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Literature / The One-Handed Girl

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The One-handed Girl is a Swahili Fairy Tale. Andrew Lang included it in The Lilac Fairy Book.

A dying man offers his children the choice between his property and his blessing. The son wants his property, the daughter his blessing. Then, their mother did the same. The son let his sister have only a small pot and a vessel to clean corn in. She supported herself by letting the villagers borrow her pot, and did well. (She also planted a pumpkin seed.) This made her brother envious, and he stole them. But the pumpkin vine did well, and she sold the pumpkins and lived on that.

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When her sister-in-law tried to buy one, the sister gave her one for nothing, but when she tried to buy another the next day, they were all gone, so she told the brother that his sister had refused to sell her one. The brother cut the vine down to punish her; when she tried to protect it by throwing herself in the way, he cut off her hand as well, and then sold the home she lived in.

She went into the forest to hide there from him. Seven days later, a king's son found her there, fell in love with her, and married her. They had a baby, and then the king's son had to go on a journey. Her brother heard of the bride who had only one hand, and guessed it was his sister. He tells the king and his wife that she is a witch who had killed three husbands, and lost her hand and been exiled for it. They exile her again, with her baby.

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In the forest, she sees a snake and sits very still when it begs her to let it hid in her pot. After another snake passes by, it brings her with him, and tells her to bathe her baby in a pool. She loses the baby and searches around with her hand. The snake tells her to use her other arm. She does, and finds both the baby and that her hand has been restored. Then the snake brought her to its parents, who kept her as their guest because she had saved their son.

The king's son, who had fallen ill and taken such a long time to return, was shown two graves made as if for his wife and child.

The daughter, after a time, wanted to return home, and on the snake's advice, asked for its father's ring and its mother's casket, which would feed her and protect her from harm. Using them, she got herself a fine house. The king, his wife, and his son came to visit, bringing along her brother. The daughter recounted her tale, and was reconciled with her husband, and her brother was exiled.

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The full text of Lang's version is available here and here, and another version from Edward Steere can be found here.

It is Aarne Thompson type 706, the Girl Without Hands. Compare "Donkeyskin", "Catskin", "Cap o' Rushes", and "Tattercoats" for the beginning, and "The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird" for the ending.


Tropes included:

  • An Arm and a Leg: A hand.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: The text specifies that the heroine is well-nourished and fat from her success with the corn and later, the pumpkins.
  • Black Widow: The brother accuses his sister of being this to the king and queen.
  • Cain and Abel: The brother routinely tries to destroy his sister and even get her killed out of envy. But in the end, she gets the last word.
  • The Exile: The brother sends her from the village.
  • Friend to All Living Things: The heroine survives in the wilderness (and gets her hand back) after striking up a friendship with a magical snake.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The brother, even though he has far more than his sister.
  • It Was a Gift: She freely gives her sister-in-law a pumpkin.
  • Lack of Empathy: The brother would rather inherit his parents' earthly possessions than their blessing or love. This comes back to bite him when love and humility triumph over cruelty and self-interest.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: The brother suffers the very same fate he twice put upon his sister.
  • The Lost Woods: Where the brother sends her, and the prince finds her. She is sent there again with her baby, and this time some kind forest animals help her through.
  • Love at First Sight: The prince and the sister.
  • Malicious Slander: Her sister-in-law slanders her to her brother, and her brother to the king and queen.
  • Noble Fugitive: She has to flee again even when a princess.
  • Never My Fault: The brother tries to find an excuse to blame his sister for the violence he commits against her by pretending she offended his wife.
  • Parental Abandonment: Her parents die, leaving only their blessing.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: The prince's parents would rather have done it, but agree to let him marry the sister.
  • Rags to Royalty: Three times over! First she's left with nothing after her parents die, but secures a good life for herself as a savvy businesswoman. Her envious brother puts her back in rags when he destroys everything she's built for herself and cuts off her hand. She's found and rescued by a prince, and lives happily as his wife, but when her brother learns that she's on track to a happy ending again, he tricks her father-in-law into casting her out. Then with the help from some talking snakes and their magical treasures, she reunites with her beloved husband and has her brother banished.
  • Rule of Seven: She's lost for seven days.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: Averted. The snakes help the main character.
  • Struggling Single Mother: The one-handed princess is banished into the wilderness with her infant son, but the pair receive some much-needed aid from a friendly family of snakes (and some monkeys in Lang's rendition).
  • Wicked Witch: The brother accuses her of being this.

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