Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fun Facts about Thumbling Tales from Sarah Allison

I just discovered another terrific resource: the blog Writing in Margins by Sarah Allison. It's all focused on her research into Thumbling tales, or any protagonist that is about the size of a thumb. I haven't looked into Thumbling tales as much myself but there is so much fascinating, well-researched information on variants from around the world, as well as on the significance of certain images/motifs in different cultures. I asked Sarah to put together a guest post with some of the fun facts she's learned and she graciously obliged!


"Thumbelina," Charles Robinson

I’ve been seriously researching fairytales about miniature characters, or thumblings, for maybe a year and a half now. These are characters like Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, the Japanese story of Issun-Boshi, and the Grimms’ Thumbling. I started this project mainly in search of other lady thumb persons besides Thumbelina. From there, it took on a life of its own. Here’s a list of some of the things I found most interesting: 

*The basic story: a childless couple wishes for a baby, even if it’s as small as a [thumb, chickpea, etc.]. By some twist of fate, this tiny child is born or created. Most versions feature him helping around the farm, going on wacky adventures, and getting swallowed by an animal before eventually returning to his parents. Some versions go in different directions. 

*This tale is incredibly widespread throughout Europe, North Africa, and Asia. As far as I can tell, it didn't really show up in the Americas until Europeans brought it there. There are American Indian tales with small heroes, but they are not typically thumb-sized. 
Children's book published by McLoughlin Bros, 1888

*The Brothers Grimm collected three Thumbling stories (well, two and a half) - Thumbling, Thumbling’s Travels, and The Young Giant. 

*Female thumblings are rare but not unheard of. A few examples: there are two versions of the basic story from Spain, three Frog Princess-type tales from Norway, France and Vietnam, and one from Corsica that is part Thumbelina and part Donkeyskin. 

* In a Jewish version from Turkey, the tiny girl is given to her mother by the prophet Elijah. 

*Tom Thumb is the first known fairytale printed in English. The earliest copy, from 1621, is satire with lots of scatological humor. Princess Kaguya, which begins like a thumbling story, is from the 10th century and is considered the oldest Japanese prose narrative existing. 

P. T. Barnum and Charles Sherwood Stratton, "General Tom Thumb"

*In real life, General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) was a dwarf who performed under P. T. Barnum. He was a world-famous celebrity, and most of the random things named Tom Thumb, like geraniums and umbrellas and pastries, are actually named for Stratton. A few other performers with dwarfism also used the fairy tale name around the same time, presumably to cash in on Stratton’s fame. 

*Someone wrote a story where General Tom Thumb met his fairytale namesake (Tom Thumb’s Bridal Tour: A Fairy Story, 1863.) 

"Thumbelina" by Milo Winter

*Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina has been translated multiple times into many languages, including Central Alaskan Yup’ik.


Thanks, Sarah!

If you hop on over to her blog, there's a lot more where this came from-I enjoyed reading about Death and Food in Thumbling Tales, Elves in Clothes, and the history of how Fairies got pointed ears. And if you, like me, were intrigued by her mention of a tale that combines Thumbelina with Donkeyskin, you can read about it here (along with a fascinating discussion of abuse in fairy tales, including those with an abusive husband as well as parent). And I've only scratched the surface of her archives so far!

*Also on the blog you can answer a survey about which Thumbling story you're most familiar with and how you heard of it. I'm sure Sarah would appreciate more input and I'm curious to find out the results!


  1. Fascinating! I didn't realise there were so many, and I'm also very interested in the Thumbelina/Donkeyskin mash-up. I read Sarah's post about it. I'd never paid much attention to the abusive mother/perverted father figures in Cinderella/Donkeyskin tales before, but now they make a disturbing kind of sense. Even more disturbing by the mirroring of these tales of abuse in real life. Very interesting from a literary point of view, but also very tragic historically and realistically. Same for DM's reasons for marrying the abusive prince.

    I also wonder if any of these thumbling tales inspired the Mrs Pepperpot books. I loved them as a child, and they also feature some folklore/fairy tale-like elements. Only, the small main protagonist is the size of a pepperpot instead of a thumb, and she's an old woman instead of a child.

    1. I know, there are so many more Thumbling tales than I realized either! I'm not familiar with the Mrs. Pepperpot books, but there's always a chance! There's also the book "The Borrowers" which I loved and even the movie "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" and its sequels, hard to say if they were influenced by the fairy tales or not, but I would imagine most people have heard of Thumbelina or Tom Thumb at some point, so it might be subconscious influences too.

    2. You'd be surprised how influential the archetype of a diminutive hero is. Among major comic book publishers, both major superhero universes have a hero who shrinks. At Marvel, it's Ant-Man. For DC, it's the Atom. Superhero comics usually draw more on myth and pulp fiction than folk tale but I'd be hard pressed to find tiny heroes in either Greek mythology or the pulp magazines.

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