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 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)
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.
Issun Boshi is interesting because it’s such a unique variant of the Thumbling story, clearly native to Japan. Many others are simply the same story given different window dressing. Here, though, Issun Boshi’s narrative is fundamentally different. And Issun-Boshi shows up multiple times under different names (like Mamesuke), which I think is enough to establish it as its own variation.
The typical thumbling is a trickster and child-archetype with simple, even repetitive adventures and a circular narrative. Thumbling’s Travels is one example – although by age he’s a young adult and ready to go out into the world and make a living, by the end he’s back at home with his parents, still technically a child. Issun Boshi’s story, however, is of a boy growing into a man.
The common elements are very interesting.
The wish for a child: yes
Emphasis on small size, creative use of objects (like a needle for a sword): yes
Helping on the farm: no
Tricking people: no
Being swallowed: Yes, but in a typical thumbling story, it’s just one of those wacky things that happens when you’re an inch tall. The thumbling is a passive agent and must be rescued. In Issun-Boshi, it’s a battle to defend his princess.
Finally, instead of remaining small all his life, Issun Boshi grows to full size, symbolically becoming an adult.
Issun Boshi may have been recorded even before Tom Thumb. It’s one of the otogi-zoshi – a later term for popular stories written mostly in the Muromachi period from 1392 to 1573. It may have not become widespread until the early Edo period. Frustratingly, that’s a pretty big window of time, and I haven’t been able to find anything to narrow that down. Most early manuscripts have no dates and the identities of their authors are also a mystery. The copies that do have dates are usually retellings or copies from the Edo period.
Haruo Shirane mentions that the oldest versions of Issun Boshi “[survive] in a mere three manuscripts” but doesn’t say which they are, and his source for this is presumably in Japanese, rendering it inaccessible to me for now.
Issun Bôshi means “One Sun Boy” – a “sun” being equal to just over an inch. Thus, in English, he is sometimes renamed some variation on Little One-Inch.
Unlike European tales, which tend to place stories in vague locations, it is very specific. Issun Boshi is born after his parents pray at Sumiyoshi sanjin, an ancient Shinto shrine in Osaka. He travels across Osaka Bay in a rice bowl and has an adventure in Kyoto.
The Yanagita Guide to the Japanese Folk Tale lists multiple variants of this story under different names, such as Issunbo or Issun Kotaro. More distantly related, Virginia Skord mentions eleven otogi-zoshi tales about a dwarf hero winning a wife and climbing in social status. Issun Boshi is one category. The other two categories are Ko Otoko (Little Man) and Hikyūdono (Lord Dwarf).
Ko Otoko, with its one-foot-tall hero Toshihisa, has a near-identical plotline to Lazy Taro. He eventually becomes the god of Gojo Shrine and his wife becomes Kannon, a goddess of childrearing who is Buddhist in origin. (Incidentally, Issun-Boshi’s princess is attacked while on her way to pray at Kannon’s shrine.)
The story of Hikyūdono is a cross between Issun Boshi and Ko Otoko, but I haven’t been able to find more information on it yet.
This story is probably one of the more well-known thumbling tales, and I think that from a storytelling standpoint, it may be better than the typical Thumbling.
I was going through “Catalogue Raisonn des Contes Grecs Types et Versions AT 700,” when I noticed one that stood out. The summary of a story titled "Η γυναίκα και τα παιδιά της" or “The woman and her children” basically goes:
“A childless woman pours beans into the chimney and they become children. The mother burns them because she doesn’t know what to do. Yannis and Maria [“Jack and Mary”] survive.”
Sooooo . . . Maria. That’s a female character. I may have just found a Greek Thumbelina – from Halkidiki, to be precise.
However, I can’t find the story myself to be sure. It was cited as being from a Greek folklore database, Κέντρο Ερευνησ της Ελληνικής Λαογραφίας της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών – the specific number being cited ΛΑ 1179, (ΣΜ 9), 13. I don’t know if this is digitized. Even if it is, I may not be able to find it.
Incidentally, this would be the second Thumbelina named Maria.
I recently read The Types of the Irish Folktale by Sean ´O Súilleabháin and Reidar Th. Christiansen. This led me to the Schools' Collection - an effort by Irish folklorists to preserve old traditions by enlisting schoolchildren.
Fortunately for me, they are now in the process of digitizing this database! However, it took me a while to decipher the way the type index listed the examples of Type 700 found in the Schools collection. The website uses the format “The Schools’ Collection, Volume ----, Page ---.
A few interesting trends showed up as I went through this. Probably the most prominent trend is that I can't read Gaelic. Especially handwritten Gaelic. So much handwriting.
Variants of Thumbling
Variants of Thumbling that use the name “Tom Thumb”
Variants of the Young Giant
Other Tale Types
Gaelic, unable to read
Does not match
These were listed in the Type Index, but do not seem to be variants of Type 700. I may have made a mistake in transcription here.
As I search, I continually encounter a few resources that remain unavailable to me through the Internet and the American library system. I’ve decided to post them here, and should I find them and be able to read them, I’ll tick them off.
“Master Thumb,” retold by Htin Aung – What is the character’s name in the original dialect?? May 15, 2016: Miiiight have possibly found it, maybe.
Tale of the “hedgehog-sized boy.” The folklore collection of Jakob Hurt III, 27, 339/44. Estonian Literary Museum.
“Thumb Boy” – name in original Oroqen dialect.
“Draganka,” from Senovo. Recorded by Milena Benovska in 1990. The only lead I’ve found on this is the title of a thesis by Benovska - "Териоморфни митически персонажи в българския фолклор/ Theriomorphic mythical characters in Bulgarian folklore."
A couple of equivalents:
"Story-type Analysis of Mongolian Folktale Sheep-Tale Boy"
Nights of Baghdad – Iraqi Folktales
“A Dwarf.” Zong In-sob, Ondol Yawa, Nihonshoin, pp. 380, 1927. May 15, 2016: Found equivalent.
Irish Thumblings. I recently checked out The Types of the Irish Folktale, which listed a lot of references for the Thumbling tale type, but to my disappointment, they've been pretty hard to track down.
Good news and bad news. I found a book called Traditional Storytelling Today: An International Sourcebook, which includes at least a few examples of Type 700. It mentions Solnicho and Piperko, or Sultanka and Piperko from Senovo, Ossenets, and also a variant of Type 700b from Senovo, known as Draganka. Draganka is a little girl who drowns in a pot of beans. This was recorded in 1990 by Milena Benofska.
Another version is included in Collection of Folklore, Science and Letters vol. 16-17 and a variant starring an anthropomorphic rat appears in Shapkarev's Sbornik ot Bulgarski narodni oumocvorenia, vol. 8.
Now if only I READ BULGARIAN
The Story of Lentil (حكاية حبة العدس): A story from Kuwait. A woman is shocked when Allah answers her prayer and gives her a daughter the size of a lentil; she hides the child in a basket. However, the girl’s cousin, the Sultan’s son, is getting married. The neighbors learn that his paternal cousin is still unmarried and waiting him, and tradition demands that he marry her. The Sultan’s son sets things right and marries her, and she becomes a beautiful woman. Recounted in Spanish as “Lenteja” in ¿Qué es el folklore?, a doctoral thesis by Afrah Mulla Ali in 2011.
Katanya: In a Jewish oral tale from Turkey, a lonely old beggar woman is given a single date by a poor merchant (actually the prophet Elijah in disguise). The date hatches into the finger-sized Katanya, “the little one,” who sets to work cleaning the woman’s old house. They become a happy family; Katanya sleeps in a teacup, wears a hat made of a rabbit tail, nutshells for shoes, and rose petal dresses. A prince is drawn to her beautiful voice and invites the pair to the palace, where he marries Katanya.
This website is based on my research into folklore. Home to the Thumbling Project, collecting different versions of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina from around the world.