The Brothers Grimm collected three thumbling tales, and one is only technically a thumbling tale at all. In Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Volume II, there appears a tale called “Der Junge Riese,” translated as “The Young Giant” or (in more longwinded editions) “Thumbling the Dwarf and Thumbling the Giant.”
Unlike the typical Grimm giants, the Young Giant is sly and clever. I don’t know if he’s less villainous, though. Anyway, he doesn’t begin life as a giant – quite the opposite. The story begins like a typical thumbling tale, with a peasant couple having a teeny tiny son. The hero is called Däumling, in contrast to Volume I’s “Daumesdick” and “Daumerling”. (However, all three are typically translated as Thumbling.)
From the typical beginning, the story sets off a winding path that leads into Aarne-Thompson Type 650A, the Strong Boy. The hero usually comes from an unusual origin. In a list here, you'll find the son of a woman and a bear, as well as the Filipino Carancal, who begins life at only a span tall. From Denmark is Hans the Mermaid’s Son, who is – you guessed it – the son of a mermaid. And Norway's Rumble-Mumble Goose Egg hatches from an egg.
But back to Däumling.
As the story begins, the boy whines and cries until his father takes him out into the fields with him to plow. While they’re there, a giant approaches.
"Do you see that bogeyman?" said the father, in order to frighten the little one into being good. "He's coming to get you."
To their surprise, his prediction becomes true. The giant picks up Daumling, looks at him, and walks away with him, leaving the father frozen with shock. This guy is definitely winning the Father of the Year award and we haven’t even gotten into the main part of the story yet.
"The giant took the child home and let him suckle at his breast, and the thumbling grew large and strong like a giant. After two years had passed, the old giant took him into the woods in order to test him."
This is a very odd note, because the giant is male.
The Grimms’ notes, after comparing this hero to other gigantic heroes of older texts, mention that “Being educated by a giant is likewise an ancient and important incident; all heroes were trained by giants, or skillful dwarfs, as Sigurd was by Reigen, and Widga (Wittich) in the Winkinasage.”
The Raven (Grimm no. 93) also has a brief mention of a male giant nursing a child. I’d like to not that The Raven, exactly like The Young Giant, is a tale from the Leine district, narrated by Georg August Friedrich Goldmann from Hannover.
The Grimms are also ready with other texts where a man nurses a child, specifically citing the Icelandic Flóamanna saga. In this case, the mother is dead, so the man cuts his breast and produces first blood, then milk.
It’s also reminiscent of stories of orphaned heroes being suckled by animals such as bears or wolves.
The Aarne-Thompson motif F611.2.3 is “strong hero's long nursing.” This shows up in another tale mentioned by the Grimms: Kürdchen Bingeling, a Young Giant figure whose mother breastfeeds him for seven years. This long period of breastfeeding causes the boy to grow incredibly big and strong.
So what we have here is the connection of a few different ideas – the hero being trained by a giant; a man or giant breastfeeding a child; and a long period of breastfeeding causing great size and strength. There may be some internal logic—like a man’s stronger than a woman, so a man’s milk must be better, and a giant’s stronger than a man, etc., etc. Or perhaps drinking a giant’s milk imparts some of their nature (I’m reminded of the Sigurd mentioned by the Grimms, who drinks a dragon’s blood and gains powers.)
The giant breastfeeds Thumbling for six years, until he’s no longer a thumbling but a giant himself, strong enough to pull up massive trees by the roots.
"This time the boy pulled the thickest oak tree out of the ground. When it cracked the boy laughed. When the old giant saw this, he said, "That's good enough. You've passed the test." And he took him back to the field where he found him."
The old giant’s motivations are left a mystery. Maybe this was his way of helping. Maybe it was an experiment. Maybe this is how new giants are created. Who knows?
The young giant returns to his father, who as luck would have it is exactly where he left him, back to plowing again. The frightened man doesn’t believe that this is his son, but the young giant proceeds to plow the entire two-acre field by himself without horses, showcasing his strength.
His strength is kind of a mixed bag. He's gone from being useless, to being a little too capable. First he pushes the plow too deep into the earth and almost ruins the field. His appetite has grown as well, to the point where his parents can’t feed him.
Like her husband, the giant’s mother is wonderfully tactful.
She said, "No, this could never be our son. We did not have such a large child. Ours was a little thing. Go away. We don't want you."
The boy said nothing. He pulled his horses into the stall, gave them oats and hay, and put everything in order. When he was finished he went into the house, sat down on the bench, and said, "Mother, I'd like to eat. Will it be ready soon?"
He eats a massive amount of food – two weeks’ worth and more – and is still not satisfied.
Then he said, "Father, I see that I'll never be full if I stay here with you. If you can get me an iron rod that is so strong I can't break it against my knees, then I'll go away again."
The peasant was happy to hear this.
His loving dad eagerly complies and brings back three progressively stronger and thicker rods, but the young giant easily breaks all of them.
“Father, I see that you can't get me a proper staff, so I'll just go away anyhow."
He goes out as a journeyman. First he joins a miserly smith, on the agreement that instead of paying him in money, the smith will allow the young giant to hit him twice. However, on the first day of work the young giant’s strength becomes a problem yet again; he destroys the work and smashes the anvil so deep into the ground that they can’t get it back out. So he gets fired, but not before kicking his boss “flying over four loads of hay.”
This is part of a section that has a tinge of wish fulfillment about it. With his immense strength, the young giant can dispense justice to misers, and the audience can laugh at the humiliating punishments of frustrating and greedy bosses like the ones they face in real life. However, the young giant doesn’t stop there, as we’ll see in a moment.
Now using an iron bar for a walking stick, he travels to a farm where he is hired. This time, in place of money he asks to give the greedy overseer three blows.
At this job, the young giant deliberately makes a nuisance of himself. When other people get up to work, the giant sleeps in for hours and finally eats a long, lazy breakfast. When he finally leaves, he blocks the road with trees and branches. He briefly meets the other workers on their way home with wagons full of wood. He completes his work in record time by just ripping up two huge trees. Meanwhile, the other workers come to the roadblock and can’t get through, and so they have to wait there.
He said, "See, if you had stayed with me, you could have gone straight home, and you'd be able to sleep an extra hour."
He gets through the roadblock and leaves them still there.
When he was on the other side he called out, "See, I got through before you did," and he drove off, leaving them standing there. When he arrived at the farmyard he picked up a tree with one hand, showed it to the overseer, and said, "How is this for a measuring stick?"
Then the overseer said to his wife, "This chief farmhand is all right. Even when he sleeps in, he arrives home before the others."
OK, so this is different. With his parents, he seems almost subdued. In a human-sized environment, his strength and size get in the way. When his mother rejects him, he remains silent and finishes his work. He also announces that he’ll leave even though his father couldn’t hold up his end of the deal. Though he mainly talks about how he doesn’t have enough to eat there, I read it as him being aware that not only is he eating all of their food, but they are terrified of him and don’t want him around. For that reason I tend to read this scene as very sad.
When he works for the smith, he still doesn’t seem to know his own strength, but there’s a new element that he’s being more mischievous, taking out his strength on the miserly. He was at least attempting to behave himself around his parents; when he goes out on his own, he completely stops attempting and just goes wild.
Now, on this farm, he does seem to have a good handle on his own strength and is able to perform his job perfectly – whether because he’s getting better at it, or because he’s back to uprooting trees like the giant trained him. He’s also made the same deal to punish a stingy boss. But now his actions are becoming mean-spirited. He’s taking every opportunity to be lazy and gluttonous, using his strength to hinder his coworkers and mock them in the process. It seems that he would be able to excel if he rose at the normal time, and still return early to sleep and eat as he wished—but instead he opts to sleep in and to cheat and hinder his coworkers.
I’d like to raise the point that the young giant is probably very young, no older than his teens at the most. At the beginning, it has been "several" or "numerous" years since his birth, depending on his translation, and he lives with the giant for six years. However, he’s also specifically referred to as “the boy” (German “junge,” youth).
In many other variants, the hero is also a “boy” or a “lad.” Carancal tells people that he’s too young to marry. Hans the Mermaid’s Son is only six years old, though he looks like an adult, and his adventures are near-identical to The Young Giant’s.
This character is a troubled kid. He’s kidnapped and raised by a being who gives him immense power and then abruptly abandons him. Then his parents reject him and he’s out on his own, and possibly not even a teenager yet. But he has learned that he can get whatever comforts he wants by intimidating people or using his strength. This situation is perfect for him to start growing into a bully.
He works for one year until it’s time for wages - i.e. time for him to hit the overseer three times with his massive fists that can uproot huge trees and crush iron bars. At this point the overseer gets scared and even offers to switch jobs with him. With the giant refusing to budge, the overseer asks for two weeks’ extension, and immediately runs off to discuss with his clerks.
They thought for a long time, and finally concluded that no one was safe in the presence of the chief farmhand. He could strike a person dead just like one would crush a mosquito.
This is a good point.
He should be told to climb into the well to clean it. Then they would roll the large millstones that were lying nearby into the well onto his head. After that he would never again see the light of day.
However, when this occurs, the giant instead yells, "Chase the chickens away from the well. They are scratching in the sand, and throwing little grains into my eyes until I can't see." Then he climbs out, wearing the millstone around his neck and joking that it’s a necklace.
The overseer asks for another two weeks. This time his plan is to send the giant to the haunted mill to grind flour overnight. Apparently there’s just a haunted mill nearby, no explanation needed. The idea is for the local ghosts to kill the giant.
Off goes the giant, dismissing the miller’s warning. That night, a table appears, covered in a huge feast. All the giant can see is the chairs moving as if someone’s sitting them, and disembodied fingers handling the food and silverware. Hungry as usual, and not unnerved in the slightest, the giant joins them and has an excellent meal. Suddenly the lights go out, and then someone smacks him in the face. Cue massive knock-down-drag-out boxing match with a crew of ghosts, that lasts until dawn.
Naturally, the giant is alive, and apparently he has even freed the mill of its curse, so he's a hero.
While the nervous overseer is pacing back and forth, not knowing what to do, the giant comes up behind him and kicks him out the window. The overseer never comes down, so the giant turns to his wife (what did she have to do with anything?!) and announces that she'll have to take the next blow. A second later he sends her flying. So now the overseer and his wife are just sailing through the air, possibly never to come down.
But as for the young giant, he picked up his iron rod and went on his way.
Is this really a happy ending? I’m going to say no. The young giant hasn’t found a home. He’s apparently leaving the place where he was performing his job well and had enough to eat. Is this going to become a pattern of walking from place to place, taking jobs only to beat up his employers? And what happened to the overseer, not to mention his wife, who didn’t even do anything?
The only point I can see to this story is to point and laugh at stingy, grasping people as their money-grasping ways backfire on them. However, the story's implications don't bode well for the hero, and probably point to him one day becoming one of the typical villainous giants who show up so often in fairytales.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.