Sep 21, 2010
Fairy Tale Origins - Part XIII
Thumbelina (Tommelise in Danish) is a tale written by Hans Christian Anderson about the adventures of a thumb-sized girl who eventually falls in love with a flower-fairy prince. It was published in 1835 in a collection of fairy tales that were not well-received by Danish critics. They disliked the informal style, and because the stories lacked a moral they were considered inappropriate for children. Andersen was advised not to waste his time writing fairy tales.
Although Thumbelina was Andersen’s invention, he took its inspiration from the traditional story of Tom Thumb. He was also inspired by the Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s travels and by Voltaire’s short story, Micromegas.
Mary Howitt, was the first to translate "Thumbelina" into English and published it as Tommelise in 1846. She did not approve of the woman in the story consulting a witch, and instead had her giving food to a hungry beggar woman who rewarded her with a magic barleycorn. In 1846, Charles Boner also translated the tale, giving it the name of Little Ellie. Madame de Chatelain gave the heroine the name of Little Totty in her 1852 translation. It was not until H.W. Dulcken published his translations of Andersen’s tales in 1864 and 1866 that Tommelise was given the name of Thumbelina.
American literary critic Roger Sale believed Andersen was expressing his feelings of social and sexual inferiority by creating characters who were inferior to those who loved them. Andersen portrays the toad, the beetle, and the mole as Thumbelina’s inferiors, but Sale suggests they are not inferior, merely different.
This is an adventure story from a feminine point of view, with a moral that people are happiest with their own kind. Thumbelina is a somewhat passive character, a victim of circumstances. It was the first of Andersen’s tales to dramatize the sufferings of the outsider, the one who is different from everyone else and is therefore an object of ridicule.
It was also the first of Andersen's tales to incorporate the swallow as the symbol of the poetic soul. According to biographer Jackie Wullschlager, Andersen identified with the swallow as a migratory bird whose pattern of life his own traveling days were beginning to resemble.