Though obscure, the tale of Tom Thumb or Thumbling shows up all over the globe under many different names. There are a few typical tales, but by far the most famous is AT type 700, where a tiny child is born to hopeful parents, and proceeds to work on their farm, thwart robbers, and prove himself clever and powerful. Tom Thumb was the first fairy tales ever transcribed in English, and swiftly became a household name.
But where did it come from before that? What makes people fascinated with the idea of Thumbling? Issun-Boshi might be traceable back to the god Sukuna-Hikona, and some of the myths definitely seem to derive from older stories of the suncatcher. That doesn’t answer the whole question, though.
In their attempts to decipher the history behind the story, some people just connect all the finger-related stories or even all the Thomases ever with no explanation (“Robin Goodfellow and Tom Thumb,” by David Fitzgerald). Sure, St. Thomas’s Day may be the shortest day of the year, but so what? And quite a few people seem to have studied Tom Thumb as a phallic metaphor, which just proves my old theory that English professors have dirty minds.
However, there are a few theories that I think may be onto something.
Dwarfism in folklore
Thumbling may derive from stories of real people with dwarfism. Ann Schmiesing approaches Thumbling as a story of living with a disability.
The German Thumbling is born premature at seven months, tiny but perfectly formed. Unlike other “monstrous births,” where women give birth to hedgehogs or snakes who eventually become handsome princes, Thumbling remains his tiny self, rather than being “cured”. In fact, his tiny size often becomes helpful. He’s well-loved by his parents, who accommodate his small size rather than revile it. Although some stories have the tiny character born tiny for supernatural reasons, just as often, it just happens.
There are three types of fairy tale dwarves: actual fairy dwarves (i.e. elves and brownies), humans who clearly have dwarfism, and thumblings. Wilhelm Grimm suggested in the intro to KHM2 that Thumbling may have come from legends and German myths about dwarves. However, overall, thumblings seem less like mythical dwarves and more like humans with dwarfism. Some thumblings are described outright as dwarfs. The Grimms’ Thumbling outsmarts two exploitative men who want to make money off him by putting him in a freak show. When this story was published, freak shows were common entertainment, and dwarfs were an obvious choice for exhibits. Before that, court dwarfs often acted as royal jesters, much like Tom Thumb, King Arthur’s dwarf. (Notably, in the 19th century, Barnum and Bailey would introduce the world to Charles Sherwood Stratton, a man with dwarfism who took the stage name “General Tom Thumb.” Some of his shows drew on the folklore surrounding that character.)
Childbirth and Childhood
One of the biggest things scholars seem to focus on is the way Thumbling is constantly swallowed and expelled. Like its other motifs, this is something the tale shares with other stories, such as Jonah and the whale or Red Riding Hood and the wolf. Tom Thumb is born, is cooked into a pudding and frees himself, swallowed by a cow and excreted, swallowed by a giant and vomited up, swallowed by a fish and cut out. More recent adaptations tone this down – now he spends a second in the cow’s mouth and that’s it.
Carme Oriole, in “The Catalan Versions of AaTh 700: a Metaphor of Childbirth,” compares several Thumbling tales from Catalonia. Her theory is that Thumbling is a story from early childhood from around 2-5 years old, dealing with childbirth but in a child’s vocabulary and imagination. Where do babies come from? They’re brought by a stork or found in a cabbage patch. Where do Thumblings come from? They’re born from a flower or a bean, or conceived after a woman eats a particular food. (Food is a big thing in Thumbling stories. Tiny babies are created from chickpeas or born while a woman cooks.)
The beginning of Thumbling, with a couple longing for a child, is common across many tale types. It appears in Sleeping Beauty, for instance. Children wonder about how the baby gets into and out of the mother’s body. Echoing childish theories, Thumbling is removed in various ways from the stomach of the cow, the wolf, or the lion.
In “The Birth of Fingerling as a Feminine Projection,” Ravit Raufman builds on this but considers the tale as a mother’s point of view of her infant son. The focus is almost always on the mother’s desire for a child. In this early part of the story, the father is typically an afterthought and can even be left out entirely. As a result, the Thumbling is a “self-extension” of his mother – perpetually tiny, never growing up, and always dependent on her.
In the German version, Thumbling wants independence and his father takes him out to the fields. However, out in the world, Thumbling goes through the womb-like experience of being swallowed multiple times, and eventually goes home to stay. As noted by Oriole, the tale is circular, beginning and ending at the family’s home. I notice that a typical fairy tale hero usually chooses a bride and finds a job, perhaps becoming the new king. For a Thumbling, that ending is unusual, because those things are the marks of adulthood. The typical Thumbling is forever a child.
Because it’s cool, that’s why
Type 700, the story of Thumbling, is just one of a plethora of tales of tiny people. The one thing that they all have in common is the appeal of the dimunitive. This has two factors – the thrill of the underdog, and the enjoyment of tiny things.
All the Grimms’ heroes are little. (Little Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs.) Remember the fairy-tale ideal of the despised youngest sibling, the foolish third son, the abused stepdaughter. Thumbling takes this to the next step because he is smaller than anything, but still triumphs against all odds with just the use of his wits. David and Goliath become miniscule Hop o’ my Thumb and the truly huge Ogre. It’s no accident that nearly every Thumbling is a trickster figure.
But the main driving force behind the Thumbling tale is imagination. This is clear through the fanciful, delightful descriptions. Thumbelina uses a rose petal for a blanket. Issun Boshi and Tom Thumb wield needles as swords. Soup bowls become boats, mice become steeds, spoons or snailshells can be fashioned into chariots, and every tiny nook and cranny is now a possible hiding spot. This is the appeal that comes from dolls and their accessories, or tiny animals.
And this continues outside fairy tales. Stuart Little pilots a toy boat. Arrietty Clock salvages furniture from a dollhouse or tiny crumbs for meals. The list will continue to grow because the appeal stays the same.
(Also posted on Tumblr.)
This website is based on my research into folklore.