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The Elves and the Shoemaker

A SHOEMAKER,2 by no fault of his own, had become so poor that at last he had nothing left but leather for one pair of shoes. So in the evening, he cut out the shoes which he wished to begin to make the next morning,3 and as he had a good conscience, he lay down quietly in his bed, commended himself to God,4 and fell asleep. In the morning, after he had said his prayers, and was just going to sit down to work, the two shoes stood quite finished on his table.5 He was astounded, and knew not what to say to it. He took the shoes in his hands to observe them closer, and they were so neatly made that there was not one bad stitch in them, just as if they were intended as a masterpiece. Soon after, a buyer came in, and as the shoes pleased him so well, he paid more for them than was customary, and, with the money, the shoemaker was able to purchase leather for two pairs of shoes. He cut them out at night, and next morning was about to set to work with fresh courage; but he had no need to do so, for, when he got up, they were already made, and buyers also were not wanting, who gave him money enough to buy leather for four pairs of shoes.6 The following morning, too, he found the four pairs made; and so it went on constantly, what he cut out in the evening was finished by the morning, so that he soon had his honest independence again, and at last became a wealthy man. Now it befell that one evening not long before Christmas,7 when the man had been cutting out, he said to his wife, before going to bed, "What think you if we were to stay up to-night to see who it is that lends us this helping hand?" The woman liked the idea, and lighted a candle, and then they hid themselves in a corner of the room, behind some clothes which were hanging up there, and watched. When it was midnight, two pretty little naked men came,8 sat down by the shoemaker's table, took all the work which was cut out before them and began to stitch, and sew, and hammer so skilfully and so quickly with their little fingers that the shoemaker could not turn away his eyes for astonishment. They did not stop until all was done, and stood finished on the table, and they ran quickly away.

Next morning the woman said, "The little men have made us rich, and we really must show that we are grateful for it.9 They run about so, and have nothing on, and must be cold. I'll tell thee what I'll do: I will make them little shirts, and coats, and vests, and trousers, and knit both of them a pair of stockings, and do thou, too, make them two little pairs of shoes."10 The man said, "I shall be very glad to do it;" and one night, when everything was ready, they laid their presents all together on the table instead of the cut-out work,11 and then concealed themselves to see how the little men would behave. At midnight they came bounding in, and wanted to get to work at once, but as they did not find any leather cut out, but only the pretty little articles of clothing, they were at first astonished, and then they showed intense delight.12 They dressed themselves with the greatest rapidity, putting the pretty clothes on, and singing,

"Now we are boys so fine to see,
Why should we longer cobblers be?"13

Then they danced and skipped and leapt over chairs and benches.14 At last they danced out of doors. From that time forth they came no more, but as long as the shoemaker lived all went well with him, and all his undertakings prospered.15

1. Elves and the Shoemaker: The source for the tale is Dortchen Wild in 1812 (Zipes, Complete, 730). It is usually titled "The Elves" and consists of three short tales, of which this is one. (Click on the link to read the entire tale.)

The tale is known as both "The Elves and the Shoemaker" and "The Shoemaker and the Elves" interchangably. However, most picture book versions published in the United States prefer "The Elves and the Shoemaker."
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2. Shoemaker: From Wikipedia:

Shoemaking is a traditional handicraft profession, which has now been largely superseded by industrial manufacture of footwear.

Shoemakers (also known as cobblers or cordwainers) may produce a range of footwear items, including shoes, boots, sandals, clogs and moccasins. Such items are generally made of leather, wood, rubber, plastic, jute or other plant material, and often consist of multiple parts for better durability of the sole, stitched to a leather upper.

Most shoemakers use a last—made traditionally of iron or wood, but now often of wood—on which to form the shoe. Some lasts are straight, while curved lasts come in pairs: one for left shoes, the other for right shoes.

The shoemaking profession makes a number of appearances in popular culture, such as in stories about shoemaker's elves, and the proverb "The shoemaker's children are often shoeless". The patron saint of shoemakers is Saint Crispin ("Shoemaking" Wikipedia 2006).

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3. He cut out the shoes which he wished to begin to make the next morning: Note that while the shoemaker receives magical help, he still does part of the work himself, buying, preparing, and cutting the leather for the shoes each evening. He doesn't wait lazily for all the work to be done for him nor does he give up when life appears hopeless at the beginning of the tale.
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4. Commended himself to God: The Grimms added much of the overt religious references in their tales as they edited them for a young audience.

Maria Tatar writes:

The shoemaker's piety is stressed again and again and signals that he is deserving of the reward given to him and also protected against the pagan spirits who help him out by discharging his chores (Tatar, Annotated Grimms, 184).

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5. Two shoes stood quite finished on his table: Who hasn't dreamed of necessary work being magically accomplished for them? Magical help with chores and labor is a common theme in folklore. The shoemaker lives that dream in this tale.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer writes that "sudden and unanticipated reward after ceaseless labor seems to represent a constant dream at least among Western laborers, and probably among laboring people worldwide, a dream of eternal release from endless grinding toil" (Tatar, Annotated Grimms, 183). I believe the quotation originally appeared in Bottigheimer's Grimm's Bad Girls and Bold Boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales (1987).
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6. Money enough to buy leather for four pairs of shoes: Time for a little math lesson. The shoemaker's increase is following a geometric sequence in which the constant ratio is 2. In other words, each new amount is 2 times the previous one. If the elves' work and results follow the same pattern already described, the number of shoes increases greatly each night starting with 1 and following a sequence of:

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc.

That makes 512 pairs of shoes produced on the 10th night. No wonder the shoemaker becomes wealthy with so many pairs of shoes to sell so quickly! No doubt the elves can easily make 512 pairs of shoes just as easily as 2 since they are magical beings.
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7. Christmas: The Christmas holidays are a time of giving and receiving gifts. The tale is perfectly themed for the holiday season, showing that giving and receiving are both important parts of the holiday.
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8. Two pretty little naked men came: Most correctly, the little men are brownies (German: Heinzelmännchen), not elves, but the earliest translations of the tale into English designated the men as elves and thus they have stayed, however innaccurately over the years.

From Wikipedia:

Brownie: A brownie, brounie/Urisk (Lowland Scots) or ùruisg/brùnaidh/gruagach (Scottish Gaelic) is a legendary kind of elf popular in folklore around Scotland and England (especially the north). He is the Scottish counterpart of the Scandinavian tomte, the Russian domovoi or the German Heinzelmännchen.

Customarily they are said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around the house. However, brownies do not like to be seen and will only work at night, perhaps in exchange for small gifts or food. They usually abandon the house if their gifts are called payments, or if they are offered gifts of clothes (no matter how shabby their own clothes are). In some stories, brownies have no noses ("Brownie (elf)" Wikipedia 2006).

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9. We are grateful for it: From Wikipedia ("Gratitude" Wikipedia 2006). :

Gratitude is a positive emotion, which involves a feeling of emotional indebtedness towards another person; often accompanied by a desire to thank them, or to reciprocate for a favour they have done for you. In a religious context, gratitude can also refer to a feeling of indebtedness towards a deity, e.g. God in Christianity.

Psychological research has demonstrated that individuals are more likely to experience gratitude when they receive a favor that is perceived to be (1) valued by the recipient, (2) costly to the benefactor, (3) given by the benefactor with benevolent intentions, and (4) given gratuitously (rather than out of role-based obligations) (e.g., Bar-Tal, Bar-Zohar, Greenberg, & Hermon, 1977; Graham, 1988; Lane & Anderson, 1976; Tesser, Gatewood, & Driver, 1968).

Research has also suggested that feelings of gratitude may be beneficial to subjective emotional well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). In people who are grateful in general, life events have little influence on experienced gratitude (McCullough, Tsang & Emmons, 2004).

Bar-Tal, D., Bar-Zohar, Y., Greenberg, M. S., & Hermon, M. (1977). Reciprocity behavior in the relationship between donor and recipient and between harm-doer and victim. Sociometry, 40, 293-298.

Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Graham, S. (1988). Children’s developing understanding of the motivational role of affect: An attributional analysis. Cognitive Development, 3, 71-88.

Lane, J., & Anderson, N.H. (1976). Integration of intention and outcome in moral judgment. Memory and Cognition, 4, 1-5.

McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J. & Emmons, R. A. (2004). Gratitude in intermediate affective terrain: Links of grateful moods to individual differences and daily emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86,295-309.

Tesser, A., Gatewood, R. & Driver, M. (1968). Some determinants of gratitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 233-236.

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10. I will make them little shirts, and coats, and vests, and trousers, and knit both of them a pair of stockings, and do thou, too, make them two little pairs of shoes: The shoemaker's wife is not stingy with her own work, making a complete ensemble for each of the little men. Hence she shows her gratitude through her labor.
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11. They laid their presents all together on the table instead of the cut-out work: The actual implication, with only the presents laid out without any cut-out work, is that the little men's help is no longer needed and is being graciously rewarded.
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12. Only the pretty little articles of clothing, they were at first astonished, and then they showed intense delight: Elves and brownies have a complicated relationship with clothing, especially in English folklore.

J. K. Rowling uses this folklore in her Harry Potter series with the house elf character of Doby. In their book about folklore in the Harry Potter books, Allan Zola Kronzek and Elizabeth Kronzek write:

Some, like the shoemaker's elves, are overjoyed at the sight of fancy duds, while many others seem to find such gifts offensive. Either way, the result is the same: Leave out a new shirt or shoes for your elf, pixie, or brownie, and you guarantee he'll be gone by morning, never to return.

Explanations for this odd behavior vary from place to place. In some British folklore, household fairies are said to be free spirits who simply don't want to be encumbered by earthly belongings. In the English country of Berwickshire, they say that brownies leave when given any gift because God appointed them as the servants of mankind, bound to work without payment. But in Lincolnshire the opposite is true; there brownies are proud creatures who will depart when gifts don't measure up to their expectations. One story tells of a brownie who took to the road after receiving a shirt of coarse fabric, but not before making it known that he'd have stayed if the shirt were linen! (Kronzek and Kronzek 79).

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13. Now we are boys so fine to see,/ Why should we longer cobblers be?: The little men's rhyme explains why they will no longer return. Never having had clothing for themselves, they now consider themselves above the work of shoemaking.
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14. Then they danced and skipped and leapt over chairs and benches: George Cruikshank illustrated this scene in 1823, one of the earliest illustrations for the tale by a known illustrator. You can see it here.
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15. All his undertakings prospered: The narrator is careful to end on a happy note despite the feeling of loss sparked by the elves' permanent departure. The reader/listener is reassured that the shoemaker (and his wife) live happily and well even without the help of their elvish friends.

Personally, I was always saddened by the elves' departure and felt the tale was bittersweet as a child. I cared more about losing the elvish visitors than a vague "happily ever after" for the shoemaker and his wife.