The Red Shoes
Folktales have been used for generations to teach moral tales to children. They have shifted over time depending upon the generation and location of the tale but remain part of the childhood experience for many young people. "The Red Shoes" published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845 is a quintessential European folktale. It tells a moral tale based upon the idea of temptation and eventual redemption. The story is based upon the protagonist's desire for a pair of shoes and the consequences of her temptation. Andersen's use of Christian morality in his tale offers insight into European culture during the 19th century. Christianity was a powerful cultural influence and that is evident in the story. The church is a focal point throughout the moral tale and the themes of redemption and temptation directly connect to the Christian values that are taught to children.
The illustration is a woodcut from the 1849 German and Danish editions of a collection of Hans Christian Andersen stories. The illustrator is Thomas Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859), a Danish naval lieutenant whose illustrations were favored by Andersen himself, and have been closely associated with the tales since. Pedersen captures the story's mood with the sparse, dramatic background of the churchyard with gravestones, scraggly vegetation, and undulating horizon. The two figures present a stark contrast: the large, unyielding figure of the male angel with its arm outstretched to decree Karen's fate, and the helpless motion of Karen's figure, her windswept hair and dress, her feet in mid-air, and the frightened expression of her face and arms as if trying to flee.
This source is a part of the Children, Culture, and Folktales teaching module.
Once there was a little Girl – so delicate and pretty. Because she was poor, she had to go barefoot in the summer, and in the winter she had to wear big wooden shoes that rubbed against her instep until her little feet became quite red. It was awful.
Old Mother shoemaker lived in the middle of the village and used strips of old red cloth to sew a small pair of shoes as best as she could. They were crudely made, but she meant well, and she wanted the little girl to have them. The little girl's name was Karen.
On the very day that her mother was buried, Karen wore these red shoes for the first time. Of course, they were not the right thing to wear for mourning, but she did not have any other shoes. So she put them on her bare feet and followed the lowly straw coffin.
At that very moment a large old carriage passed by, with a large old woman inside. She looked at Karen and felt sorry for her. She said to the vicar, "Listen, let me have the little girl and I'll be good to her."
Karen thought that all this happened because of the red shoes, but the old lady said that they were hideous. The shoes were burned and Karen given neat, clean clothes. Now she had to learn to read and sew, and people said that she was pretty. But the mirror said, "You're much more than pretty – you're beautiful!"
One day the queen traveled through the country with her little daughter who was a princess. People swarmed outside the castle – Karen was there too – and the princess, dressed in fine white clothing, stood in a window and let people admire her. The princess did not have a train or a gold crown, but she did have lovely red shoes, made of fine leather. They certainly looked a lot nicer than the ones that Mother Shoemaker had made for Karen. There was really nothing in the world like red shoes.
Eventually, Karen was old enough to be confirmed. She got new clothes and was supposed to get new shoes. The rich shoemaker who lived in town measured her little foot; his shop was in his house where large glass cases were filled with pretty shoes and shiny boots. It looked very nice, but the old woman could not see very well, so she got no pleasure from it. Among the shoes was a red pair, just like the ones the princess had worn. They were exquisite! And sure enough, the shoemaker said that he had sewn them for a nobleman's daughter, but they hadn't fit.
"It must be patent leather," the old lady said. "They are so shiny!"
"Yes, they are shiny," Karen said. They fit her, and they bought them, but the old lady didn't realize that they were red. She would never have allowed Karen to be confirmed in red shoes. Still, that is what happened.
Everyone looked at Karen's feet when she walked through the church to the choir door. Karen thought that even the ole pictures on the tombs – those portraits of vicars and vicars' wives, with stiff collars and long black robes – stared at her red shoes. She could think only about those shoes – even when the vicar put his hand on her head and talked about the holy baptism, about the covenant with God, and how she was about to become a grown-up Christian. The organ played solemnly, the children's choir sounded beautiful, and the old cantor sang, but Karen could think of nothing but her red shoes.
By afternoon everyone had told the old lady that Karen's shoes were red. The old lady said that red shoes were altogether inappropriate and that Karen had done a horrible thing. From that time on, whenever she went to church, Karen was told to wear black shoes, no matter how worn they were.
The following Sunday Karen was supposed to go to communion. She looked at the black shoes, and then she looked at the red shoes. She looked at the red ones again and put them on.
It was a beautiful sunny day. Karen and the old lady walked through the field along the path, which was a little dusty.
An older soldier leaned on a crutch by the church door; he had a peculiar long beard that was more red than white because it was red. He bowed all the way to the ground and asked the old lady if he could wipe off her shoes. Karen too stretched her little foot forward. "Look at those beautiful dancing shoes," the soldier said. "May they stay on tight when you dance!" Then he slapped the soles of the shoes.
The old lady gave the soldier a tip and walked inside the church with Karen.
Everyone in the church looked at Karen's red shoes, and all the portraits looked at them. When Karen knelt at the altar and put the gold chalice to her lips, she thought only about the red shoes. It was almost as if they were floating in the chalice – she forgot to sing the hymn, and she forgot to read the Lord's Prayer.
Everyone left the church, and the old woman got into her carriage. As Karen lifted her foot to follow her, the soldier standing nearby said. "Look at those beautiful dancing shoes," and Karen could not help herself: She had to dance a few steps. When she started, her legs kept dancing; it was as if the shoes had taken over. She danced around the corner of the church – she couldn't help it; the coachman had to run after her and grab hold of her, and he lifted her into the carriage. But her feet kept dancing and gave the kind old lady some terrible kicks. Finally, they managed to get the shoes off and Karen's legs calmed down.
When they got home, the shoes were put away in a closet, but Karen could not stop looking at them.
The old lady got sick, and they said that she wouldn't live long. Somebody had to take care of her and nurse her, and no one was closer than Karen. But there was a ball in town, and Karen was invited. She looked at the old lady, who was not going to live long anyway, and then at the red shoes. She saw no harm in that. She put on the red shoes, and that was all right, but then she went to the ball and started to dance.
When she wanted to dance to the right, the shoes danced to the left. When she wanted to move one way on the floor, the shoes went the other way, down the stairs, through the street, and out the city gate, and she danced – she had to dance – right into the dark forest.
Something bright shone above the trees, and she thought that it was the moon, because it was a face. But it was the old soldier with the red beard. He nodded and said, "Look at those beautiful dancing shoes!"
She was terrified and wanted to kick off the red shoes, but they would not come off. She ripped off her stockings, but the shoes were stuck to her feet. So she danced – she had to dance – over the fields and meadows, in the rain and shine, by night and by day. But it was worst at night.
She danced into the open churchyard, but the dead didn't dance – they had something much better to do than dancing. She wanted to sit on the grave of a humble person, where the bitter tansy weeds grew, but she found neither rest nor respite, and she danced toward the open door of the church. There she saw an angel in long white robes, with wings that reached from his shoulders all the way to the ground. His expression was serious and stern, and he held a shiny broadsword in his hand.
"You have to dance!" he said. "You have to dance in your red shoes until you're pale and cold – until your skin shrivels like a skeleton's. You have to dance from door to door, and wherever there are proud, vain children, you must knock on the door so that they hear you and fear you. You have to dance – dance!"
"Have mercy!" Karen shouted. But she did not hear the angel's answer because her shoes carried her through the gate, into the field, across roads and trails – she had to keep dancing and dancing.
One morning she danced past a door that she recognized. She heard hymns inside, and they carried out a coffin covered with flowers. She knew then that the old lady had died , and she felt abandoned by everyone and cursed by God's angel.
So she danced – she had to dance – in the dark night. Her shoes carried her off, past whitethorns and over stubbled fields, which scratched her until she bled. She danced across the heath to a lonely house. She knew that the executioner lived there, and she tapped on the window with her finger and said:
"Come out! Come out! I can't come in because I'm dancing!"
The executioner said, "You don't know who I am do you? I cut off the heads of evil people, and I can feel my axe quivering."
"Don't cut off my head!" Karen cried. "Because then I won't be able to repent my sin. But chop off my feet with the red shoes."
She confessed all her sins, and the executioner cut off her feet with the red shoes. But the shoes, with her small feet in them, still danced over the fields and into the deep forest.
The executioner made wooden legs and crutches for her and taught her a hymn, the one that sinners always sing. Then she kissed the hand that had swung the axe and went away over the heath.
"I've suffered enough for those red shoes," Karen said. "Now I want to go to church so everybody can see me." She walked boldly to the church door, but when she got there, the red shoes danced in front of her. She was frightened and turned back.
All the next week she was miserable and kept crying heavy tears. But when Sunday came, she said "All right – I've suffered and struggled enough. I think I'm just as good as lots of those people who are sitting so smugly in church." She walked ahead confidently, but she didn't get any farther than the gate – that was when she saw the red shoes dancing in front of her, and she was terrified. She turned back, and in her heart she repented for her sins.
She went to the vicarage and asked whether they would taker her as a servant. She promised to work hard and do whatever she could – it didn't matter what they paid her if only she had a roof over her head and lived among good people. The vicar's wife felt sorry for her and took her in. Karen was hardworking and pensive. She sat quietly and listened each evening when the vicar read aloud from the Bible. All their children were fond of her, but they talked about dressing up in frills and finery – and they talked about looking as beautiful as a queen – she shook her head.
They all went to the church on the following Sunday, and they asked Karen whether she wanted to come along. With tears in her eyes she looked sadly at her crutches. While they went to hear God's word, she went alone to her little room, which was big enough for only a bed and a chair. She sat down with her hymnal and was reading it devoutly when the wind carried the sounds of the organ from the church. Tearfully, she lifted her head and said, "Oh, God, help me!"
At that moment the sun shone brightly, and right in front of her, in white robes, stood God's angel, the one she had seen at night in the doorway to the church. But rather than his sharp sword, he carried a beautiful green branch covered with roses. He touched the ceiling with the branch and the ceiling rose high in the air – a brilliant golden star appeared where he had touched it. Then he touched the walls and they widened. Karen looked at the organ as it was playing, and she saw the old pictures of vicars and vicar's wives; the congregation sat in the ornate pews and sang from their hymnals. The church itself had come to the poor girl in the little cramped room, or perhaps she had gone to the church. She sat in a pew with the other people from the vicarage, and when they had finished the hymn and looked up, they nodded and said, "It was good that you came, Karen."
"By the grace of God," she replied.
Then the organ swelled, and the children's choir sounded sweet and beautiful. The bright warm sunshine streamed through the window into the pew where Karen sat. Her heart was so filled with sunshine – with peace and happiness – that it burst. Her soul flew up to God on the rays of the sun, and no one there asked about the red shoes.
Hans Christian Anderson, ""The Red Shoes" [Folktale]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #203, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/203 (accessed May 16, 2019). Annotated by David Bill.