Sunday, October 23, 2011

Halfman -- navigating the barriers of mockery and hatred

Source: Halfman: a tale from Greece (Collected and translated into German by Johann Georg von Hahn in 1864 -- Translated from German by D.L. Ashliman, Copyright 2011)

Summary (of the plot points relevant to disability -- check the link above for the full story):

Just as in the Grimm Brothers' tales "Thumbthick" and "Hans-my-hedgehog," which I've posted about earlier, this story begins with an elderly person who desperately wishes for a child. This time, it is a single elderly woman who wishes for a child -- even if it is only half-a-child. And, as in those other tales, her wish is granted absolutely literally: the child she gives birth to has half a face, half a trunk, one arm and one leg. At first, she keeps him at home, whether from shame (as with Hans's parents), over-protectiveness (as with Thumbthick's) or a combination, is left for the audience to decide.

Halfman, however, is bored being stuck at home, and begs his mother to give him a mule, an ax, and a rope so that he can go out into the forest and collect firewood. At first, his mother says "no," assuming that such work would be impossible for him. But, like all sons and daughters in wonder tales, Halfman won't take no for an answer, and his persistent begging pays off. His mother lets him go.

And he does the work so well that she is happy to let him keep doing the work. And it's on one of his subsequent trips into the forest that the story really begins. For on the way, he passes below a princess's window, and she points, laughs, and mocks him loudly to the point where he becomes so embarrassed that he drops first his ax, and then his rope, which, in turn, gives the princess (and all her handmaidens) even more reason (in their minds) to laugh at him.

Halfman then has a choice to make: stay there, and figure out the best way to pick up his ax and rope (and thus expose himself to even more abuse), or get away. He chooses the latter, and hurries past the castle and into the forest. Once there, he has to figure out how to do his work without his tools. While he is pondering this, he sees a fish swim close by the shore of a lake, so he takes off his coat and throws it, like a net, over the fish and catches it.

The fish begs for its life, promising, in return, to teach Halfman a chant that will make all his wishes come true. And to prove he's telling the truth, the fish uses the chant himself to load the mule with firewood. So Halfman lets the fish go and starts back for home. But he has to pass in front of the princess's window, again. This time, she and her handmaidens laugh even harder at his success than they had at his apparent failure. And, provoked to anger, Halfman uses the magic spell to wish the princess pregnant.

This brings shame to the royal family, and when it's Halfman who's revealed to be the father, the king is so disgusted that he orders the princess, her child, and Halfman sealed into an iron cask, and thrown into the sea with just enough figs to keep the child alive a little longer than either of his parents. But in return for one fig at a time, Halfman reveals the truth of his powers, and wishes, one-by-one, for all the things they need, and all the things the princess desires, until they are living on an island in a magnificent, magical castle.

Eventually, the king discovers the castle, and after keeping her identity secret at first, the princess gets him to see the injustice he's done to her (but not Halfman, I may note), and so he welcomes her and her son back into the family. He marries her off to a nobleman, and makes Halfman his chief bodyguard. As a reward, he "gives" Halfman a beautiful slave girl to marry... And they all live happily ever after (except the slave girl, who has no say in the matter, and Halfman, who loses custody of his child, and is demoted from royal consort to bodyguard ... But who's counting, right?)


This story highlights just how great a barrier bigotry is, in the overall scheme of things. For those of us with physical or mental differences, it's the often the idea of being made a spectacle of that's far more daunting and discouraging than the idea of actually working. If we flinch and fail under scrutiny, then that's taken as proof that our differences make us defective. If we manage to succeed in our endeavors, then, that, too, is used as a reason to stick us in the spotlight, and comment on all our differences, and make us an object of entertainment for those watching us from their windows (or watching "Inspiring Human Interest Stories" on their TVs).

This is just one of several stories collected, edited, and translated by D.L. Ashliman on the motif of The Fool Whose Wishes All Came True. In all the other stories, however, the princess brides demand that the titular fool wish himself "Handsome and Clever," so they don't have to be embarrassed to be married to him (and that is like so many of the Disability Narratives around today -- where the focus of the story, supposedly about "living with disability," is actually about the able-bodied relative or 'friend,' and the embarrassment or burden they feel, being around us). In all those other stories, the fools end up accepted as heirs to the king. Only Halfman remains physically unchanged at the end of the tale. And only he is denied the right to call himself part of the family.

I'm reminded of the ending of "The Girl Without Hands," where the daughter was only publicly acknowledged as the queen after her flesh and bone hands grew back, and she no longer needed her silver prosthetics.

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