The Three Little Pixies
The Three Little Pigs is one of the most iconic fairytales, instantly recognizable in any list. But where did it come from? In fact, the earliest known version of the story actually features not pigs, but pixies.
This story, Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 124, resembles tales like "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" (ATU 123) and "Little Red Riding Hood" (ATU 333) where a predator tries to gain access to its prey's home through trickery or force. The listener identifies with a child like Red Riding Hood, or a domesticated animal like the goats or pigs. Sometimes the victim escapes with a clever trick. In other versions, he or she is gobbled up whole, and may or may not escape the wolf's belly.
However, the three pigs are sort of latecomers.
In 1853, an untitled story about a fox stalking a group of pixies was published in English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive. The story was also recorded in “The Folk-Lore of Devonshire” in Fraser's Magazine vol. 8 (1873). The pixies in the fox story live in an oddly domestic colony; two who dwell in wooden and stone houses are eaten. The fox, in search of prey, knocks at each door and calls "Let me in, let me in" before breaking the house open. However, a clever third pixie lives in an iron house which the fox can't break into. At the end, the fox finally captures the pixy in a box. However, the pixy uses a magical charm to trick him into switching places, and the fox dies.
This is the earliest known version of the story. So how did we get to pigs?
[Edit 3/23/21: J. F. Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands, first published around 1860, mentions the pig story. "There is a long and tragic story which has been current amongst at least three generations of my own family regarding a lot of little pigs who had a wise mother, who told them where they were to build their houses, and how, so as to avoid the fox. Some of the little pigs would not follow their mother's counsel, and built houses of leaves, and the fox got in and said, "I will gallop, and I'll trample, and I'll knock down your house," and he ate the foolish, little, proud pigs; but the youngest was a wise little pig, and, after many adventures, she put an end to the wicked fox when she was almost vanquished, bidding him look into the caldron to see if the dinner was ready, and then tilting him in headforemost."]
In 1877, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine featured William Owens' article "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," including the story of "Tiny Pig." Seven pigs are hunted by a fox, who goes to each of their houses and asks entrance. The pigs each reply in rhyme, "No, no, Mr. Fox, by the beard on my chin! You may say what you will, but I'll not let you in." The fox proceeds to blow down each house and eat the occupant. Only the seventh one, Tiny Pig, has built a strong stone house, and the fox finds that he cannot blow it or tear it down. The fox attempts to enter through the chimney, but Tiny Pig has a fire waiting for him.
In an odd note, Owens compares "Tiny Pig" to an Anglo-Saxon tale called "The Three Blue Pigs." He implies that this was the source for the African-American tale. He gives no source for this story, but it seems he expected his readers to recognize it. However, Thomas Frederick Crane, a collector of Italian tales, seemed baffled by the reference and wrote that he was unable to find the tale.
The tale seems to have been strongly present in African-American folklore of the time. In addition to this appearance in Lippincott's Magazine, Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris (1883) featured "The Story of the Pigs." Five build houses for themselves from "bresh," sticks, mud, planks, and rock. Brer Wolf sweet-talks and lures each one, coaxing them to open the doors of their respective homes. In this way, he devours them one by one. Only the Runt sees through his deception. In a scene reminiscent of both Red Riding Hood's dialogue with a disguised wolf, and the Seven Kids' protests that the wolf doesn't resemble their mother, Runt sees through each of Brer Wolf's claims that he's one of her siblings. Again, there is the ending with the chimney and the pig's waiting fire. A Harris story published later, "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf," told a similar narrative with Brer Rabbit as the protagonist.
"The Three Goslings" appeared in Thomas Frederick Crane's Italian Popular Tales in 1885. This is another close variation on the story, but with geese rather than pigs. Here we find the wolf blowing down houses. Ultimately, the third gosling pours boiling water into the wolf's mouth to kill him, and then cuts open his stomach to free her sisters. (I'm not sure why the boiling water didn't hurt them.) Crane collected this from Tradizioni popolari veneziane raccolte by Dom. Giuseppe Bernoni, vol. 3 (c. 1875-77). He also included a story called "The Cock," which similarly featured a wolf blowing down animals' houses (in this case built of feathers).
Our modern famous trio of pigs can be traced back to James Orchard Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England (1886). The tale was titled "The Story of the Three Little Pigs." Here is the final pig living in a brick house. Here are the rhyming couplets with the wolf calling out, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in" and huffing and puffing houses in. A few scenes, such as the wolf trying to lure out the pig and the pig duping him, are identical to scenes in the pixie story. As in the Italian stories, the wolf blows down the houses, and as in the African-American versions, the ending has the wolf's descent through the chimney. (However, the pig boils him and eats him, reminding one of the Italian gosling's boiling pot of water.) The British version featuring the pigs gained popularity through Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales (1890), which cited Halliwell. Another version showed up in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book (1906).
Some African and Middle-Eastern versions tell the same story with different animals, such as sheep or goats. In some areas, human main characters seem more popular, as in the Moroccan tale of Nciç (Scellés-Millie, Paraboles et contes d’Afrique du Nord, 1982). A sultan and his seven sons travel to Mecca, but one by one the sons lose courage and build houses - one with walls of honey, another with walls of date paste. The seventh and smallest son Nciç builds an iron house and faces off against a ghoul.
The story of the fox and the pixies remains an outlier. It is the first known tale to introduce the now-familiar framework of the Three Little Pigs. However, it is also oddly rare. Pigs, fowl, goats, and humans all star in similar tales, but I've never encountered another version with pixies.
And what exactly makes foxes a natural enemy of pixies? The 1873 article in Fraser's Magazine remarks that "There is a very curious connection between the pixies and the wild animals of the moor, especially with the fox, which features in many local stories. These turn frequently on a struggle in craft and cunning between the fox and the pixie." However, the only story cited is this one - not exactly a large sample size - and the author admits that the story of the pixies living in individual houses of iron, etc., is atypical.
Meanwhile, in the other stories recorded in English Forests, pixies are "merry wicked sprites" who torment horses, lead humans astray in the woods, and steal babies. These are not cute winged fairies. They appear as "large bundles of rags," or occasionally tiny sprites dressed in filthy rags. Rather than being harmed by iron like some folkloric fae, they are miners and metalworkers. In one story, they are apparently immune to gunfire ("they were not to be harmed by weapon of 'middle earth'").
In the fox story, however, they are hapless creatures easily devoured by a woodland animal. The only pixy-ish thing they do is at the very end, when the final survivor uses an unspecified "charm" to entrap the fox.
I believe the answer is lies in a confusion between similar words. The word "pixy" is close to "pig" - and that's before you get into related words like puck or pug. One variation is pigsies or pigseys.
Pigsie is a Devonshire term for pixie. The story of the fox and the pixies is from Dartmoor, in Devon.
The pixie version could have arisen through a misinterpretation of the animal pig (or piggie) as the supernatural creature pigsie. If it was originally about pigs, that would explain why similar tales frequently feature animal heroes, and the same tale was widespread with pig protagonists even on the other side of an ocean. It would also explain why the Dartmoor tale's pixies act so unpixylike and helpless, with only one mention of magic thrown in at the end almost as an afterthought.
I can only think of a couple of versions of The Three Little Pigs which feature fairies as protagonists, and they are modern take-offs. In 1996, a book titled Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker featured a parody of the Three Little Pigs as "The Three Little Pinks." In this fable about girl power, a misogynistic gardener named Wolf comes at odds with three flower fairies who share the task of painting flowers pink. I found this parody less than impressive. But it's still intriguing in how it cycles - perhaps unknowingly - back to one of the earliest published versions of the tale.
Oh, and there was an early 20th century version of "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" which featured a goblin and seven little breeze spirits. That was "The Gradual Fairy" by Alice Brown, published in 1911.
I do wonder about the "Three Blue Pigs" tale mentioned by William Owens, which could potentially date back before the tale of the fox and the pixies. Perhaps it didn't survive. That would be a fascinating find, though.
There's a popular conception that fairytales all take place a very long time ago, in ancient times with princesses and castles and knights. That's partly true. But then why are there no "modern" fairytales?
I believe most people who told oral folktales, while they may have featured princesses and castles and so on, pictured the events as happening in towns like their own, with technology like their own. Contemporary settings.
Folktale collecting's major boom began around the early 1800s with the Brothers Grimm. We also had a wave of fairytale writers, like Hans Christian Andersen, inspired by folktales. The result of the folklore movement was fairytales frozen in time. Now that they were in print, they existed as the product of that time period.
Just for context, the telegraph was invented in 1837. The first telephone was 1876, the light bulb 1878. You had Napoleon, the Louisiana Purchase, the American Civil War (in no particular order). People living in the 1800s would have lived to see the first films and World War II.
The image at the top of this post is an illustration of the Grimms' tale "The Four Skillful Brothers." It looks very fantastical and medieval, right? That looks like the kind of dragon you'd slay with a sword. Spoiler alert: someone shoots that dragon with a gun. Guns actually appear a lot of fairytales, from the Grimms and otherwise.
You see the same thing in literary fairytales like Hans Christian Andersen's. In Andersen, there's a wide range. The Marsh King's Daughter features Vikings, but The Steadfast Tin Soldier has tin soldiers, muskets, ballet, and plumbing.
Today, there's a sort of "fairytale canon" in the popular mind, strongly influenced by Disney. Even Disney fairytales tend to be set in a vague, anachronistic past. For instance, Snow White is a mishmash of elements from different historical periods. Their clothing is medieval fantasy, but there's gas technology and a Bunsen burner in the Evil Queen's lair. The Bunsen burner was invented in the 1850s.
Are there any modern fairytales set in modern times? It depends on what you mean. Although oral storytelling isn't as popular, we do have people continuing to retell and adapt fairytales as movies or as books. In many cases, these retellings are set in contemporary times. See Cinder Edna, a picture book by Ellen Jackson, where the main character takes a bus to the ball. There are also plenty of fantasy short stories which have modern flavors. Or even Internet folklore like Slenderman.
But I do think that if you set out to collect oral folktales being told today, you will find fairytales set in worlds like those the storytellers inhabit. There are collections created well into the 20th century. Hasan el-Shamy has collected folktales from the Middle East. Another example is Barbara Rieti's Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland, published 1991. At one point in 1985, she attempted to track down the origins of a local tale of a little girl taken away by fairies. You would think of that as happening in a long-ago distant time - which Rieti initially did. But then she actually met the person involved, who was then in her sixties (and who did not seem happy at her experience being turned into a fairytale). She had been lost in the woods for over a week and suffered from hypothermia. This happened in the 1930s.
I think there's a Disney-influenced imagining of fairytales as all taking place in the distant past, further influenced by a lack of context for just how recently these tales were set down in print.
Cinderella's Shoes: Glass or Fur?
In 1697, Charles Perrault published the story of "Cendrillon: ou la Petite Pantoufle de verre" (Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper). This is probably the most widespread version of Cinderella, thanks in large part to its adaptation by Walt Disney. I often see people on the Internet insist that "the original Cinderella wore gold slippers and had the stepsisters cut off their toes and get their eyes pecked out by birds!" But that was "Aschenputtel," the version from the Brothers Grimm. Perrault published his work 115 years before the Grimms did. It's impossible to identify an "original" version of Cinderella, but at least in terms of publication, the glass slipper came first.
But was it really a glass slipper? There is a persistent theory that the shoes were originally made of fur - which is about as far from glass as you can get!
This theory may have originated with Honore de Balzac, in La Comédie humaine: Sur Catherine de Médicis, published between 1830 and 1842 and finalized in 1846. The word for glass, "verre," sounds the same as "vair" or squirrel fur. This fur was a luxury item which only the upper class was allowed to wear. Therefore, claimed Balzac, Cinderella's slipper was "no doubt" made of fur.
Since then, quite a few authors have relied on this alternate origin for Cinderella's origins, usually in order to fit the story into a more "realistic" mold. It has also produced a persistent legend in the English-speaking world that Perrault used fur slippers and was mistranslated.
Yes, glass shoes raise questions. How did she dance in them? How did she run in them? Wouldn't they have shattered? Wouldn't they have been super noisy? Fur slippers erase those questions entirely.
But Cinderella stories regularly include things like dresses made of sunlight, moonlight and starlight. Forests grow of silver, gold and diamonds. Prisoners are confined atop glass mountains. In Perrault's version alone, mice are transformed into horses and pumpkins into carriages.
Glass slippers should not be an issue.
In fact, they fit perfectly well with the internal logic of the fairytale. As has been pointed out by others, the whole point of the slippers is that only Cinderella can wear them. Fur slippers are soft and yielding. Glass slippers are rigid and you can see clearly whether they fit a certain foot. Moving into symbolism: they are expensive, delicate, unique, magical. Cinderella must be light and delicate, too, in order to dance in them. They are a contradiction in terms (of course it would be impossible for a woman to dance in glass shoes! That's the whole point!) and that's why they have captured so many imaginations.
The fact is that Perrault wrote about "pantoufles de verre," glass slippers. He used those words multiple times. There is no question that he was talking about glass. No one mistranslated Perrault.
However, did he misunderstand an oral tale which mentioned slippers of vair?
It's important to note that "vair" was popular in the Middle Ages. By Perrault's time, this medieval word was long out of use!
It is still possible that Perrault could have heard a version with vair slippers - but is it probable? What stories might Perrault have heard?
In her extensive work on Cinderella, Marian Roalfe Cox found only six versions with glass shoes. She found many that were not described, many that were small or tiny, and many that were silver, silk, covered in jewels or pearls, or embroidered with gold. A Venetian story had diamond shoes, and an Irish tale had blue glass shoes. Cox believed that other versions with glass slippers were based on Perrault's Cendrillon. Paul Delarue, on the other hand, thought these versions were too far away in origin, which would make them independent sources - which means Perrault could have drawn on an older tradition of Cinderella in glass shoes.
Gold shoes are perhaps significant. Ye Xian or Yeh-hsien, a Chinese tale, was first published about 850, and its heroine's shoes are gold. Centuries later, the Grimms' Aschenputtel takes off her heavy wooden clogs to wear slippers “embroidered with silk and silver,” but her final slippers - the ones which identify her - are simply “pure gold.” It’s not clear whether this means gold fabric or solid metal.
As for other early Cinderellas: Madame D'Aulnoy published her story "Finette Cendron" (Cunning Cinders) in 1697, the same year as Perrault's Cendrillon. Her heroine wears red velvet slippers braided with pearls. Realistic enough.
The Pentamerone (1634) has "La Gatta Cenerenterola" (Cat Cinderella). It's not said what the heroine's shoes are made of, but she does ride in a golden coach.
Note that shoes are not always the object that identifies the heroine. In many tales, it's a ring - something likely to be made of gold or studded with gems. What if, at some pivotal point, far back in history, a storyteller combined the tiny shoe and the golden ring into a single object?
On the other hand, I have never found a Cinderella who wears fur slippers to a ball. Fur clothing appears in Cinderella stories such as "All-Kinds-of-Fur," but it's used as a hideous disguise. Rebecca-Anne do Rozario points out that "Finette Cendron" (which, again, came out the same year as Perrault's "Cendrillon") has Finette instruct an ogress to cast off her unfashionable bear-pelts. Fur clothing was not a symbol of wealth or status, but of wildness and ugliness.
Glass slippers were most likely Perrault's own invention dating from when he retold his folktales in literary format. No translation error, no misheard "vair" - just a really good idea and his own storytelling touch. If anything, he probably heard stories where the slippers were made of gold, or where their material was not mentioned.
It was only later writers like Honore de Balzac who added the confusion of the squirrel-fur slippers, and folklorists and linguists have been arguing against it ever since. James Planché wrote in 1858, "I thank the stars that I have not been able to discover any foundation for this alarming report." That was twelve years after Balzac's book was officially completed.
Heidi Anne Heiner at SurLaLune points out that the vair slipper theory dismisses Perrault's "adept literacy," and "negates [his] interest in the fantastic and magical, discounting his brilliant creativity."
Unfortunately, as shown by Alan Dundes, the vair/verre theory made it into influential sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and thus has been fed as fact to successive generations of readers. Who's going to question the Encyclopaedia Britannica? And so this rumor remains persistent.
As a final bit of trivia: there is one mention of glass shoes in the Brothers Grimm's tales. “Okerlo” appeared only in their 1812 manuscript and was quickly removed. (This is perhaps because it is clearly a retelling of a French literary tale, “The Bee and the Orange Tree.” Not unusual for the Grimms, but in this case it may have been just too blatant.) In the final lines, the narrator is asked what they wore to a wedding. They describe ridiculous clothes, with hair made of butter that melts, a dress of cobwebs that tears, and finally: “My slippers were made of glass, and as I stepped on a stone, they broke in two.” Here, the destruction of the fairytale clothing points out how impossible the magical tale is, and signals the end of the story and a return to reality.
Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum
This incomprehensible phrase is most famous for appearing in "Jack the Giant Killer." Most versions adhere to basically the same model:
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he alive or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.
What does "fee-fi-fo-fum" actually mean? Nobody knows. Although there have been theories. (Does fie mean a cry of disapproval, as in "Fie! Fie!"? Or does it come from the Gaelic word for "tasty"? I'm leaning towards "neither, just a nonsense phrase.")
When Thomas Nashe mentioned it in Have with you to Saffron-walden (1596), it was already an old saying of obscure origin.
"O, tis a precious apothegmatical Pedant, who will find matter enough to dilate a whole day of the first invention of Fy, fa, fum, I smell the blood of an English-man".
(I have to say, I love that paragraph.)
It also appears in King Lear (1605):
Child Roland to the dark tower came,
His word was still, Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.
In 1814, Robert Jamieson's version of Childe Rowland in Illustrations of Northern Antiquities had the Elf-king proclaim,
"With fi, fi, fo, and fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man!
Be he dead, be he living, wi' my brand
I'll clash his harns frae his harn-pan! " [I'll dash his brains from his brain-pan]
And in Tom Thumb (1621) - on this blog you know it's always going to come back to Tom Thumb - the hero encounters a giant who says,
Now fi, fee, fau, fan,
I feele smell of a dangerous man,
Be he alive, or be he dead,
He grind his bones to make me bread.
So, by 1621, the rhyme was already associated with giants, and the colorfully gruesome idea of bone-meal bread was in existence.
(Tom Thumb, as well as being the first fairytale printed in English, has lots of common fairy tale tropes, such as the fairy godmother.)
So the phrase fee-fi-fo-fum has been around a long time. It first appeared in print in combination with Jack the Giant Killer when that story was printed in 1711.
Regarding Childe Rowland, Jamieson recalled hearing a version in his childhood from a tailor: "the tailor curled up his nose, and sniffed all about, to imitate the action which "fi, fi, fo, fum!" is intended to represent."
So maybe "fee fi fo fum" is meant to be some kind of onomatopoeia for smelling? I don't know how that would work, but I do find the different variations interesting. It looks like it was once more common to have only three syllables instead of four.
Although this phrase is English, there are parallels to monsters detecting people by the smell of their blood in other countries. In Perrault's Popular Tales, Andrew Lang connects this theme to the Furies in Aseschylus' Eumenides.
Tom Thumb in Tattershall
Most editions of the Tom Thumb fairytale end with the king erecting a monument in memory of the pint-sized hero.
Here lies Tom Thumb, King Arthur's knight,
Who died by a spider's cruel bite.
He was well known in Arthur's court,
Where he afforded gallant sport;
He rode a tilt and tournament,
And on a mouse a-hunting went.
Alive he filled the court with mirth;
His death to sorrow soon gave birth.
Wipe, wipe your eyes, and shake your head
And cry,--Alas! Tom Thumb is dead!
In fact, there is a real tomb for Tom Thumb.
There was once a blue flagstone serving as his tombstone at the Lincoln Cathedral. According to a 1819 edition of the Quarterly review, the tradition was that Tom Thumb died at Lincoln, and "the country folks never failed to marvel at [the blue flagstone] when they came to church on the Assize Sunday; but during some of the modern repairs which have been inflicted on that venerable building, the flag-stone was displaced and lost, to the great discomfiture of the holiday visitants." (The Quarterly Review, 1819, p101). Here is more on the renovations, although it has no mention of the flagstone.
What we do still have is a tombstone and a house for Tom Thumb, roughly twenty miles away, in Tattershall, Lincolnshire.
"T. Thumb, Aged 101, Died 1620." Is there really someone buried under this marker? Could he be connected to the fairytale?
The tombstone is located in the Holy Trinity Collegiate Church and can be found in the floor, near the font. The website of an affiliated church group notes that this Tom Thumb was "47 cm tall" or about 18.5 inches. An Atlas Obscura article cites rumors that he frequently visited London and was a favorite of the King.
The date of 1620 is intriguing, because it puts this local legend of Tom Thumb right about the same time we have our first surviving textual mentions of the name - the grave is marked 1620, and the earliest known printing of Tom Thumb was in 1621. (See the Tom Thumb Timeline.)
The grave is usually seen decorated with flowers and a poem. Here is an excellent shot from the Atlas Obscura article.
Elizabeth Ashworth's blog has another photo, with a closer look at the poem, as well as more history on the church. The poem, by Celia Wilson, doesn't have much information besides this is Tom Thumb's grave, he'd probably have a lot of stories to tell.
Then there is Tom Thumb's house, not far away. Most articles on the grave mention it as if it is the actual home of the buried T. Thumb. However, further research shows that it's not a house that anyone ever lived in. It's a decoration.
It is located on the ridge of Lodge House, in the Marketplace. The Lodge House is itself a building of historical interest. According to Historic England; "On the roof ridge is a ceramic [14th century] louvre in the form of a gabled house, known as 'Tom Thumb's House'."
On medieval buildings, a louvre or louver was a kind of turret or domed structure on the roof, which allowed in air and light but not rain.
The Tattershall and Tattershall Thorpe Village Site, available through Wayback, informs us that "The tiny house was thought to keep evil spirits out of the main building. Tom Thumbs house changed from one side of the Market Place when Mr Wright sold his shop."
Here's the Lodge House on Google Maps. Can you see Tom Thumb's house?
Try looking at this photo from the Village Site.
So: two traditions that Tom Thumb died somewhere around Lincoln. And one of them is dated around the same time as the first existing mentions of Tom Thumb.
If any of you readers go to Tattershall any time soon... you know what your homework is.
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.
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?
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.
Fairy Tale: A True Story is available on Netflix now. It’s based on the story of the Cottingley Fairies, which I’m fascinated by, so I gave it a watch, skipping through some scenes because it was late. I enjoyed it more than I expected.
It is indeed based on a true story. Starting in 1917, two cousins in Cottingley, England, named Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced photographs of themselves with what appeared to be real, live fairies.
It’s strange to think that these photographs convinced so many. Even with the camera quality, their gnomes and sprites look flat and sharp-edged, like paper cutouts . . . which, of course, they were. Elsie’s father picked up on this, but somehow the “proof” of real fairies became huge news. This was mainly thanks to one of their most prominent champions, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was totally on board with it.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Frances and Elsie admitted that it had all been faked. The delicate, dancing figures were copied from picture books onto cardboard and supported with hatpins. They still maintained, however, that they had really seen fairies.
The film, which came out in 1997, wholly embraces the idea of the real live fairies. They are constantly flittering around. However, this makes the film somewhat disturbing on another note, because so much of it is about faith and belief in things unseen, in a higher power. It opens with a performance of Peter Pan, with the lead character crying, "Clap if you believe in fairies!" The audience of children applauds and cheers. One character is having a crisis of faith and searching for hope after her son's death; characters talk about belief again and again. And then it all turns out to be real. Yay!! But the “true story” it’s based on was a hoax. The filmmakers most definitely knew that it was a hoax. The end result is that the film feels like a mockery.
That said, we never actually see the girls take a photo. And in one of the final scenes of the movie, juxtaposed with two other cases revealing hoaxes, a reporter discovers the paper fairies on their hatpins, in exactly the poses from the photo. However, the scene then turns around, and the supernatural takes back over. A ghost appears and frightens him away. The movie later ends with fairies filling the family's house and even the skeptical father finally being convinced.
Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to portray the girls in the most positive light. Frances and Elsie always said, even after confessing to the hoax, that they really had seen fairies. Still, I don’t think it’s right to market this to children as "A True Story," with taglines like "Believe!" because it cheapens the truth. It's like saying "You can believe in this thing! Well, in this case, the proof turned out to be a bald-faced lie, but you should still believe in the thing because it's a happy thing that brings you joy!"
And the fairies feel like a marketing ploy.
That's right - there were books and a doll line. "Fairies of Cottingley Glen." But at least it was well-researched.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritualist who by all accounts wanted to believe. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was an alcoholic who suffered from epilepsy and depression, and spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution. While there, he filled sketchbooks with elaborate, fantastical artwork of elves and fairies. The movie touches briefly on this and it makes Doyle's motivations much more understandable.
There was one scene that I actually stopped and rewound because the girls are walking through the woods calling the names of the fairies, and they’re all names from real folklore. A cast list reveals the names of even more fairies.
I've read about the Cottingley Fairies before, on the Internet and in The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, by Mary Losure. This book is written for children, but is a great read and incredibly well-researched. However, like the movie, it still clings to the idea that the girls really did see fairies, and they faked the photos because . . . um . . . they saw fairies.
Back to the movie. There’s beautiful scenery, the effects have aged surprisingly well, and I found myself enjoying it overall. Still, I was still bothered by that whole faith/fakery complex, and also the feeling that the fairies were real so that the moviemakers could sell toys. I would have much preferred to see the movie simply reveal that yes, the fairies were faked, and leave it at that, with maybe a faint hint at real supernatural events rather than full-blown "FAIRIES ARE REAL AND THEY'RE IN YOUR HOUSE." Even better, it'd be nice to see the girls actually taking the photos.
(I must say, I never expected to see Dame Habetrot or the Shellycoat marketed as cute, big-eyed Barbies with fluorescent hair. The Shellycoat!)
The Small Soul
I was researching a while back and came across an interesting analysis: the tale of Thumbling is the tale of the human spirit traveling through the world. This analysis bounces off a recurring idea that the soul is a tiny being.
In The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, Maria Tatar suggests that Tom Thumb and Thumbelina were inspired by the Hindu belief of the soul (atman or purusha) as a "thumb-sized being." It seems far-fetched to me that this belief would have migrated through Europe and surfaced in stories like this. I think they were born simply out of the popular interest in what is miniature and fantastical.
She seems to be referring to the ideas set forth in the Upanishads; however, here the soul (atman or purusha) is not described as a thumbling, but as a tiny flame dwelling in the forehead or the heart. It is both infinitely small, the size of a thumb or the thickness of a hair, yet at the same time infinitely huge.
The thumbling soul sometimes appears in Christian imagery (Philosophy and the Self: East and West). In Masolino da Panicle's fresco of the Crucifixion, a tiny man - the soul - emerges from the dying thief's mouth (pictured right).
In a 1520 French stained glass window in the Art Institute of Chicago, the soul of Judas Iscariot is also a tiny man, appearing from his stomach. And in the 1443 "Death of the Virgin" mosaic and other similar artwork, Christ cradles the infant-sized soul of Mary.
Spence suggests in British Fairy Origins that fairies are inspired by images of ghosts - thus fairies are tiny because they resemble the miniature "mannikin soul."
Religion in Essence and Manifestation mentions again the Hindu ideas of the soul. It also describes the Toradja of Celebes [Sulawesi] as imagining a "mannikin" soul, the tonoana. The tonoana is actually one of three souls that each person possesses, and apparently leaves the body to become a werewolf.
James Frazer says in The Golden Bough that in America, the Hurons, Nootkas, and the tribes of the Lower Fraser River all have similar ideas of the soul as a miniature, transparent double of the body. A Wailaki tale from California features a dream doctor who has to hunt down an escaped soul. The soul "resemble[s] a miniature person," and is found sitting by a little fire it's built.
Frazer adds that this is a belief in Malaysia, too. This is a bit of a blanket statement over a group of diverse and complicated beliefs. In Malay tradition, some tribes held that there were actually more than one soul or kind of soul. I did find that Religion in Essence and Manifestation echoes Frazer, citing a chant from Malacca (a state in Malaysia) that refers to the soul as "little" and "filmy" and describes it as a bird. If you go to Wikipedia, it draws from James Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 15, speaking of the soul or "semangat" (essence) being a miniature copy of the body, which flashes from place to place and is compared to a bird. This part of the soul can can leave the body during trances or sleep, and after death, passes into another creature or plant.
In some Chinese stories, the soul is again a tiny double of the body, but this is a relatively rarer and newer idea compared to other Chinese descriptions of the soul.
So the idea of the miniature soul pops up all over the world. The Religion of the Veda basically says all these ideas of the soul as a tiny man probably originated in the Upanishads with the thumb-sized flame. Chronologically speaking, those were recorded around 800-200 B.C., well before any of the other examples listed here.
It still seems like a big step to say that the fairytale characters were descended from a Hindu description of the soul. However, I also remembered that there is a story called "S’homonet com un gri," or the little man as small as a cricket. In this Catalan tale, a couple meets an insect-sized boy, who calls them his parents and helps them around the farm. Thus far, it is a typical type 700 tale; however, he then reveals that he's the spirit of their deceased son, returned temporarily from heaven to aid them.
So maybe Maria Tatar is onto something. However, even though the image of the miniature person could have stemmed from religious art or spiritual imagery, I still think thumbling tales are inspired simply by the appeal of the miniature.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.