Favourite Fairy Tale Shoe Stories

January 5, 2017 | Nicole

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Excerpted and abridged from an article by Leslie McGrath.


There are currently two beautiful exhibits of fairy tales at Toronto Public Library. The first, at the Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery (held over to January 22), “Once Upon A Time,”  features early and modern retellings of fairy tales that have delighted generations of young readers. The second, at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Lillian H. Smith branch, has a special focus: “The Snow Queen’s palace: Amazing Stories by Hans Christian Andersen.” Curated by Martha Scott, this exhibit will run to March 4. The visitor to both exhibits will find a splendid array of tales and images in each: fairies, princesses, enchanted animals…and shoes.

Ask anyone to name a fairy tale and the chances are that the answer will be “Cinderella.” As well as being the best-known, it is one of the most ancient fairy tales, with perhaps the earliest version being that of the 2,000-year-old Egyptian tale of the courtesan Rhodope. In it, an eagle steals her tiny gilded sandal and drops it before the Pharaoh, who cannot rest until he has followed the shoe to its owner. Numbers of young women try to wear the sandal, but only Rhodope’s foot is small enough, and she becomes Pharaoh’s wife.

Another early version exists from the nineth century, and is described as part of the oral tradition of storytelling in the south of China. A local Chieftain named Wu-The-Cave has a beautiful daughter, Yexian, who loses one slipper at a festival. This slipper comes to the hands of a mighty king, who is astonished at its tiny size and equally impressed by its durability: “it did not crumple when it hit pebble or stone.” The King finds Yexian, and has her try on the slipper, then bears her away to his kingdom as a bride.

Edmund Dulac The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales from the Old French

Illustration by Edmund Dulac for The Sleeping Beauty and Other Fairy Tales from the Old French, retold by A.T. Quiller-Couch, London: Hodder and Stoughton, [1910].

Following earlier print versions in Italy and France, Cinderella at last appeared in English, with the famous glass slipper, in a translation of Perrault’s tales published in 1729. Since that time Cinderella has appeared in various guises, from Little Goody Two-Shoes to The Paperbag Princess, taking on the qualities admired most by contemporary audiences.

Walter Crane for Goody Two-Shoes’ Picture Book

Illustration by Walter Crane for Goody Two-Shoes’ Picture Book, London and New York: Routledge and Sons, [1874].  The heroine, Margery Meanwell, wins a fortune through hard work and literacy in the story commonly known as Goody Two-Shoes, originally published by John Newbery in 1765. Authorship of the story is uncertain.

Perrault’s Tales of 1697 also include the story of “Hop O’My Thumb,” the diminutive boy who steals seven-league boots from a wicked ogre. Borrowed from Italian legends of the fifteenth century, these magic boots, which instantly shrink to fit their owner, crop up again in legends of Jack the Giant-Killer.

Honor Appleton for Little Thumbling, Perrault’s Tales

Illustration by Honor Appleton for “Little Thumbling,” Perrault’s Tales, London: Herbert & Daniel, [1911]. “The seven-league boots fitted his feet and legs just as if they had been made for him.”

One of the most offbeat developments in children’s literature is the gradual transformation of these boots into those of the socially downscale “Spring-Heeled Jack,” exotic villain of Penny Dreadful (cheap periodical) literature for boys. Using his springs, wicked Jack could leap in a window and out again and bounce safely away to his hideout. This popular figure was one cause of an outraged movement for higher-toned literature for working class boys. He is also said to be the ancestor of Batman and Superman.

Gustave Doré for Puss in Boots

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Puss in Boots, by Charles Perrault, London, Paris and New York: Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co., [1880]. Puss pretends his master is drowning, and that thieves have stolen his clothes, just as the King’s coach is passing by.

Another favourite from Perrault’s tales, based loosely on earlier Italian stories, is “Puss in Boots,” the tale of the masterful, quick-witted cat who needs only proper footwear to gain fame and fortune for his master, a poverty-stricken miller’s son who becomes the fabled “Marquis of Carabas.”

Jenny Harbour for The Red Shoes, Hans Andersen’s StoriesIllustration by Jenny Harbour for “The Red Shoes,” Hans Andersen’s Stories, London, Paris and New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, [1932].

The most notorious example of painful red shoes in children’s books, next to the punishment meted out to the witch in the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White,” who was forced to dance in red-hot shoes until she died, is “The Red Shoes” by Hans Christian Andersen, translated into English in 1847. In the original story, a shoemaker’s wife gives a poor little girl some clumsy red cloth shoes, and having no others, the child wears them to her mother’s funeral. Later, when told to have shoes made for confirmation, the child takes advantage of her guardian’s dim eyesight and orders red shoes. Not only does she wear them to confirmation, but also, though forbidden to do so, to communion. The devil in disguise puts a curse on the shoes. Karen wears the red shoes to a ball, instead of attending her guardian’s death bed, and is then forced to dance endlessly, not able to take the red shoes off, until she begs the executioner to rid her of them. He cuts off her feet, freeing Karen to repent. Karen dies of a broken heart, but is carried up to heaven, “and in Heaven there was No-one who asked about the red shoes.” 

Jenny Harbour for The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

Illustration by Jenny Harbour for “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,” Hans Andersen’s Stories, London, Paris and New York: Raphael Tuck & Sons, [1932].

A sad fate also awaits Andersen’s “Girl Who Trod on a Loaf,” who, in order to keep her shoes dry and clean threw bread down for a stepping-stone across a bog. As a punishment for her pride and ingratitude, Inger is sucked down into a hellish life in the swamp, only to be released many years later by the prayers and tears of others, who repent their own ingratitude for God’s gifts.

Worn-out shoes offer telltale clues about clandestine activities. The Brothers Grimm wrote an early version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, entitled simply “The Worn-Out Dancing Shoes,” in the 1823 English edition of their tales, in which the shoes of a king’s beautiful daughters appear mysteriously worn out each morning, though the girls have been safely locked in their room all night. Though offered a great reward, no one can solve the riddle of the worn-out shoes, until a poor soldier resists the sleeping potion the princesses give him. He stays awake and is able to spy on their secret midnight ball, thus solving the riddle and winning one of the Princesses for a bride.

Elizabeth Conklin McKinstry The Watchman's Adventures from The Galoshes of Fortune

Illustration by Elizabeth Conklin McKinstry, "The Watchman's Adventures" from "The Galoshes of Fortune," Andersen's Fairy Tales, New York: Coward-McCann, 1933.

There are as well the instructive enchanted boots of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Galoshes of Fortune,” translated into English in 1846. In this story, fairies naively provide a magic pair of boots to create happiness: merely to put them on allows the wearer to become anyone or be anywhere he wishes. As one opportunistic or absent-minded person after another helps himself to the boots, he finds himself living a dream –- or rather, a nightmare. Like Midas, each discovers the wisdom of being merely himself, in his own time. When the last shuddering victim of the galoshes escapes from them, they are claimed by the fairy “Sorrow,” who feels they most fittingly belong to her.

Milo Winter for “Fortune’s Overshoes” (The Galoshes of Fortune)Illustration by Milo Winter for “Fortune’s Overshoes” (The Galoshes of Fortune), Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales, tr. V. Paulsen, Chicago: Rand McNally, 1916.

The classic fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, “The Elves,” now usually called  “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” appeared in English in 1823. In this tale a worthy shoemaker, through no fault of his own, becomes poor. Though he has nothing in the world except leather for one pair of shoes, he lays himself down after prayers and sleeps soundly, because his conscience is clear. The next morning, and on subsequent mornings, he finds the leather beautifully sewn into shoes, and is able to sell them at increasing profits. Anxious to learn about his benefactor, he and his wife hide one night, and spy two little elves who rush in, naked, do the work and rush out. To thank the elves, the shoemaker makes a pair of shoes and his wife sews a warm little outfit for each of them. On finding the clothes, the elves dance with joy and renounce work, stating “Now we look so fine and dandy, no more need to work and be so handy!” They never appear again. “But the shoemaker continued to be prosperous until the end of his life and succeeded in all his endeavours.”

George Cruikshank for “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” German Popular Stories

Illustration by George Cruikshank for “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” German Popular Stories by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Edgar Taylor. London: James Robinson & Co.,1827.

If you have enjoyed looking at these stories, please remember to visit the two exhibitions of fairy tale books: “Once Upon a Time,” TD Gallery, Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge Street, until January 22, and “The Snow Queen’s Palace: Amazing Stories from Hans Christian Andersen,” The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, 239 College Street, until March 4.

You may also enjoy reading the full article from which this content was drawn, “Canadian Children’s Shoe Stories and Their Antecedents: Fortune’s Footwear” by Leslie McGrath, Senior Department Head, Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books, in Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures. Vol. 8, no.1, 311-331, 2016. 

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe by F.E. Weatherly, illustrated by E. Berkeley

Front cover, The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe by F.E. Weatherly, illustrated by E. Berkeley, New York: Geo. C. Whitney, [ca.1890].  

Be sure to also visit the Bata Shoe Museum; you can access a free pass (limited quantities) through our Museum + Arts Pass program.