The Grimms published two tales that were very similar: Thumbling (Daumesdick) and Thumbling's Travels (Daumerling's Wanderschaft).
Although they're both commonly referred to as Thumbling, these are not the same character.
Thumbling's Travels, or Thumbling as Journeyman begins with Thumbling telling his father, a tailor, that he wants to go out into the world. He takes a darning needle for a sword. Before he can do anything else, he's blown up the chimney on the steam from a hot meal.
When he lands, he goes to become a tailor's apprentice, but is displeased with the food. He mocks the cook, telling her, "I will go away, and early to-morrow morning I will write with chalk on the door of your house, 'Too many potatoes, too little meat! Farewell, Mr. Potato-King.'" She does not react well.
Taking up his journey again, he joins a band of robbers and they rob the king's treasury. The impressed robbers want to make Thumbling their captain but he wants to see the world first. He goes on his way, taking only one kreuzer (a small silver coin) because it's all he can carry.
He takes a job as a manservant at an inn, but snitches on the maids when they steal food. A vengeful maid catches Thumbling in the garden and gives him to the cows with the grass clippings, causing him to be swallowed. When someone milks the cow, Thumbling calls, "Strip, strap, strull, will the pail soon be full?" They slaughter the cow, and Thumbling is sealed into a black-pudding or sausage and hung up all winter. He only escapes when someone cuts it open. Once outside, he is swallowed by a fox, and promises to let it eat the chickens in his father's yard if it will take him home. This happens, and Thumbling is reunited with his overjoyed father, who doesn't mind the fox eating his chickens now that he has his son back. The end.
The hero being a tailor suggests a connection to the story of the Brave Little Tailor. There are actually many songs and jokes about tailors being very small or thin. In Eucharius Eyering's Sprichwörter (1601), a tailor as light as elder-wood is blown into the air and gets caught in a spider's web. There is one folk song about a tailor falling into a soup bowl and being swallowed, and another about tailors feasting on a fried flea and drinking out of a thimble - for the second, see "Nine Tailors Held a Council" by William Davis Snodgrass.
SurLaLune's annotation of the Brave Little Tailor explains, "tailors were poor and not highly regarded by society because they were seen as weak men." Because of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of guilds, tailors were poor and travelled around. Townspeople saw these wanderers as shifty, lazy and dishonest.
As seen in this German list of idioms, there were sayings like "freezing like a tailor" for oversensitivity to cold, and "eating like a tailor" for not eating very much. The weakness of tailors was attributed to a lack of food and it was said they couldn't bear much in contrast to the strong appetite of the agricultural workers. The Schneider-Geiß-Spott or Schneider-Spottlied (tailor-mocking) was a specific type of German joke which originated as a crude sexual gag. These date back to at least 1408, when a Strasbourg council banned such a joke.
The Grimms' tailors, however, are courageous, clever tricksters. Cleverness is the most esteemed virtue in Grimm tales. Thumbling is called a journeyman, meaning he's completed his apprenticeship but is not a master tailor.
Like all the Grimms' stories, Thumbling's Travels changed in the telling. The first edition preserves the stories more exactly as they were first told. Later editions, after the stories became popular, soften unsavory elements and polish the plots. Wilhelm was the principal editor after their first edition, and revised the tales extensively to make them more dramatic and literary.
In The 1810 Grimm Manuscripts, Oliver Loo compares the Grimms' first edition from 1812 with an earlier surviving draft. There are some small differences, mostly literary embellishments and polishing. The original edition lacked the "Farewell, Mr. Potato King" and indeed any mention of potatoes. Jacob and Wilhelm heard the potato line from a maid, completely separately from the tale, and Jacob called it a “handwerksspaß” (workers jest). Jacob did not seem entirely pleased with the inclusion of a joke foreign to the original story. (pp. 212-219).
Some sources say the the source of Daumerling's Wanderschaft was Marie Hassenpflug, a frequent source of the Grimms', but in the index, the Grimms say that the story comes from "stories current in the districts of the Maine, Hesse, and Paderborn, which reciprocally complete each other." This implies they patched together quite a few stories, probably including Marie Hassenpflug's.
They add, "a continuation or special combination of the detached stories, which belong to this group, contains the story of Thumbling (No. 37)" - that is, Daumesdick.
Daumesdick is usually translated as Thumbling but might be better referred to as Thumbthick. It begins with a childless couple wishing for a baby, even if it's only the size of a thumb. The woman then falls pregnant and gives birth after seven months to a thumb-sized child.
Thumbthick never gets any larger, but is very clever. One day Thumbthick takes the horse and cart to his father who is cutting wood, and rides in the horse's ear, calling directions. Two men see the horse apparently by itself, and when they see Thumbthick, want to buy him so that they can exhibit him for money. Thumbthick tells his father to take their money, and goes off with the men, only to slip away from them. He then encounters two thieves and offers to help them rob the wealthy pastor. When they get to the pastor's house, however, Thumbthick makes such a racket that he wakes the people inside and the robbers flee.
Thumbthick intends to head home, but is swallowed by the pastor's cow. He cries out, "Am I in the fulling mill?" (In a fulling mill, wool is beaten and boiled to make felt.) People hear him yelling inside the cow's stomach. The pastor, believing the animal is possessed, has it slaughtered. The stomach is thrown on the midden (trash heap), where a wolf eats it before Thumbthick can escape. Thumbthick tricks the wolf into going to his house, promising it a feast, and directs it to the larder of its house. It gorges itself so much it can't get back out, and Thumbling screams for his parents, who kill the wolf. Thumbthick is reunited with his family and says that he will never leave them again.
This story was not in the first 1812 edition, and first appeared in the expanded and edited version in 1819. Thumbthick comes from Mühlheim on the Rhine, a town near Cologne. Although it is very similar to Daumerling's Wanderschaft, it has some strong variations and is closer to the most widespread Thumbling formula. It includes the wish for a child no matter how small. Thumbthick helps his father on the farm, drives a wagon or plow, sells himself and cheats the buyer, and frightens off robbers. You see these themes again and again, so perhaps it's fitting that it gets its own space in the Grimms' collection. The 1958 film "tom thumb" is an adaptation of this story.
The scene with the men wanting to exhibit him is interesting, because it has a hint of the life a person with dwarfism might have led at that time, performing for the public. This shows a change from the older English story of Tom Thumb, where the main character is a court dwarf performing for royalty.
I always used to imagine these two Grimm tales being connected, like Thumbthick somehow growing up to be Thumbling, but the two characters are very different. This is most clearly seen in their treatment of the robbers and of the fox/wolf.
Thumbling works so well with the robbers that they want to make him their captain, and in the end the fox that swallows him is rewarded for taking him home.
Thumbthick is more manipulative and opportunistic. He entices and then double-crosses the men who want to exhibit him, the thieves who want to use him, and the wolf that swallows him.
Both Thumblings are tricksters, but one plays tricks on wealthy kings and dishonest maids, and the other plays tricks on robbers and beasts.
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.
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.