The Elves and the Shoemaker: Exploring the Spirituality of Work

Once upon a time, the country was in a recession, and a shoemaker and his wife fell upon hard times. One day, the cobbler found he had enough leather for only one more pair of shoes. The cobbler did not despair, but sat down, cut the leather carefully, and started to sew. When evening fell, the new shoes were still unfinished; and, as it was time for dinner, he put his work to the side and went home, intending, in the morning, to pick up where he left off.  

What he found on the following day astounded him: the new pair of shoes completed, so expertly made that there was not one bad stitch he could see. Far better made than any of his. Soon enough, the new shoes were sold, and the cobbler had enough money to buy leather for two more pairs. He spent the rest of the day cutting the material. When evening arrived, he put his work to the side and went home for dinner, intending, in the morning, to pick up where he left off.  

Waiting for him this time were four pairs of shoes! The mysterious helper had come again. The shoes were even finer than the first ones. They quickly sold, allowing the cobbler to buy enough leather for eight shoes. As before, he spent the day cutting the material, and when evening came, he put his work to the side and went home. Next day, there were 16 shoes of all varieties and kinds, arranged neatly in his shop.

This kept on for some time. Each night, the cobbler left pieces of leather out in his workshop. Each morning, he found beautiful shoes, in rapidly increasing numbers. Very soon the shoemaker prospered, and his reputation for marvelous shoes spread far and wide.

One day, near Christmastime, the cobbler said to his wife, “We must find out who is helping us, so we can thank them!” His wife agreed. That evening, they hid in the workshop, and waited anxiously. Right around midnight, the shoemaker and his wife heard singing, and saw two elves leap through the open window. The elves were naked as the dawn, barefoot and carefree. They sat down and immediately started making shoes and boots, and the cobbler and his wife were amazed at how joyful they were at their work. Singing constantly—at times suddenly getting up and dancing, or doing a somersault. In no time at all, they finished their work, skipped around the room and vanished on a moonbeam, leaving behind them more than a thousand expertly made shoes.

The shoemaker and his wife could scarcely believe their eyes. They said to one another, “Our mysterious helpers have been elves! We must give them a gift, to thank them for their kindness.” Since it was winter, and the elves were naked, the shoemaker and his wife thought that clothes would be the perfect gift. The shoemaker stitched two tiny pairs of boots, lined with fir, while his wife sewed two tiny jackets and two pairs of pants, fleecy and warm.

On Christmas Eve, they laid out the gifts in the workshop, then hid themselves and watched. At midnight, the two elves leapt through the window, and they looked around in bewilderment. Where was the leather for them to sew? Where were the tools to use? But then they saw the gifts. “Ooh!” exclaimed one elf, as he picked up a tiny shoe and tried it on. “Ahh!” cried the other one, as he squirmed into a shirt and coat. All the clothes fit perfectly. The elves admired each other as they danced with glee, then vanished into the moonlight. The shoemaker and his wife were delighted, and went to bed as happy as they could be.

The next evening, the elves did not return. Nor the night after, or ever again. “What have we done?” cried the shoemaker and his wife. But they were practical people, so the cobbler got right to work. He did not despair. He studied the work of the elves very closely, and with practice, the quality of his shoes got better and better. He also found himself growing into a habit of singing while he worked, just like the elves. In time, he was making shoes as beautiful as theirs. This is how he and his wife lived happily ever after.  

So ends “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” A fairy tale—a piece of fiction—yet like all good fiction, it tells the truth about our lives in a profound and memorable way. “The pitcher cries for water to carry,” says poet Marge Piercy; “the person [cries] for work that is real.” In a language of imagination and symbol, our story today is about this cry. It explores essential issues in the spirituality of work: coming to terms with the realities of everyday life; learning how to tap into inner creativity; fulfilling our deep desire to bless the world. Issues that have everything to do with growing our souls and growing good in the larger world.

It all starts with shoes. Psychiatrist Allan Chinen, in his fascinating book called Once Upon a Midlife: Classic Stories and Mythic Tales to Illuminate the Middle Years, takes special note of the fact that the protagonist of the story is someone who is married and has learned a practical trade. This marks it as very different from tales like Hansel and Gretel, or Tom Thumb, in which the themes are clearly youth-oriented. He calls “The Elves and the Shoemaker” a “middle tale,” one which focuses on the tasks and challenges of growing into maturity. “Behind the divine inspiration of youth,” he says, “lies an image of perfection—the hope of establishing a perfect society, playing a perfect game, finding a perfect love. Innocent and inspired, young men and women assume that perfection is possible. Experience with the real world eventually shatters that dream…. Young men and women surrender the idols and ideals of youth, and settle for doing what is good enough.” We become shoemakers, in other words—but not of the kind that can transport people to distant lands, like seven-league boots, or Dorothy’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Growing up is about making shoes that ground us in the here and now, with all the commitment and hard work that’s required. Comfortable for long hours of standing or walking; durable enough to weather lots of wear and tear. Made to get dirty.

It’s about coming to terms with the realities of everyday life. Real work. That’s what the shoemaker in the story represents. Giving up the fantasy of not having to take responsibility, not having to deal with adversity, not having to show up every day, regularly, to get the job done. And when we can’t give up the fantasy—when the only shoes we can ever be satisfied with are seven-league boots, or Dorothy’s ruby red slippers—we suffer from what’s called the Peter Pan Syndrome. Perpetual immaturity. Relationships that are for good times only, and whenever the commitment gets to a certain point, dropping it and looking for another. Seeing oneself as exempt from the rules and exempt from criticism. Inability to make promises and fulfill them. Withdrawal from the world, bitterness and cynicism, when things turn hard. This is so destructive in our personal lives, in this congregation, and in the larger world. Peter Pans going nowhere. And then there are the Wendys that must exist to support them, the Wendys that burn out in the task of enabling Peter Pans to keep on avoiding their responsibilities.  

But the shoemaker is no Peter Pan. Perhaps the most telling example of this is how he responds, in the story, to economic adversity. With just enough leather to make only one more pair of shoes, you’d think he’d just stop trying, step back, freeze up in despair. Fly up in the air, like a Peter Pan, away from the problem. How is one pair of shoes going to solve anything? But he doesn’t give into the fantasy that life should be easy. He doesn’t give into that. He’s grounded in an acceptance of real life. That’s what being a shoemaker symbolizes. He’s going to keep showing up, no matter what.

The wonderful irony in all of this is that, by refusing to give into fantasy, the shoemaker invites magic into his world. Isn’t that wonderful? Exactly because he does not give up, but gives himself to real work and dutifully starts on that last pair of shoes, the elves come. This reminds me of something that Barbara Sher talks about. Barbara Sher is a therapist and career counselor, widely known for such books as Wishcraft and I Could Do Anything (If I Only Knew What It Was), and one thing she likes to tell people when they are facing adversity in their worklife is this: “good luck happens when you are in action.” Don’t allow Peter Pan fantasies of perfection to make you stop caring about your life here and now. Keep moving, keep going, put yourself out there. She says, “If you go to the library and look up articles, call people, join organizations, go to appointments, [volunteer at your congregation!], something can happen to you. Try it. Set a goal, any goal, and start doing everything you can to think of achieving it. You might not get where you thought you were going, but you could easily wind up somewhere better. You’ll get breaks you never could have planned for because you never knew they existed.” “Good luck happens when you are in action.” The elves will come, if you can accept your life here and now and bring yourself to face, with courage, the last piece of leather you have.

Which takes us directly to the next spirituality of work issue: tapping into inner creativity. When it happens, work is uniquely fulfilling and productive. So how do we do that? How do we tap in?  

The story illustrates that there can definitely be a vital partnership between our conscious selves and our creative depths—and what the conscious self does is paramount. If the shoemaker works hard to prepare the leather each day, then he has something to hand off to the elves, who complete the work at night. If he stops, they stop. All he has to do is get things started in a particular direction, and then hand off.

The picture is true to life—although things are more complex. Lots more drama. I like how writer Anne Lamott suggests this, in her wonderful book entitled Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. To the question of how she writes her stories and novels, she says, “you sit down. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file….” In other words, the process begins with preparation. You have to purchase the leather and cut it, get it ready for sewing. Set the stage the same time every day, invite the elves to get to work, and then let it happen. Don’t force it. The gift must come to you, like grace.

It means that you have to get out of your own way, and this is actually very difficult. Right on the heels of the preparation phase of the creative process comes the frustration and messiness phase. “You are desperate,” says Anne Lamott, “to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen.” Desperation must contain itself, desperation must calm itself, yet at the same time it must still want a result, it can’t become complacent—and in this is a kind of insanity. You turn on your computer, says Anne Lamott, “and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge … child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised at the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind—a scene, a locale, a character, whatever—and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what the landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also hypochondria. […] There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working, and you say yeah, because you are.” Anne Lamott is right. Work infused with creativity is extremely hard. A desire to say something or solve a problem or see something in a new light moves you into a state of uncertainty, and this brings with it voices of anxiety and judgment, perhaps guilt, perhaps even doom. You sense a creative possibility, but you aren’t sure about where to go with it, how to proceed, what approach to take. It’s why another writer, Kurt Vonnegut, would say, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

Oh, the end result is amazing. The shoes the elves finish are amazing. But the process of negotiating between conscious self and creative depth is extremely challenging. Yet another dimension of real work, and it can twist us up like a pretzel. And while this drama is clearly not evident on the surface of the “The Elves and the Shoemaker” story, it’s there between the lines. The shoemaker and his wife giving gifts to the elves can be interpreted as an attempt to domesticate them. To cover up their nakedness, tone down their wildness, even to try remaking the elves in their own image—insofar as they presume to think that what the elves need is similar to what they need. All of this is suggests the very real, very common temptation to try to control things, force a premature result, stop the creative process from following its own inner logic. It’s Peter Pan again diverting us from real work—the ego fantasy that creativity should be easy, and that we should be able to produce poems or papers or projects or solutions effortlessly. Get it right the first time. “People,” say Anne Lamott, “tend to look at successful writers and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” That’s the kind fantasy we can fall into, about anything, and so, when the writing or whatever it happens to be ends up feeling like pulling teeth and the first draft is triple dog drat horrible—what then? The voice of the inner critic, getting louder and louder. Do you know that voice? The voice of anxiety, shame, condemnation. Wow, that sucked. What do you call that? People are gonna think you are an idiot. The end result is paralysis. Or, I should say, the beginning result. Because this is the kind of unhealthy thinking that prevents people from acting in the first place. It is what is behind that ancient complaint in families and businesses and congregations when change comes knocking on the door: If you don’t get it right the first time, people say, or imply, then don’t do it at all. No mistakes allowed. Or the corollary: We’ve never done it like that before.

The Peter Pan fantasy of perfectionism. Creativity puts us face to face with it because it is a journey that moves us through realms of messiness, to the cliff’s edge, and if we are going to go any further, if we are gonna get to the other side, where the inspired solution to an old problem waits for us—beautiful new shoes, in increasing numbers—then we must let go and let God and take the leap of faith and jump.

But I don’t want to be too hard on the shoemaker and his wife. While it is true that, from one angle of vision, we can see the act of gift giving as manipulative, there is yet another, more positive angle of vision to consider. In other fairy tales—youth tales in particular—the protagonists lose the magic because they’ve been greedy or wicked; but here, the shoemaker and his wife are doing a good thing. Maybe there is a shadow side to their motivation, but we can’t ignore their clear generosity and gratitude. So, here we have a puzzle: the shoemaker and his wife doing good things but losing the magic anyway. What can explain it? Above all, what in real life might this be referring to?

This brings us to the last spirituality of work issue that the story speaks to: our deep natural desire to be a blessing to the world. In this respect, psychiatrist Allan Chinen makes the key observation: “Husband and wife lose their magic when they shift from receiving gifts to giving them.” And then he says: “This is a good measure of when youth ends and maturity begins. Modern psychology corroborates these fairy tale insights. Erik Erikson was one of the first psychoanalysts to explore adult development [and he discovered that] the fundamental issue for the middle of life is developing generativity. This is a nurturing attitude directed first toward one’s children, and then towards the whole next generation…” In other words, from this more positive perspective, the shoemaker has not so much lost magic as he is growing into his own magic, and thus we see him at the end of the story, learning to make shoes as fine as any the elves created, singing as he works away, living happily ever after.

That’s what I want for all of us. Growing into our own capacity for magic. Our real work is not just about giving up Peter Pan fantasies and showing up for life, or learning how to be in creative partnership with our inner depths, but also this: paying attention to how our psyches and souls grow over time, paying attention to our steadily increasing hungers to bless the world. “What we do for ourselves dies with us, but what we do for others and the world remains immortal” (Albert Pine). “We have not lived until we have done something for someone who can never repay us” (Anonymous). This is what generativity is all about. It’s the song we sang earlier: “Wake Now My Senses.” And unless we get this, life is misery. We can be on the receiving end of all sorts of pleasures, all sorts of good things, but the restlessness will increase, the pain will only redouble. There’s a story of a man who died and found himself in a beautiful place, surrounded by every conceivable comfort.  A white-jacketed attendant came to him and said, “You may have anything you choose—any food—any pleasure—any kind of entertainment.”  The man was delighted, and for days he sampled all the delicacies and experiences he had dreamed about while alive. But finally one day he grew tired of all this. “I need something to do. What kind of work can you give me?” The attendant sadly shook his head and replied, “I’m sorry, sir. That’s the one thing we can’t do for you. There is no work here for you.” To which the man answered, “Well, that’s just great. I might as well be in hell.” The attendant said softly, “Where do you think you are?”

For you, I hope for heaven, a happy-ever-after of real work. Finding a place to serve out of your strengths and talents in this place and elsewhere. Being a shoemaker. Growing into the magic that is your own.



  1. I get frustrated when I put all this work into a post like you did in this one, and no one comments on it.

    I think this is very well done. I had not thought about man needing to work. I usually spend my time looking for ways not to work at work. But then… I don’t find my work meaningful, as most people probably don’t. I would like an opportunity to be used to my full potential. Sadly, I don’t think that will happen in this lifetime. Maybe in heaven.

  2. I just referenced my favorite fairy tale in a grateful email to neighbors who “secretly” shoveled our driveway and front walk after the recent blizzard. Revisiting the story online, I found your marvelous explication of its possible meanings. After I spotted your Marge Piercy reference (“To Be of Use” is perhaps my favorite poem.), I felt compelled to reply. This was a treat to read and I’m sure I’ll be reading it again. Thank you!

  3. Almost a decade after you wrote this I was sent a link to it by a dear friend. I have been struggling with writing a novel and she sent it to read on my next break.
    If that isn’t a form of magic I don’t know what is because these were the very words I needed to read at the very time I needed them.
    Thank you.

    • You are so very welcome. I am grateful to be reminded of this piece, because I find myself needing to hear these words right now too!

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