Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Elves
“There was once a shoemaker, who, through no fault of his own, became so poor that at last he had nothing left but just enough leather to make one pair of shoes.”
This fairy tale – Die Wichtelmänner is the original German title – has three parts: the latter two are shorter than the first, which is the only one out of the three I’m familiar with (I’ve always known it as The Elves and the Shoemaker). The fact that I had no knowledge of the two other parts is not really a surprise to me, because I became familiar with the first part in my childhood, and the other two parts wouldn’t be as appropriate in stories for children, in my opinion.
From my limited research, it seems like parts two and three of The Elves fell off the radar while part one became a household fairy tale. Many of the translations I’ve found (like this one and this one) reassuringly include all three parts, while most of my searches only give results for The Elves and the Shoemaker. The only two explanations I have for the two parts being omitted from books and searchable discourse are the conclusion I drew above (the difference in appropriate childhood material), or I just need to do more research outside of my computer.
Now that I’ve rambled on for two paragraphs, I’ll get into the actual stories. If you are unfamiliar with part one of The Elves, here is a summary. A shoemaker and his wife have reached extreme poverty, and the shoemaker only has enough material to make one more pair of shoes. He prepares his tools and the material to be worked on the next day and retires to bed. In the morning he discovers the shoes have been made, and the details and stitching are exceptional. A wealthy customer purchases them for more than the asking price, which allows the shoemaker to buy enough leather for two pairs of shoes. The phenomenon repeats a few times over and the shoemaker and his wife leave poverty behind. Curious to know what is happening, the couple hides one night and witnesses two little men coming in and making the shoes. They are naked, and the wife decides to make them some clothes, which she puts out one evening. The couple sits up again to see what happens, and the elves, upon finding the clothes, sing a little jingle and disappear. This is not bad for the shoemaker; on the contrary, he prospers for the rest of his life.
“There was once a poor servant maid, who was very cleanly and industrious; she swept down the house every day, and put the sweepings on a great heap by the door.”
Part two is shorter, and tells of a servant maid who gets a letter from the elves who want her to become godmother to a newborn child. She goes to the mountains where the elves pamper her and treat her exceptionally for three days. On returning back to the house she worked in before her trip, she discovers that not three days have passed, but seven years, and she is informed that her employers have died. The story ends there, but I like to think this maid got on quite well afterwards, as the elves filled her pockets with gold before she left them. To refer back to my statement about the latter two parts not being appropriate for children, I believe that is so with this part simply because I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as a child. I would have found it dull, because it lacks fast-moving action and apart from the time difference, there is little shock value.
“The elves once took a child away from its mother, and left in its place a changeling with a big head and staring eyes, who did nothing but eat and drink.”
Part three is shorter still, and is much more troubling than the other two parts as you can tell by the first line. Luckily, the mother’s neighbors knew the remedy to get the elves to bring the child back and take the changeling, so it ends well. The shock factor is quite high in this part, and combined with the short length, would not be as attractive to The Elves and the Shoemaker audience.
I’m very curious to know if anyone has read the two final parts to this fairy tale, or, if like me, the first part is the only one that conjures up familiarity.
- Grimm’s Fairy Tales translator Margaret Raine Hunt
- The House Elves from Harry Potter are based off a type of elf called the Brownie, which the elves in this fairy tale closely resemble.
While I’ve heard similar stories, I don’t recall ever reading or hearing those two particular parts… Only the shoemaker one.
Like you, I only ever read the first part. I wonder how many more of these stories have missing pieces?
A few of the previous tales I’ve read had pieces I didn’t recall (there is more than one Tom Thumb story, for example), or were changed when written specifically for children. Like The Frog Prince – in the original fairy tale the princess throws the frog against the wall rather than let it sleep next to her (the ending I grew up knowing). The censoring of content “not suitable for children” has transformed some of the meanings of many of the original stories, which is not something I thought I would be analyzing so deeply when I started reading this collection.
My interest is piqued. I’ll have to add the original tales to my to-read list and reacquaint myself with them.