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Saturday, 28 November 2009

Red shoes

I've been thinking about red shoes. After reading about the forthcoming re-release of Powell and Pressburgers' stunning film The Red Shoes; now restored to its full Technicolor glory (clips of the existing version here and here); and the accompanying exhibition at the BFI, I decided to go back to the Andersen tale, which inspired the film.

This is Andersen at his most moralising and macabre; Karen is a poor orphan, taken in by a well meaning old lady, and when she is unintentionally bought a pair of beautiful red shoes to wear to her confirmation (the old lady can't see very well), all she can think about during the service is the shoes. The shoes seem to call to her to be worn, and once she starts dancing in them she can't stop; they dance her ragged; 'dance she did and dance she must, over field and meadow, in rain and in sunshine, night and day'. Even when Karen begs an executioner to chop her feet off they continue to dance in the shoes and bar her way into the church.

The roots of the story lie in Andersen's own experience at his confirmation, which he relates in The True Story of my Life:
'An old female tailor altered my deceased father's great coat into a confirmation suit for me; never before had I worn so good a coat. I had also for the first time in my life a pair of boots. My delight was extremely great; my only fear was that everybody would not see them, and therefore I drew them up over my trousers, and thus marched through the church. The boots creaked, and that inwardly pleased me, for thus the congregation would hear that they were new. My whole devotion was disturbed; I was aware of it, and it caused me a horrible pang of conscience that my thoughts should be as much with my new boots as with God. I prayed him earnestly from my heart to forgive me, and then again I thought about my new boots.'
In the notes to Tiina Nunnally's translation of his tales, which is edited and introduced by Jackie Wullschlager, it is suggested that 'The red shoes dancing off with Karen's feet may have been inspired by the Grimms' folktale Snow White, where the queen dances herself to death in red-hot shoes.' We do know that Andersen read the Grimms' tales and that he got to know them personally (after a rather awkward first encounter, which you can read about in The True Story of my Life) so this is a plausible theory.

There is also a tale by the Grimms that features red shoes - The Juniper Tree. But here, in a very dark tale, the shoes aren't portrayed in a negative light - they are a wonderful gift, from a murdered little boy (now in the form of a bird), to his sister:
'Then she was light-hearted and joyous, and she put on the new red shoes, and danced and leaped into the house. "Ah," said she, "I was so sad when I went out and now I am so light-hearted; that is a splendid bird, he has given me a pair of red shoes!"
I first read Andersen's The Red Shoes as an adult, so for me, before that, red shoes belonged to Dorothy. I did read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a child, but I had shock when I revisited the story because I hadn't remembered that in the book the shoes are silver not red (perhaps I refused to ever read it as silver - I could be stubborn like that). They changed the colour of the shoes in the film to take advantage of the Technicolor.

In Oz the shoes are worn by the Wicked Witch of the East - until she is squashed by Dorothy's house. One of the Munchkins says, 'there is some charm connected with them; but what it is we never knew'. The magical shoes (silver or red) protect her from the Wicked Witch of the West, and they are, of course, the key to her way home.

So, red shoes; good or bad, they're certainly desirable, and I've always found that wearing them makes me happy; perhaps they lead to dancing, but never too much, and anyway, if I get tired I can always click my heels together three times...

Some other places to look for red shoes: the Anne Sexton poem The Red Shoes, the Kate Bush song The Red Shoes, the Pope's feet, The Ruby Slipper Fan Club, and the mysterious case of the stolen shoes.

Thanks to Graham Dean for the photograph of the red shoes (the feet and the shoes are mine!)


  1. Very interesting! I never noticed how often red shoes appear in stories before.

    My own experience with red shoes certainly was not pleasant. For a special occasion, I wore a pair of ridiculously high heels that left me in serious pain afterwards. :-(

  2. Oh no, that doesn't sound good :-(

    Now I've started looking out for them, I've found them in even more places - on re-reading Andersen's Snow Queen I've discovered Gerda has a pair too!

    '“Is it true that you have taken my little playmate away from me?” said she to the river. “I will give you my red shoes if you will give him back to me.” And it seemed as if the waves nodded to her in a strange manner. Then she took off her red shoes, which she liked better than anything else, and threw them both into the river'