In hero narratives, a young man leaves the familiar home of his birth and ventures into 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. The transformation of the young man into a responsible adult is sealed when the hero marries his magical bride and assumes kingship.
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.
In the language of folktales, abstract ideas are represented by concrete and emotionally evocative images. Traditional storytellers use terrifying events to create the emotional experience of grief and abandonment, in which a young woman is not only set out on her journey away from home, but assured of the impossibility of ever returning. In the "Armless Maiden" narratives a girl is mutilated by a trusted family member and then thrust like a wounded animal into the forest. There can be no return to a childhood home corrupted by such cruel violence. The girl must move forward in her journey to a new destination where she will reconstruct not only her severed arms but her identity as an adult woman as well.
My first experience with the "Armless Maiden" was reading a powerful Xhosa version of the tale, "A Father Cuts Off His Daughter's Arms," performed by Mrs. Nongenile Masithatu Zenani, a Xhosa storyteller from South Africa, and translated by Harold Schueb. In this version a widowed father chooses not to remarry and relies on his young daughter to perform his wife's household duties of cooking and cleaning. When the girl reaches puberty, he attempts to coerce his daughter into filling the sexual role of his deceased wife as well. The girl steadfastly refuses his advances, bursting into noisy weeping that threatens to alert the neighbors. The next day the father takes her into the woods. Once again he demands that she have sex with him. When she again refuses, he cuts off her arms with a knife and leaves her in the woods to die. Bleeding and in tremendous pain, the girl suffers in solitude until hunger forces her to her feet. Dazed, she begins to wander through an "endless forest, ascending and descending."
Finally the armless girl reaches a walled homestead. Dropping to her knees, she crawls through a hole in the wall and rolls her body into the garden where she feeds like an animal on fallen corn and peaches. For three days, unable to stand without her arms, she rolls through the garden eating from the ground until servants discover her, mud–covered and filthy, and mistake her for a wild pig. They bring the dogs to attack her, but her cries stop them. The armless maiden is required to relate the story of her father's crime three times before she is rescued and brought into the homestead. Once bathed, the family realizes that even without her arms the girl is beautiful, and she is soon married to their son.
At first this seems a resolution, particularly when she gives birth to a child, but gradually problems arise. Without her arms, the new mother can not perform the expected domestic duties of a woman, and her in–laws begin to grumble. They want their son to take a second, more suitable wife, but he refuses. Eventually, the husband leaves for the city, looking for work, and his parents, pretending to be his wife, compose a letter stating she is pregnant again by a man other than her husband. The young woman, unaware of the forged letter, receives two replies. The first is from her husband demanding to know more about her unexpected pregnancy. A second letter arrives almost immediately after the first. This one is written by her father who, after learning of his daughter's survival, pretends to be the husband and threatens to burn her into ashes if she remains at home. The young woman and even her in–laws are sorely troubled by the threatening letter, and reluctantly they tie the baby on her back and allow her to leave the homestead.
The young woman returns to the woods and begins a second journey, ascending and descending the endless forest until, weary and thirsty, she comes upon a lake. As she bends awkwardly to drink, afraid her child may slip from her back and drown, a magic bird appears, and with a splash from each wing, restores her arms. Whole and able to do tasks for herself, the young mother jubilantly cares for her child: nursing the baby, bathing her, dressing her, pinching her until she cries and then comforting the child in the shelter of her newly restored arms. And when the woman is satisfied, she reties the baby on her back and returns, not to her husband's home, but to the neighbors. There she waits until her in–laws learn of her return and come to visit. Astonished by her transformation, they beg her forgiveness and desire only to write on her behalf to their son. But the young man is already on his way home, worried about his wife and child, convinced that something is terribly wrong. It takes a while, but slowly the tangled knot of forged letters is unraveled and the husband declares his love for his wife.
The "Armless Maiden" narrative stayed with me for many years and I found myself hunting down other versions, surprised at the ubiquity of this complicated and violent story. There were versions told all over the world such as "The Girl Without Hands" in Germany, "The Girl With Her Hands Cut Off" in France, "Olive" in Italy, "Doña Bernarda" in Spain, "The Armless Maiden" in Russia, "The Girl Without Arms" in Japan, "Rising Water, Talking Bird, and Weeping Tree" in French Louisiana, and many others. While some were less sexually threatening, most were every bit as gruesome as the Xhosa version: fathers and brothers hacking away the limbs of young girls, either in rage or in payment to the Devil. The girl would survive in the woods, sometimes comforted by the animals, indeed half–animal herself as she rooted for fallen corn or reached her neck to feed on the pears of the Prince's tree. Then there was the rescue as the Prince discovered the girl beneath the mud and matted hair and took pity on the beautiful face. And there would always be that complicated twist in the middle of the story, the exchange of forged letters that forces the armless woman back into nature where the final act of her initiation occurs.
It is a narrative with a strange hiccup in the middle. 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 or Prince. 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. Through the exchange of forged letters, conflict is reintroduced into the narrative to send the girl back on her journey of initiation in the woods. There the fantastic heals her, purifies her in the waters of the lake 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.