Illustration for "Thumbelina" by Vilhelm Pedersen (1820-1859).

"Thumbelina" (Danish: "Tommelise"; also published in English as "Little Ellie", "Little Totty", "Little Maja", "Little Tiny", "Thumbelisa" and "Inchelina") is a fantasy story for children by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It was first published in a booklet in 1835. The story was republished in 1837 in the first volume of Andersen's Fairy Tales Told to Children, which also included "The Tinderbox", "The Princess and the Pea", "The Little Mermaid" and "The Emperor's New Clothes".

The main character in the story is a girl, brought to life by magic, who is only a few inches tall. For a short time, the girl leads a comfortable life, until she is stolen away from her home by a toad. The toad wishes the girl to marry her son. Thumbelina escapes but an insect and then a mole also fall in love with her, although Thumbelina has no such feelings for either of them. Thumbelina is eventually taken far away to a land where she finds other little people like herself.

The story is largely Andersen's own invention, although there are some similarities to the folktale "Tom Thumb" and tiny people had appeared in earlier works of literature, such as in Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Animated versions of "Thumbelina" were released in 1924, 1954, 1964, 1983, 1994, 2002 and 2009. A live action movie version was released in 1970 and the story was adapted for American television in 1985.

The song "Thumbelina", performed by Danny Kaye in the 1952 movie Hans Christian Andersen, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Song. The song is now arguably better known than the story which inspired it.

Plot

A woman who has no children goes to see a witch, asking for help in getting a little daughter. The witch gives the woman a barleycorn and tells her to plant it in a flower pot.[1] The bud of a beautiful flower grows from the barleycorn. When the woman kisses the bud, it opens and reveals a tiny girl inside the flower. The girl is not even as big as the woman's thumb, which is the reason why she calls her "Thumbelina". For a short while, Thumbelina spends her days rowing across a plate of water on the woman's table and sleeps in a walnut shell at night.

One night, a toad sees Thumbelina and thinks that the girl would make a fine wife for her son. She carries away the sleeping girl in her bed and places her on a leaf in the middle of a river. In the morning, the two toads approach Thumbelina and tell her that she is to be married to the young one. The fishes in the river hear the toads and take pity on Thumbelina. They gnaw through the leaf's stem, causing it to break off and float down the river, carrying Thumbelina away from the toads.

A cockchafer sees Thumbelina and, thinking that she is extremely beautiful, snatches her away. The other cockchafers find Thumbelina ugly and she spends a miserable summer living amongst them.

Illustration by an unknown artist for a 1914 English translation of "Thumbelina".

In the winter, having no food, Thumbelina knocks on the door of a field mouse, begging for help. The field mouse is glad of the company and allows Thumbelina to spend the winter with her. She tells Thumbelina about her neighbor the mole. The field mouse says that the mole is rich, educated and a fine gentleman, although he hates the sun, and that Thumbelina would be lucky to become his wife.

The mole falls in love with Thumbelina and builds a tunnel between his house and that of the field mouse. He tells them to pay no attention to the dead swallow in the tunnel. Thumbelina discovers that the swallow is not dead but merely sick. She nurses it back to health. In the spring, the swallow asks Thumbelina to leave with her. Thumbelina declines, saying that the field mouse would miss her.

It is decided that Thumbelina will marry the mole at the start of the following winter. Thumbelina does not want to go through with the marriage because it means that she will have to live underground and never see sunlight again. As Thumbelina goes out to say good-bye to the sun for the last time, she happens to see the swallow and tells the bird her plight. The swallow announces that it is about to migrate to a warmer country and asks thumbelina if she would like to come with her. This time, Thumbelina agrees.

The swallow carries Thumbelina far away to a land where there are many beautiful flowers. Inside each flower is a little person like Thumbelina. She marries the king of the flower people. For a wedding present, she is given a pair of wings which allow her to fly. She is also given the new name Maia.

See also

Footnotes

  1. Mary Howitt, the first person to translate the story into English, did not approve of the tale's opening and changed it. In Howitt's translation, the childless woman does not go to consult a witch. Instead, she helps a poor old woman by giving her some bread and milk. The old woman gives her the magical barleycorn as a reward for her kindness.

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