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Calineczka VP ubt.jpeg
Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen,
Andersen's first illustrator
Author Hans Christian Andersen
Original title Tommelise
Translator Mary Howitt
Country Denmark
Language Danish
Genre(s) Literary fairy tale
Published in Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. Second Booklet. 1835. (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Andet Hefte. 1835.)
Publication type Fairy tale collection
Publisher C. A. Reitzel
Media type Print
Publication date 16 December 1835
Published in English 1846
Preceded by Little Ida's Flowers
Followed by The Naughty Boy

"Thumbelina" (Danish: Tommelise) is a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The story was first published by C. A. Reitzel on 16 December 1835 in Copenhagen, Denmark in the second installment of the first collection of Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children. The other tales in the booklet were "The Naughty Boy" and "The Traveling Companion". The first installment included "The Tinderbox", "Great Claus and Little Claus", "The Princess and the Pea", and "Little Ida's Flowers".

"Thumbelina" is about a tiny girl and her adventures with appearance- and marriage-minded toads, moles, and beetles. She successfully avoids their intentions before falling in love with a flower-fairy prince just her size.

"Thumbelina" is mainly Andersen's invention. He did however take inspiration from tales of tiny people such as "Tom Thumb" and the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. "Thumbelina" was published as one of a series of seven fairy tales in 1835. These seven tales were not well received by the Danish critics. They did not like their informal, casual style and their lack of morals. One critic, however, liked "Thumbelina". The earliest English translation of "Thumbelina" is dated 1846. The tale has been adapted to various media including an animated movie and a live-action television production.

Plot[change | change source]

Mary Howitt was the first to translate the story into the English. Her translation of the tale starts with a beggar woman giving a peasant's wife a barleycorn in exchange for food. Once the barleycorn is planted, tiny Thumbelina (Tommelise) emerges from its flower. In Andersen, a childless woman consults a witch about getting a baby for herself. The witch gives the woman a barleycorn. She tells her to plant it, and wait for what will happen. A flower grows from the seed. The woman kisses the flower, and it pops open to reveal tiny Thumbelina.

One night, Thumbelina is asleep in her walnut-shell cradle. She is carried off by a toad who creeps through a window. The toad wants the tiny maiden as a bride for her son. She steals the child and puts Thumbelina on a lily pad for safekeeping. With the help of friendly fish and a white butterfly, Thumbelina escapes the toad and her son. She drifts away on the lily pad.

She is captured by a cockchafer (beetle). The insect discards her when his friends reject her company. Thumbelina tries to protect herself from the cold weather. When winter comes, she is in desperate straits. She is finally given shelter by an old field mouse. Thumbelina tends her little house in gratitude.

The mouse suggests Thumbelina marry her neighbor, a scholarly and well-to-do mole. Thumbelina finds the idea of being married to such a creature repulsive. After all, he spends all his days underground and never sees the sun or sky. The field mouse does not listen to Thumbelina's protests. She continues to urge the marriage. At the last minute, Thumbelina flies away with a swallow to a far, sunny land. Thumbelina brought the swallow back to health during the winter and they have been friends ever since.

In a field of flowers, Thumbelina meets a tiny flower-fairy prince just her size and to her liking. They wed. She receives a pair of wings to fly with her husband on his travels from flower to flower. She is given a new name, Maia. In the last page of the story, the swallow has flown to a poet's window (probably Andersen's window), and tells the poet the complete story of Thumbelina's adventures.

Background[change | change source]

Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark on 2 April 1805. His father was Hans Andersen, a shoemaker. His mother was Anne Marie Andersdatter.[1] H. C. Andersen was an only and a spoiled child. Andersen shared a love of books with his father. His father read him The Arabian Nights and the fables of Jean de la Fontaine. Together, they built panoramas, pop-up pictures, and toy theatres. Father and son took long walks into the countryside.[2]

Andersen in 1836 by Constantin Hansen

Andersen's father died in 1816,[3] and, from then on, Andersen was on his own. In order to escape his poor, illiterate mother, he promoted his artistic talents to his neighbors. He presented himself before the cultured middle class of Odense, singing and reciting in their drawing-rooms. On 4 September 1819, the fourteen-year-old Andersen left Odense for Copenhagen with the few savings he had received from his performances. He had a letter of reference to the ballerina Madame Schall, and youthful dreams of becoming a poet, a ballet dancer, or an actor.[4]

After three years of disappointments, he finally found a supporter in Jonas Collin, the director of the Royal Theatre. Collin believed in the boy's potential. He secured funds from the king to send Andersen to a grammar school in Slagelse, a provincial town in west Zealand. He expected that Andersen would continue his education at Copenhagen University at the right time.

At Slagelse, Andersen was instructed by Simon Meisling. This man was a short, stout, balding thirty-five-year-old classicist and translator of Virgil's Aeneid. Andersen was not the brightest student in the class. He was given generous doses of Meisling's contempt.[5] "You're a stupid boy who will never make it," Meisling told him.[6] Meisling is believed to be the model for the learned mole in "Thumbelina".[7]

Fairy tale and folklorists Iona and Peter Opie have suggested that "Thumbelina" is a "distant tribute" to Andersen's confidante, Henriette Wulff. She was the small, frail, hunchbacked daughter of the Danish translator of Shakespeare. She loved Andersen as Thumbelina loves the swallow;[8] however, no written evidence exists to support the theory.[7]

Sources and inspirations[change | change source]

“Thumbelina” is Andersen’s invention, but he took inspiration from the traditional English fairy tale of "Tom Thumb". Other inspirations were the six-inch Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels, Voltaire‘s short story, “Micromégas“ with its cast of huge and tiny peoples, and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s hallucinatory, erotic tale "Meister Floh". In Hoffmann's tale, a tiny lady torments the hero. A tiny girl also appears in Andersen‘s prose fantasy, "A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager" (1828).[7][9] A literary image similar to Andersen’s tiny being inside a flower is found in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s "Princess Brambilla” (1821).[10]

Publication and critical reception[change | change source]

Andersen published two installments of his first collection of Fairy Tales Told for Children in 1835. The first installment was published in May, and the second in December. "Thumbelina" was first published in the December installment by C. A. Reitzel on 16 December 1835 in Copenhagen. "Thumbelina" was the first tale in the booklet. The booklet included two other tales: "The Naughty Boy" and "The Traveling Companion". The story was republished in collected editions of Andersen's works in 1850 and 1862.[11]

The first reviews of the seven tales of 1835 did not appear until 1836. The Danish critics were not enthusiastic. They thought the informal, chatty style of the tales and their lack of morals were inappropriate in children’s stories. One critic however acknowledge "Thumbelina" to be “the most delightful fairy tale you could wish for.”[12]

The critics did not offer Andersen any encouragement. One literary journal never mentioned the tales at all. Another advised Andersen not to waste his time writing fairy tales. One critic stated that Andersen "lacked the usual form of that kind of poetry [...] and would not study models". Andersen felt he was working against their preconceived notions of what a fairy tale should be. He returned to writing novels. He believed it was his true calling.[13] The critical reaction to the 1835 tales was so harsh that Andersen waited an entire year before publishing "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes". These two tales appeared in the third and final installment of Fairy Tales Told for Children.

English translations[change | change source]

Mary Howitt, ca. 1888

Mary Howitt was the first to translate "Tommelise" into English. She published it in 1846 as "Thumbelina" in Wonderful Stories for Children. However, she did not approve of the opening scene with the witch. Instead, she had the childless woman provide bread and milk to a hungry beggar woman. The woman was then rewarded with a barleycorn.[8]

Charles Boner also translated the tale in 1846 as "Little Ellie". Madame de Chatelain dubbed the child 'Little Totty' in her 1852 translation. The editor of The Child's Own Book (1853) called the child throughout, 'Little Maja'. H.W. Dulcken's widely published volumes of Andersen's tales appeared in 1864 and 1866.[8] Mrs. H.B. Paulli translated the name as 'Little Tiny' in the late-nineteenth century.[14]

In the twentieth century, Erik Christian Haugaard translated the name as 'Inchelina' in 1974.[15] Jeffrey and Diane Crone Frank translated the name as 'Thumbelisa' in 2005.[16] Modern English translations of "Thumbelina" are found in the six-volume complete edition of Andersen's tales from the 1940s by Jean Hersholt. Erik Christian Haugaard’s translation of the complete tales was published in 1974.[17]

Commentaries[change | change source]

Fairy tale researchers and folklorists Iona and Peter Opie consider "Thumbelina" an adventure story from the feminine point of view. They believe the story's moral is, people are happiest with their own kind. Thumbelina is a passive character and the victim of circumstances, they point out, whereas her male counterpart Tom Thumb (one of the tale’s inspirations) is an active character. He makes himself felt, and exerts himself.[8]

Folklorist Maria Tatar sees “Thumbelina” as a runaway bride story. She notes that it has been viewed as an allegory about arranged marriages. She points out that "Thumbelina" is a fable about being true to one’s heart. "Thumbelina" upholds the traditional notion that the love of a prince is to be valued above all else.

Tatar points out that in Hindu belief, a thumb-sized being known as the innermost self or soul dwells in the heart of all beings, human or animal. This concept may have migrated to European folklore, then taken form as Tom Thumb and Thumbelina. Both characters seek transfiguration and redemption. She detects parallels between Andersen’s tale and the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. Notwithstanding the pagan associations and allusions in the tale, she notes that "Thumbelina" repeatedly refers to Christ‘s suffering and resurrection, and the Christian concept of salvation.[18]

Andersen biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes that “Thumbelina” was the first of Andersen's tales to dramatize the sufferings and hardships of one who is different. As a result of being different, Thumbelina becomes the object of mockery. It was also the first of Andersen's tales to use the swallow as the symbol of the poetic soul. Andersen identified with the swallow as a migratory bird whose pattern of life his own traveling days were beginning to resemble.[19]

Roger Sale believes Andersen's feelings of social and sexual inferiority were expressed in the tale by creating characters that are inferior to their beloveds. The Little Mermaid, for example, has no soul while her human beloved has a soul as his birthright. In “Thumbelina”, Andersen suggests the toad, the beetle, and the mole are Thumbelina’s inferiors. They should remain in their places rather than wanting their superior. Sale indicates they are not inferior to Thumbelina but simply different. He suggests that Andersen may have done some damage to the animal world when he colored his animal characters with his own feelings of inferiority.[20]

Jacqueline Banerjee views the tale as a story about failure. “Not surprisingly,“ she writes, “”Thumbelina“ is now often read as a story of specifically female empowerment.“[21] Susie Stephens believes Thumbelina herself is a grotesque. She observes that “the grotesque in children’s literature is [...] a necessary and beneficial component that enhances the psychological welfare of the young reader“. Children are attracted to the cathartic qualities of the grotesque, she suggests.[22]

Sidney Rosenblatt in his essay, "Thumbelina and the Development of Female Sexuality" believes the tale may be analyzed from the perspective of Freudian psychosexual development. He believes the story is one of female masturbation. Thumbelina herself, he posits, could symbolize the clitoris, her rose petal coverlet the labia, the white butterfly "the budding genitals", and the mole and the prince the anal and vaginal openings respectively.[23]

Adaptations[change | change source]

Thumbelina has been adapted to different media. The earliest animated version of the tale is a silent, black-and-white release by director Herbert M. Dawley in 1924. Lotte Reiniger released a 10-minute movie adaptation in 1954 featuring her "silhouette" puppets.

Don Bluth's full-length animated movie, Thumblina may be one of the best known versions. The story was also adapted to the live-action television program, Faerie Tale Theatre. This production starred Carrie Fisher. The direct-to-DVD animated movie, Barbie Presents Thumbelina was released in 2009. Russia and Japan have also released animated productions.

Footnotes[change | change source]

  1. Wullschlager 2002, p. 9
  2. Wullschlager 2002, p. 13
  3. Wullschlager 2002, pp. 25–26
  4. Wullschlager 2002, pp. 32–33
  5. Wullschlager 2002, pp. 60–61
  6. Frank 2005, p. 77
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Frank 2005, p. 76
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 Opie 1974, p. 219
  9. Wullschlager 2000, p. 162
  10. Frank 2005, pp. 75–76
  11. "Hans Christian Andersen: Thumbelina". Hans Christian Andersen Center. Retrieved 2009-08-22.
  12. Wullschlager 2002, p. 165
  13. Andersen 2000, p. 335
  14. Eastman, p. 258
  15. Haugaard 1983, p. 29
  16. Frank 2005, p. 29
  17. Classe 2000, p. 42
  18. Tatar 2008, pp. 193–194, 205
  19. Wullschlager 2000, p. 163
  20. Sale 1978, pp. 65–68
  21. Banerjee, Jacqueline (2008). "The Power of "Faerie": Hans Christian Andersen as a Children's Writer". The Victorian Web: Literature, History, & Culture in the Age of Victoria. Retrieved 2009-08-22.
  22. Stephens, Susie. "The Grotesque in Children’s Literature". Retrieved 2009-08-22.
  23. Siegel 1998, pp. 123,126

References[change | change source]

  • Andersen, Hans Christian (2000) [1871]. The Fairy Tale of My Life. New York, NY: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-1105-7
  • Classe, O. (ed.) (2000). Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English; v.2. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 1-884964-36-2
  • Eastman, Mary Huse (ed.). Index to Fairy Tales, Myths and Legends. BiblioLife, LLC.
  • Frank, Diane Crone; Jeffrey Frank (2005). The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Durham, NC and London, UK: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3693-6
  • Loesser, Susan (2000) [1993]. A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in his Life: A Portrait by his Daughter. New York, NY: Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 0-634-00927-3
  • Sale, Roger (1978). Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. New Haven, CT: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-29157-3
  • Siegel, Elaine V. (ed.) (1992). Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Women. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel, Inc.. ISBN 0-87630-655-5
  • Wullschlager, Jackie (2002). Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-91747-9