The Red Shoes

At the church door stood an old soldier; he was leaning on crutches, and had a marvellously long beard, not white, but reddish-hued, and he bowed almost to the earth, and asked the old lady if he might wipe the dust off her shoes. And Karen put out her little foot also. “Oh, what pretty dancing-shoes!” quoth the old soldier; “take care, and mind you do not let them slip off when you dance”; and he passed his hands over them.

The old lady gave the soldier a halfpenny, and then went with Karen into church.

Karen and the old lady on their way to the church

Karen and the old lady walked to church

And every one looked at Karen’s red shoes; and all the carved figures, too, bent their gaze upon them; and when Karen knelt before the altar, the red shoes still floated before her eyes; she thought of them and of them only, and she forgot to join in the hymn of praise she forgot to repeat “Our Father.”

At last all the people came out of church, and the old lady got into her carriage. Karen was just lifting her foot to follow her, when the old soldier standing in the porch exclaimed, “Only look, what pretty dancing-shoes!” And Karen could not help it, she felt she must make a few of her dancing steps; and after she had once begun, her feet continued to move, just as though the shoes had received power over them; she danced round the church-yard, she could not stop. The coach-man was obliged to run after her; he took hold of her and lifted her into the carriage, but the feet still continued to dance, so as to kick the good old lady most cruelly. At last the shoes were taken off, and the feet had rest.

And now the shoes were put away in a press, but Karen could not help going to look at them every now and then.

The old lady lay ill in bed; the doctor said she could not live much longer. She certainly needed careful nursing, and who should be her nurse and constant attendant but Karen? But there was to be a grand ball in the town. Karen was invited; she looked at the old lady who was almost dying—she looked at the red shoes—she put them on, there could be no harm in doing that, at least; she went to the ball, and began to dance. But when she wanted to move to the right, the shoes bore her to the left; and when she would dance up the room, the shoes danced down the room, danced down the stairs, through the streets, and through the gates of the town. Dance she did, and dance she must, straight out into the dark wood.

The old soldier is in a tree, nodding at Karen

He sat there nodding at her

Something all at once shone through the trees. She thought at first it must be the moon’s bright face, shining blood-red through the night mists; but no, it was the old soldier with the red beard—he sat there, nodding at her, and repeating, “Only look, what pretty dancing-shoes!”

She was very much frightened, and tried to throw off her red shoes, but could not unclasp them. She hastily tore off her stockings; but the shoes she could not get rid of—they had, it seemed, grown on to her feet. Dance she did, and dance she must, over field and meadow, in rain and in sunshine, by night and by day. By night! that was most horrible! She danced into the lonely church-yard, but the dead there danced not, they were at rest. She would fain have sat down on the poor man’s grave, where the bitter tansy grew, but for her there was neither rest nor respite. She danced past the open church door; there she saw an angel, clad in long white robes, and with wings that reached from his shoulders to the earth; his countenance was grave and stern, and in his hand he held a broad glittering sword.

“Dance thou shalt,” said he; “dance on, in thy red shoes, till thou art pale and cold, and thy skin shrinks and crumples up like a skeleton’s! Dance thou shalt still, from door to door, and wherever proud, vain children live thou shalt knock, so that they may hear thee and fear! Dance shalt thou, dance on—”

“Mercy!” cried Karen; but she heard not the angel’s answer, for the shoes carried her through the gate, into the fields, along highways and by-ways, and still she must dance.

Karen dancing in a field

Dance she must, over fields and meadows

One morning she danced past a door she knew well; she heard psalm-singing from within, and presently a coffin, strewn with flowers, was borne out. Then Karen knew that the good old lady was dead, and she felt herself a thing forsaken by all mankind, and accursed by the Angel of God.

From Hans Andersen's fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen. London: Constable, 1913.

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