Illustration by George Cruikshank. From German Popular Stories by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. London: C. Baldwyn, 1823.

“The Elves and the Shoemaker”
by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

This is one of three elf stories that follow each other in the Grimm’s Household Tales. This one is the funnest to me and it takes place just before Christmas, so it’s appropriate to the season.

There a poor shoemaker who has only enough leather to make one more pair of shoes. He cuts the shoes out in the evening and goes to bed. The next morning when he went to start his work, two finished shoes were on the worktable. The quality was superb and the shoemaker was able to sell them for more than the usual price, allowing him to buy leather for two pairs of shoes. Once again, he cut them out the night before and in the morning they are finished. He sells them for more than usual again and buys more leather, and on and on it goes until the shoemaker and his wife are quite wealthy.

A few days before Christmas, the shoemaker and his wife decide to stay up to see who is helping them. From their hiding place they see the two pretty little naked men, the elves, working quickly and skillfully. The couple decides to show their gratitude to the elves by making them little outfits, complete with coats and shoes. The couple laid their presents out one night and spied on the elves who were delighted with the gifts.

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?”

And they skipped and danced right out the door, never to be seen again. The ending is still happy for the shoemaker. Even though, he lost his magical helpers, we are told at the end that from that time all went well for the shoemaker and he prospered.

All in all, a happy little tale. No bad guys, just a couple of helpful elves, or brownies. Nobody has to get their deserved bad ending, because everyone in the story is good, rather unusual for one of the Grimms’ stories.

It’s interesting that after being given clothes the elves leave forever. Apparently that’s part of the folklore surrounding small household magical creatures like elves and brownies. If they are given a piece clothing they leave, whether they’re happy about it or not. For those familiar with the Harry Potter world, think of the house-elves. Their master could be freed them,  or force them to be free, by giving them a piece of clothing.

I also liked that the shoemaker the shoemaker does not become greedy or lazy when the elves start to help him. He continues to cut out the leather every night, not expecting his magical helpers to do everything. Maybe that’s why he continued to prosper even after the elves left. He still knew how to work, he hadn’t relied fully on their help.

You can find the story here, among other places.

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there to see her take on “The Elves” and to share your own thoughts. Next week, we’ll be looking at “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen.