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Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds The Red Shoes is a fairy tale about oppostions. About the earthly and the divine, about vanity and piety, perdition and the road to salvation. In the story, we meet the little girl Karen. And we learn, that she is something special. She is lovely and far too delicate for the coarse environment she is born into. This we can see right from the beginning in the way that her ankles get all red and swollen from the heavy wooden clogs she wears. Despite being lovely Karen has one weakness. She is helplessly vain, which shows in her obsession with red footwear. This vanity makes her envious, egotistical and deceitful and it results in very poor situational awareness.

Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds When her mother dies, she wears her new red shoes for her funeral, and after this first mistake, she develops a bad habit of wearing red shoes to church all the time even at her own confirmation, which is the Christian rite of passage, through which children enter adulthood. The Red Shoes Everyone looked at her feet, and as she walked up the aisle of the church to the chancel doorway it seemed to her that even the old pictures of the funerals, those portraits of vicars and their wives with stiff collars and long black robes, fixed their eyes on her red shoes, and these were all she thought of when the vicar placed his hand on her head and spoke of holy baptism, of the covenant with God and that she was now going to be a grown-up Christian person; and the organ played so solemnly, the beautiful children’s voices sang and the old cantor sang, but all Karen could think of was her red shoes.

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 seconds In Denmark, as in Western culture in general, the colour red symbolises desire. It’s the colour of blood and fire, and it’s associated with lust, physicality and uncontrollable passion. As such, it’s in direct opposition to piety, which is understood as control over oneself and one’s body and which is often associated with the colour white, which symbolises purity, or black, which symbolises austerity. I’d like you to discuss the meanings of Karen’s fascination with red shoes. What is her sin and how do the shoes play into that? Furthermore, what meaning might the red shoes entail, if you consider Karen’s rite of passage from a girl to a grown woman? As we read, Karen doesn’t get away with her vanity.

Skip to 3 minutes and 0 seconds On the contrary she is cursed to dance all the time by an angel: Dance you shall! he said, dance in your red shoes until you turn pale and cold! until your skin shrivels up like a skeleton’s! dance you shall from door to door and where proud, vain children live, you shall knock on their door, so that they hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance! Mercy! Karen cried out. But she didn’t hear what the angel replied, for the shoes carried her through the gate, out into the field, along highways and byways and all the time she had to dance. This part of the story raises several questions.

Skip to 3 minutes and 50 seconds Earlier on, Karen has met a soldier with red beard, the same colour as her shoes, who comments on her dancing. I’d like you to consider what these two figures, the soldier and the angel, might represent. Furthermore, why does an angel, who’s supposed to help people, suddenly curse Karen? Why doesn’t he help her? Or does he, in fact? How are we to understand it, when he forces her to dance all the time and thereby makes her do the exact same thing that brought her into trouble in the first place? She danced and couldn’t stop dancing, danced into the dark night.

Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds The shoes carried her along through thorns and stubble, she was scratched till she bled; she danced over the heath to a small, lonely house. Here she knew that the executioner lived and she

Skip to 4 minutes and 45 seconds tapped on the window with her finger and said: Come out! come out! I can’t come in because I’m dancing! AND THE EXECUTIONER SAID, Don’t you know who I am? I chop off bad people’s heads, and I can feel my axe quivering! Don’t chop off my head! Karen said, for then I can’t repent my sins! But chop off my feet with the red shoes! And then she confessed all her sins, and the executioner chopped off her feet with the red shoes, but the shoes danced with the small feet across the field into the deep forest. Why is it necessary for Karen to get her feet cut off by the executioner? And why doesn’t it help?

Skip to 5 minutes and 33 seconds When she afterwards tries to get back into the holy community, the shoes are still blocking her way. Not until the moment of her death is she welcomed back into the church. For the church itself had come home to the poor girl in the tiny, narrow room, or else she had come there instead; she was sitting in a pew among the vicar’s other folk and when they had finished their hymn and looked up,

Skip to 6 minutes and 1 second they nodded and said: It was right for you to come, Karen! It was mercy! she replied. And the organ rang out and the children’s voices in the choir sang so sweetly and beautifully! The bright sunshine streamed in through the window down onto the pew where Karen sat; her heart was so filled with sunshine, with peace and joy that it broke; her soul flew on the sunlight to God and there was nobody there who asked her about the red shoes.

Skip to 6 minutes and 44 seconds How are we to interpret this ending? Is it harmonious and if so, then how is this harmony created? How come the church is unwilling to accept Karen when she gets her feet chopped off only to save her later when she is dying? What has she done in between to deserve this last-minute salvation? In her last words, Karen addresses the church-goers. They celebrate her return by stating that it is right. Karen corrects them by stating that it was mercy. How are we to understand this distinction between right and mercy and what kind of religious understanding is it based on? I look very much forward to following your online discussions on the topics raised in this video. Bye for now

Overview of the themes in ‘The Red Shoes’

‘The Red Shoes’ touches upon themes associated with sin, punishment and redemption. To explore these, please watch the video above.

In the video, PhD student Torsten Bøgh Thomsen will tell you more about the central symbol of the text, the red shoes. And he will invite you to think about the opposites in the text: between the earthly and the divine, between vanity and piety, between perdition and the road to salvation.

You will also hear storyteller Kari Brinch read extracts from The Red Shoes.

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This video is from the free online course:

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen Centre