Wow! Over the last few days life really decided that my plans were unimportant. I had hoped to post this on Sunday as per my usual schedule but like I said, the universe had other plans.
One of the things I’ve been discussing on my blog is fairy tales and the impact they’ve had on my life and writing. One of my favourite fairy tales is the lesser known The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a story about a pair of shoes that are cursed so that, once put on, the wearer cannot stop dancing and cannot take them off. Eventually the protagonist is rescued by an Angel once she has overcome her pride and vanity and has humbled herself. We see in the story a tale of fortunes, in which a poor young orphaned girl is adopted by a wealthy older woman, and the girl’s pride leading to her fall, causing her fortunes to be reversed until she becomes a servant in exchange for room and food. As always with Hans Christian Andersen, the tale has strong Christian moral themes and a distinct class separation.
To be honest, I re-read this fairy tale for this blog and it differed from how I remembered it. I love this story on so many levels. I’ve always loved stories about dancing. When I was a child I loved The Twelve Dancing Princesses, and as I got older dance movies became my favourite (looking at you Save the Last Dance and Burlesque). In fact, when I was older I became a belly dancer which filled me with endless joy until I injured my knee, so perhaps dancing, like writing, has always been in my blood?
Obviously one of the main symbolic images in The Red Shoes has to be the shoes themselves. It’s interesting that for someone who loves being bare foot some of my favourite stories revolve around shoes. I mean, The Wizard of Oz is basically two women fighting over a pair of shoes right? (I saw that on a meme once and it’s stuck with me ever since). Shoes can be seen as a symbol of movement, especially if you consider the fact that these shoes are cursed to never stop moving. A cursory google search will tell you that shoes can symbolize a range of things including social status, movement, self-awareness, and, the removal of shoes can symbolize submission. I think that all these can be seen in aspects of this tale. Karen thinks the shoes are the prettiest she has ever seen and desires to wear them as often as she can; this can be seen as a form of self-awareness and social status because she doesn’t like to wear her old black shoes, which compared to the shiny red ones are wearing out and boring. In the end when she cannot remove the shoes herself and can bare the curse no longer, she has an executioner chop her feet off with an axe, not only a sign of submission but psychologically beginning her path to kill off the old version of herself, the materialistic, vain, and proud version of her younger self. The executioner makes her wooden feet and crutches (which are not only functional but serve as a visual reminder of her past) and she offers herself as a servant in the home of the local priest, a far cry from being the adopted daughter of a wealthy woman.
In some ways this story can be seen as a coming of age story. Karen’s age is never quite specified in the story, however when she wears her cursed to shoes to the Ball instead of staying home to take care of her ill mother we can assume that she would likely be a teenager. The tale specifies that she had been invited to the ball, so I would expect that invitations would not have been sent to children, only to adults of the upper class and upper-class girls of a marriable age. I assume this because in Fairy Tales, Balls seem to be a major source of wife hunting for the upper class. So, we can hope that this means that Karen was of a marriageable age. Karen displays behaviours often associated with teenage girls, a focus on her appearance and an urge to fight the instructions of her mother. She learns her lessons harshly, with detriment to her own well-being, before she ultimately perishes and, having repented her sins, is accepted into Heaven.
The story was originally printed in 1845 which is about a decade into the Victorian Era, a time in which childhood was beginning to be seen as a special development age. After the Enlightenment in the 17th century, stories for children became more popular. Industrialization created another distinction in social classes, with a middle class beginning to emerge and children, especially of the upper classes, were beginning to have standardized education. Stories for children at this time were intended to be instructional, not simple entertainment. These stories were developed with clear moral and religious overtones, reinforcing ideas of good behaviour and social customs. Children’s stories had moved past always ending in the protagonists’ death, and Hans Christian Andersen himself, was known specifically for the religious overtones of his stories’ morals, and it seems clear that the saying “pride cometh before the fall” seems to be significantly in play in this story. Children’s stories in the Victorian Era tend to have happy endings, where the protagonist has learnt the error of their ways and is able to re-integrate into society, or in this case be rewarded with eternity in Heaven.
I do wonder about the similarities in the colour of Karen’s shoes and the shoes in The Wizard of Oz. Ironically the original book version of The Wizard of Oz didn’t actually feature a pair of ruby slippers. In Baum’s original creation the shoes were silver and were not depicted as the iconic red pumps until someone working on the Hollywood adaptation decided that ruby shoes made for a better visual aesthetic and a chance to show case techniques in the new technicolour filming format. On a side note, Dorothy’s blue gingham dress; it was actually pink. To get the right colour in the technicolour process the actual dress had to be pink. I wonder if the filmmakers were subtly referencing Hans Christian Andersen and the wider fairy tale genre when they chose to make the slippers a bold ruby colour.
The colour red itself is a strong symbol in this story. It’s titled The Red Shoes. Not The Cursed Shoes, or The Dancing Shoes, so this could be a key indicator of Hans Christian Andersen’s symbolism. Red is a commonly used to symbolism things in fairy tales. I covered this a little bit in my post on Little Red Riding Hood (link here) but red is often used to symbolise witchcraft or the devil, which in most religious histories have been intertwined. Where a red had may symbolise occult or forbidden knowledge, red shoes could indicate the path that she is choosing to take. The Red Bearded soldier who curses the shoes could easily be seen as a representation of the Devil, playing on Karen’s desire to wear her pretty shoes, and tempting Karen to stray from the path of righteousness.
After re-reading this tale I’m not entirely convinced it is a children’s tale as we would see them these days. Like tales by the Brother’s Grimm, it is rather dark and I’m not sure I would read an un-edited version to my children when I’m older. Disney would have a hard time romanticising this one I think. Mind you, they completely changed the original story that Frozen is based on, so maybe The Red Shoes will be coming to a theatre near you soon, with a whimsical soundtrack sung by someone famous.
I hope this post has been interesting for you. I love discussing Fairy Tales and the symbolism and history behind them. If you have a favourite fairy tale I’d love to hear what it is. Comment below and let me know.