Storytelling is a subjective business. I believe that the fairy tales we choose to remember, and the way we choose to tell them, says far more about the tellers than the tales themselves. That said, I freely admit that there are some stories that are so unashamedly awful that the possibility of their redemption is beyond the limits of my imagination. Welcome to my Most Hated Fairy Tale list! I’ve already reviewed Perrault’s ‘Patient Griselda‘, Ruth Manning Sanders’ ‘My Lady Sea‘ and the Grimm brothers’ ‘King Thrushbeard‘. This week I take on Hans Christian Andersen, a storyteller whose genius was rivalled only by his glumness. Suicidal mermaids, dead match girls, broken-hearted nightingales…but nothing he wrote was quite as depressing as this one.
‘The Red Shoes’ begins with a little girl called Karen, who is so poor that in summer she goes about barefoot and in winter she is forced to wear heavy, clumsy wooden clogs that make her feet sore. A shoemaker’s wife with a kind heart and clever fingers pieces together a pair of serviceable shoes from scraps of red cloth, for Karen to wear to her mother’s funeral. As she walks through the streets behind the coffin a carriage passes by and the old lady inside catches sight of the miserable little girl. Being a good-hearted soul, she promptly decides to adopt Karen, and being reasonably well-to-do, rehauls her wardrobe. The scrappy red shoes are burned, replaced with nice new dresses. People tell Karen she is pretty and she has the audacity to agree with them, so right then you know something awful is going to happen to the poor kid.
While Karen is growing up the queen and princess happen to pass through her town. The princess is very modern, eschewing a crown or train, but what she does wear are a pair of beautiful red morocco shoes. Karen adores them. When the old lady takes her out to buy new things for her confirmation (her formal acceptance into her church), they stop in a grand shoemaker’s and Karen spies a pair of shiny red leather boots just like those worn by the princess. These fit her perfectly. Red is considered a rather outrageous colour to wear in church, but the old lady’s sight isn’t very good and she’s not aware of exactly what she’s bought until it’s too late. Karen goes through the ceremony of confirmation in a state of ecstasy over her gorgeous new footwear, sure that everyone else is admiring them too.
Well, they were definitely looking. Told about her ward’s revolutionary fashion choices, the annoyed old lady tells her to only wear her old black shoes to church in the future. The next Sunday, Karen goes to her closet, looks between her options, and goes with the red of rebellion. Again, the old lady doesn’t notice, but as they enter the church they pass an old soldier leaning on crutches, and he does. “Oh, what pretty dancing shoes!” he remarks, bending to touch them. “Mind you do not let them slip off when you dance.”
Which is seriously creepy. Only weird people touch a stranger’s feet.
In church, Karen is again shoe-obsessed. Everyone is staring at them, apart from the oblivious old lady. As they leave and Karen is about to climb into her guardian’s waiting carriage, the soldier calls out after them. “Only look, what pretty dancing shoes!” And Karen finds herself dancing, her feet moving on to someone else’s will. The coachman is forced to run after her and lift her bodily into the carriage, where her shoes still kick a will of their own until they are finally dragged off her feet.
The red boots are put away after that. Personally I’d have burned them, but Karen loves them still and occasionally visits their prison.
Some time later, the old lady falls ill. The doctor explains that it is terminal, and that she will need constant nursing until she passes away, but…there is a ball to be held in town. Karen has never been to a ball before. She goes to look at the red shoes again, and thinks about it, and ends up going to the ball anyway. The magic that possessed them, however, remains. The red boots won’t behave like ordinary shoes; they take her in directions she does not choose, dancing her out of the the ballroom and into the street and out of the town into the dark woods. In the trees there she sees the old soldier nodding at her. “See what pretty dancing shoes they are!” Terrified, she tries to pull the boots off, but they are fixed on her feet like they are part of her skin. The soldier’s magic forces her to keep dancing for days, through the fields and woods and eventually into the graveyard, where an angel guards the threshold of the church.
“Dance on,” he tells her, “dance on, in thy red shoes, till thou art pale and cold, and thy skin shrinks and shrivels like a skeleton’s. Thou shalt dance still, from door to door, and wherever proud, vain children live thou shalt knock, so that they may hear thee and be afraid. Dance shalt thou, dance on – “
Okay, winged psychopath person, we’ve got the gist! Karen begs for mercy, but the shoes carry her ruthlessly on. She passes her own door and sees a coffin being brought out, and thus she learns of her guardian’s death, but still she is not permitted to stop. On the shoes compel her, until she is so bloody and broken-hearted that a dreadful solution occurs to her. Passing the house of a headsman (a.k.a executioner) she cries out to him, begging that he cut off her feet and end her suffering.
This he does. The red shoes with their grisly occupants continue to dance while the bleeding girl falls. The headsman makes her a pair of wooden feet and crutches to help her on her way, and she limps off to church. Before she can enter, however, the devilish red shoes dance across her path and she is frightened away. For a week she keeps away, but come the next Sunday she is sure her suffering must be complete. She underestimates the savagery of certain angels; the red shoes are there again and she is once more driven away. This time she loses heart altogether. She hobbles off to the pastor’s house, instead, and takes work there with his kind-hearted wife.
Come the third Sunday, the pastor’s family all go to church and Karen retreats to her room with a psalm-book, too traumatised to try again. As the music of the organ drifts through her window, she cries out “O God, help me!” and is visited by the angel who cursed her so thoroughly. This time he has been sent to transport her, miraculously, inside the church. The organ plays, the choir sings, and Karen is so ‘full of sunshine, of peace and gladness’ that she DIES.
And the story ends. Right. There.
I find it deeply disturbing that Andersen actually sat down and wrote something like this. That the deity of his mind would be A-OK will punishing a little girl for her love of pretty things with mutilation, abandonment and death. Karen is, it’s true, not a fit carer for a sick old lady – but there is a key difference between leaving her charge for one night of fun at a ball, and disappearing for days on end because she was UNDER A GODDAMN CURSE.
Am I shouting? I feel like maybe I was shouting. There is nothing good in this story, only the vilification and devastation of a little girl who committed the heinous crime of wanting to look pretty. But the thing about stories, even the awful ones? They can change. Or someone can make them change. I have absolutely no evidence at all that Alison Uttley wrote ‘Green Shoes’ as a rebuttal of Andersen, but the story from her collection Rainbow Tales (Piper, 1978) is everything his is not.
“Milly danced down the village street, willy-nilly, where the shoes took her. The school-bell jangled in the little tower, the boys and girls trooped into the classroom, but Milly didn’t appear.
‘Her’s gone off down th’ Fox’s Hollow,’ cried a little boy. ‘Her’s playing truant, is Milly Gratton.’
‘In a pair of lovely shoes, green velvet,’ added a little girl.
But Milly wasn’t playing truant. The shoes were taking her to the places they knew, where the moss was thick and clubbed with golden seeds, and lichens starred the stones, and little red and yellow flowers sprang from cushions of tiny plants. Her eyes opened wider than ever as she saw all the beauties which had been invisible to her before. There she stayed, listening to the talk of the finches, the whispering chatter of insects, the deep wisdom of the rustling trees…They left a memory behind them, and Milly never forgot the lessons they taught her.
– Alison Uttley, ‘Green Shoes’, Rainbow Tales
Guess which story I will choose to keep telling.