Charles Perrault's fairytale "Le Petit Poucet" - literally "The Little Thumb," my preferred name for it being "Hop o' my Thumb" - has a lot to unpack. In one of the most memorable scenes, Hop o' my Thumb flees with his brothers while the ogre pursues them in seven-league boots. However, the ogre tires and falls asleep, and Hop steals the boots for himself. He goes on to use them as a royal messenger.
Seven-league boots (or as Perrault called them, "bottes de sept lieues," will allow the wearer to walk seven leagues in one step. A league was roughly the distance that a person could walk in one hour, so about three miles. Seven-league boots would thus carry you twenty-one miles at every stride.
Seven is a number rich in symbolism and particularly recurrent in "Hop o' my Thumb." Hop is one of seven brothers. The ogre has seven daughters.
This was not the first appearance of seven-league boots in Perrault's fairytales. In his version of Sleeping Beauty, there is a brief appearance by "a little dwarf who had a pair of seven-league boots, which are boots that enable one to cover seven leagues at a single step." This is where we actually learn what the boots do - "Le Petit Poucet" leaves the definition out. The dwarf in Sleeping Beauty even serves as a messenger, exactly the same vocation as Hop o' my Thumb. He is a bit character and most adaptations do not include him.
Is this a cameo by Hop? Do Perrault's tales share a universe? And what drew Perrault more than once to this specific image, of the incredibly small man in the magic boots?
The idea of magical footwear that enables people to travel incredible distances is a universal one, but it seems Perrault made up this particular variation. It spread quickly. In Finnish, they are "seitsemän peninkulman saappaat." In Russian, сапоги-скороходы (sapogi-skorokhody, or fast-walker boots). In German, they are siebenmeilenstiefel.
In the Hungarian tale of "Zsuzska and the Devil" - basically a genderflip of Hop o' my Thumb - the heroine steals tengerlépő cipődet, or sea-striding shoes. "The Bee and the Orange Tree" by Madame d'Aulnoy and "Okerlo" by the Grimms feature seven-league boots and a chase scene. The Grimms' "Sweetheart Roland" includes meilenstiefel, literally "mile-boots." An African-American version of the story is "John and the Devil's Daughter," by Virginia Hamilton in The People Could Fly.
The idea goes far back in history and mythology. In Greek mythology, of course, there are the Talaria, the winged sandals which allow the god Hermes to fly. In Chinese myth, there are the Ǒusībùyúnlǚ (Cloud-stepping Shoes), which allow the wearer to walk on the clouds. In the Irish tale of King Fergus, the luchorpain gives Fergus shoes that let him safely walk underwater or on water. In Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm mentioned "gefeite schuhe" or "fairy shoes," "with which one could travel faster on the ground, and perhaps through the air." He directly compares these to Hermes' winged sandals and to the seven-league boots.
In some versions, the magical traveling shoes are part of a set.
In the 1621 version of Tom Thumb, Tom receives multiple gifts from his fairy godmother: a cap that bestows knowledge, a ring of invisibility, a girdle that enables shapeshifting, and finally “a payre of shooes, (that being on his feete) would in a moment carry him to any part of the earth, and to be any time where hee pleased.” In a brief scene, Tom dons the shoes and is "carried as quicke as thought" across the world to view anthropophages, cyclopes, and other monsters.
"Jack the Giant-Killer" (1711) borrowed these elements, with Jack winning from a giant a coat of invisibility, a cap of knowledge, a fine sword, and "shoes of swiftness."
This is similar to "The King of the Golden Mountain" (Grimm), where the hero tricks three giants into giving him a magic sword, a cloak of invisibility, and "a pair of boots which could transport the wearer to any place he wished in a moment." A similar tale is the Norwegian "Soria Moria Castle" (Asbjørnsen and Moe) with boots that make strides of twenty miles. In "The Iron Shoes," a Bavarian tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the hero's boots let him travel a hundred miles per step and run alongside the wind. There are a multitude of other examples.
These objects are all common in legend and might originate in Greek mythology: the sandals of Hermes, the helm of Hades which grants invisibility, and the many transformations of Proteus. A mantle of invisibility belonging to King Arthur is mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100) and other Welsh myths. The tarnkappe - a similar object - plays a role in the Middle High German epic of the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200). Shapeshifting with or without the help of a magic object is a widespread trope throughout world mythology.
The hero typically receives these magical tools from a supernatural force: he receives them from the gods or a fairy, or steals them from a monster. The ancestor of them all is the Greek hero Perseus. He is entrusted by the gods with the helm of invisibility and winged sandals, which he uses to slay Medusa the Gorgo.
Hop o’ my Thumb bears absolutely no resemblance to the popular modern version of Tom Thumb - which is why it drives me nuts when people mix up the titles! However, there are a few similarities to the 1621 prose Tom Thumb.
Could Perrault have been inspired by Tom Thumb? Is that why he included an unusually small character wearing magic running shoes in two separate stories? Or did he take inspiration from the many other tales of magical shoes?
In this case, I think it's very possible he was inspired by the 1621 Tom Thumb. The beginning of Hop o' my Thumb always struck me as a bit out of place; his nickname and implied supernatural state of birth are irrelevant to the story. It's almost as if they were imported from another tale . . . a tale closer to Tom Thumb.
On a final note that interested me: unlike Perseus, Hop o’ my Thumb, and Jack the Giant-Killer, Tom Thumb does not use his magical tools to fight any monsters (although he has two run-ins with murderous giants). However, when traveling with his magic shoes, he does see monsters: "men without heads, their faces on their breasts, some with one legge, some with one eye in the forehead, some of one shape, some of another."
Their presence serves to indicate just how far he has traveled. Monopods or sciapods are legendary people with only one leg. Blemmyae or akephaloi are headless men with their faces on their chests. Cyclopes or Arimaspi are beings with only one eye. They appeared in the work of Greek writers like Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. Their legends showed up in bestiaries and maps throughout the Middle Ages. Pliny the Elder placed cyclopes in Italy, blemmyae in North Africa, and monopods in India. Some bestiaries put the one-eyed "Arimaspians" in Scythia, in eastern Europe.
So magical boots of travel are a very widespread and old idea, usually used in combination with other magical tools, but occasionally appearing on their own. They may have been Perrault's own creative touch. In tales similar to Hop o' my Thumb, there is frequently a chase where the hero must escape the villain, and does so by various means. Hansel and Gretel ride away on a duck. Other characters, like those in Sweetheart Roland, disguise themselves in a transformation chase. Perrault gave his hero magic boots for this scene, and codified them not just as magic boots but as seven-league boots (repeating the use of the number seven). Their presence, along with Petit Poucet's name, is fascinatingly reminiscent of the 1621 English Tom Thumb. What makes it even more interesting to me is that Perrault also used that Tom Thumb-esque character in Perrault's Sleeping Beauty.
One classic fairytale is "Le Petit Poucet" by Charles Perrault - often translated in English as Hop o' My Thumb. A poor woodcutter and his wife, starving in poverty, decide to lighten their burden by abandoning their seven children in the woods. The youngest child, Hop o' my Thumb, attempts to mark the way home with a trail of breadcrumbs, but it's eaten by birds. The lost boys make their way to an ogre's house where they sleep for the night. The ogre prepares to kill them in their sleep; however, an alert Hop o' my Thumb switches the boys' nightcaps for the golden crowns worn by the ogre's seven daughters. While the ogre mistakenly slaughters his own children in the dark, the boys escape. Hop also manages to steal the ogre's seven league boots and treasure, ensuring his family will never starve again.
This tale is Aarne Thompson type 327B, "The Dwarf and the Giant" or "The Small Boy Defeats the Ogre." However, this title ignores the fact that there are stories where a girl fights the ogre, and that these stories are just as widespread and enduring.
One ogre-fighting girl is the Scottish "Molly Whuppie." Three abandoned girls wind up at the home of a giant and his wife, who take them in for the night. The giant, plotting to eat the lost girls, places straw ropes around their necks and gold chains around the necks of his own daughters. Molly swaps the necklaces and, while the giant kills his own children, she and her sisters escape. Then, to win princely husbands for her sisters and herself, Molly sneaks back into the giant's house three times. Each time she steals marvelous treasures (much like Jack and the Beanstalk). At one point the giant captures her in a sack, but she tricks his wife into taking her place. She makes her final escape by running across a bridge of one hair, where the giant can't follow her.
This tale was published by Joseph Jacobs; his source was the Aberdeenshire tale "Mally Whuppy." He rendered the story in standard English text and changed Mally to Molly. In Scottish, Whuppie or Whippy could be a contemptuous name for a disrespectful girl, but it was also an adjective for active, agile, or clever.
This story probably originated with a near-identical tale from the isle of Islay: Maol a Chliobain or Maol a Mhoibean. J. F. Campbell, the collector, says that the spelling is phonetic but doesn't provide many clues to the meaning. Maol means, literally, bare or bald. Hannah Aitken pointed out that it could mean a devotee, a follower or servant who would have shaved their head in a tonsure. This word begins many Irish surnames, like Malcolm, meaning "devotee of St. Columba." When the story reached Aberdeenshire, the unfamiliar "Maol" became Mally or Molly, a nickname for Mary.
According to Norman Macleod's Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, "moibean" is a mop. "Clib" is any dangling thing or the act of stumbling - leading to "clibein" or "cliobain," a hanging fold of loose skin, and "cliobaire," a clumsy person or a simpleton. Perhaps Maol a Chliobain means something like "Servant Simpleton" - a likely name for a despised youngest child in a fairytale. Maol a Mhoibean could mean something like "Servant Mop."
There are a wealth of similar heroines. The Scottish Kitty Ill-Pretts is named for her cleverness, ill pretts being "nasty tricks." The Irish Hairy Rouchy and Hairy Rucky have rough appearances, and Máirín Rua is named for her red hair and beard (!). Another Irish tale with similar elements is Smallhead and the King's Sons, although this is more a confusion of different tales.
The bridge of one hair which Molly/Mally crosses is a striking image. This perhaps emphasizes the heroine's smallness and lightness, in contrast to the giant's size. In "Maol a Chliobain," the hair comes from her own head. In "Smallhead and the King's Sons," it's the "Bridge of Blood," over which murderers cannot walk.
Based on examples like these, Joseph Jacobs theorized that this tale was Celtic in origin. However, female variants of 327B span far beyond Celtic countries.
Finette Cendron is a French literary tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, published in 1697, which blends into Cinderella. The heroine has multiple names - Fine-Oreille (Sharp-Ear), Finette (Cunning) and Cendron (Cinders).
Zsuzska and the Devil is a Hungarian version. Zsuzska (whose name translates basically to "Susie") steals ocean-striding shoes from the devil, echoing Hop o' My Thumb's seven-league boots. According to Linda Dégh, female-led versions of AT 327B are quite popular in Hungary.
Fatma the Beautiful is a fairly long tale from Sudan. In the central section, Fatma the Beautiful and her six companions are captured by an ogress. Fatma stays awake all night, preventing the ogress from eating them, and the group is able to escape and feed the ogress to a crocodile. In the ending section, the girls find husbands; Fatma wears the skin of an old man, only removing it to bathe, and her would-be husband must uncover her true identity. (This last motif seems to be common in tales from the African continent.) Christine Goldberg counted twelve versions of this tale in Africa and the Middle East.
The Algerian tale of "Histoire de Moche et des sept petites filles," or The Story of Moche and the Seven Little Girls, features a youngest-daughter-hero named Aïcha. She combines traits of Hop o' my Thumb and Cinderella, and defends her older sisters from a monstrous cat. This is only one of many African and Middle Eastern tales of a girl named Aicha who fights monsters.
And the tale has made its way to the Americas. Mutsmag and Muncimeg, in the Appalachians, are identical to Molly Whuppie. Meg is a typical girl's name, and I've seen theories that the "muts" in Mutsmag means "dirty" (making the name a similar construction to Cinderella). It could also be "muns," small, or from the Scottish "munsie," an "odd-looking or ridiculously-dressed person" (see McCarthy). German "mut" is bravery. (See a rundown of name theories here.)
In the 1930s, "Belle Finette" was recorded in Missouri. Peg Bearskin is a variant from Newfoundland.
In Old-Fashioned Fairy Tales (1882) by Juliana Horatia Ewing, we have "The Little Darner," where a young girl uses her darning skills to charm and manipulate an ogre.
One of the largest differences between the male and female variants of 327B is the naming pattern. Male heroes of 327B are likely to be stunted in growth - a dwarf, a half-man, or a precocious newborn infant.
Le Petit Poucet is "when born no bigger than one's thumb" - earning him his name. In English, he has been called Thumbling, Little Tom Thumb, or Hop o' My Thumb. The last name is my favorite, since it helps to distinguish him. Note that despite the confusion of names, he is not really a thumbling character. His size is only remarked upon at his birth. He is thumb-sized at birth, but in the story proper, he is apparently an unusually small but still perfectly normal child.
Look at other similar heroes' names:
The names of girls who fight ogres focus on the heroine's intelligence or beauty (or lack of beauty). The heroine is often a youngest child, but I have never encountered a version where she's tiny, as Hop o' My Thumb is. The girl's appearance can play a role in the tale, but if so, the focus is usually on her being dirty, wild or hairy. Where the hero of 327B is shrunken and shrimpy, the heroine has a masculine appearance. Máirín Rua has a beard; Fatma the Beautiful disguises herself as an old man.
Outside Type 327B, there are still other female characters who face trials similar to Hop o' my Thumb and Molly Whuppie. Aarne-Thompson 327A, "The Children and the Witch," includes "Hansel and Gretel" (German) and "Nennello and Nennella" (Italian). Nennello and Nennella mean something like "little dwarf boy and little dwarf girl." Nennella, with her name and her adventure being swallowed by a large fish, is the closest to a Thumbling character. Bâpkhâdi, in a tale from India, is born from a blister on her father's thumb - a birth similar to many thumbling stories. In the opening to the tale, her parents abandon her and her six older sisters in the woods. However, after this episode, the tale turns into Cinderella.
In Aarne-Thompson type 711, the beautiful and the ugly twin, an ugly sister protects a more beautiful sister, fights otherworldly forces, and wins a husband. This encompasses the Norwegian "Tatterhood," Scottish "Katie Crackernuts," and French Canadian "La Poiluse." It overlaps with previously mentioned tales like Mairin Rua and Peg Bearskin.
One central motif to 327B is the trick where the hero swaps clothes, beds, or another identifying object, so that the villain kills their own offspring by mistake. This motif appears in in many other tales, even ones with completely different plots. A girl plays this trick in a Lyela tale from Africa mentioned by Christine Goldberg. In fact, one of the oldest appearances of this motif appears in Greek myth. There, two women - Ino and Themisto - play the roles of trickster heroine and villain.
Madame D’Aulnoy’s “The Bee and the Orange Tree” and the Grimms’ "Sweetheart Roland" and "Okerlo" are very similar to 327B. However, they are their own tale type, ATU 313 or “The Magic Flight.” In these tales, a young woman is always the one fighting off the witch or ogre. She’s the one who switches hats, steals magic tools, and rescues others. The main difference is that while the heroes of ATU 327 are lost children, the heroes of ATU 313 are young lovers.
But back to the the basic 327B tale. Both "The Dwarf and the Giant" and "Small Boy Defeats the Ogre" are flawed names, given that stories where a girl defeats the ogre are so widespread. These ogre-slaying girls pop up in Ireland, Scotland, Hungary, France, Egypt, and Persia, and have thrived in the Americas. I fully expect to find more out there.
Hi guys! Check out this podcast episode on "Thumbling as Journeyman" at https://grimmreading.podbean.com. The series goes through the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and in this episode they mention Writing in Margins.
That's the cover of a recent picture book retelling the fairytale with a Halloween theme. However, it reminded me of one of the first known mentions of Tom Thumb.
In Reginald Scot's 1584 work, the Discoverie of Witchcraft, he writes:
“...they have so fraied us with bull beggers, spirits, witches . . . the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles . . . and other such bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows.”
What's Tom Thumb doing in a list of monsters? This baffled me for a long time, but then I looked at the first existing version of the story, "The History of Tom Thumbe," printed in 1621.
A childless woman goes to Merlin for help. In this chapbook, Merlin is heavily associated with the occult, and is called (among other things) "a devil or spirit" who "consorts with Elves and Fairies." He tells the woman:
Ere thrice the Moone her brightnes change
A shapelesse child by wonder strange,
Shall come abortive from thy wombe,
No bigger then thy Husbands Thumbe:
And as desire hath him begot,
He shall have life, but substance not;
No blood, nor bones in him shall grow,
Not seen, but when he pleaseth so:
His shapeless shadow shall be such,
You'll heare him speak, but not him touch.
The metrical version of 1630 is very similar, with some of the same phrasing. These descriptions indicate a Tom Thumb who is not entirely a physical being. Also notice that he doesn't have bones, and there's another demon on Scot's list named the Boneless. There's also a creature called the Tom Tumbler. Is this related to Tom Thumb, or is it just a readalike?
On a close reading, the early versions of Tom Thumb contain many references to medieval European superstitions surrounding fairies, witches and demons.
In addition to a close relationship with the fairies, Tom shows magical abilities in both of the 1621 and 1630 versions. For instance, he hangs pots and pans “upon a bright sun-beam” as a prank on his classmates. This motif occurs elsewhere in medieval legends. St. Goar of Treves miraculously hung his cape on a sunbeam, and St. Aicadrus did the same with his gloves.
Later, Tom boasts that he can "creepe into a keyhole" and "saile in an egge-shel." Travel through keyholes was a common motif for witches, the devil, alps (nightmares), and other fairylike beings.
Boating in an eggshell, too, was a popular witch/fairy pastime. Superstitious people would crush leftover eggshells so that these creatures couldn't set to sea in them. That's a post for another time, but eggshell-sailing witches appear even in Discoverie of Witchcraft - the same book that started this blog post.
There are many mentions of Tom throughout the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I have a full list on my timeline page. In most of these brief mentions, Tom Thumb is simply a metaphor for something small. However, some give a hint of the story. In the shortened list here, seven works associate him with fairies and/or Robin Goodfellow. Five (possibly six) reference him being trapped in a pudding.
The Thumbling trapped inside food is a common motif which I've discussed before. While his mother is cooking, Tom falls into a pudding and gets boiled inside. In the prose version, the pudding shakes as if "the Devil and old Merlin" are trapped inside, until his mother believes it's bewitched. She hands it off to a passing tinker, who also thinks it must be the devil's work. Tom then breaks out of the pudding and runs home.
"Dathera Dad," a Derbyshire tale published in 1895, consists of just this incident. The creature inside the pudding is "a little fairy child." Similarly, the Russian "Devil in the Dough Pan" has an evil spirit who is baked inside bread when a woman forgets to bless the dough.
This was a common concept throughout Europe. In Scandinavia, peasant women made crosses on their dough to protect it from trolls (Thorpe 1851, pg. 275). The English did the same in order to "cross out" the witches, to "keep the devil from sitting on it," or to "let the devil out." Thomas Keightley's Fairy Mythology mentions a Somerset woman who would drew crosses on the cakes she baked, in order to stop the tiny, mischievous fairies from leaving footprints on them.
The cross was also meant to make the bread rise faster. Perhaps there was a supernatural explanation of warding off evil spirits who might sit or step on the dough. This superstition was known in the 17th century, and perhaps as early as 1252, when King Henry III condemned bakers marking their bread with the sign of the cross. (Roud 2006)
This could be connected to superstitions about demonic possession in the Early Middle Ages. Possession was often taken in a very literal, physical-minded way. Demons were depicted entering and leaving the victim's body via the mouth, or sometimes other orifices such as the ear. In his Dialogues, the late-6th-century pope St. Gregory the Great describes this case:
"Upon a certain day, one of the Nuns of the same monastery, going into the garden, saw a lettice that liked her, and forgetting to bless it before with the sign of the cross, greedily did she eat it: whereupon she was suddenly possessed with the devil, fell down to the ground, and was pitifully tormented. Word in all haste was carried to [the bishop] Equitius, desiring him quickly to visit the afflicted woman, and to help her with his prayers: who so soon as he came into the garden, the devil that was entered began by her tongue, as it were, to excuse himself, saying: "What have I done? What have I done? I was sitting there upon the lettice, and she came and did eat me." But the man of God in great zeal commanded him to depart."
In both the story of the possessed lettuce and the superstitions about crossed bread, the idea is the same. When someone forgot to bless their food - by either praying over it or physically marking it - they became susceptible to any entities which might lurk within.
Is this why Tom Thumb appeared in A Discoverie of Witches? Did Scot have demonic food in mind when he included Tom Thumb in the list? Or might he have encountered a version of the story which mentioned sailing in an eggshell?
Maybe not. Still, the oldest surviving versions of the story contain allusions not only to magic and fairies, but to demonic activity and witchcraft.
There's a story about a tiny man who comes to the king's court. The man is so tiny that when he looks into a pot of porridge, he slips, falls in, and almost drowns.
Sounds like Tom Thumb, right?
Let's go back a little ways to an Irish tale - the Saga of Fergus mac Léti. This appears in the Senchas Már and its Old Irish glossings. The Senchas Már is a compilation of early Irish law texts from the 7th and 8th centuries. The brief poem about Fergus has to do with the restitution made after the murder of a slave, and mentions Fergus' own death by drowning.
The Irish glossings of the 8th century (MSS TCD H.3.18 and Harlean 432) go into more depth. Some water-sprites (known as the "lúchorpáin," or "little bodies") try to drag the sleeping King Fergus into the sea. He wakes up and catches them. In exchange for their freedom, they give him three wishes, including the ability to breathe underwater. However, they tell him never to swim in Loch Rudraige (or Lockrury). One day he disobeys them and finds a sea monster there called Muirdris, which leaves him with a disfigured face. His court attempts to hide this, but the truth eventually comes out when a slave woman named Dorn tells him the truth. In his fury, Fergus kills her, then returns to the loch, where he and the monster both die in a battle that leaves the loch red with blood.
Many scholars believe that this story of the lúchorpáin is the first mention of leprechauns.
Flash forward to the Irish manuscript known as Egerton 1782. This was written in 1517-1518 by the scribes of the O'Mulconry family and includes over sixty tales, poems, and miscellania. Among the tales is an expanded version of the death of Fergus mac Leti. This is a longer, more comical and sexual version that names the rulers of the Lupra and Lupracan: King Iubdan (pronounced Uf-don) and Queen Bebo (Bay-voe).
One day, Iubdan holds a banquet. Bebo sits at his side. All his strongest warriors are there, including a great strongman who's mighty enough to chop down a thistle at one stroke. The ale flows, people make merry, and finally Iubdan stands up and begins to shout, "Have you ever seen a king greater than myself?" No, no, he's the greatest king, he has the mightiest warriors, the finest army the world has ever known. But suddenly, the king's chief poet Esirt bursts out laughing. An incensed Iubdan is all set to have him arrested, but Esirt tells him of the land of Emania, where the people are like giants to them. Iubdan's mighty army is worth peanuts by comparison. Esirt goes there to prove that he's right, and the people there are astonished by the "dwarf that could stand on full-sized men's hand." They carry him in to Fergus' banquet table. Esirt refuses to accept any food or drink, so Fergus plops him into his goblet, where Esirt floats around and almost drowns.
They make amends, though, and at the end of three days, Esirt goes home along with Fergus' poet Aedh. Although Aedh is the king's dwarf, he still seems a giant to the Lupra people. Now Iubdan and Bebo set off. They want to visit the palace and try the porridge (which Esirt has mentioned) before dawn, so no one will see them. But they can't reach the top of the cauldron. Iubdan has to stand on his horse, finally gets over the edge, only to fall into the porridge and be trapped. Much drama ensues, with husband and wife wailing and singing poetically to each other, until morning comes and people find them.
They're taken to Fergus and remain his prisoners for a full year, until finally the Lupra-folk send an army to find them and offer a ransom. But Fergus will accept none of their offers, until Iubhdan gives him his greatest treasure in return for his freedom. This is a pair of shoes which allow a man to walk freely underwater. However, once again, Fergus swims in Lockrury and seals his own fate.
This story is recorded around 1517 - a century before the first existing copy of Tom Thumb in 1621, where Tom falls into a pudding and later makes his way to the court of King Arthur. In a later, expanded version around 1700, Tom twice goes to Fairyland and twice returns. The first time, he announces his arrival at court by plummeting into a bowl of frumenty - a dish of boiled, cracked wheat. Basically, porridge. (The second time, he has an encounter with a chamber pot, but let's not talk about that.)
In my opinion, there are two unique elements that typically characterize Thumbling tales. The story of Iubhdan and Bebo has both. One is the focus on a character's incredibly small size. The other is the swallow cycle.
In the swallow cycle, the character is swallowed by animals and gets out - often multiple times. Tom Thumb travels through a cow's digestive system; is gulped up a giant and spit out; is eaten by a fish and escapes when the fish is caught and cut open. In the Brothers Grimm, there are two Thumbling tales; the heroes are swallowed by cows, foxes and wolves. In one case, the tiny boy yells and complains from inside the cow's belly while it's being milked. In Japan, an oni tries to eat Issun-Boshi, only for the tiny samurai to come out fighting. As you go through Thumbling stories from different cultures, you'll find heroes again and again who are swallowed by cattle, lions, or other animals, and manage to get out one way or another. It's not unlike the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale.
Why exactly does this appeal to humans across so many countries and so much time? “The Catalan Versions of AaTh 700: a Metaphor of Childbirth," an article by Carme Oriole, suggests that the swallow cycle represents pregnancy and childbirth, particularly the way a young child would see it. (A toddler might hear "The baby is in Mommy's tummy" and think Mommy had eaten the baby.) This is particularly apt because most (but not all) thumbling stories begin with the hero's unusual conception and birth. Sometimes the conception is caused by the mother eating a fruit or seed.
But it's not just swallowing, it's immersion. Tom Thumb is immersed in a pudding and must break his way out. Similarly, the Grimms' Daumerling is cooked into a sausage.
For the Italian Cecino, immersion means falling into a puddle - and death by drowning. For Tommeliten or Tume in Norwegian tales, falling into a bowl of buttered porridge also means death by drowning.
Carme Oriole may be right. For the Japanese Mamesuke and the Norse Doll i' the Grass, immersion means falling into a bathtub or a river - and then rebirth. They become human-sized and begin life with their new spouse. In the expanded Tom Thumb, Tom nearly dies, and symbolically is reborn. He returns to the human world each time while being immersed in liquid (like porridge) and reemerging.
In most cases the immersion scene is meant as comedy. I don't think the storytellers put much thought into ideas of rebirth. Just "The little man is SO tiny, he falls into some soup and thinks he's drowning!"
And the story of Fergus mac Leti manages to fit in two immersions - one in liquor, one in porridge.
Although Iubdan and Bebo are little-known today, some writers have suggested that their story inspired Gulliver's Travels, and the scenes in Lilliput and Brobdingnag. (For instance, in the land of the giants, Gulliver is dropped into a bowl of cream and nearly drowns.) I think it's possible they influenced Tom Thumb as well.
I've been thinking about how in several different tales, a Thumbling figure becomes a favored servant of a king.
Tom Thumb becomes King Arthur's dwarf and one of his favored knights. (In later versions, he runs afoul of the queen.)
Issun-boshi acts as a samurai for a daimyo, or feudal lord.
The Hazel-nut Child, in a tale from the Armenian people of Romania, Transylvania and the Ukraine, makes his way to the palace of an African king. Like Tom Thumb carrying home a coin for his parents, the Hazel-nut Child brings home a diamond given to him by the king.
Karoline Stahl (the same woman who wrote the first version of Snow White and Rose Red) wrote a story called Däumling. Daumling goes to live in the palace, where he serves the king and several times defends him from assassination attempts. The story was probably inspired by the British Tom Thumb.
Both stories have an emphasis on the main character's clothing and needle- or pin-sized sword, as well as an evil queen.
Sometimes the thumbling's encounter with the king isn't quite so pleasant. In numerous tales, the thumbling is out in the field with his father, when a rich man, sometimes a noble or king, sees him and asks to buy him. The thumbling sells himself and then runs away, cheating the rich man.
In one version, Neghinitsa, the main character does not run away, but ends up working as a king's royal spy until his death.
In other stories, like the German "Thumbling as Journeyman," or the Augur folktale "The Ear-like Boy," the Thumbling becomes a robber and a king is one of his victims. In a tale from Nepal (printed in German), the thumbling steals items from the king's palace and eventually wins the hand of one of the princesses.
Also in "Thumbling as Journeyman," the little thief takes a single kreuzer, stolen from the king's treasury, to give to his parents back home. Here again is the same motif as Tom Thumb, where the tiny knight asks King Arthur for permission to take one small coin to his parents.
In other stories, Thumbling marries the king's daughter - a common ending for fairytales.
Issun-boshi marries the daimyo's daughter.
In the Philippines, Little Shell and similar characters pursue the daughter of a chief. (See blog post.)
In India, Der Angule completes many tasks for a king and finally marries the princess.
Some retellings of Tom Thumb, such as Henry Fielding's play, have him woo a princess.
I worked a little bit on a chart comparing some of these stories. I included the Grimms' Thumbling among "trickster tales." EDIT: Now with new and improved chart!
I found a new Thumbelina! Baratxuri is one of several Basque characters, the only girl among them. She has the typical Thumbling adventures, which is, ironically enough, rare for a female thumbling. She takes food to her father in the field, rides ina donkey's ear, and frightens off thieves.
I found it interesting that her name means "garlic." In that respect, she's the same as Maria como un Ajo, or "Mary like Garlic," from Cantabria in Spain. She has exactly the same adventure as Maria, too.
Here is a quick list of the notable thumbelinas I found:
Draganka or Katsmatsura (Bulgaria)
Doll i' the Grass (Norway)
Nàng Út (Vietnam)
The Little First Man and the Little First Woman (Dakota)
The Daughter of the Laurel Tree (Barcelona)
Ditu Migniulellu (Corsica)
Katanya (a Jewish tale from Turkey)
In comparison to the vast list of male thumblings, this is very short. Finding thumbelinas was part of the reason I started this project. This is why I get so excited when I find a new one.
Thumbelinas are much more likely to fall into other tale types, like the Animal Bride tale type. I think their scarcity says something about these cultures; when the childless couple prays for a child it is quite often specifically a son that they ask for. Female thumblings are also more likely to grow to full size, like the Japanese Kaguya-hime.
If you're a fan of King Lindworm and other beastly bridegroom tales, check out Jenny Prater's blog Halfway to Fairyland. I've been enjoying it.
Now, on to the analysis!
Little Shell is a tale from the people of the Visayan Islands, one of the three main divisions of the Philippines. Retold by Elizabeth Hough Sechrist, it's a unique variation on the Thumbling tale, but still has many recognizable elements.
The story begins like many thumbling stories. A man and a woman, after many prayers, have a son no bigger than a seashell. When he grows a little older, the boy - known as Little Shell - begs his mother to allow him to go out on his own and work.
He crawls into a woman's fish basket and shouts, "Run! Run!" Thinking that her fish have been bewitched, the frightened woman runs off, allowing Little Shell to make his exit with one of her fish, which he takes home to his mother. He plays a similar trick on an old man carrying a cow's head (cow's heads have good meat on them). Hearing Little Shell shouting, the old man thinks that the cow's spirit has returned to haunt him, and flees.
Little Shell asks his mother to go to the chief or headman, and request the hand of his daughter in marriage. Although the headman immediately refuses, his daughter agrees to the union. Shell's mother is astonished; the headman is furious, and Shell and the princess are forced to flee. They live together, but are unhappy in exile.
However, after one week, Little Shell grows to normal size. It turns out he was enchanted by an evil spirit at birth, and the princess's love has broken the spell. They return home, the headman is ashamed of his behavior, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Sechrist drew this story from "The Enchanted Shell," which appeared in Visayan Folk-tales, II, in the Journal of American Folk-Lore in 1907. These folktales were prepared by researchers Berton L. Maxfield and W. H. Millington during their stay in the Visayan Islands. They collected them in Spring 1904, on the island of Panay. Teachers and students at schools in Iloilo and Mandurriao contributed stories.
"The Enchanted Shell" has some minor differences. Rather than telling the woman to "Run! Run!" Shell tells her "Rain! Rain!" There is also a specific location named - "a desert place called Cahana-an." Specific location names are always interesting.
The phrasing is a little confusing; Maxfield and Millington's Shell is "very small, and just like a shell," and at some points he's referred to simply as "the shell." It seems Sechrist adapted this as she felt best. However, thumbling characters can be small animals or objects. The enchanted shell does several things typical to a thumbling story. He's born as the result of a hasty wish; he goes out to do work despite his small size; he's a trickster; he climbs into an animal's ear. It's possible some aspects of this story came from European colonizers. I do think it's important to note that Maxfield and Millington say that all of the stories they published were very widespread in the Visayan islands, and everyone seemed to know them.
The revelation about an enchantment seems to come from nowhere, almost as if there's a part of the tale which has been lost. The romance plot, on the other hand, reminds me of Issun-Boshi and the Japanese family of thumbling tales. Japan and the Philippines have had relations for centuries, with trading going back at least to the 1600s and to the Muromachi period. Issun-Boshi and Little Shell could perhaps share roots.
The Living Head, another Visayan tale, is very similar - at least at the beginning. Here, the childless couple produces not a shell or a tiny baby, but a disembodied head. The head, imaginatively named Head, sees the chief's daughter and falls in love with her. He sends his mother to ask for the princess's hand in marriage. Like Little Shell and his mother, they argue back and forth, but the mother finally goes to ask the chief. However, in this case, she gets a solid no. When Head hears the news, he begins to sink into the ground. His mother calls him to dinner, but he only cries, "Sink! Sink! Sink!" He disappears into the ground, and from that spot grows the first orange tree.
A final relevant tale from the Philippines is the Bagobo tale "The Woman and the Squirrel." The Bagobo people live in southeastern Mindanao. This story was collected in 1907; collector Laura Watson Benedict noted that the myths were specifically those that hadn't been recorded yet, they were told in mixed English and Bagobo, and they were collected from "Mount Merar in the district of Talun, and at Santa Cruz on the coast."
A woman drinks some water from a leaf. She goes home and falls asleep for nine days, and when she wakes up and begins to comb her hair, a baby squirrel emerges from it. This type of unusual conception is not unusual in fairytales (see Nang Ut and the Miraculous Birth).
The squirrel grows to maturity and a week, and tells his mother that he wants to marry the chief's daughter. Despite her protests, he sends her off to the chief's house with nine necklaces and nine rings as a dowry. She chickens out and comes back without asking, so the squirrel bites her (!). Finally, she makes her request. In response, the chief tells her that he wants his entire house turned to gold. She relays this to her son the squirrel.
That night, the squirrel goes out and calls to his brother, the Mouse. The "great Mouse" has golden fur, and his eyes are glass. He gives the squirrel a bit of his fur, which the squirrel uses to turn the sultan's house and possessions completely into gold. When the chief wakes up and sees that his impossible request has been granted, he dies of shock. The squirrel then marries the princess, and after a year, he takes off his skin and becomes a handsome young man.
"The Enchanted Shell," "The Living Head," and "The Woman and the Squirrel" form a tale family of their own, with a romantic aspect that runs through all three stories. A woman gives birth to a small and monstrous son, who sets out to marry the daughter of a chief. Whether he succeeds or not - that's another story.
Another thumbling figure from the Philippines is Carancal, a Young Giant-type character who is born only one span tall. That, however, is a very different tale.
Niraidak is a tale from Siberia, told by the Evenks. This is probably one of my favorite Thumbling tales. The main character is actually larger than a thumb, but the word "thumbling" can be used for small characters in general, including characters who are one span high, or the size of a bird, or what have you. "Tough Little Niraidak" is included in Margaret Read MacDonald's Tom Thumb book and in Irina Zheleznova's folktale collection Northern Lights.
The story takes place at the beginning of time, when the sky was still being woven. On the island lives a tiny man named Niraidak. Where he came from, the tale doesn't explain.
"A squirrel to him was as big as a fox to an ordinary man, a doe as big as a moose, and the tiniest bird as big as an eagle."
It seems like he's closer to the size of a baby than the size of a thumb. In this respect, he's more similar to the Native American child-sized heroes Boy-Man and Tshakapesh (see blog posts here and here). However, his small size is a major part of the story and there are many descriptions of his clothes and so on. This is one of my benchmarks for whether a tale is a thumbling story or not. His tent is made of rose willow twigs and squirrel skins, his gloves are made from mouse skin, his hat from a mole skin, and his coat from two sable skins. For reference, sables are 15-22 inches long.
Niraidak is totally alone except for his steed, a small hornless deer. He survives by hunting. Hunting was the traditional livelihood of the Evenki people, as well as herding reindeers for riding, carrying packs, and milking. I believe Niraidak's deer is a Siberian musk deer, which grows tusks instead of antlers. Musk deers are an endangered species, and adults weigh from 15 to 37 pounds and stand 20-28 inches at the shoulder.
Since Niraidak has no one to compare himself to, he gradually begins to believe that he must be the biggest and strongest person in the world. Eventually, he decides to do three things: see how other people live, fight a giant, and marry the most beautiful woman in the world. He summons the deer and tells it to turn into a flying, fire-breathing boar.
Apparently it can do this.
So he rides off on his flying boar (formerly a deer). First, they set out to see how other people live. In Zheleznova's version, the boar tramples everyone they come across, while Niraidak takes no notice; MacDonald leaves this out. Eventually, they come across a massive giant named Dioloni, or "man of stone." (The Evenk word for stone is d'olo.) When this happens, you might expect a fight similar to that in David and Goliath or Jack the Giant Killer. Niraidak certainly does.
However, when the giant notices Niraidak (whose stealthy approach has been impeded by tripping on a twig), he picks him up. The giant seems fairly benevolent, but Niraidak is ready to fight.
“I am the great Niraidak,” the little man squeaked. “I have no fear of you, Dioloni the Giant. Beware, for I am going to slay you.”
He then begins screaming and jumping up and down in order to intimidate his foe. The giant, understandably, just thinks this is hilarious, and puts Niraidak in his pocket. Niraidak decides to cut his losses, crawls out, and flies off on his boar again with a final boast: “Take care, Dioloni the Giant, next time I’ll skin you and crush your bones to dust!”
They travel on to a camp "where the most beautiful women in the world lived." Apparently all the women hear Niraidak's bragging (or maybe see his magic boar) and are quite impressed, because they quickly line up to take their chances.
Niraidak picks out the most beautiful one and takes her home on his boar. However, he immediately realizes that his tent (made of three squirrel skins, remember) is far too small for his new wife, a normal-sized woman. He builds a new one that will fit her (which to him, of course, is incredibly spacious). Then he goes to fish, and comes back bearing a massive load of twenty-five fishes, so much that he can't carry them all and has to ask his wife for help. She's excited at first, but when she actually sees his catch, is outraged. They're nothing but minnows!
She eats them, but still feels hungry and begins to scream at Niraidak. In response, he tells her to lie down, puts a rock on her belly so she won't feel hungry, and heads into the woods.
While he's gone, the wife starts reconsidering her life choices. So: "off she went to a village where there lived strong and considerate men who did not refuse their wives anything they asked."
For his part, Niraidak isn't particularly upset to find his wife gone; now he has a big tent all to himself, and no one's screaming at him about food. So he lives happily ever after.
This short, straightforward tale is full of parody. I particularly like the bit about the "strong and considerate men."
Niraidak is both perpetually cheerful and filled with delusions of grandeur. He is a fierce hunter in his own mind, unable to grasp that he is really the weakest person around. His feats are impressive only from his own skewed perspective. (Well, except for the transforming fire-breathing boar.)
Niraidak sets out to complete three tasks, but none of them go quite the way he expects. They turn out more as embarrassments than triumphs. He remains upbeat, but never seems to mature or gain any self-awareness. As he sneaks off from Dioloni, he still boldly threatens him. After his wife leaves, he happily takes up his old life again. He doesn't change.
The Grimms published two tales that were very similar: Thumbling (Daumesdick) and Thumbling's Travels (Daumerling's Wanderschaft).
Although they're both commonly referred to as Thumbling, these are not the same character.
Thumbling's Travels, or Thumbling as Journeyman begins with Thumbling telling his father, a tailor, that he wants to go out into the world. He takes a darning needle for a sword. Before he can do anything else, he's blown up the chimney on the steam from a hot meal.
When he lands, he goes to become a tailor's apprentice, but is displeased with the food. He mocks the cook, telling her, "I will go away, and early to-morrow morning I will write with chalk on the door of your house, 'Too many potatoes, too little meat! Farewell, Mr. Potato-King.'" She does not react well.
Taking up his journey again, he joins a band of robbers and they rob the king's treasury. The impressed robbers want to make Thumbling their captain but he wants to see the world first. He goes on his way, taking only one kreuzer (a small silver coin) because it's all he can carry.
He takes a job as a manservant at an inn, but snitches on the maids when they steal food. A vengeful maid catches Thumbling in the garden and gives him to the cows with the grass clippings, causing him to be swallowed. When someone milks the cow, Thumbling calls, "Strip, strap, strull, will the pail soon be full?" They slaughter the cow, and Thumbling is sealed into a black-pudding or sausage and hung up all winter. He only escapes when someone cuts it open. Once outside, he is swallowed by a fox, and promises to let it eat the chickens in his father's yard if it will take him home. This happens, and Thumbling is reunited with his overjoyed father, who doesn't mind the fox eating his chickens now that he has his son back. The end.
The hero being a tailor suggests a connection to the story of the Brave Little Tailor. There are actually many songs and jokes about tailors being very small or thin. In Eucharius Eyering's Sprichwörter (1601), a tailor as light as elder-wood is blown into the air and gets caught in a spider's web. There is one folk song about a tailor falling into a soup bowl and being swallowed, and another about tailors feasting on a fried flea and drinking out of a thimble - for the second, see "Nine Tailors Held a Council" by William Davis Snodgrass.
SurLaLune's annotation of the Brave Little Tailor explains, "tailors were poor and not highly regarded by society because they were seen as weak men." Because of the Industrial Revolution and the decline of guilds, tailors were poor and travelled around. Townspeople saw these wanderers as shifty, lazy and dishonest.
As seen in this German list of idioms, there were sayings like "freezing like a tailor" for oversensitivity to cold, and "eating like a tailor" for not eating very much. The weakness of tailors was attributed to a lack of food and it was said they couldn't bear much in contrast to the strong appetite of the agricultural workers. The Schneider-Geiß-Spott or Schneider-Spottlied (tailor-mocking) was a specific type of German joke which originated as a crude sexual gag. These date back to at least 1408, when a Strasbourg council banned such a joke.
The Grimms' tailors, however, are courageous, clever tricksters. Cleverness is the most esteemed virtue in Grimm tales. Thumbling is called a journeyman, meaning he's completed his apprenticeship but is not a master tailor.
Like all the Grimms' stories, Thumbling's Travels changed in the telling. The first edition preserves the stories more exactly as they were first told. Later editions, after the stories became popular, soften unsavory elements and polish the plots. Wilhelm was the principal editor after their first edition, and revised the tales extensively to make them more dramatic and literary.
In The 1810 Grimm Manuscripts, Oliver Loo compares the Grimms' first edition from 1812 with an earlier surviving draft. There are some small differences, mostly literary embellishments and polishing. The original edition lacked the "Farewell, Mr. Potato King" and indeed any mention of potatoes. Jacob and Wilhelm heard the potato line from a maid, completely separately from the tale, and Jacob called it a “handwerksspaß” (workers jest). Jacob did not seem entirely pleased with the inclusion of a joke foreign to the original story. (pp. 212-219).
Some sources say the the source of Daumerling's Wanderschaft was Marie Hassenpflug, a frequent source of the Grimms', but in the index, the Grimms say that the story comes from "stories current in the districts of the Maine, Hesse, and Paderborn, which reciprocally complete each other." This implies they patched together quite a few stories, probably including Marie Hassenpflug's.
They add, "a continuation or special combination of the detached stories, which belong to this group, contains the story of Thumbling (No. 37)" - that is, Daumesdick.
Daumesdick is usually translated as Thumbling but might be better referred to as Thumbthick. It begins with a childless couple wishing for a baby, even if it's only the size of a thumb. The woman then falls pregnant and gives birth after seven months to a thumb-sized child.
Thumbthick never gets any larger, but is very clever. One day Thumbthick takes the horse and cart to his father who is cutting wood, and rides in the horse's ear, calling directions. Two men see the horse apparently by itself, and when they see Thumbthick, want to buy him so that they can exhibit him for money. Thumbthick tells his father to take their money, and goes off with the men, only to slip away from them. He then encounters two thieves and offers to help them rob the wealthy pastor. When they get to the pastor's house, however, Thumbthick makes such a racket that he wakes the people inside and the robbers flee.
Thumbthick intends to head home, but is swallowed by the pastor's cow. He cries out, "Am I in the fulling mill?" (In a fulling mill, wool is beaten and boiled to make felt.) People hear him yelling inside the cow's stomach. The pastor, believing the animal is possessed, has it slaughtered. The stomach is thrown on the midden (trash heap), where a wolf eats it before Thumbthick can escape. Thumbthick tricks the wolf into going to his house, promising it a feast, and directs it to the larder of its house. It gorges itself so much it can't get back out, and Thumbling screams for his parents, who kill the wolf. Thumbthick is reunited with his family and says that he will never leave them again.
This story was not in the first 1812 edition, and first appeared in the expanded and edited version in 1819. Thumbthick comes from Mühlheim on the Rhine, a town near Cologne. Although it is very similar to Daumerling's Wanderschaft, it has some strong variations and is closer to the most widespread Thumbling formula. It includes the wish for a child no matter how small. Thumbthick helps his father on the farm, drives a wagon or plow, sells himself and cheats the buyer, and frightens off robbers. You see these themes again and again, so perhaps it's fitting that it gets its own space in the Grimms' collection. The 1958 film "tom thumb" is an adaptation of this story.
The scene with the men wanting to exhibit him is interesting, because it has a hint of the life a person with dwarfism might have led at that time, performing for the public. This shows a change from the older English story of Tom Thumb, where the main character is a court dwarf performing for royalty.
I always used to imagine these two Grimm tales being connected, like Thumbthick somehow growing up to be Thumbling, but the two characters are very different. This is most clearly seen in their treatment of the robbers and of the fox/wolf.
Thumbling works so well with the robbers that they want to make him their captain, and in the end the fox that swallows him is rewarded for taking him home.
Thumbthick is more manipulative and opportunistic. He entices and then double-crosses the men who want to exhibit him, the thieves who want to use him, and the wolf that swallows him.
Both Thumblings are tricksters, but one plays tricks on wealthy kings and dishonest maids, and the other plays tricks on robbers and beasts.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.