The shoemaker and Dobby

Do you know the story of the Shoemaker and the Elves? Well, I’ve known it since I was very young. It’s a Brothers Grimm, and it goes something like this:

A poor shoemaker is down on his luck and can’t make enough to feed himself and his wife. All he has left is enough leather for one pair of shoes and he works late into the night preparing the leather but falls asleep at the workbench. In the morning the shoes are all made with such fine and perfect workmanship that they are snaffled up quickly by the next person to pass the shop window.

The shoemaker of course buys some more leather and gets it ready and tries the trick again. And again all the leather is sewn into wonderfully well-made shoes. Soon he and his wife are very well off.

Eventually they decide to ask the question of how this is happening, and they hide themselves so they can see who is making the shoes. As it turns out, it’s a team of little elves, who are all completely naked.

The shoemaker and his wife feel sorry for the little elves who have helped them so much and decide to make clothes for them, which they leave out the next night. The elves are so delighted with their clothes that they declare they don’t need to work all night anymore and dance away into the night.

Now those of you who have read Harry Potter may recall a character called Dobby — a house elf, who had to remain in servitude until such time as his master presented him with clothes…

Just a moment! Doesn’t that sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s right out of the Shoemaker and the Elves!

For no reason that I can see, I suddenly came to this realisation this weekend. Jo Rowling rose again in my estimation as being a very clever woman. And I sank just a little in my estimation because I knew this story from when I was very young — why on earth did I not see this connection earlier?

Still, it’s not worth kicking myself over it — this sort of thing happens all the time with learning maths. Students say to me all the time: “I just realised these things were connected! I never knew I didn’t understand how this worked until I suddenly understood how it REALLY worked!”

It’s nice for the feeling to happen to me for a change.

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