A Tale of Tiny Artistry: Thumbelina

During a recent cold spate here in Florida, various creatures—largely but not just iguanas—fell out of trees and onto people’s heads. (No. Really. Sometimes Florida can be a really strange place.) Or missed people’s heads entirely and just slammed down on the ground, stunned. Looking very very dead—until, that is, the weather warmed up, allowing the (surviving) iguanas to start to move again. That all mostly happened south of me—here, the main Strange Animal Reactions to the Cold consisted of two squirrels conspiring to empty the bird feeder again—but the stories ended up reminding me of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “Thumbelina.”

What, exactly, do weird animal moments in Florida have to do with a famous Danish fairy tale? Well, simply enough: the same thing happens in “Thumbelina”—only with a bird instead of an iguana.

And now, I can’t help thinking that really, the story could have been improved with an iguana.

Incidentally, in Danish, the story and its eponymous character are called “Tommelise,” not Thumbelina, a name created by English translators. some English translations have used “Tiny,” “Inchelina,” or, very recently, “Thumbelisa.” I’ll be using “Thumbelina” in this post since it’s the most familiar, if not necessarily the most correct, translation of the original Danish name—and the only name in this paragraph, other than “Tiny,” recognized by Microsoft Word.

Anyway. Tales of tiny people—often shorter than a thumb—littered European folklore then and now. Prior to Andersen’s tale, the most famous of these may have been the stories of Tom Thumb, who, reputable sources tell us, tried to joust at the court of King Arthur, despite his distinct height disadvantages. (Spoiler: the jousting did not go all that well.) The Tom Thumb stories first appeared in print in the early 17th century, but may be far older. They were popular on the other side of the Channel as well: Charles Perrault’s story of Little Poucet (somewhat better known in English as “Hop O’ My Thumb”), published in 1697, shows some familiarity with the Tom Thumb stories. A few years later, Jonathan Swift created Lilliput, an entire country of tiny people in his satire Gulliver’s Travels, an instantly popular novel despite, or perhaps because of, the misanthropy of its text.

Just how well Andersen knew any of these texts is a matter of some debate, but he had presumably encountered at least some of them in Danish translation, possibly bowdlerized. Gulliver’s Travels, in particular, tended to be more easily available in highly edited children’s editions. He may also have heard tales of tiny people from the elderly women he lived with as a child—immortalized in his novella The Snow Queen. Regardless of the source, he worked these tales into his own story of passiveness, terror, forced marriages, and a failure to belong.

Oh, and one only kinda dead bird.

“Thumbelina” starts on a note of deprivation: a woman, of no specified age, wants a child. This, too, was a common theme in western folklore—although in most of those tales, respectably married parents, or at least respectably married mothers, not single women, are the ones longing for a child. The woman in Andersen’s tale is apparently unmarried—at the very least, a husband goes unmentioned—which might be why she seeks out a fairy to help her gain her wish, rather than, say, using more traditional methods.

Using magical means results in a quasi-magical child: Thumbelina has no magical powers—indeed, later in the tale she needs magical assistance—but she is born in a flower, and, like her literary predecessors, is tiny indeed—small enough to be able to sleep comfortably in a walnut shell. The woman initially seems to treat Thumbelina as some sort of living/moving art object: the text focuses mostly on how pretty and delightful Thumbelina is to watch, stressing Thumbelina’s role as a performer, giving no hint of affection or further conversation between them, perhaps why the woman soon vanishes from the tale, apparently never to be thought of by Thumbelina again. Presumably not exactly what the woman was hoping for when she asked for a child. It somewhat reminds me of the crushing disappointment faced by many children who eagerly ordered Sea Monkeys and ended up with brine shrimp instead.

As an art object, Thumbelina is naturally subject to theft. The first thief is a toad, looking for a bride for her ugly son. Dim memories of basic biology lessons suggest to me that this is perhaps not her most viable choice, but maybe their river doesn’t have a lot of toads to pick from. You decide. In any case, a terrified Thumbelina, robbed of her comfortable home and status as a delightful thing to look at, can do nothing but cry, until she is saved by some sympathetic fish. (The story claims that the fish think she’s pretty and feel sorry for her, but I like to think that they were just swimming forward to prevent the river from the threat of terrifying Thumbelina/Toad hybrids. You decide.)

Thanks to the fish, Thumbelina starts floating down the river. In a rare moment of near-agency, she ties a butterfly to the leaf she is floating on, which sounds like a good idea right up until the point when she is kidnapped by a beetle, leaving the poor butterfly trapped to the leaf, unable to flee, like, THANKS THUMBELINA. At least she spares a moment to think about the butterfly, which is more than she did for her mother. Moving on. The beetle decides that Thumbelina is too ugly for him, and abandons her in a flower. Soon it gets cold.

Sidenote: one common theme in Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales? Cold, and lots of it. Oddly, about the only one of Andersen’s tales that does not touch on thoughts of cold is “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—oddly, because that’s the tale where the emperor, at least, should feel rather cold. Unless the entire tale happened in August, in which case, ignore me. Most Andersen tales contain moments of bone deep brutal cold—as to be expected in tales centered in Denmark, written by an author who had personally experienced poverty in winters.

Half-frozen, Thumbelina stumbles upon the home of a field mouse, who conveniently enough is looking for a maid willing to tell stories. Soon enough the field mouse is arranging for Thumbelina’s marriage to yet another suitor, and at this point, I really do feel the need to note that as far as we, the readers, know at this point, she’s apparently, like, two. Maybe three. Sure, as the story clarifies, she was never exactly a baby—but regardless, her existence has been very short, and mostly spent trapped in flowers, rowing round and round a single bowl, and then doing housework for a mouse. What I’m saying here is that just maybe marriage should continue to be put off for a bit.

Anyway. As she is taken to the house of the mole, she comes across that dead bird. Feeling sorry for the bird, Thumbelina puts a blanket of hay over him, warming him up. And—just like many (not all) of those Florida iguanas, once the bird is warmed up, he returns to life.

(Don’t do this with the Florida iguanas, kids. They’re invasive species which this bird isn’t!)

Thumbelina’s decision to care for the bird—only the second time in this story that she has any agency whatsoever—allows the bird to thrive, which in turn leads to her escape from the mole and his dark underground world and her journey to a marvelous land full of flowers and singing, where she meets a beautiful, tiny winged man, marries him, and gains wings of her own and a happy ending. No mention is made of her mother, who presumably is reconsidering the entire “have a kid by magical means” thought right about now—that, or deciding that books make better entertainment than tiny magical fairy like creatures who do nothing but row back and forth in a bowl before getting kidnapped by toads.

“Thumbelina” has been frequently compared to the story of Demeter and Persephone, in part because of the way Thumbelina tends to be associated with flowers, as was Persephone, and in part because Thumbelina’s journey, although somewhat less violent, tends to mirror Persephone’s journey to the underworld. But more than this, I think, “Thumbelina” is an examination of the terrors of arranged marriages—and the terrors faced by artists.

“Thumbelina” presents a clear and terrifying picture of a girl largely unable to resist the marriages arranged for her without help. But even more so, the tale pictures the despair and helplessness that can be a feature of an artist’s career. For Thumbelina is, yes, an artist and entertainer, first singing for her human mother, and later singing and telling stories to the mouse in exchange for food and shelter. In between these two gigs, as they were, Thumbelina is helpless, often hungry, and worried about her looks. She is praised and respected by some, rejected by others, and—like many artists—often finds the rejections and criticisms more believable than the acceptances and praise. Her happy ending comes partly through her kindness to the fallen (BUT NOT DEAD JUST LIKE MANY IGUANAS) bird, but also partly because the bird agrees to help her, for all intents and purposes becoming her patron.

A picture, perhaps, of how Andersen viewed himself, or at least sometimes viewed himself: as a sometimes fragile artist, often dependent upon the kindness and goodwill of others. And a picture, too, of his hopes for a happy ending, of finding a place where he could and would fit in. In this, for all of its hints of a dark underworld and rape, for all of its focus on starvation and cold, “Thumbelina” turns out to be one of Andersen’s most hopeful tales.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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