The story of Le Petit Poucet was first published in 1697, in Perrault's Histoires ou contes du temps passe. This story is type 327B, the less popular cousin of Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk.
It's also not exactly a thumbling story. Perrault explains that the hero is no bigger than a thumb when he's born, but we don't know how tall he is as a child when the story starts. He is not truly miniature, since he can carry pebbles in his pocket and switch places with an ogre's daughter, but he's still the smallest of his brothers. In Guy Wetmore Carryl's "How Hop O' My Thumb Got Rid of an Onus" from Grimm Tales Made Gay (1902), "his height was only two foot three." In the original it's left more vague, but there is none of the fantastical hiding in snailshells or wielding a needle for a sword.
His name in the original is Petit Poucet, or Little Thumb. Poucet, pronounced poo-seh, is a diminutive of pouce (thumb). In 1729, the story was translated as Little Poucet, and in 1764 it appeared as Little Thumb. In 1804, it got the new name Hop o' my Thumb. This comes from the phrase "hop on my thumb," a nickname for a small person which first appeared in 1530. The name has also been used occasionally for other thumblings (as in North Indian Notes and Queries).
He is sometimes named Little Tom Thumb - confusingly, since it's not related to Tom Thumb at all except for that one brief line at the beginning. Translators and storytellers have confused the two on more than one occasion. As a rule, if Tom Thumb's mentioned as wearing boots or strewing breadcrumbs, then it's actually this guy.
My favorite name is Hop o' my Thumb, but that's a little long, so for this post, I'm just going to call him Poucet.
A poor couple manages to have seven children in four years. There are three sets of twins, though Perrault only names the oldest (Pierrot, translated Peterkin). Going by culture, twins have been signs of good fortune or bad.
In contrast to thumbling tales where parents desperately desire one child, here there are too many children, too many mouths to feed.
The youngest, Poucet, rarely speaks and is often mistreated. However, he's the only one who overhears their father planning to get rid of them and getting their mother to go along with it. (This is the exact reverse of the good father and cruel mother in Hansel and Gretel.)
It's a dark tale grounded in abject poverty and hunger. Jack Zipes points out that this grounds the tale in 17th-century France, which was ridden by plague and famine, and child abandonment was not unheard of. There was a terrible food shortage specifically in 1693 and 1694, which would have made the story very immediate for its first readers.
However, like Hansel, Poucet is on top of things. He stays quiet even after the boys have realized they're lost and begun to weep, and then speaks up to reveal that he has left a trail of pebbles leading home. He is probably relishing this moment.
They return home, and as it happens, their parents have received ten crowns and they can all eat again. However, the root of the problem still hasn't been solved. When the money runs out, the situation repeats, and this time Poucet is not able to collect any pebbles. He makes do with breadcrumbs, but of course, the birds eat them, leaving the boys stranded in the woods.
They make their way to the home of an ogre. His wife tries to help and hide them, but the ogre discovers them and plans to eat them.
In Hansel and Gretel, the witch is a dark mirror of the evil stepmother. Here, the brutish, ravenous ogre and his sympathetic but enabling wife mirror Poucet's father and mother. They even have the same number of children - seven little ogresses.
Poucet manages to switch his brothers' caps with the ogresses' crowns, so that when the ogre enters in the dark to kill them, he slaughters his own daughters by mistake. It's a gruesome and miserable section, which Perrault may have tried to soften by playing up the daughters' monstrous qualities. The victims' clothing swap is a very old trope going back to Greek mythology (Goldberg).
The last section is the ogre's pursuit of the boys. He dons seven-league boots for this, which Poucet steals while he sleeps. Seven-league boots show up in many fairytales but were originally popularized by Perrault. In the story of Sweetheart Roland, much the same thing happens, from the mistaken murder to the pursuit in magic boots.
The chase scene, where the hero wins with quick thinking and magic rather than speed or strength, is a really distinctive part of this tale type. It shows up in Jack and the Beanstalk with the descent down the beanstalk. In the Scottish tale of Molly Whuppie, she escapes across a bridge made of a single hair and the giant can't follow her. In the story of Fereyel and Debbo Engal the Witch, from Gambia, tiny Fereyel creates mountains and rivers behind him to stop the witch's pursuit.
Different versions of the tale do not agree on whether Poucet returns and tricks the wife into giving him all of the ogre's treasure. Perrault questions it himself. Whichever way you slice it, the ogre's wife gets the raw end of the deal.
This time, the root problem has been solved. Poucet becomes a royal messenger, bringing in a salary, and the family lives happily ever after.
This is a . . . really dark story, but surprisingly popular, though still not at the Disney-adaptation level of famous fairytales. There was even a Nike advertisement that altered the image at the beginning of this post to include Nike shoes. I think my favorite versions are the ones from other countries, like Molly Whuppie and Fereyel.
This website is based on my research into folklore.