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Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen,
Andersen's first illustrator
AuthorHans Christian Andersen
Original titleTommelise
TranslatorMary Howitt
Genre(s)Fairy tale
Published inFairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. Second Booklet. 1835. (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Andet Hefte. 1835.)
Publication typeFairy tale collection
PublisherC. A. Reitzel
Media typePrint
Publication date16 December 1835
Published in English1846
Preceded byLittle Ida's Flowers
Followed byThe Naughty Boy

"Thumbelina" (Danish: Tommelise) is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The tale was first printed by C. A. Reitzel on 16 December 1835 in Copenhagen, Denmark. "Thumbelina" is about a tiny girl. She has several adventures with a toad, a mole, a field mouse, and other creatures of field and forest. At the end, she meets and falls in love with a flower-fairy prince just her size.

"Thumbelina" was one of nine fairy tales Andersen printed between 1835 and 1837 in a series of three booklets. These booklets were called Fairy Tales Told for Children. "Thumbelina" appeared in the second booklet with "The Naughty Boy" and "The Traveling Companion". The first booklet included "The Tinderbox", "Great Claus and Little Claus", "The Princess and the Pea", and "Little Ida's Flowers". The third booklet was printed in 1837. Only two tales, "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes", appeared in the third and final booklet.

"Thumbelina" is completely Andersen's invention. He did however know tales about tiny people such as "Tom Thumb" and the six-inch tall Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels. He may have taken some inspiration from these tales. Andersen's tales were not liked by the Danish critics. They did not like their casual style and their lack of morals. One critic liked "Thumbelina". He called it "delightful". The tale has been adapted to an animated movie and a live-action television programme.

A woman wants a baby. She asks a witch to help her. The witch gives the woman a barleycorn. She tells the woman to plant it, and wait for what will happen. The barleycorn is planted, and a flower grows. When the woman kisses the flower, 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 hops through an open window. The toad wants the tiny girl as a bride for her son. She puts Thumbelina on a lily pad for safekeeping. Thumbelina escapes the toad with the help of friendly fish and a white butterfly. She floats away on the lily pad.

She is suddenly snatched and carried away by a cockchafer (beetle). The beetle's friends are proud and arrogant. Thumbelina is not of their social class. They take a dislike to her at once. The beetle drops her without a second thought, and flies away.

Thumbelina lives alone as best she can in the fields. When winter comes, she needs to find a place to live. She is finally given a home by an old field mouse. Thumbelina thanks the mouse by taking care of her little house.

The mouse thinks Thumbelina should marry her neighbor, a smart and well-to-do mole. Thumbelina finds the idea of being married to such a creature hateful. After all, he spends all of 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. They have been friends ever since.

The swallow carries Thumbelina to a sunny land. In a field of flowers, Thumbelina meets a tiny flower-fairy prince just her size and to her liking. They wed. Her husband gives her a pair of wings so she can fly with him 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, and tells him the complete story of Thumbelina.

Note: Mary Howitt was the first to translate the story into English. She disliked the encounter with the witch. In her translation, she starts the tale 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.


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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, a laundress.[1] Andersen was an only and a spoiled child. He 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] From then on, Andersen was on his own. Andersen was a tall, thin boy who was bullied by other boys. He wanted to escape them, and his poor, illiterate mother. He advertised his artistic talents to the middle class of Odense. He sang and danced in their homes. On 4 September 1819, the fourteen-year-old Andersen left Odense for Copenhagen with gifts of money he had received from his neighbors. He carried a letter of reference to the ballerina Madame Schall, and had dreams of becoming a poet, a ballet dancer, or an actor.[4]

After three years in Copenhagen without someone to support him, Andersen finally found an interested gentleman in Jonas Collin, the director of the Royal Theatre. Collin believed in the boy's talents. He managed to have the king send Andersen to a grammar school in Slagelse, a country town in west Zealand. He thought Andersen would continue his education at Copenhagen University at the right time.

At Slagelse, Andersen was taught by the short, fat, balding thirty-five-year-old Simon Meisling. This man was interested in Ancient Greece and Rome, and had translated Virgil's Aeneid. Andersen was not the brightest student in his class, and Meisling gave Andersen his sharp disapproval.[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 folklore researchers Iona and Peter Opie believe that "Thumbelina" is a "distant tribute" to Andersen's friend, Henriette Wulff, the small, delicate, handicapped daughter of the Danish translator of Shakespeare. She loved Andersen as Thumbelina loves the swallow;[8] however, there is no written evidence to support the "distant tribute" theory.[7]

“Thumbelina” is completely Andersen’s invention. He knew other tales of little people such as the old English fairy tale of "Tom Thumb" and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels with its tiny, six-inch Lilliputians. He may have found inspiration in these tales for "Thumbelina". He knew 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] Another image from literature similar to Andersen’s tiny being inside a flower is found in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s "Princess Brambilla” (1821).[10]

First printing and critical reception

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Andersen printed two booklets of Fairy Tales Told for Children in 1835. The first booklet was printed in May, and the second in December. "Thumbelina" was first printed in the December booklet 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". "Thumbelina" was printed again in collections of Andersen's works in 1850 and 1862.

The second booklet of Fairy Tales Told for Children featured "The Tinderbox", "Great Claus and Little Claus", "The Princess and the Pea", and "Little Ida's Flowers". The third booklet, printed in 1837, included "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes".[11]

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

The critics did not believe Andersen should write other fairy tales. One journal never mentioned the first seven 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 ideas of what a fairy tale should be. He returned to writing novels, believing that this was his true calling.[13] The critical reaction to the 1835 tales was so rough that Andersen waited a year before printing "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes". These two tales appeared in the third and final booklet of Fairy Tales Told for Children in 1837.

English translations

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Mary Howitt, ca. 1888

Mary Howitt was the first to translate "Tommelise" into English. She printed 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 childless woman was then rewarded with a barleycorn.[8]

Charles Boner also translated the tale in 1846 as "Little Ellie". Madame de Chatelain called the tiny 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 printed 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]


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Fairy tale and folklore researchers Iona and Peter Opie have written that "Thumbelina" is an adventure story from the female point of view. They believe the story teaches the reader that people are happiest with their own kind. Thumbelina is a passive character and the victim of circumstances, they point out. 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 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 absorbed by European folklore, then taken form as Tom Thumb and Thumbelina. Both characters seek transfiguration and redemption. She sees parallels between Andersen’s tale and the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. Despite the pagan references in the tale, she notes that "Thumbelina" 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]


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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.


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  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. Archived from the original on 2009-04-21. 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


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