The Elves and the Shoemaker



The marketing copy of modern editions for children go something like this:

An adaptation of the classic tale in which a poor old shoemaker becomes successful with the help of two elves who finish his shoes during the night.


In the Grimm version, the shoemaker has no moral shortcoming. Conversely, he is rewarded for his generosity. (The reward is completely disproportionate.)

In earlier, darker versions, the shoemaker will be temporarily punished for allowing supernatural creatures into his home, so his shortcoming is lack of foresight around this.

Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) shoe maker
Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) painted this illustration of a shoemaker at work.


In gratitude versions, the shoemaker has no strong desire other than to make a living and support himself and his wife. (No children of their own are mentioned. I wonder if childless couples in folk and fairytale were more likely to be visited by proxy children, ie. elves, goblins and fairies.)


Though translators use various related words when referring to human creatures of very small size, the ‘elves’ in this fairytale are technically ‘hobgoblins’. Hobgoblins live in the house. Brownies are similar. This category of fairy was considered extremely capricious, their motives unfathomable. If you left them alone to get on with things they would continue to help you out. But as soon as you thank them or do them a good turn they were liable to take their services elsewhere. “No, really, don’t thank me!” is the hobgoblin’s catch cry, followed by, “I’m leaving!”:

Hemton hamten, here will I never tread nor stampen!

That’s a quote from Reginald Scott, Discoverie of Witchcraft, 1584, p. 85, who was trying to stop the persecution of witches but who also thought unicorn horns were medicinal.

Nowadays, the elves of this classic tale are depicted differently depending on the degree of bowdlerisation required by the publisher. In the illustrations below, those by George Roland Halkett remind me of the sinister child figures of Maurice Sendak, while the skinny, naked elves wearing only hats have the bodies (and flexibility) of playful five year olds.

The elves in gratitude versions of the story turn out to be allies, whereas the hobgoblins of earlier versions are dangerous and, yes, capricious would be the word.


Hard work and humility is rewarded. Note that in the gratitude versions the Christianity runs strong. The shoemaker prays piously and whatnot. The ideology of rich reward for hard work runs strong in the Christian tradition.


In gratitude versions, the scene of the elves making the shoes is carnivalesque. The audience takes delight in imagining or seeing tiny creatures making shoes.

The darker version above features a more traditional battle scene in which the shoemaker loses an eye.


Since the gratitude message is central to the Grimms’ didactic tale, the anagnorisis is meant for the reader: If I work hard and remain humble then I too might be rewarded richly. Maybe not by ‘elves’, but by ‘the universe’.



The kind and generous shoemaker will be rich forevermore. We’re to imagine the shoemaker will continue to share his spoils by giving shoes away, though more recent psychological research shows what we can all oberves ourselves by looking at the richest of the rich in the era of late capitalism: Simply being rich makes a person lose empathy for others.

Who is more likely to lie, cheat, and steal—the poor person or the rich one? It’s temping to think that the wealthier you are, the more likely you are to act fairly. After all, if you already have enough for yourself, it’s easier to think about what others may need. But research suggests the opposite is true: as people climb the social ladder, their compassionate feelings towards other people decline.

Scientific American

The other shoemaker gets his eyesight restored but he’s no better off than before. But because this earlier shoemaker lived in more prosperous times for shoemakers, I imagine he was still okay. This guy just needed to keep doing his own work and he was justly rewarded by simply selling his wares.

In all kinds of Elves and the Shoemaker stories, authenticity is rewarded. The word ‘authenticity’ comes from Greek authentes. This word has two related meanings:

  1. One who acts with authority
  2. Made by one’s own hands

Our cultures clearly revere people who make things with their own hands. Much folklore and fairytale is about ‘being real’, and is related to a very common narrative trope about removing the mask to reveal your best life. It’s interesting, however, that people are buying the shoemaker’s shoes all the while thinking he’s made them himself. Normally this is exactly the kind of trickery that gets punished in stories! I propose the shoemaker gets away with this because good fortune happened upon him; he did not go seeking it out.


A few centuries later Rhonda Byrne took the same ideology conveyed by the Grimms and ran with it. The Secret is a self-help book about the Law of Attraction and a huge bestseller.

Stories about elves, fairies and goblins were common in 20th century children’s literature, but they were the bowdlerised version, not the capricious slash evil hobgoblins of darker, earlier tales.

Elves and Fairies Jane Werner Garth Williams
The Giant Golden Book Of Elves and Fairies by Jane Werner and Garth Williams

Modern young readers are likely to know about helpful elves due to Harry Potter even if they haven’t read a fairytale version. In Harry Potter House Elves take care of the needs of human wizards. They are also free of their obligation once given clothes.


I looked deep into the history of this story because I was interested in using the basic premise of this tale as a vehicle to say something different again, about generosity but also about whose labour we value and whose labour remains invisible (much like the elves are invisible). I called my revisioning “The Awlings“.

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