John Constable The Mill
A little rain must fall
I am walking down a muddy path. I have been avoiding it for at least a year. Turn from it, though I have, the path remains and will not disappear until I have walked it. It’s the same path taken by “The Maiden Without Hands” so long ago. Who put us on this path? Wilhelm Grimm.
The bones of “The Maiden Without Hands” are these: A miller, unwittingly, makes a pact with the devil to give him what stands behind the mill in exchange for wealth. The miller thinks it is the old apple tree, but the devil is thinking of the miller’s daughter, who at the time of their pact is cleaning the yard around the apple tree.
To thwart the devil, the maiden cleanses herself and stands in a circle drawn on the ground. Furious, the devil demands that the miller not allow his daughter to wash. On the second day she has washed her hands with her tears. The devil demands the miller cut off her hands, which he does out of fear of the devil. Tears, again, are sufficient to clean the stumps of her arms, and the devil departs.
The maiden leaves her father, wandering out into the greater world, where she is helped by an angel to find food—a pear from a tree in the king’s garden. There the king discovers her and they are soon married
She bears him a son while the king is in a distant land, and the exchange of letters between the king’s mother and the king are intercepted by the devil. This ends with the king’s mother thinking her son wants the queen and the child killed. Instead she allows them to escape. The angel reappears and gives them shelter.
Upon return, the king discovers the mistakes and goes off on a penitential search for seven years, declaring he will not eat or drink until he finds his queen. God preserves him and he comes eventually to the angel’s shelter, where the queen and his son, Sorrowful, await him.
Now comes a sharp turn in the muddy path I wander down. The above description is of the 1857 version of this Grimm tale. Their own 1812 version is quite different. It starts out the same, but in the 1812 version there is no angel. The maiden comes to the king’s garden, bangs her body against an apple tree to knock down fruit and eats it off the ground. Captured by the guards, she is thrown into prison, but the king’s son suggests she be employed to feed the chickens. (How she does this without hands is not explained.) The prince is, of course, in love with her and talks the king into letting him marry her.
From here the versions are similar, with the devil intercepting letters, but the king’s mother is absent from the 1812 version, and the queen and her son are simply banished. She is now helped by an old man and her hands restored by wrapping her arms around a tree three times, rather than being re-grown in the presence of the angel. Her husband, when he realizes what has happened, goes off with a servant to find her. The old man has sheltered the queen and her son in a house no one can enter until they ask three times “for God’s sake”. This is the only Christian reference in the 1812 version. After the king, queen, and their son are reunited and they return to their kingdom, the house of the old man vanishes.
Jack Zipes, in “The Brothers Grimm, From Enchanted Forest to the Modern World,” attributes the changes to Wilhelm, and I’ll assume with Jacob’s consent. But why the changes?
Because the Grimms were bourgeois. That term carries a negative feel in modern-day parlance, but back in their day the Grimms struggled for the ascendancy of the bourgeois. And they had an agenda. They were in the forefront of rising German nationalism against the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire. The bourgeoisie composed the rising middle class, democratic in leaning. The Grimms had to flee at times to avoid being arrested for their stand against monarchy.
The Grimms wrote and re-wrote the fairy tales to reflect the values of their radical audience and not the minds of earlier serfs and peasants. Between the 1812 and 1857 editions the revolutions of 1848 swept through Europe, carrying the Grimms in their wake. I will forgive Wilhelm for mudding the path. A lot of rain fell in his day.