There are two or three fairy tales that took me months/years/??? to track down in their original languages. One was the Pakistani tale of Three-Inch, alternately known as Mr. One-finger-and-a-half, Little Finger, or Der Angule (দেড় আঙ্গুলে). Three-Inch is the name by which I first encountered the story.
As usual, it opens with a childless couple. After much prayer, they encounter the goddess Shashthi, disguised as an old woman. She gives them a cucumber, with instructions for the wife to eat it, stem and all, after seven days. As in many other stories, the wife does not follow these instructions. As a result, the child she bears is not much bigger than a finger and is hideously ugly, with very long hair.
He is harshly rejected for his appearance, which reflects on his whole family. In shame, his mother tries to drown herself and his father sells himself into slavery. Three-Inch, who has grown to maturity in minutes, stops his mother and sets out to free his father. He encounters the prince of the frogs and helps him rescue his wife, earning a magic healing green liquid. Betsy Bang's picture book version is the only one in English that explains why the frog's wife is locked up. She's the queen of the toads, and was imprisoned as punishment for the two marrying against their families' wishes. Bang also mentions that the "green liquid" from other versions is in fact toad spit.
While rescuing the frog's wife, Three-Inch also encounters a tiny blacksmith who's even shorter than he is and has an absurdly long beard that trails on the ground. All the versions give slightly different accounts of their meeting, but I find them all pretty funny. It seems to go roughly as: Three-Inch ties his hair to the guy's beard so they're stuck together, then introduces him as the blacksmith's new best friend; the blacksmith attempts murder; Three-Inch threatens legal action; best friends forever.
Three-Inch eventually proves himself by earning enough money to free his father, defeating an army of robbers, and curing the princess's blindness with that handy healing toad spit. He proves to be a formidable force as he rides around on a cat, commanding an army of bees and wasps.
The story has some interesting themes of disability and acceptance. The Thumbling story, as Ann Schmiesing points out, can be read as a narrative about someone with dwarfism. The hero usually doesn't marry - maybe because he remains a symbolic child, but also with his condition he is not a suitable romantic partner. In cases where Thumbling does get married, as in Issun-Boshi, he normally goes through a transformation and becomes normal. Three-Inch, however, throws that out the window. He gets married just the way he is; the transformation is that people learn to accept him. In Bradley-Birt's version, he even receives a new name, Pingal Kumara. Pingal means "respected sage" and Kumara means "son." A very different vibe than "One Finger and a Half Tall"!
However, it doesn't have the best treatment of female characters. The blind princess and the toad queen are both damsels in distress, and Three-Inch's mother is hasty and shallow. One synopsis of Bang's picture book ignores frog and robber subplots, instead emphasizing that Three-Inch's small size is because of his mother's actions. It adds that the hero "is eventually rewarded for helping those in need, while his mother leams to be patient and to follow instructions" (Khorana). This may say more about the reviewer than the book, bcause the actual book doesn't mention anything about the mother learning a lesson or having a character arc.
I like this story because it has a genuinely interesting plot. (Not all thumbling stories do. Some of them are severely gimmicky.) Three-Inch has a pretty miserable start to his life, but is still wonderfully determined to free his father and succeed in his ambitions, even though it looks hopeless. He's ready to fight anyone and I like the visuals, such as the moment where he thinks a cloud is passing overhead, but it turns out to be a frog jumping over him.
The story leaves many questions unanswered, like the reason behind the tiny, long-bearded blacksmith's existence. He is a seemingly unnecessary sidenote to the quest with the frog and toad, which is itself a sidenote in Three-Inch's adventure to free his father. The long-bearded miniature man shows up in many stories, as either a supernatural helper or villain. Khodra Khan is a tiny man in Islamic Indian tales who goes around avenging wrongs. Sir Buzz or Mîyân Bhûngâ appears in Steel's Tales of the Punjab in a story similar to Andersen’s “Tinder Box.” Mujichok-s-Kulachok, a fingernail-sized man with an arm-length beard, and similar figures pop up in Russian fairytales. Statu-Palmă-Barbă-Cot appears riding a rabbit in Romanian tales. In "One-Inch Two-Inch Man," a Kalkha tale from Mongolia, this character is the lead.
India has at least one other story that closely resembles Three-Inch - Bitaram, a tale from Mirzapur. The youngest of seven brothers is growing a fruit in his garden, and warns his sisters-in-law not to eat it, or they'll give birth to a child a span long. However, one of them does, and has the miniature child. He is named Bitaram - Bita is Santali for span, thus "Span Ram." Like the typical thumbling, he takes lunch to his father and uncles in the field and then helps plow. He then steals treasure from some thieves, but the story takes an atypical turn, with the police finding the treasure at his family's house. His male relatives are arrested and he and his mother are left as beggars.
Now Bitaram begins riding on a cat, carrying a basket in which he collects an army of bees. He approaches the home of the raja who imprisoned his family, fighting off the guards with his bow and arrows. Finally he releases the bees, who sting everyone until the raja surrenders. Bitaram's family is freed and he marries the princess and receives half the kingdom. The storyteller adds a further adventure of Bitaram, which is a variant of Aarne-Thompson type 1535, The Rich Peasant and the Poor Peasant. Type 1535 also appears in the stories of fellow Indian thumblings Bita (in "Spanling and His Uncles," from Santhal, Nepal) and Bittan (in "The Tricks of Hop o' my Thumb" from the Santal Parganas).
Every version of Three-Inch that I've found has been slightly different, but the basic story is probably among my top ten favorite thumblings. (There's an idea for a later post.)
This website is based on my research into folklore.