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The Handless Maiden: A Story for Difficult Times

Posted on Apr 18, 2007 by

handless maiden

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian analyst and storyteller, retells a story about a handless maiden. It’s a story that seems to me a kind of ideal story for a month in which I’m writing about ways in which a person can sometimes get stuck–hit obstacles–get bewildered. The story is one that I’ve found beneficial at crucial junctures in my own life, and it’s a story I have at times told in turn to patients or students when it seems that the labor that began so well—the first giddy success of creativity and vitality—has come to a grinding halt.

The story begins when a maiden loses her hands. She really does lose them—her entire hands. They’re cut off. It’s a moment of initiation. A loss of innocence. Her first serious loss. She has these stumps where she used to have hands, and she wanders, grieving, for many years. Eventually, she comes upon a pear orchard. Here, she encounters a beautiful pear—then a king. He’s a good king. He makes her a pair of silver hands and he fastens them to her stumps. They fall in love. It’s a particularly sweet kind of love for the maiden, coming as it does in the wake of grief, when she had only these stumps for hands and when she had all but given up hope. And this moment could serve, in one particular kind of story–say, a romantic story–as an ending. The king and the maiden have fallen in love. Happily ever after. Those exquisite silver hands. But this, as it turns out, is not the ending.

Estes writes:

. . . this is still not the lysis, resolution. We are only at the midpoint of transformation, a place of being held in love, yet poised to make a slow dive into another abyss. And so, we continue.

Complications arise. The king is called to fight in a faraway kingdom. While he’s away it happens that the queen gives birth to their first child. The baby is beautiful. It’s another one of those promising moments, a joyous moment, and, in her joy, the king’s mother sends a message off to the king. The baby is well. The baby is beautiful. But, as can happen, the messenger falls asleep on his way to the king and the Devil comes and intercepts the message, twists it to his own purposes: The queen has given birth to a child who is half dog. The king, on receiving this message, is horrified. But he is a good king. And, in spite of his horror, he sends back to his mother a message of compassion, and entreaty. Please care for the queen and the baby during this difficult time. Yet once again the messenger, overly complacent, falls asleep, and, once again, the Devil intercepts the message. The king’s mother receives this twisted, and tragic, directive: Kill the queen and the child.

This is the abyss.
This is the time of the twisted message:
The writing (or some other creative endeavor) is malformed.
It’s ugly–without worth.
It’s time to kill it—whatever it is.

These kinds of twisted messages can arise inside one’s own head or they can arise out in the world. If such messages do arise out in the world, in one form or another, one may find oneself, at times, particularly vulnerable to them. Often, and unexpectedly, this vulnerability may occur in the wake of something that has just gone very very well. This is something I’ve always found interesting. It’s counterintuitive. It’s not what most of us have come to expect. And, because it’s not what we expect, we can be blindsided by it. But I’ve seen it over and over. Something is going very very well. And it’s then that the murderous voices arise. Like a backlash.

Estes puts it like this:

It is a psychic fact that when one has given birth to a beautiful thing something mean will also arise, even if only momentarily, something that is jealous, lacks understanding, or shows disdain. The new child will be called down, called ugly, and condemned by one or more persistent antagonists.

The message arrives: Kill the queen and the child.
And how in the world is one to respond to that?

In the story of the handless maiden, the king’s mother, mercifully, does not heed the twisted message. She does not proceed to kill the queen and her child. That would make for a truly unbearable story. Fortunately, the old woman does not collude with the Devil. She does not buy into the notion that the baby is ugly. She stays connected to her senses—to what she can actually see and touch—the baby itself. Not ugly. Not malformed. She touches its soft soft skin. That tender place at its skull. The baby is tender—and young—but not ugly. The old woman does not let herself become convinced that the baby is the problem here. But at the same time—and this is important—neither does she underestimate the queen’s vulnerability to hearing such an alarming message about her new baby. She does not underestimate the danger. She takes action to protect the queen and her infant during such a vulnerable time. She counsels the queen to bind the child close. She covers them both with a veil. And then she tells the queen that she must run for her life. Leave this place of danger, she tells her. Get thee to a safe place. Now.

Photo can be found here.

You can read more about this story here.

If you’re interested in tales, you may also find Instructions by Neil Gaiman of interest.