The Red Shoes

The following entry may contain triggering material.

Dance you shall. Dance in your red shoes ’til you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up!

You shall dance in your red shoes until you become like a wraith, like a ghost, ’til the skin hangs from your bones, ’til there is nothing left of you but entrails dancing.

Dance you shall, from door to door through all the villages, and where proud and wicked children live you shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you!

When people peer out they will see you and fear their fate for themselves.

Dance, red shoes, you shall.


The story behind this story, as I’d read it, was that the young Hans Christian Andersen watched a parent make a pair of shoes. The customer, who had provided some of those materials, wasn’t at all pleased. “All you’ve done was ruin my silk,” scolded the customer. The shoemaker Andersen took a pair of scissors to the shoes and replied, “Then I may as well ruin my leather too.”

With that consideration, the story read a bit like the fairytale-writer Andersen avenging his father on a bad customer’s child. It became awfully bleak and full of misaimed moral indignation.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, whose middle name I can never manage to leave out either, redeemed the story through interpretation. It became a cautionary tale, an examination of how to lose touch with one’s instincts and the tragic effects of that loss. Estés called it the hambre del alma, the soul’s hunger, or the soul injury that leads to an often destructive pursuit of some substitute for whatever had been lost.

Much of the material for Estés’ interpretation remains in the Andersen version, which I take to mean something about stories taking on a life of their own apart from authorial intent, if sadistic wish-fulfillment were ever even Andersen’s intent. The tragic heroine, Karen, either makes a pair of shoes herself or receives them as a gift from someone who doesn’t know how to make shoes (but who made them with a kind thought to Karen, who couldn’t afford to buy shoes). A wealthy elderly woman adopts Karen, and has the shoddy priceless soul-whole shoes burnt. At the shoe store with this newfound benefactor, she selects a pair of red patent leather shoes to make up for the ones she lost…even though red shoes are inappropriate to wear to church. The elderly woman has some eye problem and buys them for Karen without seeing that they’re red, and some supernatural character puts a curse on them because the girl continued to wear them to church even after being informed of the inappropriateness. She’s saved from the curse by a woodcutter or executioner—somebody with an axe, anyway—chopping off her legs. (Although the main character begged for that mercy while in the thrall of the dancing curse, that’s hardly a dashing rescue.)


I wondered if the alternative would graft well into Queen Myrtha’s backstory, I otherwise knew nothing about. Deadly dances are a part of her character, so if it weren’t exactly the link I thought could be there, I couldn’t imagine Queen Myrtha having no opinion about it at all. At least the Queen would be opposed to the idea of shaming a girl for something she wore?

Giselle met me on the way to the misty wood mindscape. She doesn’t stop anybody, really, she doesn’t even warn or grumble against, she just tends to haunt. She’s a reminder that there’s always another way to go about things, than the way the Queen does it. Giselle doesn’t stop anybody. But this time, Giselle radiated enough worry and distress that I felt as though she was grabbing my elbow and shouting at me to run.

“Red shoes,” explained Giselle, instead, “means that the Queen is holding auditions.”

And Giselle didn’t like it, it seemed, even less than my interest in the wilis, even less than the existence of the wilis (who she never leaves, though I think she can, but would rather stay and dislike it). It was a new, unexpected idea to me. That’s not how I got in.

“No, that’s not how you got in,” agreed Giselle, with an uncharacteristic curtness. More gently, even encouragingly, “You’re not one of us. Don’t frown, that’s the best thing anyone can have said about them!”

That’s the most straightforward she’s ever been.

“But I can still watch the auditions,” I’d figured, since the idea was developing, and I thought I ought to stay with it as much as I could. Why did I keep going to them, knowing next to nothing but their perpetual mood, and (so Giselle said) not even being one of them?

Bless her, but Giselle doesn’t stop anyone.