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.
A study of early Tom Thumb variants reveals a tale about a boy in weird predicaments, mostly involving pudding. He may even have been a kind of spirit or fairy originally.
However, the Japanese counterpart, Issun Boshi, is a romance: the tale of a less-than-impressive man, who manages to marry a woman far above his social stature. It's been compared to the tales of Lazy Taro (whose laziness makes him unappealing) and Ko-otoko no soshi (The Little Man, who is only about a foot tall).
In Jane Kelley's Analyzing Ideology in a Japanese Fairy Tale, she goes very in-depth on modern retellings of Issun-Boshi. The hero is raised by parents who adore him even though he's tiny. He eventually falls in love with a princess, rescues her from an oni, and grows to full size with the use of the oni's magic hammer. However, the "official" version that emerges through her article may not represent the original version of the story.
It's impossible to say what the original version was. There are many variants with different names. However, the Japanese Wikipedia article indicates that the original version was a little more adult.
In the Yanagita Kunio Guide to the Japanese Folktale (1948), the first tale listed under "Issun Boshi," the one with the longest and most detailed entry, is Mamesuke (Bean Boy). He's born from a woman’s thumb and at seventeen is only the size of a bean. He goes and finds work, and there's a scene where he hides under a wooden clog. He works for a winemaker with three daughters. To trick his way into getting a wife, he smears flour on the middle daughter’s lips while she sleeps. Thinking she's stolen his food, the family agrees that he can take her home. She tries to drown him in the bathtub, but instead of dying, he becomes a full-sized man. Everyone lives happily ever after.
Another important puzzle piece is “Two Companion Booklets” in Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology by Helen Craig McCullough (1990).
In this otogi-zoshi, Issun-Boshi is born in Naniwa village in Settsu Province. (This story is full of specific details like that.) His parents are ashamed of his size (something Kelley said was un-Japanese). There are frequent poetry sections.
Here, again, while seeking work, he hides under a man's clogs.
When he’s sixteen and the princess is thirteen, he woos her. The wooing consists, again, of pretending she ate his rice. He leaves following his new wife as she heads towards Naniwa.
Then they’re overtaken by two oni. Issun fights them off and gets a magic mallet that makes him full-size. The newlyweds go off together happy. Later, the Emperor hears the story, learns Issun is of noble heritage, and honors him greatly.
These retellings indicate an older version of Issun-Boshi that was eventually toned down for children. Modern stories tend to be simpler. The trick that wins him a wife is disturbing and a little suggestive, with his accosting her in her sleep and ruining her reputation and honor - so that's gone. His parents are more affectionate, which is both softer for children and more in line with Japanese values (see Kelley).
The scene where he hides under clogs is a nice illustration of his size. Buddha's crystal and other fairy stories (1908) preserves a lot of these details, including the Emperor's interest in Issun Boshi, but does not include the rice bit.
There is a wealth of analysis on this Japanese site, and it's helpful even through Google Translate. The writer suggests that Issun was originally killed with the magic hammer, similar to traumatic transformations like the Frog Prince or Mamesuke.
There are some interesting links between Issun Boshi and Ko-otoko no soshi. At the end, the Little Man becomes the god of Gojo shrine and his wife becomes the goddess Kannon (Tales of Tears and Laughter: Short Fiction of Medieval Japan). One of the gods of Gojo shrine is Sukuna-biko, an incredibly tiny god. As for Kannon: in most versions of Issun Boshi, she's the deity his parents ask for a son, and in some variants the princess is on her way to visit Kannon's shrine when Issun Boshi saves her.
The results are in! I've had this survey up for a while asking people which story they know best, with the options being "Tom Thumb," "Thumbelina," "Issun Boshi," "Other," and "I have no idea what you are talking about." I also asked through which medium they'd heard of the story, that being film, movies, word of mouth, etc.
My hypothesis was that Thumbelina would be the most well-known thumbling story, and that most people would have encountered it through movies or TV shows. I figured the Don Bluth movie's impact on pop culture was the greatest out of all these obscure tales.
Thumbelina was indeed the most popular answer. Tom Thumb had two votes, "I have no idea what you are talking about" had two, and one person used the "Other" box to specify Hop o' my Thumb. Poor Issun Boshi did not make it in.
A further breakdown shows that eight people first encountered the Thumbelina story in a book, and seven through a movie or TV show. So on that point my hypothesis was off.
Both Tom Thumb encounters were from storybooks, and Hop o' my Thumb was by word of mouth.
I intentionally kept the questions limited, but I'd like to do this again with a bigger sample group and more specific questions. For instance, one thing I overlooked while writing the survey is that Tom Thumb is a name used for at least three different stories (the British Tom, the French Petit Poucet/Hop o' my Thumb, and the Grimms' German Thumbling).
Thank you to everybody who completed the survey! Also a big thank you to the respondents on the NaNoWriMo board.
"Don Bluth's Thumbelina was and still is a favorite" (wombatrider)
"I only know of the cartoon Thumbelina which I love very dearly, but I would be very open to seeing further adaptations if they were presented to me." (Amaya Nyx)
"Out of those, I've only ever heard of Thumbelina and I really can't remember what it was about. The last time I heard it I must have been about 5. I'm certain that it was a book, though. Tom Thumb vaguely rings a bell too but nothing much." (HarleyQuinn98)
"It's been a while but I've heard/read both Tom Thumb and Thumbelina before in a giant book of fairy tales that my family used to have, and I think there might be a few other miniature hero stories I've read, but I honestly can't remember them at all." (Cryptidguy99)
"I've read Tom Thumb in a Grimm's book of fairy tales I have. I've vaugely heard of Thumblina (isn't there a movie?), but Tom Thumb's the one I'm familiar with." (ADreaminTimeGoneBy)
I have nearly enough responses on the poll to publish the results. I want to just try to get one more to hit my minimum sample size. Thank you, everyone who's already responded!
TOP 5 FAVORITE THUMBLINGS
I've found so many that seemed impossible at first! Little Finger was Ditu Migniulellu. Three-Inch was Der Angule. Master Thumb was Nga-Let-Ma, or something like that, anyway. But I still have a list of resources I'm looking for.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.