What Are Seven-League Boots?

Elizabeth West

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.

The protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes was punished for her vain display of footwear.
The protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen's The Red Shoes was punished for her vain display of footwear.

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.

Seven-league boots are featured in some of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm.
Seven-league boots are featured in some of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm.

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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Discussion Comments


@Grivusangel -- You started me thinking about it and I looked for it. Lo and behold, I found it! The dwarf in question went to the good fairy in "Sleeping Beauty" when the princess pricked her finger and fell asleep. It's in the original story by the Brothers Grimm. You can find it in the Andrew Lang collection, "The Blue Fairy Book."

This is the one where the handsome prince's stepmother is an ogress and wants to eat Sleeping Beauty. It's pretty gruesome. But I knew those seven league boots sounded familiar to me, too. I know they turn up in other places. I'll have to check around and see if I find them in other stories.


Now see, I remember "Hop O' My Thumb" and those boots. As if 7 league boots weren't enough, the boots he snatched from the ogre were magic in another way: they shrank to fit the person wearing them. If they're going to be magic, might as well be magic all the way!

I was charmed by the idea of the seven league boots. I remember them in another fairy tale, worn by a dwarf who was a messenger and carried an urgent message. He had a pair of the seven league boots and was able to reach the person in time because of them. Wish I could remember which fairy tale it is. Have to think about it.

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