Monday with the Wolves: The Red Shoes, conclusion


Continued from part 1.

Back home, the old woman slammed the red shoes down high on a shelf and told the girl never to touch them again.

Not long after, the old woman fell ill, and as soon as the doctors left, the girl crept into the room where the red shoes were kept. The girl took the shoes from the shelf and fastened them on, feeling it would do no harm. But as soon as they touched her heels, she was overcome by the urge to dance.

And so out the door she danced, and then down the steps, first in a gavotte, then a csárdás, and then in big daring waltz turns in rapid succession. The girl was in her glory and did not realise she was in trouble until she wanted to dance to the left and the shoes insisted on dancing to the right. When she wanted to dance round, the shoes insisted on dancing straight ahead. And as the shoes danced the girl, they danced her right down the road, through the muddy fields, and out into the dark and gloomy forest.

There against a tree was the old soldier. “Oh my,” he said, “what beautiful dancing shoes.” Terrified, she tried to pull the shoes off, but as much as she tugged, the shoes stayed fast.


And so dance, and dance and dance, she did. Over highest hills and through the valleys, in the rain and in the snow and in the sunlight, she danced. She danced in the darkest night and through sunrise and she was still dancing in twilight as well. But it was not good dancing. It was terrible dancing, and there was no rest for her.

She danced into a churchyard and there a spirit of dread would not allow her to enter. The spirit pronouned these words over her,

You shall dance in your red shoes until you become like a wraith, like a ghost, till your skin hangs from your bones, till there is nothing left of you but entrails dancing. You shall dance door to door through all the villages and you shall strike each door three times and when people peer out they will see you and fear your fate for themselves. Dance red shoes, you shall dance.

The girl begged for mercy, but before she could plead further, her red shoes carried her away. Over the briars she danced, through the streams, over the hedgerows and on and on. In abject exhaustion and horror, she danced into a forest where lived the town’s executioner.

“Please!” she begged the executioner as she danced by his door.

Please cut off my shoes to free me from this horrid fate.

The executioner cut through the straps of the shoes with his axe. But still the shoes stayed on her feet. And so she cried out to him that her life was worth nothing and that he should cut off her feet. So he cut off her feet. And the red shoes with the feet in them kept on dancing through the forest and over the hill and out of sight.

And now the girl was a poor cripple, and had to find her own way in the world as a servant to others, and she never, ever again wished for red shoes.


I still remember the horror I felt as a young teenager watching the old Hollywood movie, The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer and Robert Helpmann. The version here is from Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s mighty book, Women Who Run with the Wolves and, for me, it’s the central story of her book.

She analyses it in forensic detail, and the following points are only a subset of the extraordinary richness of meaning and instruction she finds in the tale:

  • the dangers awaiting women who, having been subjected to soul starvation, start to reclaim their wildish natures
  • the necessity of learning to spot the leg traps
  • shoes, feet, as the platform on which a woman stands, her basis, that part of her nature which supports her freedom, mobility
  • red as the colour of life and of sacrifice; red shoes, like the painting of henna on the feet in India, as symbol of threshold rites: menstruation, childbirth, miscarriage, and so on
  • the destruction of her handmade joy, her vitality
  • the gilded carriage, capture, the taking on of the too-tame life, the consequent loss of accurate perception
  • the seven leg traps, including the senescent force (the old woman), the injury to instinct, trying to sneak a secret life, obsession and addiction
  • the pain of cutting oneself away from the addiction to self-destruction
  • the work of transformation being to keep on doing the work.


What do you think of this horrific tale? Does it make you quiver as it does me? Remember the characters in these stories represent different aspects of the psyche. Remember too, these tales belong to the world and every person’s view is equally valid.



8 thoughts on “Monday with the Wolves: The Red Shoes, conclusion

  1. I think this is my favourite of all CPE’s stories and one I felt I understood without having to ponder and analyse for days. In our society, addiction is all around us: potential addictions, both licit and illicit, with advertising ever present, trying to lure us in. Our innate rhythms disrupted by the electric world of 24 hour a day business and shopping. Our circadian rhythms out of whack and replaced with little pills to make us sleep and wake. Dancing faster and faster in an attempt to be someone we are not, in order to grab onto something as falsely attractive as a pair of red shoes purchased with a hungry heart.


    • And isn’t it interesting that we can read the metaphorical levels of the story more readily than in some other stories? It’s a story familiar to us from our own lives.

      You say it well, “Dancing faster and faster in an attempt to be someone we are not.”

      I like how CPE is straight and wise about the reluctance of the cutting-off.

      “This is the hard part; this is where the shoes have to be cut off. It hurts to cut oneself away from an addiction to self-destruction. Nobody know why. You’d think a captured person would be relieved to have turned this corner … You’d think they would rejoice. But no, instead they go into a funk … they feel they are bleeding somehow, even though there is no blood. Yet, it is this pain, this severing, this “not having a foot to stand on” … this no home to go back to, that is exactly what is needed to start over, to start fresh, to go back to the handmade life, the one careful and mindfully crafted by us everyday.”


  2. This one speaks to me of the dangers of vanity and fun/freedom for girls or women. Ruination is the only fate that awaits a female who follows her dream. How sad. How very sad. Even she turns against herself.


    • For someone who loves making and having fun I get that that’s how the story reads.

      It’s not all that clear in this version that the real joy/fun/freedom for the girl occurs at the beg of the story when she makes her own joy/fun/freedom (the red shoes made of cloth). CPE has this beautiful passage that makes me cry,

      “In the tale we see that the child loses the red shoes she has fashioned for herself, those that made her feel rich in her own special way. She was poor, but she was innovative; she was finding her way. She had progressed from having no shoes to having shoes that gave her a sense of soul in spite of the difficulties of her outer life. The handmade shoes are marks of her rising out of a mean psychic existence into a passionate life of her own design. Her shoes represent an enormous and literal step toward integration of her resourceful feminine nature in day-to-day life. It does not matter that her life is imperfect. She has her joy. She will evolve.” [my italics]

      When she loses the handmade shoes, she falls for the first semblance of her lost joy, her lost integrity — the red leather shoes in captivity. In CPE’s reading, it’s her loss of the authentic, wildish existence and getting trapped into the too-tame, inauthentic existence that destroys her. The falling for the semblance of fun/freedom instead of the reality.


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