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