Reading Grimm: Goodness Heals Disability Oct06

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Reading Grimm: Goodness Heals Disability

"The Girl with Silver Hands" | Art by kimsol. Used with permission.

Full art piece by kimsol.deviantart.com.

In the Grimm fairy tale “The Maiden Without Hands,” a miller makes a deal with an evil wizard, accidentally promising his daughter in exchange for great wealth. The daughter is described as a “modest and beautiful maiden, and lived in innocence and obedience to her parents for three years, until the day came on which the wicked wizard was to claim her.”

Weirdly enough, the wizard is unable to take her because she has physically cleaned herself. The wizard (or the devil, on some versions), commands her father to keep water away from her so she cannot wash her hands, but because she cries over them, they are washed clean and the wizard has no power over her. Horrifyingly, he then tells her father to cut off his daughter’s hands, which he does (what?). But even that doesn’t help because “the poor girl had wept so bitterly over the stumps of her arms that they were as clean and white as ever.”

This idea of clean hands comes from taking Psalm 24:3-4 quite literally—”Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.”

Goodness, innocence, and cleanliness seem to be lumped together here; the most interesting part if this tale is the notion that goodness should be rewarded, and those who are good will not remain disabled. Seriously. After some time wandering in the wilderness, the girl marries a king who makes her hands out of silver. Then there are a series of misunderstandings that cause her to flee for her life and live in a fairy’s cottage for many years, where she is “so pious and good that her hands, which had been cut off, were allowed to grow again.”

They get a happily ever after when the king finally finds her (though he doesn’t recognize her at first without her silver hands because apparently he defined her only through her disability). The idea that if you are good and patient enough, even disability can be overcome is incredibly disturbing, and it’s not a thought relegated to the 19th century. I’ve received similar comments because I have a stomach disorder. “You should just address the spiritual problems you have in your life, and then you’d be better,” people have said to me. Um… what?

Pain and suffering isn’t relegated to evil people. Blaming a suffering person for their sickness or disability is not only ridiculous, it can be damaging to their self-worth and relationships. Even if life was a fairy tale and things worked this way, human perfection doesn’t exist in this world, and even our pious princess would be struck by suffering for her wrongdoings.

Allison Barron

Allison Barron

Commander at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She is the executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is often preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Barron