Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Stories for Younger Children – No. 1

The Elves and the Shoemaker

My choice as the first story in this series is one you probably know – The Elves and the Shoemaker. To illustrate it and the points that come after, I’ve selected some random pictures of shoes from my photo archive along with a couple I’ve taken this week.

Here’s the story: 

A poor shoemaker was down on his luck. He had only enough leather left in his workshop to make one final pair of shoes. He didn’t know how he and his wife would survive after that. But before going to bed, he cut out the leather thinking he would sew that last pair of shoes in the morning.

That night, while the shoemaker and his wife were in bed, two naked elves came to the shoemaker’s workshop and sewed and finished the pair of shoes.

In the morning, the shoemaker was almost speechless. WHO could POSSIBLY have made the shoes? And they were SO beautifully made, not a stitch was out of place. When a customer came into his shop that morning, he definitely wanted those shoes – and paid a lot of money for them. So now the shoemaker had enough money to buy leather for TWO pairs of shoes.

That night, the shoemaker cut out the leather for the two pairs of shoes he planned to make in the morning. Once again, the same thing happened. When he came down in the morning, the shoes were finished and once again they were SO WELL-MADE that he sold them for a good lot of money. Now he had enough for FOUR pairs of shoes.

The same thing happened night after night and the shoemaker began to prosper. And then one night, the shoemaker had a suggestion to make to his wife. Why didn’t they stay up and hide and watch out to see who’d been coming to help them? They hid behind some coats and waited.

At midnight, they were VERY surprised. They saw those two elves as they came into the workshop and set about sewing new shoes. They were still amazed when they went to bed. And in the morning, the wife said to her husband: ‘Those two little elves have made us rich. Now WE should do something for THEM. They’re running about with nothing on. They must feel cold. They might freeze to death. Why don’t we make them some clothes – a shirt and a coat and a jacket and trousers? We could also make them some shoes.’

As soon as they’d thought of their plan, the shoemaker and his wife started carrying it out.  The night after they’d got the things finished, they set them out on the work-room bench where the shoemaker usually put his cut-out pieces of leather. Then they hid behind the coats again to watch what happened.

When the elves came in to the workshop, they were obviously surprised and VERY VERY pleased. They began dancing about and singing:

We’re smart, we’re fine, we’re out the door.

We shan’t be shoemakers any more!

The elves danced round the room, then they danced round it again and then they ran out of the door. No-one ever saw them again. But the shoemaker and his wife continued to prosper and I think we can say they lived happily ever after.

Why I’ve Chosen This Story

1. Personal reasons. (Can there be others when you’re choosing a story?)

I loved this story as a small child. I still do. And my husband also loved it. There’s definitely something about it that makes it memorable and worth hearing.

Personally I find it tremendously touching that, in the story, a pair of adults – namely the impoverished shoemaker and his impoverished wife – are helped by such tiny creatures as elves. It’s also tremendously touching to me that, night after night, the elves return to help the shoemaker again and again. It feels as if maybe the elves are also in need.

And when the shoemaker has been sufficiently helped, it’s wonderful to see the joy of the elves when they receive their gifts from him and his wife. The tiny sets of clothes and shoes that the couple have made especially for them make them cry out with joy. It’s the kind of joy we all experience when we’re given something nice.

I miss the elves when they disappear at the end. They’ve brought delight and now they are gone. But everything has turned out alright and there’s pleasure in remembering them.

2. Why the story’s theme is important (It’s all about giving)

I was prompted to think about selecting this story by some pages in a book I happened to be reading. The book is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. It deals with the idea that the mutual giving of gifts is an essential part of all human culture.

Lewis Hyde quotes The Elves and the Shoemaker as an example of the way in which gifts can transform both the receiver and the one who gives. Most artists, he suggests, are brought to their vocation ‘when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master.’ In other words, most artists ‘are converted to art by art itself. The future artist find himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labour in the service of art until he can profess his own gifts.’

Perhaps it’s like that for all of us. We learn from teachers (who may be parents or who may start off as strangers). If we work at what we learn, it transforms us and earns our gratitude. It’s certainly like that for the shoemaker in the story: his fortunes are eventually transformed by what the elves have given him and, in the end, his gratitude releases them from the labour they have taken on.

As Lewis Hyde sums it up in The Gift, ‘Once a gift has stirred within us it is up to us to develop it.’ I think that’s a terrific understanding – and one well worth passing on to children. A story is the ideal way to transmit it.

3. Why it’s good for younger children (They’ll love it!)

First of all, the story is simple to tell and simple to understand. Besides, it has a great immediacy to it because it’s all about shoes and shoes are something that we all wear. So before telling the story, you can look down at the feet of the children before you and get them to look at their shoes. Most footwear today is not  made of leather. But you can say that, in the old days, it all would have been. In any case, the shoe theme will engender plenty of interest.

There’s also magic in the story and younger children (and older children too!) love the sense of amazement that something magic evokes. In this story, it’s not only the elves that are magic. It’s also the sense of their devotion to what they are doing.

Finally, the story gives a message of hope which I think is essential in all children’s lives and perhaps especially in these difficult times where cuts and unemployment must already be impinging on the lives of so many. But human beings cannot do without hope and, in The Elves and the Shoemaker, it’s not just the transformation in the shoemaker’s fortunes that brings about that sense of hope. More important perhaps is that he’s also greatly enriched in spirit by the knowledge of how he’s been helped. That too is a message worth having.

4. What you can do to follow it up (But you’ll probably have loads more ideas yourself)

Shoes are fascinating things. You wear them and they almost become a part of you, taking you on journeys, moulding to the shape of your feet. They also are markers of time, getting too small if you’re growing in size, gradually wearing out when you’ve worn them a lot. They are intimate expressions of yourself which is probably one of the reasons that children in particular adore trying out their parents’ shoes. With someone else’s shoes on your feet, you can imagine what it is like to be that person.

So how about getting your children to draw round each others’ shoes?

How about cutting out the resulting shapes and getting the children to colour them in, possibly making wonderful patterns?

How about suggesting to the children that, somewhere in their pattern, they put in a special bit of magic?

How about brainstorming all the different kinds of magic that shoes could enable you to do? Make you invisible? Enable you to jump to the moon? Make gardens grow beneath your feet as you walk?

Next Week: Stories for Younger Children – No. 2

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3 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Stories for Younger Children – No. 1”

  1. Althie Sharp Says:

    How delighted I was to discover this resource by chance-have printed it out and started a file in readiness for telling to my grandson Ewan. I loved your photographs(some of Auntie Mali’s shoes?) and reading your reasons for having chosen the story and your follow up ideas – can’t wait for story number 2 next week!xx

  2. admin Says:

    Dear Althie, How delighted I am to discover that you’ve discovered my blog – and found it enjoyable and useful. I am really loving doing this blog and it’s fantastic to think that you’ll tell your little grandson the stories. Let me know more as time goes on!

  3. Althie Sharp Says:

    Dear Admin, I will certainly do that but just wanted you to know meanwhile that I have been further inspired by your blog to buy your book ‘Stories for Yong Children and How to Tell Them!I have also passed on details of your website/blog to 3 others, 2 of whom are teachers. I’m sure they will also find inspiration from the gifted way in which you communicate your art. So, will keep you posted on all fronts as time progresses….

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