Fairy Tale Facts: Thumbelina

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. On the recommendation of my friend Julie, I’ll be talking about Thumbelina today.

Thumbelina, or Tommelise as it was titled in the original Danish, was written by Hans Christian Andersen as a part of his first collection of fairy tales in 1835 and not well received by critics at the time. It was translated into English in 1846 by Mary Howitt and started gaining popularity.

I love this fairy tale, even if I sometimes forget about it. I highly recommend you read it if you have the time. It’s not long. In fact, one might say it’s tiny (that’s a joke that will make sense soon, I promise).

What It’s About

A poor peasant woman wants to have a child, but can’t. She asks a fairy (or a good witch, depending on which version you read) and receives a barleycorn. She plants it and when it blooms, there’s a tiny girl in the middle of the flower. She’s delighted by the pretty little girl and names her Thumbelina, although for the rest of the story she’s called Tiny. Thumbelina slept in a walnut shell and sailed around a bowl of water on a flower.

They lived  together happily (it’s hard to tell if the peasant woman had a husband or not, I think it changes with the version). Thumbelina loved to sing and had a sweet voice. Unfortunately, one day her voice caught the attention of a toad, who kidnapped her for her son to marry. They kept poor Thumbelina on a lily pad in a stream so that she couldn’t run away, but the fish in the stream felt bad for the small girl. They chewed away at the lily pad’s stalk and pushed Thumbelina and her lily pad downstream away form the horrid toads.

She also gets help from a friendly butterfly.

Thumbelina was then found by a beetle, who thought she was pretty and wanted to marry her. He took her home, but all the other beetles thought she was ugly, with only two legs and no wings. So the beetle left her in a meadow.

For the rest of the summer, Thumbelina lived quite happily in the meadow. But when it got colder, she didn’t know what to do. She stumbled onto a field mouse’s home, who happily took her in. The field mouse introduced Thumbelina to her neighbor the mole, who was blind and very well off. The mole fell in love with Thumbelina’s pretty voice, stories, and songs and the field mouse tried to arrange a marriage between the two.

Meanwhile, the mole finds a dead bird while digging a tunnel. Thumbelina recognizes it as one of the birds that sang to her while she lived in the meadow and makes a blanket for it, so that it won’t lie on the cold ground. Turns out that the bird wasn’t dead and it soon thaws out.

After a year has passed, the field mouse insists that Thumbelina marry the mole, threatening to bite her if she refuses. Thumbelina bids the sun goodbye only to find the bird she had saved. It offers to take her to a warmer place as he’s migrating for the winter. She happily agrees.

The bird takes Thumbelina to a beautiful meadow and sets her down on a pretty flower. To their surprise, there is a small man in the flower, with a gold crown and wings. He is entranced by Thumbelina and asks to marry her. She agrees and is made the princess of the flower people, even gaining a pair of her own wings and a new name, Maia.

The bird returned to Denmark, singing the story of Thumbelina, where an author heard it and wrote it down.

Fun Fact #1

Thumbelina was one of Andersen’s original fairy tales, though he was likely inspired by the story of Tom Thumb, another finger-sized hero.

Fun Fact #2

Mary Howitt actually changed the story a little bit. She didn’t like the idea of a fairy or a witch, so the starts with the poor woman giving a beggar woman food. The beggar woman gives her a barleycorn in return, which, when planted, reveals Thumbelina in the flower.

Fun Fact #3

We never see anything about Thumbelina’s parents after she’s kidnapped. I like to think she went back to visit them and to let them know she’s not dead, but I kind of doubt that happened.

If You’re Interested

Check out the Warner Bros. animated feature, Thumbelina. It was released in 1994 and is fantastic! There’s great music, incredible animation, and it’s really pretty true to the story. My friend Julie and I love it, and you can even find it on Netflix.

What other fairy tales would you like to learn more about?

Until next time, word nerds!


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