The fairy tale follows a poor cobbler with ailing sales. One night he wakes up to find the shoes he had planned to create in the morning already made, and much to his fortune a customer comes in and pays more than usual for the shoes. This gives him enough money to buy materials for two pairs of shoes, which he again finds already finished on the counter the next morning. The pattern repeats for several days, and the poor cobbler's fortunes turn as his shop becomes famous. But one night the cobbler and his wife hide in the shop so they can see who has been creating the shoes for him. To their astonishment, they see a group of little elves, who are naked (or in most modern retellings, wearing ragged, dirty clothing and barefoot). In gratitude, they leave gifts of shoes and little clothes, watching again to see the elves happily accept their new finery. Thereafter they do not come again, but the cobbler no longer needs their help and considers their joy his reward.
The tale has inspired many adaptations and popular culture references. Animated short adaptations include Jolly Little Elves by Walter Lantz in 1934, and Tex Avery's 1950 MGM cartoon short The Peachy Cobbler. The house-elf Dobby in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, who can only be freed from his drudgery with a gift of clothing, is another reference to this fairy tale.
Tropes in "The Elves and the Cobbler":
- Adaptational Modesty: Most older versions of the tale stated that the elves were naked, which oddly enough was a plot point, as the Shoemaker and his wife give them clothing out of gratitude for helping them. Most adaptations give the elves clothes, though to keep the Aesop intact, they make the clothes ragged and dusty.
- An Aesop: Help those in need.
- The elves help the poor Cobbler and his wife each night, by making fine shoes to sell. Each morning the Cobbler after selling the shoes for the elves have made, he is shown to use a bit of his newfound money to help another person in need. Most variants the elves continue until the shoemaker's debt is paid off or until he is rich enough to retire, at which point the Cobbler and his wife decide to see whose been helping them. Once they see the sorry condition the elves clothing are in, the Cobbler and his wife create shoes and clothing for the elves as a repayment of sorts for the help they have given them; and the elves in turn leave as their aid is no longer needed.
- Bittersweet Ending: The cobbler's business is saved, but the story usually ends with the elves leaving, never to return. At least one version states that giving them clothes released them from a curse, a version that likely inspired Dobby's story.
- The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Some variations of the story depict the elves wearing raggedy clothing and no shoes at all, which is what prompts the cobbler to make shoes for them.
- Character Witness: Some versions begin with the couple sharing their last scrap of food with someone, often one of the elves, and they are rewarded with their help. Others have them repay the elves by making them clothes.
- Christmas Miracle: The Elves are discovered by the Shoemaker first on Christmas.
- House Fey: The elves, who steal into the shop at night while the humans are asleep to make shoes out of pure goodwill.
- Deus ex Machina: Very convenient of the elves to turn up just when sales are ailing...
- Law of Inverse Fertility: In some versions, the shoemaker and his wife are trying to have a baby, but have been unsuccessful. They do conceive, and it's implied to be due to some of the elves' magic being left with them at the end.