Maid Maleen was the daughter of a wealthy and powerful king, and lived in a grand palace in their realm. She desperately wanted to marry her love Hans, a prince from a neighboring region, but her father refused. She tried for months to convince her father, to no avail.
One day the king sent for Maleen to come to his throne room. She stood in the center of the chamber, before all of the courtiers and advisers. The king told her that she was to marry a king the next day, to seal a contract between the two kingdoms.
She looked at him with clear eyes, and refused. “Father,” she said, with a voice like a bell, “I will only marry Hans, my dear friend and the only one I love. You must find another way to earn this king’s trust.”
Her defiance threw her father into a rage, and he was determined to punish her severely. “Maleen,” he said “Your willfulness is your undoing. I will have a tower built in the center of the city. It will be tall and dark, and you will be sealed inside it for seven years. In the darkness you will sit, thinking about the shame you have brought me. After seven years I will see if your perverse spirit is broken, and if you will be allowed out.”
As the king ordered, the tall tower was built. Inside he stored enough food and drink for seven years, so that Maleen would not starve during her imprisonment. She was led inside, and the entrance bricked up after she entered. She was thus sealed from the sky, from the earth, and from the sound of the outside. She then sat in darkness, and did not know the difference between day or night, winter or summer.
Meanwhile, Hans was afraid for Maleen as he had not heard from her in weeks. She had stopped responding to his letters, and his messengers were sent away. Hans went to the court of Maleen’s father, and asked the king if he could speak her. The king replied that Maleen had died suddenly a few days earlier. Heartbroken, Hans returned to his realm to morn the death of his love.
In total darkness and silence, Maleen sat alone in the tower. The air was damp and stale, and smelled of her waste and the food her father had left her. She spent her time awake picking at the mortar between the stones. “My father may as well leave me to die,” she told herself. “I will endeavor to escape on my own.” She dug at the mortar until her finger bled, and her nails were rubbed down, and her finger bones began to wear away. With no way to bathe or keep clean, grit from the ceiling and wall soon coated her skin and hair, and blood from her hands ran down her arm.
More years passed, and Maleen still sat alone in the darkness. She noticed that her food and drink was running low, and there had been no sign that her father would release her. Clearly her seven years was coming to an end, but she was afraid that she would be left to starve in the darkness. She stopped sleeping, and spent all her time scraping at the mortar with her finger bones. Her fingers were now bloody stumps of what they had been, but she had picked away a small section of the mor
At last, she wiggled a single brick free, and let air and light into the tower for the first time in years. She was blinded by the light streaming into her tower, yet she still was able to force a few more bricks loose, and pushed her head out of the hole in the tower.
As she gasped at the fresh air, all she could see was desolation. Her city had been destroyed by invaders, and all of the people killed. Nothing but the burnt shells of ruined houses were left. Her father’s castle was a pile of rubble–the only thing left standing was her tower, stained with the soot of war.
Eventually Maleen freed enough stones to slip out of the tower, and she sat at the base of her prison weeping for all that she had lost. She spent three days at the base of the tower, too afraid and tired to move or think. As the sun rose on the third day, she stood, and began walking toward the kingdom of her love Hans. He was the only person she knew who could still be alive, and would know who she was.
She walked for many weeks, tired weak and hungry. Not once did a fellow traveler give Maleen a mouthful of bread or a kind word. Her years of captivity had wasted away her hair, her eyes were dark and haunted, her fingers had been worn down to tiny stubs, and her skin pale and hanging from her bones. She looked like ghoul haunting the road, and the people were afraid of her. Out of necessity she drank the water from the ditches along the road, and ate the stinging nettles that grew in the fields.
At last she arrived in the large city in which Hans lived. She came to the royal palace, and begged to speak with Hans, the prince. The guards laughed at her, and turned her away. She returned the next day begging to speak with Hans, and again she was turned away. She came a third day, and begged that they tell Hans that his love Maid Maleen was at the gate, and wished to speak with him. The guards mocked her once more, saying that Maid Maleen had died many years ago, and that Hans was engaged to be married in three months.
With a heavy heart, Maleen decided that her best course would be to find a position working in the castle. She believed that if Hans could but see her, that he would recognize her as his love. All of the staff turned her away save the cook; she was willing to taker her as a scullery maid. “She looks like a ghoul,” she said “but she has a strong spirit. So long as she can perform her duties I do not care what she looks like. Only I and the cooking staff will ever see her.”
Maleen was soon doing the dirty, hard work of the scullery maid. It was grueling, but she soon proved her worth, and was commended by the cook and other servants. Meanwhile the princess Hans was to marry had arrived in the palace, and had settled into one of the great rooms there. She had hidden herself inside her room, and did not allow anyone to see her. She refused to leave for parties, meals, or to even allow others inside her room. Because the princess was such a recluse, the cook had the various servants take meals to the princess in her room, so that the woman would not starve.
Over the next three months, Maleen began to heal from her many years locked in the tower. The food, fresh air, and company of others revived her. Her hair began to grow back, her skin was no longer gray, and light came back into her eyes. One day, she even remembered how to smile. She spent her days working hard; scrubbing the floors, worktables, and pots. She was occasionally tasked with taking the princess her food. Once, Maleen saw the woman peek at Maleen from behind the door.
The day of the wedding, Maleen brought the princess her breakfast early in the morning. As Maleen approached the princess’s door, Maleen was surprised to see that the princess was standing in the doorway, waiting for her. The princess was pale and thin, with large frightened eyes.
“Maleen,” said the princess, “I want you to go in my place to the church. I am afraid that the people here will mock me and laugh at me while I am outside. I beg you, go to the wedding in my place. If you wear a heavy veil, no one will ever know that you are not me.”
Begrudgingly, Maleen accepted. She wanted to see and spend time with Hans, even if for a short time. The princess then helped Maleen dress in the intricate bridal clothes and place her heavy veil over her head. Maleen then hid her poor broken hands within her skirts, so no one would be able to recognize her. As the princess retreated into her room, Maleen walked down the hallways into the throne room, where Hans was waiting for his bride.
All the members of the court strained to see the woman that their prince was to marry. No one, not even the king or queen or Hans himself, had ever seen her. They were disappointed that her face was hidden in her beautiful clothing. After Maleen arrived, the whole party began to walk through the city to the church.
When they had walked a little, Hans whispered to his bride “My dear, may I see your face? I would like to see the person who I will be spending the rest of my life.”
“Not now,” Maleen replied. “I wish to stay hidden until we are alone for our wedding night. I am afraid of the ridicule of your people, as I am a foreigner in this place.”
They walked a little further, and a large noise of a cart falling startled Maleen. She gasped, and stumbled in the heavy clothing. Hans gently reached down to take his brides hand to steady her. Maleen tried to pull her hand back, but Hans had already realized that his bride did not have fingers.
Shocked and frightened, he whispered “My dear! What has happened? Who did this to you?”
“My willfulness and defiance lost me my fingers,” she whispered back. “I was afraid of ridicule, so I have hidden them since I arrived.”
As they arrived at the church door, Hans stopped, and placed a beautiful necklace over her head. Maleen looked at the jewel through her veil, and smiled at the gift from her true love.
Maleen and Hans entered the church, and were married to the great excitement of the city. They returned to the palace, and a great feast was held to celebrate the wedding. Maleen slipped away in the excitement, and rushed to the princess. She returned the beautiful gown and the veils and the jewels, all except the necklace Hans had given her. Maleen replaced the finery with the grey dress of the scullery maid, and returned to the kitchen.
When night came, Hans came knocking on the princess’s door. He had noticed that his bride had left the festivities, and wanted to make sure she was well. The princess opened the door, and let him in. He was glad to see her face, as he had never seen her before.
He said, “My dear, are you alright? You left our party early.”
The princess replied, “Oh yes, I am well. I was just tired from the excitement.”
At that, Hans took the princess’s hand in his, and was startled when he felt that she had fingers. “Who are you?” he whispered. “The woman I married did not have fingers.”
“That was the scullery maid you met before,” the princess replied. “I was afraid to leave my room, so I have stayed hidden from everyone but you and her.”
Hans then sent for the scullery maid, to thank her for the kindness she had shown the princess. When Maleen arrived in the chambers, Hans recognized her for his sweetheart whom he had thought had died long ago.
“Maleen!” he gasped. “Maleen I thought you had died many years ago! How did you become a servant in my own house?”
“Dear Hans,” she replied, “I refused to marry a stranger, and as punishment my father sealed me in a tower. I sat alone, in complete darkness for seven years. I eventually escaped, but in order to escape I lost my fingers. While imprisoned my city had been destroyed, so I walked for many weeks until I came to yours. I sat at your gate, begging to speak with you, but in my haggard state no one believed that I was Maid Maleen. To keep from starving I have been working in your kitchens, hoping to one day speak with you again.”
With tears in his eyes, he gently pulled Maleen close and kissed her.
As Maleen and Hans were already married, they went to the marriage banquet and joined the party. The princess Hans was supposed to married slipped away that night, happily returning to her homeland. The tower in which Maleen had been imprisoned remained standing for a long time, and when the children passed by it they sang:
king, klang, gloria.
Who sits within this tower.
A king’s daughter, she sits within,
a sight of her I cannot win,
the wall it will not break,
the stone cannot be pierced.
Little Hans, with your coat so gay,
follow me, follow me, fast as you may.
This story is a traditional brother’s Grimm Tale, titled Maid Maleen. I used the version posted at eBooks@Adelaide, from the University of Adelaide. Link to story here: http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/grimm/g86h/chapter198.html
Another favorite of mine for many years, I had a few goals in this retelling. The first, was that I wanted to enhance Maleen’s character and tenacity as compared to the original version. I removed the character of the servant as I wanted to give Maleen the strength to escape and survive on her own. I also wanted to show the toll of Maleen’s imprisonment on her body as way to showcase her tenacity and strength of character. Her will to live was so strong that she rubbed off her fingers, leaving her permanently disfigured.