come when we settle for partial solutions, allowing us to experience through the images of the tale the stagnating effects of such capitulation. She journeys with us during those times when we have to venture back into the forest, the sign of our new and vulnerable selves in the child tied on our back. And she is there to witness the moment of our restoration, when we finally reach with new hands for our voices, our lives, and our futures.
The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood's Survivors edited by Terri Windling.
Contains the story "Armless Maiden" by Midori Snyder
The Handless Maiden, a novel by Loranne Brown
Here All Dwell Free: Stories to Heal the Wounded Feminine, by Gertrud Mueller Nelson
The Feminine in Fairy Tales, by Marie–Louise Von Franz
The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, by Robert A. Johnson
On the Web:
The Girl Without Hands, an annotated version of the fairytale
The Girl With No Hands, by Rigoberto González, an audio file in which González reads and discusses his poem
Pear, a poem by Nan Fry
Healing the Wounded Wild, by Kim Antieau
Old Wives Tales, by Terri Windling