Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Very Tiny Children

Whether we're reading "Tom Thumb", "Hop-o-My-Thumb", or my personal favorite, "Thumbelina," people have been fascinated by stories in which the heroes are extremely small, sometimes only the length of an adult's thumb. Why do we tell stories that feature such impossibly tiny characters? The themes and motifs are different when featuring males verses females, so here's a brief look at the significance of a tiny heroine in "Thumbelina."

We had a cartoon version of it that I would sometimes watch growing up. I remember thinking that being kidnapped and forced to marry a mole (and toad) was kind of exciting but really creepy. I was repulsed by the idea and glad when she escaped, which is interesting from someone who was also very familiar with fairy tales like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Frog Prince" in which I did root for the main character to fall in love with the strange husband.

Maria Tatar suggests that this tale is another commentary on unnatural arranged marriages (again, like "Beauty and the Beast,") which makes sense when you look at the story. Although, it's a little more unusual for Andersen, a male, to be making a statement about that (especially since Andersen was always rejected by the women he fell in love with).

Heidi Anne Heiner points out that a central theme of the tale is one that is prominent in many of Andersen's other stories-that of being an outsider trying to fit in, and finally finding a place to belong (such as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling"). Andersen identified with many of his main characters, feeling like he also didn't fit in with the rest of society-and that's something we can probably all relate to at some point. Heiner also contrasts the characters such as the toads, mouse, and mole with the swallow who rescues Thumbelina at the end; the first all try to force Thumbelina to live in a world where she doesn't belong and is unhappy, such as the cold dark underground with the mole. The swallow recognizes Thumbelina could not live with him. Although the emphasis on Thumbelina finding the tiny Prince beautiful at the end makes it seem like a more shallow conclusion, I think there's something to be said for finding the right fit, and finding where you belong. I'm sure many of you can think of examples of people you've dated who, though they may have been great people, just wouldn't have been a good match-it would be like trying to force a mole and a tiny woman to live together.

Still, I wonder what the significance of having a very tiny heroine has, verses a swan among ducks, or a Mermaid among humans. Literary examples of tiny people were well known at the time, such as the Lilliputions in Gulliver's Travels. Heiner says that Andersen had a close friend, Henriette Wulff, who was "very small, very frail, and hunchbacked." He may have had her in mind.

To me, someone so extremely small is not only different from those around them, but extra frail, delicate, and in need of help. It's a bigger responsibility for the caregiver to keep them safe. Incidentally, Heiner also points out that the beginning of this story is one of the few examples in fairy tales of a mother and daughter living happily together (the other being "Snow White and Rose Red"), until Thumbelina is kidnapped.

I was reminded of this fairy tale recently-Tony and I are in the stage of our lives where friends and family are starting to have babies, and the other day we were introduced to our friends' month old baby for the first time. Whether or not you've seen newborns before, I think the overwhelming reaction to seeing such a small child is to comment, "he's so TINY!" I'm one of those people that even gets a bit nervous watching other people handle such little, fragile children; I don't feel comfortable holding babies until they're a little bigger, because I'm somewhat afraid I'll drop them. I wondered if, to some parents, fairy tales about tiny children reflect the way they all feel at first: "I'm responsible for this tiny, helpless, human being?"

What are your reactions to fairy tales with tiny protagonists?

Source: Surlalune's annotations for Thumbelina; annotations by Heidi Anne Heiner, Kathleen O'Neill, and Christine Ethier

Illustrations:    Maxwell Armfield,  A.W. Bayes, Mabel Lucie Atwell, Harry Clarke, Eleanor Vere Boyle


  1. Gosh, it's been a while since I read anyone commenting on Thumbelina - thank you!
    Have you ever considered that Thumbelina's story might actually be a mother recounting her perspective of her daughter being born and maturing/becoming independent? That's how I tend to look at the tale since having my own kid. Though a daughter's journey is still very different from a son's (despite our supposedly enlightened and equality-prevailing time), the feelings of a precious and fragile being overcoming obstacles above and below,inner world and outer, is usually the same from a mother's perspective, as is the heartbreak of watching your child trying to find their place when they are different to those around them for whatever reason.
    In FT illustrations for Thumbelina, I love that there are so many variations of the complete and enraptured delight of the mother as she looks upon her daughter in the flower for the first time. I have to wonder if some of the reference models and photos weren't of mothers looking at their newborns...
    Thanks for this post! <3

    1. That's a very good interpretation of Thumbelina. Even though we're much better now about providing equal upbringings for children of both genders, the fact is, girls are still physically weaker and more delicate than boys; they tend to be shorter and smaller, and sadly they're still more likely to be physically overpowered and/or taken advantage of sexually. Watching your daughter mature is probably a lot like letting this beautiful, innocent being out into a dangerous world (and to most parents, their daughter will always be a little girl in their eyes, to some extent). Letting go is always hard, especially knowing you can't protect them forever...

      I will have to look more into illustrations for Thumbelina! It's a tale I haven't spent as much time with as others so there's lots to explore still!

  2. I had no idea Hop-o-my-Thumb was supposed to be tiny. I knew he was smaller than his siblings, but I didn't think he was "Tom Thumb" tiny.

    1. You know what, you're right, I just assumed from the title that Hop-o-my-Thumb was also literally thumb sized. Wikipedia says: "The beginning mentions that "le petit Poucet" was no bigger than a man's thumb when he was born. However, it seems that for the remainder of the story, the protagonist is just a small child, and the tale bears no resemblance to Tom Thumb. As is the nature of traditional stories, passed on orally, the beginning passage might be a remnant from an older tale, ancestral to both Hop-o'-My-Thumb and Tom Thumb."

      However, being as small as a thumb even as a newborn is extremely tiny. Even if he isn't quite as exaggerated in his smallness as other fairy tale characters the theme of being able to outsmart a villain in spite of his disadvantages is there, so there's definitely similarities.

      Thanks for bringing that to my attention!

  3. It's so funny that you write this, because I have always loved fairy tales with tiny protagonists (Thumbelina by far being one of my favorites). Maybe because it adds an element of difficulty in the struggle? We perceive them to have to work harder, to be disadvantaged. I'm not sure, there's also the magical and fantastical angle you could argue for. It's definitely something I've never really thought about..

    Miche from Buttons and Birdcages

    1. For sure the difficulty aspect sets Thumbelina fact, most fairy tales are about the underdog overcoming challenges and rising to the top; the youngest son assumed to be the simpleton, the persecuted stepdaughter, the lost children in the woods. I've heard it said before that the reason most fairy tales have children as protagonists is not because they're exclusively for children, but because we connect with children in terms of feeling powerless against other authorities/circumstances. I'm sure there are times when we all feel "small" and intimidated by the evils and unknown in the world, so fairy tales like this give us courage.

      Also...I love your blog! Especially your "Good News of the Day" feature. As someone who tends to get really depressed when I listen to the news, I love that you take the time to find positive things going on in the world, it's so encouraging! I read lots of style blogs and this is the first time there's been a crossover from the style blog world into the fairy tale blog world!

  4. Have you read the book the Borrowers or seen the movie the Secret World of Arrietty? It's about tiny people and is a darling story.
    I've always loved the story of Thumbelina because I relate to feeling so small and helpless in such a big world.

    1. I read The Borrowers when I was a kid and I remember loving it!! That book, however, felt more "secure," because it was a family of tiny people who had all adapted and though there were dangers, they were in it together, whereas Thumbelina is out all on her own and doesn't even know there's other people like her until the very end.

      You know what else I loved as a child..."Honey I Shrunk the Kids"! I loved seeing the simple world of a suburban backyard through the eyes of newly shrunken children! I'm sure there are more stories of very tiny people I can't think of at the moment...but maybe I was more drawn to this theme than I realized!

      But yes, even as an adult I can definitely relate to feeling helpless and/or powerless sometimes. But there is always Hope!