There are warnings that a fairy knight named Tam Lin haunts a local forest. Ignoring these rumors, a daring young woman sets out to pick flowers there, only to come face-to-face with the knight himself. One thing leads to another, and when she becomes pregnant, Tam Lin explains that he is a prisoner of the fairies and only she can rescue him. As he changes through various monstrous forms, she must hold him tightly and never let go until he becomes himself again. So goes the Scottish ballad.
As I researched Tom Thumb, I happened across the theory that Tam Lin – a.k.a. Tamlane, Tomalin, etc. – is related to Tom Thumb, or even that he is Tom Thumb. This theory hinges on both being descended from an older Scandinavian character named Thumbling or Thaumlin. William Adolphus Wheeler promotes this theory in his 1866 work A Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction. It also pops up in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), Palmer’s Folk-etymology (1882) and David Fitzgerald’s “Robin Goodfellow and Tom Thumb” (1885).
Unfortunately, these authors seem to be reaching, and none of them ever seem to say where they got this idea. Reading Fitzgerald, one might think that you could definitively connect any folktale from any culture, as long it’s connected in some way to thumbs, fingers, hands, feet, short stature, short measure of time, the number five, the number seven, the name Thomas, the syllables Thumb, Tom, or Tam, or the letter T. If you define the giant Finn MacCool as a thumbling, I think we might be talking at cross purposes.
The names may be similar, but that's because Tam, Tom and Thomas are everyman names (like Hans or Jack), nothints at a vast shared history. Characters from all sorts of wildly different stories share these names because they are generic. Furthermore, Thumbling and Tam Lin are not etymologically related at all. (Thumbling is Little Thumb, and Tam Lin is Thomas of the Waters.)
So are there any sources that actually discuss Tam Lin’s size? Has some old reference to Tam Lin’s diminutive stature been lost, as the previously mentioned authors suggest? As described in nearly all versions of the ballad, he seems to be of normal stature. I found a couple of sources that, discussing the ballad, described him specifically as a dwarf. And there are a couple of versions that have him as a “wee, wee man.” One of these segues into the first verse of another ballad, appropriately titled “The Wee, Wee Man” (“the least that eer I saw”). This is presumably just because the two ballads got muddled up - in reality, this is common, unlike the nice, neat folktale family tree theory.
In Nymphidia (1627), Michael Drayton uses Tomalin and Tom Thumb as a miniature fairy knight and page, respectively. This is more likely to be an example of someone using random stock fairy names than a hint at a lost tradition. He also mixes in Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, and Roman mythology’s Proserpine and Pluto.
In the end, the stories of Tam Lin and Tom Thumb have no shared elements whatsoever. That is much more important than the similarity of the names.
The earliest surviving print version of Tom Thumb was produced in 1621. In the foreword, the author specifically mentions a “Tom a Lin, the Devil’s supposed bastard” alongside other Toms – notably, all of normal size – before reasserting that he is writing about Tom Thumb (or “Little Tom of Wales”), supposedly the oldest of all.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t an older oral tradition we can only guess at, where Tom and Tam have some long-forgotten connection. But often, the theory of the Great Grandpa of All Other Folktales Ever simply gets silly. In Murray’s Ballads and Songs of Scotland (1874), a connection is drawn between Tom Thumb, Tam Lin, and the Norse god Thor. I still don’t understand what on earth Thor has to do with Tam Lin, but the author does make a point that Thor plays a Thumbling-esque part in his encounters with giants – hiding in the finger of a glove, or running to escape a giant’s foot.
I find that fascinating.
(tam-nonlinear.tumblr.com/ and tam-lin.org/ were very helpful in researching this post.)
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.