Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen,
Andersen's first illustrator
|Author||Hans Christian Andersen|
|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|
|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 first published by C. A. Reitzel on 16 December 1835 in Copenhagen, Denmark, with "The Naughty Boy" and "The Traveling Companion" in the second installment of Fairy Tales Told for Children. "Thumbelina" is about a tiny girl and her adventures with appearance- and marriage-minded toads, moles, and cockchafers. She successfully avoids their intentions before falling in love with a flower-fairy prince just her size.
"Thumbelina" is chiefly Andersen's invention, though he did take inspiration from tales of miniature people such as "Tom Thumb". "Thumbelina" was published as one of a series of seven fairy tales in 1835 which were not well received by the Danish critics who disliked their informal style and their lack of morals. One critic, however, applauded "Thumbelina". The earliest English translation of "Thumbelina" is dated 1846. The tale has been adapted to various media including television drama and animated film.
In the first English translation of 1847 by Mary Howitt, the tale opens with a beggar woman giving a peasant's wife a barleycorn in exchange for food. Once planted, a tiny girl, Thumbelina (Tommelise), emerges from its flower. One night, Thumbelina, asleep in her walnut-shell cradle, is carried off by a toad who wants her as a bride for her son. With the help of friendly fish and a butterfly, Thumbelina escapes the toad and her son, and drifts on a lily pad until captured by a stag beetle who later discards her when his friends reject her company.
Thumbelina tries to protect herself from the elements, but when winter comes, she is in desperate straits. She is finally given shelter by an old field mouse and tends her dwelling in gratitude. The mouse suggests Thumbelina marry her neighbor, a mole, but Thumbelina finds repulsive the prospect of being married to such a creature because he spent all his days underground and never saw the sun or sky. The field mouse keeps pushing Thumbelina into the marriage, saying the mole is a good match for her, and does not listen to her protests.
At the last minute, Thumbelina escapes the situation by fleeing to a far land with a swallow she nursed back to health during the winter. In a sunny field of flowers, Thumbelina meets a tiny flower-fairy prince just her size and to her liking, and they wed. She receives a pair of wings to accompany her husband on his travels from flower to flower, and a new name, Maia.
In Hans Christian Andersen's version of the story, a bluebird had been viewing Thumbelina's story since the beginning and had been in love with her since. In the end, the bird is heartbroken once Thumbelina marries the flower-fairy prince, and flies off eventually arriving at a small house. There, he tells Thumbelina's story to a man who is implied to be Andersen himself and chronicles the story in a book.
Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark on 2 April 1805 to Hans Andersen, a shoemaker, and Anne Marie Andersdatter. An only and a spoiled child, Andersen shared a love of literature with his father who read him The Arabian Nights and the fables of Jean de la Fontaine. Together, they constructed panoramas, pop-up pictures, and toy theatres, and took long jaunts into the countryside.
Andersen's father died in 1816, and from then on, Andersen was left to his own devices. In order to escape his poor, illiterate mother, he promoted his artistic inclinations and courted 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 acquired from his performances, a letter of reference to the ballerina Madame Schall, and youthful dreams and intentions of becoming a poet or an actor.
After three years of rejections and disappointments, he finally found a patron in Jonas Collin, the director of the Royal Theatre, who, believing in the boy's potential, secured funds from the king to send Andersen to a grammar school in Slagelse, a provincial town in west Zealand, with the expectation that the boy would continue his education at Copenhagen University at the appropriate time.
At Slagelse, Andersen fell under the tutelage of Simon Meisling, a short, stout, balding thirty-five-year-old classicist and translator of Virgil's Aeneid. Andersen was not the quickest student in the class and was given generous doses of Meisling's contempt. "You're a stupid boy who will never make it," Meisling told him. Meisling is believed to be the model for the learned mole in "Thumbelina".
Fairy tale and folklorists Iona and Peter Opie have proposed the tale as a "distant tribute" to Andersen's confidante, Henriette Wulff, the small, frail, hunchbacked daughter of the Danish translator of Shakespeare who loved Andersen as Thumbelina loves the swallow; however, no written evidence exists to support the theory.
Sources and inspiration
“Thumbelina” is essentially Andersen’s invention but takes inspiration from the traditional tale of "Tom Thumb" (both tales begin with a childless woman consulting a supernatural being about acquiring a child). 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 miniature peoples, and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s hallucinatory, erotic tale "Meister Floh" in which a tiny lady a span in height torments the hero. A tiny girl figures in Andersen‘s prose fantasy "A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager" (1828), and a literary image similar to Andersen’s tiny being inside a flower is found in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s "Princess Brambilla” (1821).
Publication and critical reception
Andersen published two installments of his first collection of Fairy Tales Told for Children in 1835, the first 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 which 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.
The first reviews of the seven tales of 1835 did not appear until 1836 and the Danish critics were not enthusiastic. The informal, chatty style of the tales and their lack of morals were considered inappropriate in children’s literature. One critic however acknowledged "Thumbelina" to be “the most delightful fairy tale you could wish for.”
The critics offered Andersen no further encouragement. One literary journal never mentioned the tales at all while 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, and returned to novel-writing, believing it was his true calling. The critical reaction to the 1835 tales was so harsh that he waited an entire year before publishing "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes" in the third and final installment of Fairy Tales Told for Children.
Mary Howitt was the first to translate "Tommelise" into English and published it as "Thumbelina" in Wonderful Stories for Children in 1846. However, she did not approve of the opening scene with the witch, and, instead, had the childless woman provide bread and milk to a hungry beggar woman who then rewarded her hostess with a barleycorn.
Charles Boner also translated the tale in 1846 as "Little Ellie" while 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 was probably the translator responsible for the name, 'Thumbelina'. His widely published volumes of Andersen's tales appeared in 1864 and 1866. Mrs. H.B. Paulli translated the name as 'Little Tiny' in the late-nineteenth century.
In the twentieth century, Erik Christian Haugaard translated the name as 'Inchelina' in 1974, and Jeffrey and Diane Crone Frank translated the name as 'Thumbelisa' in 2005. Modern English translations of "Thumbelina" are found in the six-volume complete edition of Andersen's tales from the 1940s by Jean Hersholt, and Erik Christian Haugaard’s translation of the complete tales in 1974.
For fairy tale researchers and folklorists Iona and Peter Opie, "Thumbelina" is an adventure story from the feminine point of view with its moral being people are happiest with their own kind. They point out that Thumbelina is a passive character, the victim of circumstances whereas her male counterpart Tom Thumb (one of the tale’s inspirations) is an active character, makes himself felt, and exerts himself.
Folklorist Maria Tatar sees “Thumbelina” as a runaway bride story and notes that it has been viewed as an allegory about arranged marriages, and a fable about being true to one’s heart that upholds the traditional notion that the love of a prince is to be valued above all else. She 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, and that the concept may have migrated to European folklore and taken form as Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, both of whom seek transfiguration and redemption. She detects parallels between Andersen’s tale and the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, and, notwithstanding the pagan associations and allusions in the tale, notes that "Thumbelina" repeatedly refers to Christ‘s suffering and resurrection, and the Christian concept of salvation.
Andersen biographer Jackie Wullschlager indicates that “Thumbelina” was the first of Andersen's tales to dramatize the sufferings of one who is different, and, as a result of being different, becomes the object of mockery. It was also the first of Andersen's tales to incorporate the swallow as the symbol of the poetic soul and Andersen’s identification with the swallow as a migratory bird whose pattern of life his own traveling days were beginning to resemble.
Roger Sale believes Andersen expressed his feelings of social and sexual inferiority 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 and 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.
Jacqueline Banerjee views the tale as a failure story. “Not surprisingly,“ she writes, “”Thumbelina“ is now often read as a story of specifically female empowerment.“ Susie Stephens believes Thumbelina herself is a grotesque, and 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. Sidney Rosenblatt in his essay "Thumbelina and the Development of Female Sexuality" believes the tale may be analyzed, from the perspective of Freudian psychoanalysis, as the story 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.
The earliest animated version of the tale is a silent, black-and-white release by director Herbert M. Dawley in 1924.
Dyuymovochka was a Russian popular animation version from 1964 of a film studio "Soyuzmultfilm". One of the best statements of the director Leonid Amalrik: in "Thumbelina" Andersen's heroes loved by all play the pressing history of sufferings of the least girl on the earth.
In 1983, a Japanese version was released called Oyayubihime (Princess Thumb); 世界名作童話 おやゆび姫 (Sekai Meisaku Dōwa Oyayubi-hime; World Classic Fairytale Princess Thumb), a Toei Animation anime movie, with character designs by Tezuka Osamu from 1978.
The 2009 direct-to-DVD animated movie, Barbie Presents Thumbelina, where Barbie tells the story of the Twillerbees, with Thumbelina as the main character. in a modern-day tale. She meets Makena, the daughter of a wealthy couple, who became the Twillerbees' only hope for saving their home (which was being torn due to a building construction by Makena's parents). At the end, Barbie waves at Thumbelina and her friends before the Twillerbees magically make a plant grow in the sight of a little girl, revealing it is a true story.
In 2015, a modernized version of Thumbelina appears in the Disney Junior series, Goldie and Bear. In the episode, Thumbelina's Wild Ride,  Thumbelina is hired to babysit for Goldie and Bear. The two friends are initially put off by her small stature, thinking she's almost helpless. When she tries getting the kids a snack, she falls down the kitchen sink and slides into the river behind the house. Goldie and Bear try to save her, but soon see that Thumbelina is resourceful, agile, and can lift several times her own weight. She saves herself from the river and even rescues the kids when they fall in trying to save her. The kids take an instant liking to her and can't wait for the next time she babysits. Thumbelina is voiced by Debby Ryan (Speaking) and Shannon Chan-Kent (Singing).
On June 11, 1985, a television dramatization of the tale was broadcast as the 12th episode of the anthology series Faerie Tale Theatre. The production starred Carrie Fisher. A version of the tale was filmed in 1970 as an advertisement for "Pirates World", a now-defunct Florida theme park. Directed by Barry Mahon and with Shay Garner in the title role, this version was reused in its entirety as filler material for "Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny", a rival to such films as "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Manos: the Hands of Fate" for the title of most inept film ever made.
- Wullschlager 2002, p. 165
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- Opie 1974, p. 219
- Wullschlager 2000, p. 162
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