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What Are Seven-League Boots?

The protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes was punished for her vain display of footwear.
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  • Written By: Elizabeth West
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Image By: Nasjonalbiblioteket
  • Last Modified Date: 26 March 2014
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In European fairy tales and folklore, seven-league boots allow their wearer to take steps that are seven leagues long. These magical objects may belong to the villain, or they may be awarded to the hero in return for a favor. The Brothers Grimm collected tales that included seven-league boots, and they have resurfaced in modern fantasy from time to time as authors mine older works for inspiration.

One league is three miles (4.83 km), so seven-league boots would let anyone wearing them stride 21 miles (about 33 km) at one go. This would be a great advantage in a chase or a flight from danger. In Sweetheart Roland, a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, a witch bent on revenge for a backfired trick uses them to pursue a fleeing couple. The boots were a highly-desirable object and were often stolen from their owners. Charles Perrault’s Hop O’ My Thumb has little Thumbling lifting a pair right off the feet of a sleeping ogre, at great risk to himself.

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Ordinary objects in fairy tales are often endowed with great power. Clothing especially is a common plot device, giving the wearer the ability to hide either by disguise or outright invisibility, or to avoid certain fates which seem inevitable. A protagonist may obtain seven-league boots by helping a person who turns out to be a magical character and passes on a bit of power in thanks. Another way is by theft or subterfuge, or simply a lucky find. Most common magical clothing items are cloaks, shoes, caps, and shirts like the ones in Grimms’ The Six Swans, which transform royal brothers from a cursed form.

While seven-league boots are certainly useful, other articles of footwear have powers to punish their owners. Little Karen in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes earns a painful penance for the sin of vanity when her pretty new red shoes are cursed so that she must dance continuously until death. Only humility and piety can save her. Morality tales like this were popularly used in Victorian times to instruct children. Many of them may have scared children into behaving.

Computer games and modern fantasy books have made use of seven-league boots or an equivalent. They serve the same purpose, letting characters travel farther than they would be able to otherwise. Role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons and Dragon Warriors, as well as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, all contain similar footwear.

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