The Netherlands contains many iconic historical figures, unique culture, and famous landscapes. As with many European countries, the Netherlands also have a unique take on fairy tales and folktales shared between The Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, and Hans Christian Andersen. They shared many of their favourite fairy tales at Efteling, a wonderful amusement park to explore Dutch cultural heritage. One of those stories is The Red Shoes. A fairy tale also shared in the Korean drama, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay. The Red Shoes started as a story about morals and was twisted into a journey through obsession.
Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen shared many folktales teaching morals to children through a Christian lens. The Red Shoes, in particular, was a short tail where we follow newly orphaned Karen through temptation and redemption.
Karen was pretty and delicate, a poor girl gifted a pair of red shoes by old Dame Shoemaker. She wore them to her mother’s funeral, as they were the only shoes she owned. A carriage pulled up and an old lady saw the poor pretty girl and told the clergyman to “give me the girl. I will adopt her!” – Hans Christian Andersen. The lady thinks the shoes look terrible and burns them, but Karen believes they were the reason the lady offered her a home.
“Karen believed all this happened on account of the red shoes”
Obsessively, Karen noticed the red shoes worn by the princess, and was thrilled to find a new pair at the shoemakers. She then filtered all of her thoughts and decisions through those shoes. The story centres around her growing obsession with red shoes and how they symbolize her being saved, her increase in social status. Even the queen’s daughter had a beautiful pair of red shoes.
The story turns when Karen attends her Sunday communion in her red shoes. Everyone, including the portraits, stared at her red shoes as she put the chalice to her lips. She forgot to sing, forgot the Lord’s Prayer, thinking only of her red shoes.
The story grows darker from there…the shoes magically dance and Karen is drawn obsessively to them until she ends up abandoning the old lady, who was close to death, to dance at a ball. The shoes danced and danced, dancing her away into the dark forest, returning her to the village the next morning where the old lady lay in her coffin having died in the night. And still Karen danced into the dark of the night. She danced to the executioner, who she begged to cut off her feet so she could repent.
You can read the full story, as published by Hans Christian, 1805-1875 here.
The tale ends with Karen sitting alone in her room reading hymns while asking God for mercy and her soul flying up to God at her redemption. There is no happy ending beyond redemption. As with most fairy tales, Efteling has a lighter take on the moral story.
Rather than sticking with the Christian lens, Karen begins as an orphan. The shoemaker’s wife takes pity on her and gifts her a pair of red shoes. On a bleak winter day, Karen shivers in her red shoes when a majestic coach pulls up beside her and offers her a place to eat and rest for the night. The kind lady then asks Karen if she would like to live with her forever.
Rather than the lady burning her shoes, Karen throws them away, enamoured with her new life and the fine dressed and shoes she now owns. She becomes vain and spends much of her time in front of a mirror; dancing while adoring herself.
When the queen came to visit, Karen joined the crowd to admire the queen and princess. The Princess wore little red shoes, far prettier than the red shoes Karen had been gifted! When the lady gave her money to buy a new pair of shoes, the girl bought a pair of red dancing shoes. Upset, the old lady told Karen she couldn’t wear them to school or church. She was to wear her old black patent shoes to church the next day.
The soldier from the original version remains and sings Karen a song.
There is a big dance being organized in the town square. Karen practiced dancing in front of her mirror, wearing her red shoes. But when the day of the party arrives, the kind lady becomes ill. Karen must stay home and look after her. When the lady falls asleep, Karen slips on her red shoes and snuck out of the house. It shouldn’t hurt to slip away for one little dance?
However, once she reaches the dance, Karen dances and dances the night away. Her feet light on the ground, she twirled and twirled, feeling marvellous! It was at midnight, when the party was ending, Karen realized she had left the sick woman alone for too long. She tried to return home, but the shoes continued dancing, carrying her away into the night.
The next morning she still danced, her blistered feet tormenting her as the shoes danced her back towards the church. The old soldier was sitting on the steps. She called for help and the soldier asked, “I thought you loved dancing?” to which Karen cried, “Yes, but the old woman needs my help!” The soldier waved his sword as he answered, “Aha! So you can think about people other than yourself.” He sang:
Red shoes for dancing, worn to church?
That is just not right! Leave her be now, little red shoes
Let her go home tonightThe Red Shoes – Efteling Book of Fairy Tales
The shoes shot off her feet and danced away. Karen scrambled to her bare feet and ran home. The old lady was better. Karen fell to her knees and apologized sincerely. The lady kissed her on the forehead and said, “It’s alright. I’ve already forgiven you because I suspect you’ve been cured of your vanity now.”
Efteling park is a magical place. I loved their versions of fairy tales to share. You can find an excerpt of The Red Shoes and other fairy tales here.
While I prefer to tell my kid the lighter fairy tales, at least until she is at an age to appreciate the darker versions, I loved the version presented in It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
This Korean Drama shares the stories of wounded souls through a dark and realistic plot using fairy tales. Each episode intertwines a tale through the story of the struggle between mental health and emotional wounds. They return to the original tales where there are morals and life lessons taught through suffering. The difference is, they have a twist to each one.
Episode 2: The lady in Red Shoes uses the Red Shoes fairytale to explore obsession. Ko Moon Young is a children’s fairy tale author who will buy, take, steal, and do whatever it takes to have what or whoever she wants.
As this is the second episode, we get to see Ko Moon Young’s growing obsession with Gang Tae as well as sharp objects. Her childhood trauma feeds her obsessions as she holds herself away from taking chances and believing in the hope of fairy tales. She twists the tale of the Red Shoes into a noble take on how obsession can be noble and that she will never be torn away from her obsession–Gang Tae. The rest of the series introduces more fairy tales, but the Red Shoes theme of obsession remains through the series.
The Lady in Red Shoes reminded me that sometimes we hold on to memories, items, and relationships we might need to let go of. And sometimes, there are relationships that cannot be severed, no matter how hard we try. Each episode builds on the last, with many life lessons brought forward for the main or supporting characters. Each episode left me contemplating how the fairy tales connect to my own life.
The drama in entrancing. There is no magic other than the struggle of the human spirit. It is a wonderful series taking us back to the origins of fairy tales, when they are about teaching life lessons and healing of the human spirit–the essence of life.
The Korean Drama is available on several platforms, so if you are interested in twisted fairy tales, I highly recommend you check it you. Happy Reading!