Friday, March 25, 2011

The Shoemaker and the Elves

This is a classic Brothers Grimm  story which presents some difficulty for the modern storyteller. Obviously, the shoemaker has to eventually become independent of the elves, or else it's just not fair that he gets this magical assist without having to do any work for it. It's that whole thing of buying someone a fish versus teaching them to fish. 

Once upon a time and long ago, there lived a shoemaker named Schumacher. This was just a meaningless coincidence, as he came from a long line of accountants. It had caused quite a stir when he told his parents he wanted to be a shoemaker instead of an accountant, but, in the end, they were supportive in his chosen field. When he was old enough, he opened his own shop called Shoemaker Schumachers…No, I mean, Schumacher Shoemakers…I think. In those days, shoes were made by hand, not in factories like they are today. So being a shoemaker took patience, dedication and skill, and these Schumacher had to spare.

What he didn’t have enough of was money. Times had been tough in the village where he lived and worked, and he had no idea how he was going to make ends meet. And it wasn’t just him he was worried about, but his wife, Mrs. Shoemaker…that is, Mrs. Schumacher. And it wouldn’t be long before Schumacher and his wife heard the pitter-patter of little shoes…I mean, little shoemakers…NO! Schumachers! Little shoe—schu—

Aw, skip it!

The point is, that Schu…The Shoemaker had so little money he could only afford enough leather to make one pair of shoes. And even if he sold the shoes, he would only make enough money to buy one more pair’s worth of leather and if he sold that pair…and so on and so on and so forth. He couldn’t survive like that. But, what could he do? He cut the leather for the shoes and decided to wait till the next morning to sew them and hammer on the soles. With a weary yawn, he went to bed.

The next morning, imagine Schumacher’s surprise to see that the leather had already been sewn into a beautiful pair of shoes. The workmanship was superb, the stitching so intricate that one would think it had been sewn by tiny hands. Neither Schumacher nor his wife had any idea how the shoes had come to be finished.

That very same day, a wealthy man came into the shop. “I certainly hope you can help me,” said the gentleman. “I have very sensitive feet and it is next to impossible for me to find a pair of shoes that fits me comfortably. Perhaps you have…oh, my! What a handsome pair of shoes.” He tried on the mysterious pair of shoes and found that they fit as though they had been made to his exact measurements. He was so elated to have found a decent pair at last, that he gave Schumacher twice the price of the shoes and went on his way.

Schumacher and his wife were happy, but confused. Who had finished the shoes? Who could have made them so quickly and so fine? What are the odds that they would fit that guy who just happened to walk into the shop today? (Had they known they were in a fairy tale, they probably would’ve assumed magic, but they didn’t, and such is life) And most importantly, what are we to do now? Because, generous though the gentleman had been, they still only had enough money to buy leather for two pairs of shoes. It was certainly unlikely that they would be granted another miracle like the one that had happened the night before.

So, seeing no other alternative, Schumacher cut the leather for two more pairs of shoes and went to bed, vowing to finish the shoes in the morning.

Well, would you believe it? Once again, he awoke to find the shoes finished, and so beautifully! And once again, two people came into the shop and declared that the shoes were precisely what they wanted and paid handsomely for them. Which, for those of you who paid attention during multiplication lessons, means they now could afford enough leather to make four pairs of shoes. And when Schumacher left the cut leather on his workbench and went to bed…sure enough, the next morning he found four beautiful pairs of shoes.

This went on for several nights. All the while, Schumacher’s popularity in the village grew, and demand for his shoes had never been higher. All he had to do was keep cutting the leather and leaving it overnight and he was sure to have a shop full of shoes the next morning.

The whole “magic” idea was becoming more and more obvious to the happy couple.

After about a week and a half of this, Schumacher and his wife decided it was time to find out who their mysterious benefactor was. So, they hid themselves in the shop and tried to stay awake all night long. Sadly, this was before Starbucks had been invented, and without the aid of caffeine, they fell fast asleep.

Later in the night, however, they were awakened by a strange clicking sound, like…like…well, as it turns out, like a tiny hammer hammering in a nail. Because from their hiding place at the back of the shop, Schumacher and his wife saw who it was who had been helping them all this time:


Tiny little men and women, with pointy ears, tattered clothes and, ironically, bare feet. One stitching the pieces of leather together. One threading the laces through the holes. One with his little hammer hammering the nails in to keep the soles attached to the shoes. There had to have been a dozen or more, which is how they were able to finish so quickly. Schumacher and his wife stayed up the rest of the night, watching silently as the elves worked with great swiftness and dexterity. But, when the first light of dawn crept in through a crack in the window, the elves quickly put the finishing touches on the shoes and disappeared without a sound.

Schumacher walked through the shop in amazement. It was full of wonderful shoes. And now that he had seen the elves work, he felt certain he could duplicate their methods and make shoes just as good himself. Those kind little elves had saved him and his wife from poverty and destitution…which was awesome.

“They have been so kind to us,” said Schumacher’s wife, who doesn’t have a proper name because her role in the story is so small and I can’t be bothered to think up names for everyone. “Perhaps there is something we can do for them.”

“I know just what we can do, dear,” said her husband. “But we’d better do it quickly. It’s almost time to open the shop.”

So, the shoemaker and his wife prepared their gifts for the elves quickly and then opened the shop to the public. It was their best day ever and they made lots and lots of money. They went to sleep that night, feeling secure about their future for the first time in a long while.

Meanwhile, that night, when the elves appeared in the shop, they were surprised to find no leather, cut for shoes, no half-finished boots or aborted moccasins that needed repairing, gluing, nailing or lacing. All they found, right in the center of the shoemaker’s workbench, was a little note saying “Thanks for everything. I hope these fit” and…clothes! The Schumachers had noticed the ragged clothes the elves wore, so Mrs. Schumacher had made them each a new suit of clothes. Mr. Schumacher himself put his newfound shoemaking skills to the test by making tiny, tiny shoes for each and every elf.

Schumacher never saw the elves again, but the next morning he and his wife saw that all the gifts they had made were gone, and there was a new note in their place which read, simply, “Everything fits perfectly.” From that day on, Shoemaker was known as the finest Schumacher in all the land…no, I mean Schumaker mocked the fined shoes…no, I mean he showed the machest shoos that made the shoeiest makes that…Never mind.!


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) Not yet available on DVD, but occassionally turns up on TMC: A lavish biopic of the Brothers (it’s unclear how accurate it is) with three “story sequences,” one of which is based on this story and features some adorable stop-motion elves.
  • “The Elves and the Shoemaker” by John Cech and Kirill Chelushki, A beautifully ilustrated children’s book which is much better than my version.
  • "Muppet Classic Theater" (Video)(1994) Kermit and Robin play the shoemaker and his nephew who are visited in the middle of the night by three Elvises who fill the shop with blue suede shoes. I just think it's funny. I wish they'd put this on DVD already.

Next Week: "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"

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