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Annotations for Elves and the Shoemaker

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by D. L. Ashliman


The annotations for the Elves and the Shoemaker fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Elves and the Shoemaker Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Elves and the Shoemaker to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

I have included the Grimms' notes to the tale as translated by Margaret Hunt followed by SurLaLune's textual annotations.

The Grimms' Notes For the Tale
Click on the link to read the entire tale.

All three from Hesse. There is a Holstein story like the third in Müllenhoff, p. 313, a Lithuanian in Schleicher, pp. 104, 105. Of the verse in the third story, it should be remarked that in Dahnert's Platt-deutsches Wörterbuch, p. 556, very old things are said to be "Old as de Bremer wold" (as old as the forest of Bremer). Schütze, in the Holstein Idioticon, 3. 173, 373, has "So oold as de Bremer Woold." In Müllenhoff-

"ik bün so alt [1]
as Bernholt (Brennholz)
in den Wolt."

In Transylvania they say "Alt wie der Kokelluss," as old as the river Kokel; see Haltrich, p. 72. In Hungary, according to Weinhold, "old as the Hungarian forest;" see Deutsche Mythologie, pp. 437, 438. The third story is also in Colshorn, p. 224, and in a Breton song, Barzas-Breiz, 1. 50. The Danes have it likewise, see Thiele's Dänische Sagen, 1. 49; where the little fellow says, "Nu har jeg seet tre gang ung Skov paa Tue Söe"-(I have now thrice seen young trees upon Tiie Söe.) In the Tyrol, he says,

"icb bin grad nett jetzt so viel Jahr schon alt [2],
Als Nadeln hat die Tanne da im Wald."
"Vonbyn. Vorarlberg. Volkssagen," p. 4.

To this place also belongs No. 6 in the Irische Elfenmärchen. Compare the stories of the quiet folk, the benevolent dwarfs, and well-disposed kobolds in the first vol. of our Deutsche Sagen. It is a peculiar feature that these little spirits disappear if clothes are given to them. A little sea-dwarf will have none, and vanishes when he receives them. See Mone's Anzeiger 1837, p. 175. A fairy man receives a little red coat, is delighted with it, and disappears, see Vonbun, pp. 3, 4.

[Stories of this kind are extremely numerous in the south of Scotland and north of England. The best known is perhaps that of "The cauld lad of Hilton," who devoted himself to undermining the good qualities of the servants at Hilton Castle. His practice was to throw everything into dire confusion in the kitchens and larders if he found these places tidy and clean; and to put every thing to rights with the greatest precision if he found them dirty and disorderly. The result of this fancy of his may be imagined.

At length a green cloak and hood were laid for him; it was green because it was supposed his connexion with fairyland would induce him to prefer that colour. He was delighted, but utterly demoralized,

"Here's a cloak and there's a hood,
And the cauld lad of Hilton will do no more good,"

said he, and disappeared for ever.-TR.]

1: As old am I,
As the logs that lie
Ripe for the fire,
In the forest hard by."

2: My years are as many at this very minute,
As that pine in the forest has needles in it."

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.

SurLaLune's Annotations

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.

Maria Tatar writes:

The ending to the story seems a happy one: the shoemaker's prosperity is restored even if he must continue to work, and the elves have clothing and no longer need to labor (Tatar, Annotated Grimms, 183).


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Complete Grimms translated by Jack Zipes

©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 1/2005; Last updated 7/9/07