The Big Idea: Karen Mahoney
Folklore has tropes and tales that it comes back to again and again — but today’s readers are a discerning lot, and it takes more than reheating a trope to engage them. How to mine the trope and yet make it fresh is a subject on author Karen Mahoney’s mind, and today she talks about how she approached the problem for her new YA novel The Iron Witch.
Many things went into the pot while stirring up The Iron Witch, but I think the ‘big idea’ at the heart of it all came down to a question: How can I make the ‘Armless Maiden’ folktales accessible to young, contemporary fantasy readers?
Ever since I first read Midori Snyder’s essay, ‘The Armless Maiden and the Hero’s Journey’ in The Journal of Mythic Arts, I couldn’t stop thinking about that particular strand of folklore and the application of its powerful themes to the lives of young women. There are many different versions of the tale from around the world, and the ‘Armless Maiden’ or ‘Handless Maiden’ are just two of the more familiar. But whatever the title, we are essentially talking about a narrative that speaks of the power of transformation – and, perhaps more significantly when writing young adult fantasy, the power of the female to transform herself. It’s a rite of passage; something that mirrors the traditional journey from adolescence to adulthood.
Common motifs of the stories include – and I am simplifying pretty drastically here – the violent loss of hands or arms for the girl of the title, and their eventual re-growth as she slowly regains her autonomy and independence. In many accounts there is a halfway point in the story where a magician builds a temporary replacement pair of hands for the girl, magical hands and arms that are usually made entirely of silver. What I find interesting is that this isn’t where the story ends; the gaining of silver hands simply marks the beginning of a whole new test for our heroine.
My own Handless Maiden in The Iron Witch – Donna Underwood – has always felt like an outsider (a “freak” as she has been labelled in high school), and must learn to look upon her swirling iron tattoos as a gift if she is ever truly to gain the freedom-from-duty she so desperately desires. I worked with the striking visual element of a girl with silver hands and created my modern-day heroine as a teenager born into an Order of alchemists. Donna has her hands and arms remade by alchemical magic after being mortally injured by the fey – specifically, the dark elves, who are the enemies of the alchemists – when she is just seven years old. She’s spent the last ten years trying to be ‘normal,’ while also keeping her tattoos – and the enhanced physical strength that they give her – hidden.
Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, in her seminal work Women Who Run With the Wolves, says that ‘The Handless Maiden’ tale is truly that of the heroine’s Test of Endurance – and in The Iron Witch, Donna faces a huge test when she has to answer the question:
What are you willing to sacrifice for someone you love?
When her best friend, Navin Sharma, is abducted by the wood elves who reside in the dwindling remains of the Ironwood, Donna has to figure out her answer pretty quickly when she’s given a non-negotiable deadline to deliver the alchemists’ Elixir of Life in exchange for Navin’s safe return.
So, beginning with the idea of updating the Armless Maiden mythology for today’s young adults, I hit upon an effective way of linking the folklore I love with my other great passion: alchemy. I used to work in an occult bookstore in London and had ready access to some wonderful resources including some genuinely esoteric texts. Let me tell you: you haven’t lived until you’ve read John Dee’s journals! But that’s a blog post for another day…