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.
You don't see thumblings in pop culture that much, so I take an interest whenever anyone does adaptations. I collect dolls, and one of my Christmas presents this year was an Ever After High doll: Nina Thumbell.
Ever After High is a doll franchise by Mattel. The basic concept is that the dolls are all the children of fairytale characters. One day, they're all supposed to live out the fairytales like their parents before them, but some of them rebel against this idea.
As you may have already guessed, Nina is the daughter of Thumbelina. No, the doll is not thumb-sized. This character can magically grow and shrink. More on that later.
I have mixed feelings on her fashion sense. I like how her skirt resembles a tulip, but the plaid shirt is kind of weird, and my mom remarked that her vine boots looked like green silly string. Seeing the doll in person, the color combo is growing on me. I also like that the face molds are now more unique and expressive, although in other areas the new dolls lack the small details that appeared with older dolls. (For instance, the box doesn't include a doll stand as the older ones did, and Nina lacks the earrings that she wears in promo art.)
I will say she is very fun to pose.
Unlike the other dolls, Nina's box does not include a diary, but has only a small card bearing a brief description.
The lack of a diary was the one thing that really disappointed me when I opened the box.
Nina does appear as a cheerleader in the diary of another character, Faybelle Thorn, and in one of the tie-in books, Fairy's Got Talent by Suzanne Selfors (2015). She isn't really fleshed out there, but seems mainly cautious and fearful and tends to go with the flow. This contrasts with her fearless characterization in other media.
She is allied with the Rebels, the faction thats want to throw off their destinies, rather than the Royals, who want to follow in their parents' footsteps. She really only gets a spotlight once, in her webisode Thumb-believable. The other characters shrink down to her size so that she can give them a tour of Ever After High as she sees it. There are some pretty fun scenes where they climb through the walls and enter Nina's room, which appears to be inside a locker. She loves exploring and has a pet cat.
Her profile page on the Ever After High website provides more information on her personality.
What does that mean?
In this aspect, Nina is like the "animal" characters (like the Cheshire Cat's and White Rabbit's daughters) who can turn into human form. These are characters that are marketed as dolls - not, notably, the Three Little Pigs or the Billygoats Gruff. A proportional Nina doll would be a tiny speck, not really a great doll to play with.
However, her power kind of breaks the story. It's hard to see how the challenges Thumbelina faces would be challenges if she could shoot up to five foot three at any time.
One person on a fan wiki suggested this was because of Nina's fairy heritage from her father, which I thought that was clever.
Because her fairytale's about people trying to force her into marriage
A short joke, but also suggests a side of her that hasn't been seen yet.
Because she's a flower fairy.
Another short joke.
And that's about all there is to know about Nina Thumbell at this point. Unfortunately, considering the direction Ever After High has been going recently, I'm concerned that we may not see much more of its characters, including Nina. I'd love to see more books featuring her.
"Tom the Piper's Son" is a nursery rhyme, with the first known version published about 1795 in a London chapbook. The titular Tom steals a pig, is beaten as punishment, and runs away crying.
There was another, longer poem about a Tom the Piper's Son, which dealt with him playing music wherever he went, but this is less known and has nothing to do with the more well-known version.
The Ballad Index's writeup mentions a Lincolnshire text:
Tom, Tom, the baker's son
stole a wig, and away he run;
The wig was eat, and Tom was beat,
And Tom went roaring down the street.
A wig was a kind of bun, explaining what it had to do with a baker's son, how a boy could carry it easily, and how it could be eaten. The notes suggest that this version is the original. It makes sense that someone could have heard the poem, thought of the other kind of wig, and corrected it to the more edible "pig."
So the "pig" and "piper" elements could be simple oral mutations picked up as different people recited it, although it's impossible to say. There are a couple of versions, however, that particularly piqued my interest.
Tom Thumb the piper's son,
Stole a pig, and away did run ;
The pig was eat, and Tom was beat,
Till he ran crying down the street.
(From Gammer Gurton's Garland (1810) p.35)
And yes, in that version, it's Tom Thumb. It doesn't take much to go from "Tom, Tom" to "Tom Thumb." "Tom, Tom" is a bit too repetitive. "Tom Thumb" has more of a natural rhythm, and "thumb" is closer to rhyming with "son," at least in my accent.
I find it interesting how these two seem to build in severity. The wig-and-baker version suggests a closer connection, perhaps that Tom was in a bakery run by his family, and that they punished him for his misbehavior. The pig-and-piper version gives more distance - Tom lacks even a faint claim to the pig. Thus the images in the shet music, with a policeman seizing Tom for his theft.
This trend goes even further in a more violent version from Grey County, Ontario, published in The Journal of American Folklore in 1917.
Tom Thumb, the piper's son,
Stole a goose and away he run;
The goose got caught, and he was shot,
And that was the end of the piper's son.
In one early scene in Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, the titular character plays hooky to visit a puppet theater. The act is a pair of wooden marionettes, Harlequin and Punchinello, arguing onstage. However, they soon recognize him in the audience, instinctively knowing his name and calling him their brother. They, and all the puppets from behind the curtains, call him up onstage and the play breaks down as they welcome him.
The showman, Fire-Eater, plans to use Pinocchio as firewood, and then plans to use Harlequin instead. After Pinocchio talks him into relenting, the puppets dance all night. This scene is never mentioned again. The puppets here are just as alive as Pinocchio, but are treated as property rather than children, and there is nothing to stop their owner from throwing them on the fire if he's displeased.
This scene baffled me when I first read Pinocchio, because it means he is not the only one of his kind and living puppets aren't uncommon.
Maybe they were carved from similar pieces of talking wood. It fits in with the logic of the story. Ultimately, the scene contrasts the fate of a puppet with the fate of a human - and Pinocchio doesn't want to be a puppet. Pinocchio has a long hard road before he can become human. The other marionettes are content to remain what they are, but that comes at the price of freedom and security. He shows his noblest impulses of generosity and kindness while he's with them, but he doesn't have a great bond with them.
Alexei Tolstoy's retelling of Pinocchio, The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino, ran wild with the idea of other puppet characters. Here, Buratino has no desire to become a real boy, and at the same time has a much greater bond with the other puppets. His quest is to liberate them from their owner.
More recently, the graphic novel Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer and the Great Puppet Theater appeared. It is exactly what it sounds like. Here again, when Pinocchio is teamed up with the other puppets and treats them like family, he is still a puppet rather than a human being.
The puppets, including Harlequin and Punchinello and Rose, are all stock figures from a form of Italian theater called commedia dell’arte. This has descendants throughout English theater traditions as well. Punchinello, Pulcinella or Punch is one of the main players of the Punch and Judy puppet show. British pantomimes of the 18th and 19th centuries often involved harlequinades, where characters transformed into the clowns Harlequin and Columbine for a dance. The multi-colored Harlequin was mute and carried a magic wand. Peter Pan almost included a harlequinade.
Harlequin comes from the Italian Arlecchino. It may also have roots in Hellequin, a name for a leader of the terrifying Wild Hunt, or the German Erlkönig (Elf King). Further back, it may derive from a mythic figure known as Herla, who in turn is related to the Norse god Woden.
The Harlequin clown design also inspired DC Comics' multi-colored villain Harley Quinn.
Perrault's "Puss in Boots" begins with a poor miller's son, alone in the world except for a pet cat. Things look bleak, until the cat speaks up. It has a plan to put the boy on a path straight up the social ladder, turning him from a beggar to the future king.
This is accomplished by a whole lot of lying. When the cat first introduces his master to the king and his daughter, he dubs him the Marquis of Carabas. The name is mentioned again and again throughout the story, and becomes the moniker by which the character is always referred. We never learn his real name.
So what is Carabas? It's likely just a nonsense word created by Perrault. The cat makes up a title out of whole-cloth and gradually adds a princess and a castle to back it up. Carabas is not a real place. It's not supposed to be.
In The Great Fairy Tale Tradition, Jack Zipes suggests that Perrault could have taken inspiration from stories of a fool in Alexandria named Carabas, who people mocked by treating like a king, or the Turkish word "Carabag" for a summer vacation spot in the mountains.
A carabas is also a French term for a cage-like carriage, but the earliest mention I find of it is from 1874, well after Perrault, and it may derive from the Puss in Boots story.
There are a few similar words in French. "Car" is a dialect word from Picardy meaning something along the lines of "that's why." "Caraba" is cashew nut oil. However, like the previous examples, these words have no obvious connection to Perrault's story.
There are many versions of this tale, and some include similar aliases. A Swedish version has the Princess of Cattenburg, which is clearly Cat Town. Similarly, there's the Earl of Cattenborough in Joseph Jacobs' European Fairy Tales. It's unclear where exactly Jacobs got this story. The characters' names (Charles, Sam, and John) are all very English. He may have drawn elements from different variants of the Puss tale. He specifically mentions the Princess of Cattenburg, so he may have gotten the name here.
Italian versions are Don Joseph Pear (derived from the pear tree that he owns) and Count Piro (which I believe also derives from pears in the story). Other Italian versions have the cat or fox helper rename its master Caglioso or Gagliuso, a name meaning youth.
Actually, in quite a few of these versions, the animal helper is female. Perrault made the character male. Sometimes it's explained as a magical cat or an enchanted princess, but Perrault's cat just happens to be able to talk.
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.