I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful ― a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
– John Keats, La Belle Dame sans Merci
(Part IV of a series; for Part III, click here.)
“Wanna go for a barefoot walk in the woods?” So asked my friend the Magnolia Fairy. Having just picked me up at the airport during a tour for my newest book, she drove us both to the mountains where she lived. Shortly thereafter, we padded down a narrow, winding trail. Feet in the soil, we flirted, moved close. As we kissed, it started to rain. I couldn’t have written the scene better myself.
Later on, dried and eating ice cream, we laughed. As it turned out, I had written it. Chapter One in that very same book featured an encounter between a curious young man and a barefoot girl in a faerie grove. I preferred the reality, though. For my birthday that year, Magnolia reprinted that passage in icing on my cake…
Our “good neighbors” creep, pad, thump and cavort through mortal imaginations on many kinds of feet. Some folk, like Amy Brown’s sly gamines, prefer striped socks, while the sylphs of Stephanie Pui-Mon Law drift along barefoot. Other faeries stomp around in literally hob-nailed boots, like the redcaps of Matt Wagner’s Mage comic sagas (1986-86 and 1997), or pick their way through the wood on “light” feet, like Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819). Shod or not, the nymphs of Waterhouse and the demons of Dorè are recognizably human, yet unquestionably Other. That primordial connection to the earth marks their nature, and when they break it ― as does Puss-in-Boots ― such creatures grow closer to the realm of Man.
Elemental beings, like Charles De Lint’s Crow Girls or the desert spirits of Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife, often go unshod upon the land. Is it any wonder Tolkein’s hobbits travel without boots? Elemental people frequently do the same, like the feral wildlings of Alice Hoffman’s Green Angel. In Prospero’s Books (1991), Peter Greenaway’s surreal adaptation of The Tempest, the fey characters go barefoot and nearly nude. The human characters, in contrast, dress themselves in bulky boots and layers of ornamental garb. Miranda, meanwhile, reflects all elements; she wears “human” yet ephemeral garments and drifts along unshod, placing her at the borderland between realms of Man, Nature and Other.
The previous “footnotes” apply also to the faerie folk ― doubled if not squared. Faeries can be as silly, rebellious, erotic, proud or graceful as any human being, and those traits often show through from the knees on down. Traditional folklore brims with crazy-footed creatures: satyrs and harpies, centaurs and yetis. Beneath apparently human clothing, goat-hoofed devils and fox-legged kitsune lurk. These animal appendages betray the uncanny nature (so to speak) of their hosts; even when the feet themselves look normal, a curious trail of pawprints or smoking split-toed tracks can reveal the presence of the fae.
If feet “ground the soul,” then the Fair Folk have curious souls, indeed. Baba Yaga’s hut strides on massive chicken legs; Pan dances on rank goat feet. Papa Legba hobbles about on twisted legs, while Kali dashes Shiva (who has large, distorted feet) beneath her heels. In old storybooks, Mother Goose often appears with a webbed foot or two; like the Queen of Sheba, who bore one bestial leg, her exotic nature marks her as something more, yet less, than human. The antipodes described by Pliny have eight toes on their backward tootsies, and they’re in good company. The sex-changing ovda (Finnish forest-spirits), faceless duennes (Caribbean ghosts of unbaptized children) and red-haired curupira (Tupi boy-spirits who ward the wilderness) share those backward-pointing feet. Japanese tengu stalk on bird-like talons, while bakemono have no feet at all. The most unfortunate folks, however, must be the African aigamuxa: their eyes rest in the soles of their feet, and to see they must lie on their backs and kick. The trickster Jackal blinded the aigamuxa by goading them to chase him, then pouring tobacco in their path. Oedipus would be proud.
In Trinidad and Tobago, folks avoid La Diablesse, a devil-woman who appears as either a beautiful Creole girl or a wizened crone with one rough hoof. She wears long dresses to conceal her feet, which never quite touch the ground. In San Pedro, be advised that El Sisimito and his kin are out there, waiting. This fellow has no knees, and he walks with a stiff, awkward gait. He and his kind fear water, dogs and dancing. If a male sisimito looks into the eyes of a man, that man will die within a month; if he looks into a woman’s eyes, however, she’ll live at least that much longer. That longevity, however, might not be pleasant. Sisimito and his kind have been known to abduct and rape members of the opposite sex. To escape these brutal creatures, legend says you must dive into water, run in circles, or strip naked and dance. Supposedly, the sight of a nude dancing human sends El Sisimito into severe, sometimes fatal, laughter. I’m glad I was hiking in America. The strangest faeries here are Bigfoot and the Jersey Devil, who leaves horse-like hoofprints when he’s not flying around with his wings.
Some faeries lack the legs, let alone the feet, with which to “stand up for themselves” in man’s world. Sibilla, in the medieval tale Guerino il Meschino, lives underground in a rich and beautiful domain; on Saturdays, however, she turns serpentine from the waist down. Like her legendary cousins Mèlusine and Ondine, Sibella is eventually betrayed and ruined by a mortal man’s love; their human extremities are replaced by fish-flukes, snakes or ― like cursed Scylla ― canine legs and a cat’s tail. Their literary cousin, Anderson’s Little Mermaid, had even less power and even more love. Only through silence and a horrible sacrifice could she walk or dance on land: …you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you… You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take, it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and the blood must flow. The sexual symbolism, in all its voluptuous guilt and shame, is obvious to anyone, female or otherwise, who knows what sex or gender is. Although we have a long way to go before we reach “happily ever after,” some things have thankfully improved since those days “once upon a time.”
We were introduced to each other by a Firebird’s Child: a capering satyr and a silver-haired witch. At the festival, we danced ourselves dizzy on joyous bare feet. She drew me off to a faraway land, and I went gladly. We don’t need ruby slippers in our Emerald City, and the magic in our hearts burns as bright as hot iron shoes.
Let’s go back to 2008, when I received word from my editors at Realms of Fantasy magazine that they needed a new column within the next three or four days. Another writer had fallen through, and the Folkroots column needed an article. Originally, I had pitched an essay about puppets in folklore and fantasy; once I began researching that topic, however, I realized that there was no way I could do it justice in three days and 5000 words or less. Oh crap…
Being a dedicated shoe-shunner myself, I have what might be called a personal connection to the hobbitistic way of life. So Sandi’s suggestion was an amusing joke. When I started riffing on the idea, however, I suddenly realized there actually was a legitimate – and unexpected – topic in there. At the time, I was also teaching art-history classes at the Art Institute of Seattle, and so my research skills (and pedantic inclinations) were already engaged. Two days later, I had the first of what turned out to be over a year’s worth of installments for the Folkroots column. (See also my series articles “Mystic Rhythms” and “Mad, & Bad & Dangerous”) Yeah, it was kind of a weird opening gambit… but it worked.
Never underestimate the power of an unusual topic and a serious approach to same.
“The Little Mermaid,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Snow Queen,” “The Little Match-Seller,” and “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf” by Hans Christian Anderson (1836-59)
“She Sells Sea Shells” by Paul Darcy Boles (from Mermaids!, DAW, 1984)
Tarzan of the Apes and other Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914+)
Mara of the Celts, Mara, Celtic Shamaness, Mara: 10th Anniversary and Mara: The Summer Country by Dennis Cramer (now singer Crabapple McClain; Eros Comix, 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2002)
Someplace to be Flying and “The Moon is Drowning as I Sleep” by Charles De Lint (Tor, 1998 and AvoNova, 1993)
“Zroya’s Trizub” by Gordon Derevanchuk (from Amazons II, DAW, 1982)
Green Angel by Alice Hoffman (Scholastic, 2003)
The Seven-Story Tower: A Mythic Journey Through Time and Space by Curtiss Hoffman (Basic Books, 2002)
“The Fairy Shoes” by Jane L. Hoxie (from A Kindergarten Story Book, iHaystack, 2008)
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
Through Wolf’s Eyes and the other Firekeeper books by Jane Lindskold (McMillan, 2001+)
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier (Penguin, 2005)
“The Barefoot Woman,” adapted from Appalachian folklore by Evelyn McCay and Craig Dominey (2002)
“The Gray Wolf” by George MacDonald (1871)
Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip (Ace, 1996)
Deerskin by Robin McKinley (Ace, 1993)
The Elvenbane by Andre Norton and Mercedes Lackey (Tor, 1991)
The Legend of the Lady Slipper by Margi Preus and Lise Lunge-Larsen (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)
The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana and Trina Schart Hyman (Little, Brown, 2000)
(untitled, by Ryohei Hase)
The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam, 2007)
From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers by Marina Warner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling (Macmillan, 2003)
Any of the many versions of “Cinderella,” “Tattercoat,” “Donkeyskin,” “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” best known from collections by the Brothers Grimm.
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John Keats (1819)
“The Beggar Maid” by Alfred Tennyson (1833-1842)
“Goblin Feet” by J.R.R. Tolkein (1915)
“The Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1855)
ON THE WEB
Pre-Raphaelite Art: Legends, Lore and Ladies, http://www.squidoo.com/raphaelart
(Catskin, by Arthur Rackham.)
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.