She looked so sweet, from her two bare feet
To the crown of her nut-brown hair
Such a coaxing elf, sure I shook myself
To see if she was really there…
– “Star of the County Down” (traditional Irish folk song)
(Part II of a series; for Part I, click here.)
“Don’t your feet hurt?” folks asked us as we hiked. “Don’t you have blisters?” we replied. It’s funny how many times I was called “Wild Man” by fellow travelers in that wilderness. Each night we shared with them, Pooka and I watched other hikers rub their feet, change bandages, or curse ill-fitting footwear. No blisters for us, though. We didn’t make great time in comparison to our peers… but then, our hike was a communion, not a race…
Symbolically, feet bear loads of contradictions. Depending on your culture, they can symbolize humility, carnality, or quite often both. In Buddhist iconography, footprints symbolize the presence or passage of a bodhisattva. Christ washed the feet of his disciples, and had his own washed by a “sinful” woman’s tears. God forbade Moses from approaching the burning bush while wearing sandals, “for the place where you are standing is k’dusha” (endowed with ineffable holiness; see Exodus 3:5). Even today, pilgrims of many faiths travel without shoes to symbolize commitment to a cause. Worshippers often remove their shoes for prayer, especially in Muslim, Hindu or neopagan ceremonies. Spiritually speaking, bare feet suggest innocence, purity, sacrifice and a humble approach to life.
Even so, a person who shuns shoes in general is considered, in many cultures, crude. Hippies and hillbillies were barred from good company, while natives of India, Africa and the Americas often found themselves shod by order of their European conquerors. The Devil, too, goes barefoot; his feet, however, are claws or cloven hooves. English legends claim he galloped before a storm through Yorkshire in 1165, leaving hoofprints all the way to the Scarbourgh cliffs. Across the pond, an Appalachian folk tale called The Barefoot Woman portrays the Devil’s wife as a fetching but troublesome shoeless stranger. Mrs. Devil stirs up trouble to trick a pair of shoes from her reluctant spouse. You just can’t trust folks who won’t properly “toe the line”! They seem too wild for their own good.
There’s an economic flavor, too, in the symbolism of shoes. Not long ago, many people went barefoot by default. Shoemaking was a specialized trade, and badly made shoes were often worse than none at all. Aside from skin boots, wood sabots, moccasins or sandals, fine footwear was expensive, custom-made and often fragile. Shoes and boots inferred social status because only rich folks could afford decent ones. The leather-crafted finery of “proper dress shoes” had to wait until the European Renaissance… and even then, they remained luxury items for upper-class feet. 
As cities grew in size and filth, shoes assumed more practical concerns. The sky-high soles of Renaissance footwear protected noble feet. Pools of questionable content filled the streets of Western Europe, and the further one stood from those, the better! Lofty pianellae and chopines literally elevated those folks who wore them. Such folks stood taller than the norm, insulated from urban gutter-taint.
Meanwhile, folks who worked the land often kept their own feet in the soil, especially during childhood and early adolescence, when feet grow fast and expensive shoes don’t. Rural folks could go their whole lives without footwear, particularly in regions like the Mediterranean, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, Oceana and India. Even now, many people still do. Thick clodhoppers seem out of place in, say, Bali.
Inevitably, social distinctions arose around footwear and its lack. You could be “well-heeled” or “tenderfooted,” “light in your loafers” or “getting the boot.” Is it any wonder that Cinderella ― who’s often portrayed barefoot ― gains her “toe-hold” in high society by way of a glass (or fur ) slipper? Regardless of its material, an exquisite shoe bestows distinction.
Like the metalsmith and herbalist, a good cordwainer (shoemaker) practiced an almost mystical trade. Sometimes, it must have seemed like his complex patterns of leather and lasts demanded fey assistance. One of the few truly happy tales in the Grimm Brothers’ catalogue, The Elves and the Shoemaker, describes a pair of naked faeries who assist a poor cobbler and his wife. In return, the now-prosperous craftsman makes fine clothing and shoes for his benefactors. This mutual generosity suits all parties, and the tale remains one of the best examples of fey/human cooperation in faerie history.
With the Industrial Revolution and standardized sizing, the village shoemaker soon found himself endangered. Even so, we still find echoes of cordwainery mystique today. Sex & The City lent a talismanic quality to Manolo Blahniks, while Nike Air Jordans enjoyed a brief, bloody “lift” through ‘90s hip-hop culture. One modern luxury shoe manufacturer calls itself “Mephisto,” while other shoes have been named “Incubus” (from Reebox), “Guinevere” (Dansko), “Remora” (Lacoste) and of course, “Cinderella” (Shenzhen Rose, among others). On a gruesome note, some women resort to cosmetic surgery in order to fit into stylish shoes. Don’t any of these women actually read the Grimm version of Cinderella? If they did, they’d realize that it was the ugly step-sisters who mutilated their feet in order to fit the shoe… and even then, the ruse didn’t work.
Shoes can be dangerous, especially in faerie tales. Cinderella may have been exalted by her glass (or fur) footwear, but in the Grimm version of Snow White, her stepmother was forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes. The Korean film Bunhongsin links a surreal triptych through a cursed set of shoes, while Kate Bush’s 1993 film The Line, The Cross and the Curve draws Kate into a nightmarish wonderland, borne by a pair of bewitched ballet slippers. That film, incidentally, was made as a companion piece for Kate’s album The Red Shoes. Speaking of red shoes, folks often forget that Dorothy robbed her own ruby slippers from the corpse of the Wicked Witch of the East; it’s not hard to see why that witch’s sister might consider Dorothy’s existence an affront to the dead sibling’s memory. (In the book, by the way, those shoes were silver. MGM turned them red to take advantage of the new Technicolor film process, so the similarities between those ruby slipper and Hans Christian Anderson’s infamous red shoes are cinematic, not symbolic.)
Even good magic shoes can be problematic. In Jane L. Hoxie’s story The Fairy Shoes, the obligatory faerie godmother, as a birth-gift for a new-born son, gives the mother a stout pair of copper-toed leather brogues:
My present is not quite as shabby as it looks. Those shoes will never wear out, and besides, the little feet that have them on can never go wrong… if you send him on an errand… and he forgets and stops to play, those little shoes will help him to remember by pinching his feet and pulling and twitching at his ankles until he will be glad to go again.
An almost mystical morality of footwear sometimes defines the tale itself. In Anderson’s The Red Shoes, a barefoot innocent desires and then obtains a glorious pair of crimson Morocco pumps. Little Karen suffers horribly, however, for her pride.  Cursed by a devilish old soldier, Karen eventually begs to have her feet hacked off with an axe because those red shoes just won’t stop dancing. Even after her dismemberment, the ghastly shoes haunt Karen. It takes piety, repentance and death before the poor kid escapes those wicked shoes. Like The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (also from Anderson), Karen finds herself punished by shoes which epitomize her selfish pride. She would have been better off going without, or giving them away like Gerda in The Snow Queen, who’s rewarded in turn for her courage. As a reindeer says:
“I can give her no more power than what she has already. Don’t you see how great it is… How well she gets through the world barefooted? She must not hear of her power from us; that power lies in her heart…”
The poor Match-Seller, on the other hand, finds her reward only in death. Losing borrowed slippers in the snow, she suffers ferocious cold for wearing footwear that’s “too large” for her; yet in that suffering, she’s saved from the poverty of this life. If such symbolism seems contradictory, it’s because it often is. Shoes reflect either pride or practicality, and while prophets may go barefoot, so might slaves, hedonists, savages, and other unsavory characters.
(To be continued…)
(Given Anderson’s fetishistic take on the character and her plight, I’m not honestly sure if depicting the Match-Girl as a teenager is less creepy or more creepy than depicting her as a child. Either way, the dude had issues.)
1 – Even the best-made modern shoes alter the natural human gait, force the body into compensatory contortions, and produce a wide variety of medical conditions – foot-fungus, hammertoe, ingrown toenails, bunions, foul odors, and so forth – that get blamed on the feet but come actually from the shoes. That’s a whole other subject, but one reinforced by a growing field of medical research on the topic.
2 – Charles Perrault’s version of the Cinderella transformed slippers made of vair (fur or ermine) into shoes made of verre (glass). Although many sources claim this shift involved a mistranslation, it was probably an intentional poetic device. See Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde (which also contains lengthy treatments of the role of feet and shoes in faerie tales) and Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (a book too Freudian for its own good).
3 – As well as for her creator’s obsession with barefoot pubescent girls in pain, a theme he revisits in The Little Match-Seller, The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, and other stories. Old Hans was apparently working through a few obsessions in his work; even The Steadfast Tin Soldier features the podiatrically mutilated toy soldier whose missing leg underscores his courageous redemption.
(Concept art from Fantasia 2000.)
This essay first appeared as an installment of the Folkroots column from Realms of Fantasy magazine Vol 15, #8, December 2008. Originally titled “Foot-Notes,” it has been revised and expanded for this blog. Copyright © 2008/ 2014, by Satyros Phil Brucato. All rights to the illustrations remain property of the original artists, and no challenge to those rights is intended here.