Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales/The Red Shoes

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For other English-language translations of this work, see The Red Shoes.


There was once a little girl who was very pretty and delicate; but in summer she used to go barefooted, because she was poor; in winter she wore large wooden shoes, and her little insteps became quite red.

In the village lived an old shoemaker’s wife, who had some old strips of red cloth; and she sewed these together, as well as she could, into a little pair of shoes. They were rather clumsy; but the intention was kind, for the little girl was to have them, and her name was Karen. She received these shoes on the very day on which her mother was buried, and she wore them for the first time. They were certainly not suitable for mourning, but she had no others; so she put them on her bare feet, and walked behind the poor deal coffin.

There came by a large old-fashioned carriage, in which sat an old lady. She looked at the little girl, and felt pity for her; so she said to the clergyman, “Pray give me that little girl, and I will adopt her.”

Karen thought all this happened because of her red shoes; but the old lady considered them horrible, and so they were burnt. But Karen herself was dressed in neat, tidy clothes, and taught to read and to sew, and people said she was pretty, but the looking-glass said, “You are more than pretty; you are beautiful.”

Not long after, a queen travelled through the country with her little daughter, who was a princess, and crowds flocked to the castle to see them. Karen was amongst them, and she saw the little princess in a white dress, standing at a window, to allow every one to gaze upon her. She had neither train nor golden crown on her head; but she wore a beautiful pair of red morocco shoes, which certainly were rather handsomer than those that the old shoemaker’s wife had made for little Karen. Surely nothing in the world could be compared with those red shoes.

The time arrived for Karen to be confirmed. New clothes were made for her, and she was to have, also, a pair of new shoes. A rich shoemaker in the town took the measure of her little foot at his own house, in a room where stood large glass cases full of elegant shoes and shining boots. They looked beautiful; but the old lady could not see very well, so she had not much pleasure in looking at them. Among the shoes stood a pair of red ones, just like those which the princess had worn. Oh, how pretty they were! The shoemaker said they had been made for a count’s child, but they had not fitted her properly.

“Are they of polished leather? " said the old lady; “for they shine as if they were.”

“Yes, they do shine,” said Karen; and as they fitted her they were bought; but the old lady did not know they were red, or she would never have allowed Karen to go to confirmation in red shoes, which, however, she did. Every one looked at her feet; and as she passed through the church, to the entrance of the choir, it seemed as if the old pictures on the tombs, and the portraits of clergymen and their wives, with their stiff collars and long black dresses, were all fixing their eyes on her red shoes; and she thought of them only, even when the clergyman laid his hands on her head, and spoke of her baptism, and of her covenant with God, and that now she must remember that she must act as a grown-up Christian. And the organ pealed forth its solemn tones, and the fresh, young voices of the children sounded sweetly as they joined with the choir; but Karen thought only of her red shoes.

In the afternoon the old lady was told by every one that the shoes were red; and she said it was very shocking, and not at all proper, and told Karen that, when she went to church in future, she must always wear black shoes, even though they might be old.

Next Sunday was Sacrament Sunday, and Karen was to receive it for the first time. She looked at her black shoes, and then at the red ones; then looked again, and put on the red ones, The sun shone brightly, and Karen and the old lady went to church by the footpath through the fields; for the road was so dusty.

Near the church door stood an old invalid soldier, with a crutch and a wonderfully long beard, more red than white. He bowed nearly to the ground, and asked the old lady if he might wipe her shoes. And Karen stretched out her little foot also.

“Why, these are dancing shoes,” cried the soldier. “I will make them stick fast to your feet when you dance.” And then he slapped the soles of her shoes with his hand.

The old lady gave the soldier some money, and then went into church with Karen. Every one in the church looked at Karen’s red shoes, and the pictures looked at them; and when she knelt at the altar, and took the golden cup to her lips, she thought only of her red shoes, and it was to her as if they passed before her eyes in the cup; and she forgot to sing the psalm, or to say the Lord’s Prayer. Then all the people went out of church, and the old lady stepped into her carriage. Karen lifted her foot to step in also, and the old soldier cried, “See what beautiful dancing shoes.”

And then Karen found she could not help dancing a few steps; and when she began, it seemed as if her legs would go on dancing. It was just as if the shoes had a power over her. She danced round the corner of the church, and could not stop herself. The coachman was obliged to run after her, and catch her, and then lift her into the carriage, and even then her feet would go on dancing, so that she kept treading on the good old lady’s toes. At last she took off the shoes, and then her legs had a little rest. As soon as they reached home, the shoes were put away in a closet; but Karen could not resist looking at them.

Soon after this the old lady was taken ill, and it was said that she could not recover. She had to be waited upon and nursed, and no one ought to have been so anxious to do this as Karen. But there was to be a grand ball in the town, to which Karen was invited. She thought of the old lady, who could not recover; she looked at her red shoes, and then she reflected that there could be no harm in her putting them on, nor was there; but her next act was to go to the ball, and to join in the dancing. But the shoes would not let her do as she wished: when she wanted to go to the right, they would dance to the left; or if she wished to go up the floor, they persisted in going down; and at last they danced down the stairs, into the street, and out of the town gate. She danced on in spite of herself, till she came to a gloomy wood. Something was shining up among the trees. At first she thought it was the moon, and then she saw a face. It was the old soldier, with his red beard; and he sat and nodded to her, and said, “See what pretty dancing shoes they are.”

Then she was frightened, and tried to pull off the red shoes; but they clung fast. She tore off her stockings; but the shoes seemed to have grown to her feet. And she was obliged to continue dancing over fields and meadows, in rain or in sunshine, by night or by day; but it was most terrible at night. She danced through the open churchyard; the dead there do not dance, they are better employed. She would gladly have seated herself on the poor man’s grave, where the bitter fern-leaves grew; but for her there was neither rest nor peace. And then, as she danced towards the open church door, she saw before her an angel, in long white robes, and wings that reached from his shoulders down to the ground. His countenance was grave and stern, and in his hand he held a bright and glittering sword.

“Thou shalt dance,” said he, “dance in thy red shoes till thou art pale and cold, and till thy skin shrivels up to a skeleton. Thou shalt dance from door to door; and where proud, haughty children live thou shalt knock, so that they may hear thee, and be afraid; yea, thou shalt dance.”

“Mercy!” cried Karen; but she heard not what the angel answered; for her shoes carried her away from the door, into the fields, over highways and byways; but dancing, dancing ever.

One morning she danced by a door which she knew well. She could hear sounds of singing within, and a coffin, decked with flowers, was presently carried out. Then she knew that the old lady was dead, and she felt that she was forsaken by all the world, and condemned by an angel from heaven. Still must she dance through the long days, and the dark, gloomy nights. The shoes carried her on through brambles, and over stumps of trees, which scratched her till the blood came. Then she danced across a heath to a little lonely house. Here, she knew, the executioner dwelt; and she tapped with her fingers on the window-pane, and said, “Come out, come out; I cannot come in, for I must dance.”

And the executioner said, “Do you not know who I am? I cut off the heads of wicked people, and I perceive now that my axe tingles through my fingers.”

“Do not strike off my head,” said Karen, “for then I shall not be able to repent of my sin; but cut off my feet with the red shoes.” And then she confessed all her sins, and the executioner cut off her feet with the red shoes on them, and the shoes, with the little feet in them, danced away over the fields, and were lost in the dark wood. And he cut out a pair of wooden feet for her, and gave her crutches; then he taught her a psalm, which the penitents always sing, and she kissed the hand that had held the axe, and went away across the heath. “Now I have suffered enough for the red shoes,” said she; “I will go to church, that I may be seen there by the people;” and she went as quickly as she could to the church door, but when she arrived there, the red shoes danced before her eyes so, that she was frightened, and turned back. Through the whole week she was in sorrow, and wept many bitter tears; but when Sunday came again, she said, “Now I have suffered and striven enough; I believe I am quite as good as many of those who go to church, and sit there showing their airs.” And then she went boldly on, but she did not get further than the churchyard gate, for there were the red shoes dancing before her. Then she was really frightened, and went back, and repented of her sinful pride with her whole heart. Then she went to the parsonage and begged to be taken there as a servant, promising to be industrious, and do all she could, even without wages. All she wanted was the shelter of a home, and to be with good people. The clergyman’s wife had pity on her, and took her into her service, and she was industrious and thoughtful. Silently she sat and listened when the clergyman read the Bible aloud in the evening. All the little ones became very fond of her, but when they spoke of dress, or finery, or beauty, she would shake her head. Next Sunday they all went to church, and they asked her if she would like to go with them; but she looked sorrowfully and with tearful eyes at her crutches. And while the others went to listen to God’s word, she sat alone in her little room, which was only just large enough to contain a bed and a chair. And here she remained with her hymn-book in her hand, and as she read in a humble spirit, the wind wafted the tones of the organ from the church towards her, and she lifted her tearful face, and said, “O Lord, help me.” Then the sun shone brightly, and before her stood the angel, in the long white robes, the same whom she had seen one night at the church door, but he no longer held in his hand a sharp sword, but a beautiful green branch covered with roses, and as he touched the ceiling with the branch, it raised itself to a lofty height, and on the spot where it had been touched, gleamed a golden star. He also touched the walls, and they opened wide, so that she could see the organ whose tones sounded so melodious. She saw, too, the old pictures of the clergymen and their wives, and the congregation sitting on the ornamental seats, and singing out of their hymn-books. The church itself had come to the poor girl in her narrow room, or the room had become a church to her. She found herself sitting on a seat with the rest of the clergyman’s servants, and when they had finished the psalm, they looked at her and nodded, and said, “It was right of you to come, Karen.”

“It was through mercy I came,” said she. And then the organ pealed forth again, and the children’s voices sounded so soft and sweet. The bright sunshine streamed through the window, and fell clear and warm upon the chair on which Karen sat. Her heart became so filled with sunshine, peace, and joy, that it broke, and her soul flew on a sunbeam to heaven, and there was no one in heaven who asked about the red shoes.