A study of early Tom Thumb variants reveals a tale about a boy in weird predicaments, mostly involving pudding. He may even have been a kind of spirit or fairy originally.
However, the Japanese counterpart, Issun Boshi, is a romance: the tale of a less-than-impressive man, who manages to marry a woman far above his social stature. It's been compared to the tales of Lazy Taro (whose laziness makes him unappealing) and Ko-otoko no soshi (The Little Man, who is only about a foot tall).
In Jane Kelley's Analyzing Ideology in a Japanese Fairy Tale, she goes very in-depth on modern retellings of Issun-Boshi. The hero is raised by parents who adore him even though he's tiny. He eventually falls in love with a princess, rescues her from an oni, and grows to full size with the use of the oni's magic hammer. However, the "official" version that emerges through her article may not represent the original version of the story.
It's impossible to say what the original version was. There are many variants with different names. However, the Japanese Wikipedia article indicates that the original version was a little more adult.
In the Yanagita Kunio Guide to the Japanese Folktale (1948), the first tale listed under "Issun Boshi," the one with the longest and most detailed entry, is Mamesuke (Bean Boy). He's born from a woman’s thumb and at seventeen is only the size of a bean. He goes and finds work, and there's a scene where he hides under a wooden clog. He works for a winemaker with three daughters. To trick his way into getting a wife, he smears flour on the middle daughter’s lips while she sleeps. Thinking she's stolen his food, the family agrees that he can take her home. She tries to drown him in the bathtub, but instead of dying, he becomes a full-sized man. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Another important puzzle piece is “Two Companion Booklets” in Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology by Helen Craig McCullough (1990).
In this otogi-zoshi, Issun-Boshi is born in Naniwa village in Settsu Province. (This story is full of specific details like that.) His parents are ashamed of his size (something Kelley said was un-Japanese). There are frequent poetry sections.
Here, again, while seeking work, he hides under a man's clogs.
When he’s sixteen and the princess is thirteen, he woos her. The wooing consists, again, of pretending she ate his rice. He leaves following his new wife as she heads towards Naniwa.
Then they’re overtaken by two oni. Issun fights them off and gets a magic mallet that makes him full-size. The newlyweds go off together happy. Later, the Emperor hears the story, learns Issun is of noble heritage, and honors him greatly.
These retellings indicate an older version of Issun-Boshi that was eventually toned down for children. Modern stories tend to be simpler. The trick that wins him a wife is disturbing and a little suggestive, with his accosting her in her sleep and ruining her reputation and honor - so that's gone. His parents are more affectionate, which is both softer for children and more in line with Japanese values (see Kelley).
The scene where he hides under clogs is a nice illustration of his size. Buddha's crystal and other fairy stories (1908) preserves a lot of these details, including the Emperor's interest in Issun Boshi, but does not include the rice bit.
There is a wealth of analysis on this Japanese site, and it's helpful even through Google Translate. The writer suggests that Issun was originally killed with the magic hammer, similar to traumatic transformations like the Frog Prince or Mamesuke.
There are some interesting links between Issun Boshi and Ko-otoko no soshi. At the end, the Little Man becomes the god of Gojo shrine and his wife becomes the goddess Kannon (Tales of Tears and Laughter: Short Fiction of Medieval Japan). One of the gods of Gojo shrine is Sukuna-biko, an incredibly tiny god. As for Kannon: in most versions of Issun Boshi, she's the deity his parents ask for a son, and in some variants the princess is on her way to visit Kannon's shrine when Issun Boshi saves her.
The Search for the Lost Husband is a very widespread tale, closely related to Beauty and the Beast. Sometimes it seems like it's a default ending for fairy tales.
A woman marries a supernatural male being, who seems monstrous at first and might be enchanted in animal form, only appearing human at night. The wife breaks a taboo, and her husband vanishes. She then searches the world until she finds him and they are reunited.
A non-exhaustive list of stories falling into this category:
The hero is a woman, and her opponent is usually a woman - an enchantress who's trapped the husband, or a rival princess who wishes to wed him.
In their notes, the Grimms wax a little poetical on how the story is about the heart being tried so that "everything earthly and evil falls away in recognition of pure love." There's also an interesting note about, in this case, light being an ill omen and darkness being good. This goes back to the taboo. Often, she takes a candle and spies on her husband in the night to see his human form, or attempts to break his curse by burning his animal skin.
Karen Bamford has a good analysis. The wife's journey is an act of atonement; she does penance for sinning against her divine husband, and wins him back through toil and effort.
In many cases, her long journey takes her through some kind of otherworld. In an Arabic version, "The Camel Husband," the heroine goes to the land of the djinn. The land East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon is a place beyond the bounds of the physical world and the laws of nature. Psyche literally goes through hell.
This quest allows her to finally truly break the spell on her husband and resurrect him from a "metaphoric death" (Bamford). In many tales, the wife visits the husband during the night, while he lies in a drugged sleep, and tries repeatedly to awaken him. In "Nix Nought Nothing," the husband falls into sleep similar to Sleeping Beauty, and only the true bride can symbolically raise him from the dead with the power of love. In Cupid and Psyche, Cupid lies wounded for quite some time.
I found a Japanese folklore site that had an interesting perspective. (As seen through Google Translate, but whatever.) The groom's animal shape is the body, and his human shape represents the soul, but the soul belongs to the otherworld. Death and rebirth are required to truly bring it into the real world. So then you have stories like the "Frog King" or "The White Bride and the Black One" where the enchanted animal must be thrown against a wall or have its head cut off.
There are stories where a husband seeks a lost wife; this is its own tale type, AT 420, The Quest for the Lost Bride. A couple of examples are the Russian Frog Princess, and the story of the Swan Maidens. In Household Tales, the Grimms mention "a man in a Hungarian story, whose wife has been stolen from him, seeks [help], first from the sea-king, then from the moon-king, and finally from the star-king (Molbech's Udvalgte Eventyr, No. 14)."
Incidentally, Joseph Jacobs' version of the Swan Maidens also features the Land East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, but that's from Europa's Fairy Book, in which he mashed up a lot of different traditions.
The results are in! I've had this survey up for a while asking people which story they know best, with the options being "Tom Thumb," "Thumbelina," "Issun Boshi," "Other," and "I have no idea what you are talking about." I also asked through which medium they'd heard of the story, that being film, movies, word of mouth, etc.
My hypothesis was that Thumbelina would be the most well-known thumbling story, and that most people would have encountered it through movies or TV shows. I figured the Don Bluth movie's impact on pop culture was the greatest out of all these obscure tales.
Thumbelina was indeed the most popular answer. Tom Thumb had two votes, "I have no idea what you are talking about" had two, and one person used the "Other" box to specify Hop o' my Thumb. Poor Issun Boshi did not make it in.
A further breakdown shows that eight people first encountered the Thumbelina story in a book, and seven through a movie or TV show. So on that point my hypothesis was off.
Both Tom Thumb encounters were from storybooks, and Hop o' my Thumb was by word of mouth.
I intentionally kept the questions limited, but I'd like to do this again with a bigger sample group and more specific questions. For instance, one thing I overlooked while writing the survey is that Tom Thumb is a name used for at least three different stories (the British Tom, the French Petit Poucet/Hop o' my Thumb, and the Grimms' German Thumbling).
Thank you to everybody who completed the survey! Also a big thank you to the respondents on the NaNoWriMo board.
"Don Bluth's Thumbelina was and still is a favorite" (wombatrider)
"I only know of the cartoon Thumbelina which I love very dearly, but I would be very open to seeing further adaptations if they were presented to me." (Amaya Nyx)
"Out of those, I've only ever heard of Thumbelina and I really can't remember what it was about. The last time I heard it I must have been about 5. I'm certain that it was a book, though. Tom Thumb vaguely rings a bell too but nothing much." (HarleyQuinn98)
"It's been a while but I've heard/read both Tom Thumb and Thumbelina before in a giant book of fairy tales that my family used to have, and I think there might be a few other miniature hero stories I've read, but I honestly can't remember them at all." (Cryptidguy99)
"I've read Tom Thumb in a Grimm's book of fairy tales I have. I've vaugely heard of Thumblina (isn't there a movie?), but Tom Thumb's the one I'm familiar with." (ADreaminTimeGoneBy)
Tales of Faerie had a post a while ago on Beauty's request for a rose in Beauty and the Beast. The unique request differentiates Beauty from her materialistic and greedy sisters, who ask for clothes, shoes, or other expensive ornaments.
Some themes emerge when you look at different tales, and they might not be the themes you expect.
In most, she asks for a rose or other flower. Other objects close to nature might be a lily, a grape, or a green nut-twig. In "The Sprig of Rosemary," the heroine picks the titular sprig herself while gathering firewood. This is a simple request in contrast to her sisters' pleas for material goods.
Unless she asks for it in winter. Then it's a fantastical request that should be impossible to grant.
So her request is not necessarily simple, but impossible. The rose is the most common theme that I've found, but there are other versions that make this even clearer.
A singing, springing lark. Maria Tatar says the rose and the lark, like the rose, is emblematic of the girl's character. The rose symbolizes her inner beauty and the lark symbolizes her energy and liveliness.
A clinking, clanking lowesleaf. This is definitely a leaf; it's just the lowe part that's confusing. There is an impossibility implied, with a simple piece of plant matter clinking and clanking like a piece of metal.
Lowe might mean lion, but that's a guess. Similarly, the German for dandelion is Loewenzahn.
A pennyworth of “sorrow and love” in one English tale. Here she's asking for abstract concepts.
A slice of roach off a green meadow, from one Portuguese tale. This one baffled me for a long time, but turns out, it's a FISH!
There's a kind of fish called a roach. (Goraz is the word in the original Portuguese.) She is asking for a fish native to a green, grassy field - something that can't possibly exist.
There was a study around 2013 by anthropologist Jamie Tehrani, who concluded that "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Wolf and the Kids" are two descendants of a common ancient ancestor.
This is an example of monogenesis. I've been reading a little about polygenesis and monogenesis, after someone mentioned them on a site I frequent. As it relates to folktales, polygenesis means the tale originated from many sources independently and spontaneously, and monogenesis means it originated from one source and was diffused.
I think I can safely say that the German Daumesdick, the Russian Malchik-s-Palchik and the Italian Cecino are all the exact same story. This story appears frequently, under different names, across Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Further south in Africa and on other continents, it doesn't seem to show up at all until colonists brought it there. It's pretty clearly one story that was diffused around a specific landmass.
Where it gets more interesting is examples like the English Tom Thumb and the Japanese Issun-Boshi. These tales are from opposite points of the Thumbling tale area, and were first published far before the others. They share a few points: the wish for a son miraculously granted, the tiny boy leaving home, wielding a needle as a sword, serving a nobleman, and being swallowed by a beast. In every other aspect, they differ completely.
Issun-Boshi was probably first written down sometime during the Muromachi period (1392-1573), and there were other stories of tiny people, like the god Sukuna-biko, first described in the 8th century, or Princess Kaguya, first written down in the 10th century.
There's evidence of a Tom Thumb tradition in England as early as 1579.
Portuguese traders reached Japan in 1543, so there's contact between Europe and Asia at that point.
Did these stories have the same source, or were they simply examples of a universal interest in tiny people? Did some country somewhere in the middle produce the proto-Thumbling tale?
I was interested in the same stories appearing across different cultures long before I got onto this project. For instance, the story of a great flood as punishment from a deity (usually with only a handful of survivors in a boat) is universal. It's in the Middle East. It's in Europe. It's in Asia. It's in Africa. It's in the Americas. It's in Australia.
Is this polygenesis or monogenesis? Is it just because all of these cultures had lived near water and seen catastrophic floods, and they wanted to tell stories about them, and the folktales emerged in a kind of convergent evolution? Or could these stories possibly serve as evidence for a singular Great Flood?
Some proponents of polygenesis in folktales based it on a theory of psychic unity among humans, and the idea that all cultures went through exactly the same stages of development. The term "universal human psyche" tends to pop up in some of these sources.
Proponents of monogenesis have also come up with some weird theories. There was a period of time where quite a few scholars posited that all stories were connected. If there was a similar name, it was the same person. In many cases, this was leaping to conclusions. For instance, not all characters named Thomas are the same person. Tom Thumb is not Tam Lin. I think, as time has passed, this particular theory has fallen out of favor.
Overall, monogenesis and diffusion seem far more likely to me, although there are still cases for different groups coming up with the same idea. Like, say, a sky god who controls the thunder.
England is swamped in folktales about tiny people – fairies, elves, brownies. However, they only have one thumbling tale that I've found.
Most places have multiple variants of the thumbling tale. England is small, but even individual small regions of France and Spain have recorded more than one unique variant. Ireland has quite a few too. I know of two variants from Scotland, Tómas na h òrdaig and Comhaoise Ordaig. But in England, there’s only Tom Thumb. There are a couple of songs that hint at similar stories (see "I Had a Little Husband") but sadly, England's amount of recorded folklore is much lower than that of its neighbors.
SurLaLune does list one tale from Derbyshire under Thumbling tales: Dathera Dad. This is a very short tale. A woman is cooking, when the pudding begins to shake and jump around. Frightened, she gives it to a passing tinker to get rid of it. It continues to shake, and finaly breaks apart to reveal a tiny fairy child who runs away crying, "Take me to my dathera dad."
This initially seems like just another tale of a tiny fairy, not a type 700 tale. However, the incident is identical to Tom Thumb's adventure in a pudding. The pudding incident was also Tom Thumb's most famous and recognizable feat around the 1600s. He was frequently shown falling into the bowl. In the 1611 Coryat’s Crudities, ten years before the first known printed version of the tale, "Tom Thumbe is dumbe, untill the pudding creepe, in which he was intomb'd, then out doth peepe."
In 1625, Ben Jonson’s masque, The Fortunate Isles, mentions "Thomas Thumb in a pudding fat." In 1653, the Lady Margaret Newcastle's "Pastimes of the Fairy Queen" mentioned Tom Thumb "who doth like peice of fat in pudding lye."
"Can I bear to see him from a Pudding mount the throne?" a character asks in the parodic play "Tragedy of Tragedies; Or the Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great."
This is not the same kind of pudding I eat. As an American, the puddings I know would splash rather than break!
The original puddings were baked, steamed or boiled and were a primary dish in the everyday diet. They could be made of meat, blood, batter and other ingredients, and formed a solid mass that had to be sliced or broken, as in Dathera Dad.
Sidney Oldall Addy theorizes that "dathera" comes from the Icelandic daðra, to wheedle. According to the English Dialect Dictionary, “dather” is to shiver, tremble, or shake with cold or age, and "dathered" can mean bewildered or withered.
Dathera Dad is an example of the Runaway Pancake tale, but it's a little different. Most of these versions feature the food actually coming to life and running away; Dathera Dad is a tale of a supernatural being trapped inside the food.
The most similar example on that page is a Russian tale called "The Devil in the Dough Pan."
Once a woman was kneading bread, but had forgotten to say the blessing. So the demon, Potánka, ran up and sat down in it. Then she recollected she had kneaded the dough without saying the blessing, went up to it and crossed herself; and Potánka wanted to escape, but could not anyhow, because of the blessing. So she put the leavened dough through a strainer and threw it out into the street, with Potánka inside. The pigs turned him over and over, and he could not escape for three whole days. At last he tore his way out through a crack in the dough and scampered off without looking behind him.
He ran up to his comrades, who asked him, " Where have you been, Potánka?"
"May that woman be accursed!" he said.
"The one who was kneading her dough and had made it without saying the proper blessing; so I ran up and squatted in it. Then she laid hold of me and crossed herself, and after three livelong days I got out, the pigs poking me about and I unable to escape! Never again will I get into a woman's dough."
It's interesting that in these cases the thing inside the food is a fairy or evil spirit. In the Metrical History of Tom Thumb the Little, there's a line regarding this scene: "But so it tumbled up and down, Within the liquor there, As if the devil had been boil'd." In the 1584 Discoverie of Witchcraft, "Tom thombe" is included among a list of monsters and demons.
Come to think of it, The Gingerbread Man - probably the most famous version of the Runaway Pancake - has a lot in common with Tom Thumb. He's created after an elderly couple wishes for a child, and his story revolves around being eaten.
More on Pudding
Charles Stratton, more famous by his stage name General Tom Thumb, wed Lavinia Warren on on February 10, 1863. Both had a form of dwarfism and were among P. T. Barnum's most renowned performers. They toured the world and people gathered to marvel at their small size - Charles was 3'4" and Lavinia 2'8". They rode in a miniature carriage. They had miniature furniture.
All they needed was a miniature baby.
It was announced that their child was born on December 5, 1863. Most sources referred to it simply as a baby or child, and at least one periodical appeared to think it was a boy. The overwhelming evidence, however, points towards a baby girl who was named Minnie after her aunt. She went on tour with them and was mentioned by name as early as 1864 in English papers. There was some disagreement as to whether Minnie would take after her parents' "Lilliputian" stature, but she was undoubtedly a hit and always described as a very beautiful child. They sold a fortune's worth of pictures of the happy little family.
Tragically, less than three years later, newspapers reported that "Minnie Tom Thumb" (her nickname) had died. She suffered from an inflammation of the brain while in Norwich, where her parents were touring ("Foreign News and Gossip." Brooklyn Eagle. Oct 15, 1866). She was mentioned in Charles' obituary in the New York Times, and in 1882, the Strattons' manager, Sylvester Bleeker, said the child had looked just like her Aunt Minnie.
Then, in 1901, eighteen years after Charles' death, Lavinia told newspapers that she had never given birth at all.
Renting babies from orphanages? Abruptly announcing the child's death when the charade had run its course? It was exactly the type of thing people expected from Mr. P. T. "There's a sucker born every minute" Barnum. In fact, skeptics tended to preemptively declare Barnum's acts hoaxes; as soon as 1878, obituaries for Lavinia's sister mentioned "the spurious Thumb baby."
And the Strattons had played along with Barnum - or even suggested it to him in the first place. Tom Thumb's baby was all a hoax.
OR WAS IT?
In the BBC documentary "The Real Tom Thumb," historian John Gannon claims that they really did have a daughter. He produces a death certificate and burial record for "Minnie Warren Stratton, daughter of the celebrated General Tom Thumb," a contemporary news article, and finally a tombstone in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich.
The Norfolk News said that the private funeral was invaded by a crowd of about a thousand, and that the General planned to later have the body moved to America and reinterred (Norfolk News 29 September 1866 p.5). The reinternment never happened, and the grave still lies there today. Newspapers stated that the Strattons cancelled performances in order to grieve.
However, it has been accepted for over a hundred years that the child was a hoax. and John Gannon's records are far from conclusive evidence. Although it seems technically possible that Lavinia bore a daughter, the timeline makes it unlikely. She was performing onstage constantly during the year when the child would have to have been born.
Pregnancy would also have presented her with the same risks that took the life of her sister, who was even smaller than she was, and who died in 1878 after a painful and difficult childbirth. The baby died with her. It left a deep mark both on her family and on the public. Even years later, in 1892, an article on the wedding of Admiral and Mrs. Dot (another small pair of performers) said, “Every mother in the room thought of Minnie Warren, and felt a throb of fear at the risk this little woman in white was taking.” On the other hand, the same article indicates rumors “that Tom Thumb’s son is nearly six feet high, and that he is very proud of his little mother.”
There was no reason for Lavinia to say she'd faked a baby - willingly participating in such a hoax would not have made her look good. And it seems odd that, in her autobiography, she would mention the death of her sister (which affected her deeply) but not her daughter. As a matter of fact, her autobiography, which was probably written somewhere around 1900 or 1901, has no mention of a baby whatsoever. Because it was even more painful than her sister's death? Or because it had become an old shame?
Later on, Lavinia's family went out of their way to set the record straight. Her nephew, Benjamin J. Bump mentioned the baby hoax in his 1953 pamphlet, "The Story that Never Grows Old," and in his correspondence with researcher Alice Curtis Desmond. His wife Edna wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times on April 21, 1946, saying that "The Tom Thumbs never had a child."
It seems most likely that the Strattons never had children, but they may have grown attached to their surrogates. Based on the death record and grave, it seems that one of these borrowed children died in their care, and they grieved for her and had her buried under the name Minnie Warren Stratton.
That seems to have marked an end to the touring with babies. On the other hand, Bogdan in Picturing Disability dates one of the family photos to 1868, and Desmond reported in her 1954 book that they were exhibited with a baby in 1881 (page 215). On the other other hand, A. H. Saxon suggests that some European newspapers mistook Lavinia’s sister for a child (Autobiography). It was too long ago and there was too much misinformation to be sure.
What gives me more pause is the 1901 interview with Lavinia. Although this article is frequently quoted, something seems off with the math, and the mention of the child apparently reaching age four before any problem was seen. Even though this was decades later, and memory can fade, how does the life and death of "Minnie Warren Stratton" mesh with the baby boy described in that article?
I have nearly enough responses on the poll to publish the results. I want to just try to get one more to hit my minimum sample size. Thank you, everyone who's already responded!
TOP 5 FAVORITE THUMBLINGS
I've found so many that seemed impossible at first! Little Finger was Ditu Migniulellu. Three-Inch was Der Angule. Master Thumb was Nga-Let-Ma, or something like that, anyway. But I still have a list of resources I'm looking for.
Tom Thumb and Thumbelina are closely associated in pop culture, for obvious reasons. They've starred together in two direct-to-video movies. They appear as a couple in Shrek 2. I've also found mistaken statements that General Tom Thumb's wife used the stage name Thumbelina.
It's interesting to see how these crossovers treat the characters. The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina was basically just a retelling of Thumbelina; despite getting first billing, Tom was barely the deuteragonist and bore no resemblance whatsoever to his original fairytale. Tom Thumb Meets Thumbelina seems like it took inspiration from both fairytales, but otherwise just kind of . . . does its own thing.
In a Nutshell, by Susan Price, is a fairly short book published in 1983. It can be a little hard to find in libraries. The main characters, Thumb and Thumbling, are a pair of tiny fairies who anger King Oberon. As punishment, he takes away their powers and gives them to human families. However, the tiny man and woman decide to find each other and get back to Fairyland - which is a tall order for a couple of people only two inches tall.
It's one of the most interesting mashup of thumbling tales I've read.
Though Thumb is (like Tom Thumb) based in England, and his parents use that name once, his adventures of riding in a horse's ear and being used to fetch stolen goods for robbers are all Thumbling. Thumbling, given to a lonely woman in Denmark, is Thumbelina, and the quest and conclusion are strongly based on The Young Giant.
The characters are unlikeable. They're supposed to be unlikeable, as fairies are played up as uncompassionate creatures, but it's still hard to get invested when they act as callous as they do. They only start to come around and grow into better people near the end. One touch I liked was how much we see the danger of their lives; Price does a pretty good job of making it feel like they are constantly threatened. Even their adopted parents could easily harm them, and overpower them by far.
I don't think this book is going to be remembered as a classic or anything like that, but it was an interesting read, and I have it on my bookshelf now.
The dwarves of fairy tale and fantasy literature are characterized by their short stature and impressive beards. Tolkien defined the trope, and Disney undoubtedly helped by portraying six of Snow White's seven dwarves with full beards. In some stories, even female dwarfs are frequently supposed to have similar amounts of facial hair. Other little folk are similar, like garden gnomes with their white beards and leprechauns with red beards.
Unlike the people of Europe who told stories of gnomes and leprechauns, Native American men rarely wore beards. However, in such countries there are stories of excessively hairy little people, like the Anishinaabe's Memegwesi, the Lakota's Wiwila Men (in some versions) or the Metis tale of the adventurous and womanizing "Little Man with Hair All Over" (a version of The Bear's Son, Type 650A).
Tolkien based his dwarves on the dwarfs of Norse myth. However, Norse and Germanic dwarfs may not have originally been the short beings we immediately picture today.
Still, the bearded dwarves we know today go back a long way. For instance, the ancient Egyptian god Bes had achrondroplasic proportions and was one of the few Egyptian deities depicted with a full set of facial hair. (James Romano theorizes that Bes is visually descended from a lion, which would explain his sometimes manelike 'do.)
Through export, Bes would become a popular deity with other peoples such as the Phoenicians and the Cypriots.
In the 5th century BC, Ctesias described Indian pygmies two cubits tall, who raised livestock that was similarly small, and had a war going on with some cranes. These pygmies had grew their hair out to their knees and their beards past their feet, so long that they did not require any other clothing. There may have been seeds of truth in this story.
Dwarfs in Arthurian romances were frequently described with beards, and in folklore throughout Europe, dwarves were described and drawn as little old men with long beards.
So why do dwarves have beards?
Facial hair makes it immediately clear that despite his small size, the dwarf is not a child but a miniature adult. Such illustrations leave no room for confusion. (Fairies, who are not typically shown with beards, are usually more childlike and/or feminine.)
From there, the exaggeration takes over. Sometimes the beard's length becomes purely silly and imaginative, as in stories where the tiny man's beard is longer than he is and trails on the ground like a parody of Rapunzel's hair.
Some readers - from Jane Yolen on Rumpelstiltskin, to numerous critics of Tolkien's gold-loving dwarves - have suggested that these bearded dwarves are anti-Semitic caricatures. Jews in the Middle Ages were frequently depicted wtih beards. However, the trope of the bearded dwarf is so widespread and so old that it seems unlikely that they were all based on Jews. I think it's more likely that they were based on real people with achondroplasia, or real pygmy tribes.
I feel like I should also mention that there was a story published by the Grimms called "The Jew in the Thorns," which featured both a bearded, thieving Jewish man and a supernatural-type dwarf who helped the hero get revenge on him.
The beard is a symbol of wisdom and age. According to SurLaLune, a beard can also symbolize magical powers or invulnerability, or a sign of a somehow animal nature.
The hairy little people of many Native American lores could have been influenced by Europeans coming over, but hair can still be a mark of physical maturity, as well as, again, a sign that the being is more like an animal than a human.
In Snow White and Rose Red, the dwarf's beard is the source of his power. He catches it in a crevice in a tree and in a fishing line, and the girls cut it off to free him, taking his powers away in the process.
Along the same lines, in the Pomeranian "Das Wolfskind," an ugly little man with a long black beard is poisoning people's food. The hero, Johann, traps the dwarf's beard in a split block of wood, and later hangs him by the beard from the ceiling and treats him like a tetherball (Jahn). This is type 650A.
Here we see the beard as a physical manifestation of power. When someone else gains control of it, he is quickly left emasculated and powerless. There is definitely room for some Freudian reading here.
Ultimately, my instinct is that the simplest explanation is the best: dwarves were drawn with beards so that nobody would mistake them for children. Egyptian art of Bes, for instance, sometimes had childlike attributes (such as going naked or wearing a lock of hair on the right side of his head). He could have easily been mistaken for a child had he not been drawn with facial hair (Åkerblom 15). And it just went from there, until beards were a defining characteristic of fairytale dwarves.
This website is based on my research into folklore. Currently, the focus is on my project surrounding thumblings, i.e. other versions of Thumbelina and Tom Thumb from different cultures. Other things may occasionally pop up.