Escaping into magic

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Fairy tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood. Despite all the lessons contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice -- the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail. The evocation of a just world, where right would prevail over wrong, was a balm to my wounded spirits during my childhood. It was a source of hope. In the end I could believe that no matter the injustices I suffered, truth would come to light and I would be redeemed. Indeed, the message of redemptive love shared in so many beloved fairy tales sustained me."

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"If you really read the fairy-tales you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other -- the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard's wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth.

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore -- the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now, it is obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolised by this; but it is not with them I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open some one else's safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown. The boy eating some one's apples in some one's apple tree should be a reminder that he has come to a mystical moment of his life, when one apple may rob him of all others. This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law." 

Bluebeard illustrated by Walter Crane

From What It Is by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable."

Jack and the Beanstalk illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman:

"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The art today is by the great English painter, illustrator, and designer Walter Crane (1845-1915). To learn more about his work, go here.

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The passages quoted above are from: "To Love Justice" by bell hooks, published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books, 1998 & 2002); "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton, published Fantasists on Fantasy, edited by Robert H. Boyer & Kenneth J. Zahorsky (Avon Books, 1984); What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly Editions, 2008); and "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2013). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


The impudent heroines of fairy tales

The Green Serpent by H J Ford

Kate Bernheimer Lecture  Tucson  Arizona  Oct 2020

My friend and colleague Kate Bernheimer is one of the modern masters of the fairy tale form, having worked with the tales throughout her career as author, editor, teacher, collector, lecturer, and founder of The Fairy Tale Review. I highly recommend her recent lecture Power Imagined: Fairy Tales as Survival Strategies, in which she discusses Little Red Riding Hood, Donkeyskin, Snow White, fairy tale history, Jewish history, family trauma, women's trauma, Anne Frank, Amy Winehouse, and so much more. It's simply brilliant. Go here to see it.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy TalesI also recommend Kate's books -- including her adult fiction (The Complete Tales of Kezia Gold, The Complete Tales of Merry Gold, The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, Horse Flower Bird, and How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales), her children's fiction (The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum, The Lonely Book, and The Girl Who Wouldn't Brush Her Hair), and her essay collections (Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales and Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales).

I particularly recommend My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award. This book presents fairy-tale-inspired stories by Aimee Bender, Francesca Lia Block, Kathryn Davis, Karen Joy Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Shelley Jackson, Kelly Link, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Vaz, Joy Williams, and many others from across the mainstream fiction/fantasy divide, with a dazzling range of styles from straight-forward retellings to exquisitely fractured experimental forms.

In the volume's Introduction, Kate writes:

Little Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb-Hood"A few years ago I presented a short manifesto about fairy tales to a large audience of creative writing professors and students. I was on a panel dedicated to nonrealist literature. I made an argument that fairy tales were at risk -- they had been misunderstood, appropriated without proper homage by the realists and fabulists alike. Only at a writers' conference could this sort of statement produce a gasp. (Yes, say what you will.) I am always that person in the room telling everyone, genuinely, that I love it all -- realism, high modernism, surrealism, minimalism. I like stories. But apparently my defense of fairy tales, which I consider so poignantly inclusive, marginalized, and vast, was seen as outlandish....My statement, intended to be inspiring, to gather support for this humble, inventive, and communal tradition, created vibration, metallic and sharp. I realized the full weight of the fact that celebrating fairy tales in the center of a talk about 'serious literature' to a roomful of writers was controversial....I realized then that while people may know and love -- or love to hate -- these stories, they really are not aware of the many ways they pervade contemporary literature.

"As merely one example, the National Book Foundation, which administers the [American] National Book Awards, states that 'retelling of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales are not eligible' for their awards. Imagine guidelines that state, 'Retellings of slavery, incest,and genocide are not eligible.' Fairy tales contain all of those themes, and yet the implication is that something about fairy tales is simply...not literary. Perhaps the snobbery has something to do with their association with children and women. Or it could be that, lacking any single author, they discomfort a culture enchanted with the myth of the heroic artist. Or perhaps their tropes are so familiar that they are easily understood as cliché. Possibly their collapsed world of real and unreal unsettles those who rely on that binary to give life some semblance of order."

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate has done more to champion modern fairy tale literature than anyone else I know, and I could not admire her more for this work. I urge you to take the time to listen to her insightful, timely, witty, and deeply moving talk above.

Wild Swans by Helen Stratton

The passage quoted above is from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Penguin Books, 2010). All rights reserved by the author. The fairy tale drawings above by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), G.P. Jacomb-Hood (1857-1929), and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).


Telling the hard stories

Vasilisa

In "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation With Alice Hoffman," the author discusses why she drew on folkloric elements to tell a story about the Holocaust in her recent novel The World That We Knew:

"I grew up read­ing fairy tales and, as a kid, I always pre­ferred them to oth­er children’s lit­er­a­ture, because I felt like they told the truth. I felt like sym­bol­i­cal­ly, they got to the deep­est emo­tion­al truth. That feel­ing about fairy tales has stayed with me, and also the feel­ing that these were the orig­i­nal sto­ries, told by grand­moth­ers to grand­chil­dren, to intro­duce them to the world — all that’s good and all that’s bad, what to be wary of and how to live your life. The oth­er part of it, though, was that there have been so many nov­els writ­ten about the Holo­caust, and I real­ly haven’t read any of them. I have read a ton of lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust, but not nov­els. The sto­ry of the Holo­caust is so illog­i­cal and irra­tional. It makes no sense. Why would peo­ple act this way? It’s inhu­mane. It just defies log­ic. The only way that I felt I could tell it was to use fairy-tale log­ic to try to make sense of a world where noth­ing made sense."

Hansel & Gretel by Charles Robinson

In an earlier piece, from 2004, Hoffman also defended the value of fairy tales and why we are drawn to tell and re-tell them:

"Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads Hansel and Gretel feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely.

"It has long been my belief that writers of fiction fall into two categories: those who write to explain their lives, and those who write to escape them. Both, I suppose are looking for some 'truth' about their experiences, but the former are shackled by their worlds; the latter are free to imagine new ones. Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Hansel & Gretel by Lisbeth Zwerger

Hoffman's World War II novel, The World That We Knew, follows a trail blazed by several previous works of Holocaust literature making use of fairy tale themes: Jane Yolen's novel Briar Rose (1992), Lisa Goldstein's short story "Breadcrumbs and Stones" (published in Snow White, Blood Red, 1993), and Louise Murphy's novel The True Story of Hansel and Gretel (2003) in particular -- as well as Peter Rushford's Kindergarten (1976), a too-little-known novel for young readers centered on a fairy tale artist with a Holocaust history.

In listing these antecedents to Hoffman's book, I don't mean to imply that her work is derivative, for it is the nature of fairy tales to be retold, and the nature of fantasy books to be in conversation with each other -- in fact, it's one of the hallmarks of our field. Whether or not Hoffman is familiar with the stories I've listed, a certain number of her readers will be, and it is through readers as well as through writers and their texts that the Great Conversation continues.

Legend of Rosepetal by Lisbeth Zwerger

Ellen Kushner and I were recently talking about this aspect of fantasy literature as she was preparing her talk for the launch of the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow. We can read fantasy books as stand-alone works, of course; and, if the tale has been well constructed, the experience will be a satisfying one; but to fully appreciate the best works in our field requires knowing something of its history. Fantasy fiction is rarely (if ever) sui generis; it exists within the context of a rich and varied tradition, written in reponse to, or against, what has come before. It is an art form that does not depend on novelty for effect, but constantly references older stories and tropes, re-fashioning them into new shapes.

Fantasy writers, said Lloyd Alexander (as quoted in last Thursday's post), "draw from a common source: the 'Pot of Soup,' as Tol­kien calls it, the 'Cauldron of Story,' which has been simmering away since time immemorial. The pot holds a rich and fascinating kind of mythological minestrone. Almost everything has gone into it, and almost any­ thing is likely to come out of it: morsels of real history -- spiced­ and spliced -- with imaginary history, fact and fancy, daydreams and nightmares. It is as inexhaustible as those legendary vessels that could never be emptied."

The Arabian Nights illustrated by Edmund Dulac

In the contemporary fantasy field, Tolkien's 'Pot of Soup' contains not only the myth cycles, epics, and heroic romances he drew upon for The Lord of the Rings but also fantastical stories of a more recent vintage, including those by Tolkien himself. Themes, characters, imaginary landscapes, evocative metaphors and arresting images from works produced in the 19th and 20th centuries now swirl in that pot, flavouring the stories of writers today in ways both obvious and subtle.

In some fields, "influence" is a suspect thing, as though influence equals imitation. (It doesn't, and shouldn't.) Our field, by contrast, celebrates the influence of older stories and older works of art, bringing the old and the new into dialogue. For example: Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea cycle is, among many other things, a response to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis' work: a conversation about what magic is, what power is, and what an imaginary world might be like if it grew from nonWestern mythic traditions. Stardust by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess is, among many other things, a lively conversation with Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. Snow White, Blood Red, the fairy tale anthology Ellen Datlow and I published back in 1993, was a direct response to Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Tanith Lee's Red as Blood (1983); just as The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien (2016), is now in conversation with us all.

Although I've savoured Hoffman's work since her very first novel (Property Of, 1977), I haven't yet read The World That We Knew. You have to be ready to enter the hard stories, and I haven't been ready until now. As I turn through its pages, I will hear the whispered voices of Jane's Briar Rose, Lisa's "Breadcrumbs and Stones," Louise Murphy's The True Story of Hansel and Gretel and Rushford's Kindergarten, along with the echoes of fairy tales told and retold down through the centuries. Knowing the antecedents, the lineage, the tradition that Hoffman is working in will add to, not diminish, my appreciation of the book she's created. 

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

In her fine essay collection Touch Magic: Fantasy, Folklore and Faerie in the Literature of Childhood, Jane Yolen writes:

"We have spent a good portion of our last decades erasing the past. The episode of the gas ovens is closed, wrapped in the mist of history. It is as if it never happened. At the very least, which always surprises me, it is considered a kind of historical novel, abstract and not particularly terrifying.

"It is important for children to have books that confront the evils and do not back away from them. Such books can provide a sense of good and evil, a moral reference point. If our fantasy books are not strong enough -- and many modern fantasies shy away from asking for sacrifice, preferring to profer rewards first as if testing the faerie waters -- then real stories, like those of Adolf Hitler's evil deeds, will seem so much slanted news, not to be believed."

It is important for adult readers to have such books as well, as the daily news keeps reminding us.

I am grateful to the writers who tell the hard stories. And I am grateful to be part of the conversation.

Stories told and re-told

Rapunzel by Trina Shart Hyman

Words: The passages above are quoted from  "Fairy Tale Logic: A Conversation with Alice Hoffman" by Jamie Wendt (Jewish Book Council: PB Daily, August 31, 2020); "Sharpening an imagination with the hard flint of fairy tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April 4, 2004); "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance" by Lloyd Alexander (Horn Book, Dec. 16, 1971); and Touch Magic by Jane Yolen (Philomel, 1981; August House, expanded edition, 2000). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: "Vasilisa" by Ivan Bilibin, "Hansel and Gretel" by Charles Robinson, "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Legend of Rosepetal" by Lisbeth Zwerger, an illustration for "The Arabian Nights" by Edmund Dulac, and "Snow White" and "Rapunzel" by Trina Schart Hyman. All rights to the contemporary works reserved by the artists.

Related reading, on the subject of influence and tradition: "On finding your voice," Jonathan Lethem's "The Ecstasy of Influence, and "In the Tradition" by Michael Swanwick, which can be found in his book The Postmodern Archipelago (1997), and in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror,  Volume 8 (1995).


Wild stories

Wild companion

Winged deer tapestry

The Bumblehill studio

While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the mulch of leaves on the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the hawthorn berries brightening the hedgerows, and blackberries ripening among the thorns. To acorns and apples dropping from the trees as the seasons turn.

Illustration by Helen StrattonI keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden through bracken by ponies and sheep. To the riverside, the commons, the crossroads. To the chilly mornings and the night-times drawing in. To discomfort. To loss. To pain. To joy. To acceptance. To the things that are real.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

Wild words

"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer (author & editor of The Fairy Tale Review) "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."

Edmund Dulac illustration

P1370113

"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.

Kay Nielsen illustration

HJ Owen illustration

"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Our task, as David Abram sees is, "is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps."

 "Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

Adrienne Segur illustration

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Wild stories

Words: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997);  Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.


The Handless Maiden

...with art by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless Maiden by Jeanie Tomanek

After months of pandemic lockdown, "isolation" themes in fairy tales have taken on new meaning and relevance. All of us who have been isolating at home, shut away from the world, are sister to Rapunzel now, brother to the Beast in his woodland castle, waiting for someone to break the spell of Covid-19 and restore us to life as we knew it. But fairy tales are not stories of restoration, they are stories of transformation. They say: Yes, you can escape the witch, flee from the tower, emerge from the woods and regain your humanity...but your life and your world won't be the same. You are different now. There's no going back. It is time to forge something new.

Rapunzel by A.H. WatsonYesterday, we discussed Maiden-in-a-Tower tales, and isolation as a form of imprisonment. Today, let's look at The Handless Maiden (also known as The Armless Maiden, The Girl Without Hands, and Silver Hands), in which an isolated forest hut is a place of sanctuary and, ultimately, of healing.

In this tale, a miller's daughter loses her hands as the result of a foolish bargain her father has made with the devil. (In darker variants, it is because she will not give in to incestuous demands.) She then leaves home, makes her way through the forest, and ends up foraging for pears (a fruit symbolic of female strength) in the garden of a tender-hearted king -- who falls in love, marries her, and gives her two new hands made of silver. The young woman gives birth to a son -- but this is not the usual happy ending to the story. The king is away at war and the devil interferes once again (or, in some versions, a malicious mother-in-law), tricking the court into casting both mother and child back into the forest.

The Handless Maiden then encounters an angel who leads her to a hut deep in the woods. Her human hands are magically restored during this time of forest retreat. When her husband returns from the war, learns that she's gone, and comes to fetch his wife and child home, she insists that he court her all over again, as the new woman she is now. Her husband complies -- and then, only then, does the tale conclude happily. The Handless Maiden's transformation is now complete: from wounded child to whole, healed woman; from miller's daughter to queen.

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

In her classic book The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz compared the Handless Maiden's time of solitude in the woods to that of religious mystics seeking communion with god through nature.

"In the Middle Ages, there were many hermits," she noted, "and in Switzerland there were the so-called Wood Brothers and Sisters. People who did not want to live a monastic life but who wanted to live alone in the forest had both a closeness to nature and also a great experience of spiritual inner life. Such Wood Brothers and Sisters could be personalities on a high level who had a spiritual fate and had to renounce active life for a time and isolate themselves to find their own inner relationship to God. It is not very different from what the shaman does in the Polar tribes, or what the medicine men do all over the world, in order to seek immediate personal religious experience in isolation."

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek

In other versions of the Handless Maiden narrative, the young queen's time in the woods is not solitary. The angel (or "white spirit") leads her to an inn at the very heart of the forest, where she's taken in by gentle "folk of the woods." (It's not always made clear whether they are human or magical beings.) The queen stays with them for a full seven years (a traditional period of time for magical/shamanic initiation in ancient Greece and other cultures world-wide), during which time her hands slowly re-grow.

In her essay "Healing the Wounded Wild," Kim Antieau uses this variant of the story to reflect on illness, the healing process, and the ways our relationship with the natural world impacts both physical and psychic health. "In many cultures," she writes, "the prescription for chronic illness was a stay in the country (not necessarily the wild country). In ancient Greece, the chronically ill went to Asklepian Temples for relief. The priests created tenemos — sacred space — for the patient to help facilitate healing. The ill went to the temples and prepared with purification and ritual for a healing dream. Then the patient went to the abaton — the sleeping chamber — and dreamed. Often the dreams either healed the patients or told them of a remedy which would heal them.

"Today, practitioners of integrated medicine believe the body wants to heal, and the patient needs the time, encouragement, support and space to be able to get well. In many instances the time, encouragement, and support can be found, but wild spaces are lacking. Silvia [the Handless Maiden] was able to travel deep into a wild place. Where do we go? Where do the wild things go (including human beings) when no wild remains?"

Gamekeeper by Jeanie Tomanek

Midori Snyder comes at the story from a different angle in her luminous article "The Armless Maiden and the Hero's Journey," examining the tale, in its various forms, as a classic rite-of-passage narrative.

When such stories are devised for young men, she notes, the hero typically sets off from home seeking adventure or fortune in the unknown world, where the fantastic waits to challenge him. "Along the journey, his worth as a man and as a hero is tested. But when the trials are done, he returns home again in triumph, bringing to his society new-found knowledge, maturity and often a magical bride....

"While no less heroic, how different are the journeys of young women. In folktales, the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood is confirmed by marriage and the assumption of adult roles. In traditional exogamous societies, young women were required to leave forever the familiar home of their birth and become brides in foreign and sometimes faraway households. In the folktales, a young girl ventures or is turned out into the ambiguous world of the fantastic, knowing that she will never return home. Instead at the end of a perilous and solitary journey, she arrives at a new village or kingdom. There, disguised as a dirty–faced servant, a scullery maid, or a goose girl, she completes her initiation as an adult and, like her male counterpart, brings to her new community the gifts of knowledge, maturity, and fertility."

Although fairy tales have been known as children's stories from roughly the 19th century onward, older versions of these same narratives (aimed at older audiences) looked unflinchingly at the darkest parts of life: at poverty, hunger, abuse of power, domestic violence, incest, rape, the sale of young daughters to the highest bidder under the guise of arranged marriages, the effects of remarriage on family dynamics, the loss of inheritance or identity, the survival of treachery or calamity. In rite-of-passage tales devised for young women, the heroes don't tend to ride merrily off into the forest in search of fame and fortune, they are usually driven there by desperation; the forest, despite its perils, is a place of refuge from worse dangers left behind.

Communion by Jeanie Tomanek

The Handless/Armless Maiden is not a passive princess in the old Disney mold, waiting for romance to rescue her. She finds her own way to the orchard of a king in her search of food, and although she agrees to marry him, a royal wedding is not the conclusion of her story, it's the half-way point. "It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle," Midori points out. "The brutality of the opening scene seems resolved as the Armless Maiden is rescued in a garden and then married to a compassionate young man. But she has not completed her journey of transformation from adolescence to adulthood. She is not whole, not the girl she was nor the woman she was meant to be. The narratives make it clear that without her arms, she is unable to fulfill her role as an adult. She can do nothing for herself, not even care for her own child.

"Conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, and she returns reborn as a woman. Every narrative version concludes with what is in effect a second marriage. The woman, now whole, her arms restored by an act of magic, has become herself the magic bride, aligned with the creative power of nature. She does not return immediately to her husband but waits with her child in the forest or a neighboring homestead for him to find her. When he comes to propose marriage this second time, it is a marriage of equals, based on respect and not pity.

Silver Hands and the Numbered Pears

"I have come to believe," Midori continues, "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," Midori concludes, "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."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

Poet Vicki Feaver has also reflected on the story in relationship to creativity. In an interview in Poetry Magazine, Feaver discusses her poem "The Handless Maiden," inspired by the fairy tale :

"The story is that the girl’s hands are cut off by her father and she is given silver hands by the king who falls in love with her. Eventually, she goes off into the forest with her child and her own hands grow back. In the Grimms' version it is because she’s good for seven years. But there’s a Russian version which I like better where she drops her child into a spring as she bends down to drink. She plunges her handless arms into the water to save the child and it’s at that moment that her hands grow. 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. This was such a powerful idea that I had to write about it. It took me three years to find a way of doing it. 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 again. You ask if I’ve found any strategies for writing. Only to go away on my own, to be myself, and just to write."

Silver Hands by Jeanie Tomanek

"Fairy tales are journey stories," says Ellen Steiber (in a beautiful essay on the fairy tale Brother and Sister). "They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one's deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side."

In the universe of fairy tales, the Just often find a way to prevail, the Wicked generally receive their comeuppance -- but there's more to such tales than a formula of abuse and retribution. The trials these wounded young heroes encounter illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a maimed state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Fairy tales are, as Ellen says, maps through the woods, trails of stones to mark the path, marks carved into trees to let us know that other women and men have been this way before.

Diary by Jeanie Tomanek

Though they warn us to steer clear of gingerbread houses and huts that stalk the woods on chicken's feet, they also show the way to true shelter, sanctuary, and places of healing deep in the forest. (The real lesson here, it seems to me, is to learn to tell the difference.) Think of the hut in Brother and Sister" for example, where the siblings set up housekeeping in the woods, far from the everyday world (and their stepmother's malice), adapting to the rhythms of the forest, of self-sufficiency, and of the brother's enchantment.  Or the woodland cabin in The White Deer, where the deer-princess sleeps safely each night.  Or the cottage (or cave) where Snow White finds shelter with a band of rough forest-dwelling men (the metal-working dwarves of Teutonic folklore in some versions, outlaws and brigands in others). Even the Beast's lonely castle deep in the woods is more sanctuary than prison...a place where captor and prisoner both transform, in true fairy tale fashion.

Envoy by Jeanie TomanekThese places are linked not only by their woodland settings, but by the temporary nature of the sanctuary provided. The curse is broken or the secret revealed, or the magical task finished, or the trial survived; transformation is complete, and the hero must now return to the human world. Traditionally, rite-of-passage ceremonies are designed to propel initiates into a sacred place and sacred state (the realm of the spirits, gods, or ancestors; the place of vision, instruction, and metamorphosis)...but then to bring them back again, back to the tribe or community and to ordinary life. We're meant to come out of sweatlodge, down from the Vision Quest hill, home from the Moon Hut, back from the sacred hunt, bringing with us new knowledge, new dreams, a new status, a new name or role to play....intended not just for the sake of personal growth but in service to the whole tribe or community. Likewise, we're not meant to remain in the circle of enchantment deep in the fairy tale forest -- we're meant to come back out again, bringing our hard-won knowledge and fortune with us...in service to the family (old or new), the realm, the community; to children and the future.

Unless, that is, we stay in the woods and take on a different role in the story...not a hero this time, but one of the forest dwellers who aids (or hinders) another's journey: the woodwose, the hermit, the sage, the mad prophet...the men and woman who run with the wolves...the femme sauvage with her herbs and charms... the conjure man with his beehives and songs....

But those are stories for another day, and another journey into the woods.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, who lives and works in Georgia, near Atlanta."My all-time favorite folktale is 'The Handless Maiden," she says. "It is about a woman’s journey toward wisdom and self-realization and the obstacles and helpers she encounters. This tale encompasses many of the archetypical representations of women. My 'Everywomen' portray the mothers, daughters, lovers, and crones. Strong, wise women who will survive.  These are filtered through my own experiences many times." All rights to imagery here are reserved by the artist. The drawing of Rapunzel's tower is by A.H. Watson.

Words: I am grateful to Midori Snyder for allowing me to quote such a long passage from her Armless Maiden essay.  I urge anyone interested in the tale to please read this insightful essay in full. All right to text above, included quoted passages, are reserved by the authors.