(From: ‘Earth People’ Volume 4 Number 6)
Once there was a poor motherless child who had no shoes. But the child saved cloth scraps wherever she found them, and over time sewed herself a pair of red shoes. They were crude but she loved them. They made her feel rich even though her days were spent gathering food in the thorny woods until far past dark.
But one day as she trudged down the road in her rags and her red shoes, a gilded carriage pulled up beside her. Inside was an old woman who told her she was going to take her home and treat her as her own little daughter. So to the wealthy old woman’s house they went, and the child’s hair was cleaned and combed. She was given pure white undergarments and a fine wool dress and white stockings and shiny black shoes. When the child asked after her old clothes, and especially her red shoes, the old woman said the old clothes were so filthy, and the shoes so ridiculous, that she had thrown them into the fire, where they were burnt to ashes.
The child was very sad, for even with all the riches surrounding her, the humble red shoes made by her own hand had given her the greatest happiness. Now, she was made to sit still all the time, to walk without skipping, and to not speak unless spoken to, but a secret fire began to burn in her heart and she continued to yearn for her old red shoes more than anything.
As the child was old enough to be confirmed on The Day of The Innocents, the old woman took her to an old crippled shoemaker to have a special pair of shoes made for the occasion. In the shoemaker’s case there stood a pair of red shoes made of the finest leather that were finer than fine; they practically glowed. So even though red shoes were scandalous for church, the child, who chose only with her hungry heart, picked the red shoes. The old lady’s eyesight was poor she could not see the colour of the shoes and so paid for them. The shoemaker winked at the child and wrapped the shoes up.
The next day, the church members were agog over the shoes on the child’s feet. The red shoes shone like burnished apples, like hearts, like red-washed plums. Everyone stared; even the icons on the wall, even the statues stared disapprovingly at her shoes. But she loved the shoes all the more. So when the pontiff intoned, the choir hummed, the organ pumped, the child thought nothing more beautiful than her red shoes.
By the end of the day the old woman had been informed about her ward’s red shoes. “Never, never wear those red shoes again!” the old woman threatened. But the next Sunday, the child couldn’t help but choose the red shoes over the black ones, and she and the old woman walked to church as usual.
At the door to the church was an old soldier with his arm in a sling. He wore a little jacket and had a red beard. He bowed and asked permission to brush the dust from the child’s shoes. The child put out her foot, and he tapped the soles of her shoes with a little wig-a-jig-jig song that made the soles of her feet itch. “Remember to stay for the dance,” he smiled, and winked at her.
Again everyone looked askance at the girl’s red shoes. But she so loved the shoes that were bright like crimson, bright like raspberries, bright like pomegranates, that she could hardly think of anything else, hardly hear the service at all. So busy was she turning her feet this way and that, admiring her red shoes, that she forgot to sing.
As she and the old woman left the church, the injured soldier called out, “What beautiful dancing shoes!” His words made the girl take a few little twirls right there and then. But once her feet had begun to move, they would not stop, and she danced through the flower beds and around the corner of the church until it seemed as though she had lost complete control of herself. She did a gavotte’ and then a czardas and then waltzed by herself through the fields across the way.
The old woman’s coachman jumped up from his bench and ran after the girl, picked her up, and carried her back to the carriage, but the girl’s feet in the red shoes were still dancing in the air as though they were still on the ground. The old woman and the coachman tugged and pulled, trying to pry the red shoes off. It was such a sight, all hats askew and kicking legs, but at last the child’s feet were calmed.
Back home, the old woman slammed the red shoes down high on a shelf and warned the girl never to touch them again. But the girl could not help looking up at them and longing for them. To her they were still the most beauteous things on the face of the earth.
Not long after, as fate would have it, the old woman became bed-ridden, and as soon as her doctors left, the girl crept into the room where the red shoes were kept. She glanced up at them so high on the shelf. Her glance became a gaze and her gaze became a powerful desire, so much so that 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 heals and toes, 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 czardas, 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, rather than the other way around, 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 with the red beard, his arm in a sling, and dressed in his little jacket. “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. She hopped on one foot and then the other trying to take off the shoes, but her one foot on the ground kept dancing even so, and her other foot in her hand did its part of the dance also.
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 sun-light, 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 pronounced 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, dancing, still dancing till she came to her old home and there were mourners. The old woman who had taken her in had died. Yet even so, she danced on by, and dance she did, as dance she must. In abject exhaustion and horror, she danced into the forest where lived the town’s executioner. And the axe on his wall began to tremble as soon as it sensed her coming near.
“Please!” she begged the executioner as she danced by his door. "Please cut off my shoes to free me from this horrid fate.” And the executioner cut through the straps of the red shoes with his axe. But still the shoes stayed on her feet. And so she cried 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.
The story indicates what happens to our creative spirit when we loose, neglect, or don’t respect our naturally wild soul. When we become too sophisticated for our own good. The girl represents the creative spirit, and the handmade red shoes symbolise the wild and instinctive soul. The red is of sacrifice and life, or of sacrifice and bliss. The shoes represent protection for our mobility and freedom, our feet. They may be imperfect, but bring real and passionate joy and vitality. The new shoes however, represent sacrifice without life, the addiction to other reds, the cheap thrills and sex without soul.
“’The Red Shoes’ shows us how a deterioration begins and what state we come to if we make no intervention in our own wildish behalf. Let there be no mistake, when a woman makes efforts to intervene and fight her demon, whatever that demon may be, it is one of the most worthy battles known, both archetypally and in consensual reality. Even though she might, as in the tale, hit ground-zero-minus-five bottom via famine, capture, injured instinct, destructive choices, and all the rest, remember, at bottom is where the living roots of psyche are. It is there that a woman’s wild underpinnings are. At bottom is the best soil to sow and grow something new again. In that sense, hitting bottom, while extremely painful, is also the sowing ground.”
The gilded carriage represents the devalued life, the psychic transport with more comfort, less stress, and easier; but it is a cage. It is the temptation and desire for comfort and ease, but it always comes at a cost, and that is the trap.
“Many “educated” people smile indulgently when they hear that “primitive” people have endless lists of experiences and events they feel can steal their souls away from them – from sighting a bear at the wrong time of year to entering a house that has not yet been blessed after a death occurred there.
“Though much in modern culture is wondrous and life-giving, it also has more wrong-time bears and unblessed places of the dead in a square block than throughout a thousand square miles of outback.”
The old woman represents the psychic force that is driving the psyche, the machine, the fear and social duty to ‘be nice’, and ‘don’t have big ideas’. She represents the many, as opposed to the one, ‘individual wild soul’.
“In fairy tails, this aged force is personified by an old person who is often portrayed as one-sided in some way, indicating that one’s psychic process is also developing in a one-sided manner.”
This ‘Elder’ usually symbolises dignity, wisdom etc., but in this story it is used negatively, and forewarns us that aspects of the psyche that should remain warm are about to be frozen, thus destroying innovation and creativity.
This is the fire of destruction, we want the fire of transformation and joy. This is the fire of disuse; of devaluing one’s own work and self imposed silence; of not following your bliss and passion, and then life becomes ashes. This is the famine that at the end causes excesses; the hunger and starvation of the soul’s attributes or creativity. Famine causes judgement to be blighted or marred.
“The red shoes are burned to ashes when we paint, act, write, do, or be in any way that causes our lives to be diminished, weakening our vision, breaking our spirit bones.”
This represents the emptiness and depression as a result of the loss of the handmade red shoes, the loss of the soul, which dulls the senses from escaping the trap. This is when you are left with no choice. This is when you are allowing Social Duty to influence your actions and thinking.
“When I speak of over domestication as capture, I do not refer to socialisation, the process whereby children are taught to behave in more or less civilised ways. Social development is critical and important. Without it, a woman cannot make her way in the world.
“But too much domestication is like forbidding the vital essence to dance. In its proper and healthy state, the wild self is not docile or vacuous. It is alert and responsive to any given movement or moment. It is not locked into an absolute and repetitive pattern for any and all circumstances. It has creative choice. The instinct-injured woman has no choice. She just stays stuck.
“There are many ways to be stuck. The instinct-injured woman usually gives herself away because she has difficulty asking for help, recognising her own needs. Her natural instincts to fight or flee are drastically slowed or extinct. Recognition of the sensations of satiation, off-taste, suspicion, caution, and the drive to love fully and freely are inhibited or exaggerated.”
This is the repressed instincts in the unconscious or shadow sneaking out or bursting out, usually when you least expect it. This piecemeal intake is not good enough. However, sneaking a good and filling life will encourage it out into the open, not destroy other aspects of life.
“A ravening hunger for the soul-life has rushed to the surface of the psyche, taking whatever it can lay its hands on, for it knows it will soon be repressed again.”
The aim here is to let various elements out, in a controlled way, a few at a time, relating to them, finding use for them, negotiating, thus reducing the sneak attacks and unexpected explosions.
This is following Social Duty. The community (collective) tells the old woman about the shoes. The group or collective is supposed to be the guardian to inform of any misuse of the wild nature, and should be encouraging the wild soul, but in this case it is destroying it.
This is ‘Learned Helplessness’.
“When instincts are injured, humans will ‘Normalise’ assault after assault, acts of injustice and destruction toward themselves, their offspring, their loved ones, their land, and even their Gods…
“There’s an important study that gives insight into woman’s loss of self-protective instinct. In the early 1960’s, scientists conducted animal experiments to determine something about the “flight instinct” in humans. In one experiment they wired half the bottom of a large cage, so that a dog placed in the cage would receive a shock each time it set foot on the right side. The dog quickly learned to stay on the left side of the cage.
“Next, the left side of the cage was wired for the same purpose and the right side was safe from shocks. The dog reoriented quickly and learned to stay on the right side of the cage.
Then, the entire floor of the cage was wired to give random shocks, so that no matter where the dog lay or stood, it would eventually receive a shock. The dog acted confused at first, and then it panicked. Finally the dog “gave up” and lay down, taking the shocks as they came, no longer trying to escape them or outsmart them.
“But the experiment was not over. Next, the cage door was opened. The scientists expected the dog to rush out, but it did not flee.”
[The shock had been ‘Normalised’. Ed.]
This is dancing into the void of the unconscious, which seals her into an obsession that parallels an addiction. Addictions like negative thinking, poor relationships, abusive situations, drugs, or alcohol, are like the red shoes, hard to pry a person away from once they’ve taken hold. The instinctual nature tells us when enough is enough.
“The loss or deadening of instinct is often entirely supported by the surrounding culture, and sometimes even by other women who endure the loss of instinct as a way of achieving belonging in a culture that keeps no nourishing habitat for the natural woman.”
The girl now needs to be cut off from the shoes (the addiction). You’d think the person would feel saved, but no, they feel “they don’t have a leg to stand on.”
“When the wildish nature has been nearly exterminated, in the most extreme cases, it is possible that a schizoid and/or psychosis may overwhelm the woman. She may just suddenly stay in bed, refuse to rise, or wander around in her bathrobe, absently leave cigarettes burning three to an ashtray, or cry and not be able to stop, wander in the streets with her hair dishevelled, abruptly leave her family to wander. She may feel suicidal, she may kill herself either accidentally or with purpose. But far more commonly, the woman just goes dead. She doesn’t feel good or bad; she just doesn’t feel.”
This is the only solution. It is painful, but with time, practice and patience to follow your bliss, you will restore the feet (instincts). Be cautious not to over do your wild nature. Take it slowly and avoid the traps.
“When a fairy tale ends as this one does, with a death or dismemberment of the protagonist, we ask, How could it have ended differently?
“Psychically, it is good to make a halfway place, a way station, a considered place after one escapes a famine. It is not too much to take one year, two years, to assess one’s wounds, seek guidance, apply the medicines, consider the future. A year or two is scant time. The feral woman is a woman making her way back. She is learning to wake up, pay attention, stop being naïve, uninformed. She takes her life in her own hands. To re-learn the deep feminine instincts, it is vital to see how they were decommissioned to begin with.
“Whether the injuries be to your art, words, lifestyles, thoughts, or ideas, and if you have knitted yourself up into a many-sleeved sweater, cut through the tangle now and get on with it. Beyond desire and wishing, beyond the artfully reasoned methods we love to talk and scheme over, there is a simple door waiting for us to walk through. On the other side are new feet. Go there. Crawl there if need be. Stop talking and obsessing. Just do it…
“Balance makes our lives larger. Imbalance makes our lives smaller…
“He who cannot howl, will not find his pack.”
Now I suggest you re-read the story again with awareness of each of the stages and the symbolic messages hidden in the story. There is also much symbolism that has not been explained here as there just isn't the space.