Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Handless Maiden

fairy tale pic
"Do yourself a favor: put aside logic and do what feels right." ~ Mr. Spock (Star Trek 2009)

Depth psychologists such as Robert A. Johnson have long lamented the wounding of the feeling function in contemporary society. Fairy tale imagery provides a vivid way of envisioning how readily we may abandon our capacity for feeling, leaving ourselves diminished and unfulfilled. The story of The Handless Maiden reveals how this may occur among women and also men.

Once upon a time there was a miller who, with his wife and daughter, owned a mill. One day the devil appeared and offered the miller increased production and wealth in exchange for what lay behind the mill. The miller agreed and things went very well. Three years later, the devil appeared again, wishing his due. The miller thought an old tree stood behind the mill and he'd get away with the best part of the deal. In fact, it was his daughter. Unwilling to give up his now more profitable mill, he turns over his daughter and the devil takes her hands in payment.

Although cared for by her family, she becomes depressed and one day, wanders into the forest where she grows hungry. Coming upon a pear orchard, she manages to eat, but is discovered. The king is summoned and when he sees who has been eating his pears, he is moved with compassion for her missing hands. They fall in love, wed, and he orders silver hands to be made for her, so great is his affection.

Now the wonder of the kingdom, people come from far and wide to see her lovely hands. Eventually, she has a child whom she yearns to hold and care for, but of course, she is unable. The king, a good but typical husband, tries to solve the problem by reassuring her that servants can perform this task for her. Even in fairy tales, we men want to fix things. 

One day, while picnicking near a river, her child falls in the water. In great distress, she calls for help but there is no one near. Without thinking, she thrusts her silver hands into the water and lo! they are changed magically into real ones. She saves her child and coincidentally, herself as well.

The devil's offer is deceptive. Thinking he might get something for nothing, the miller accepts only to find himself having to choose between she who should have been his greatest treasure and his pocketbook. From the outset, The Handless Maiden presents us with conflicting values. By choosing profit over his daughter, the miller represents the sacrifice of feeling for material gain. His sense of values is twisted, misplaced, and his daughter pays the price. 

The miller's daughter possesses dual significance. Taking the story more literally, she represents those who are vulnerable, who may become victims of outdated social customs or the unscrupulous. On a deeper level, she represents the feeling function, i.e. our capacity for knowing and preserving our values and making decisions based upon them.
When women do not receive equal pay for equal work, it is because they and their contributions are considered of lesser value than those of a man in the same position. When we fail to do what we think is right because of what others might think, when we fail to stand up for the disadvantaged, when we fail to speak out against prejudice and ignorance, we handicap our feeling function.

For men, the sacrifice of the young feminine produces a sense of worthlessness, loneliness, and malaise. We know something important has been given up and the exchange leaves us cold. For women, it represents frustration and helplessness over being treated as second-rate outside the realms of courting and child-bearing. Even when the maiden finds the right man, one who recognizes her woundedness and does all in his power to help, she is still powerless to act on her own. Her silver hands, signifying wealth and beauty, result in her being on display.

Her healing or redemption comes about only when she takes action on her own behalf. Unable to summon help in time to save her child, she does what she alone could do, and that act is transforming. When society and culture collude to deprive women and men of their capabilities in the name of profit or convenience, it is the feeling function that suffers.

Being cared for, being on display, is an inadequate basis for self-worth. As a queen, the maiden had all the assistance she could ask for, but it still wasn't enough. She wanted to touch and feel for herself. The values of her culture, though acceptable in the beginning (she does not object to the loss of her hands), have become far too restrictive. She needs to be free to define herself on her own terms. Reclaiming the feeling function, for both women and men, is a place to begin.

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