By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Published in 1836 in Danish, ‘Thumbelina’ or ‘Tommelise’ is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most popular fairy stories. Before he became famous throughout Europe and went to stay (and outstay his welcome) at Dickens’s house, Andersen was busy writing some of the most familiar fairy tales in European literature.
Thumbelina: plot summary
In summary, Thumbelina is a beautiful, tiny girl – no bigger than a human thumb – who ‘hatches’ from the inside of a tulip. She is so small she lives in a walnut-shell. One day, a frog comes by and spies her asleep in her walnut-shell, and thinking what a fine wife she would make for her son, the frog scoops up the shell with Thumbelina in it, and she makes off with her.
Thumbelina resists the frog’s attempts to pair her up with the frog’s son, and escapes, with the aid of a fish and a butterfly. But Thumbelina is then captured by a stag beetle, who gets rid of her when his friends express dislike for her. Out on her own in the cold with not a friend in the world, Thumbelina fears for her life when winter sets in.
But a friendly field-mouse offers her shelter and suggests Thumbelina marry her neighbour (a mole, of all things). Thumbelina pooh-poohs such a suggestion, despite the field-mouse’s persistence in pressing the match.
In order to escape this pressure, Thumbelina escapes once again, running away to a distant land, accompanied by a swallow she’d helped during the cold winter. There, Thumbelina meets a tiny flower-fairy prince, who is a match for a maiden of her size, and the two fall in love and marry. Thumbelina becomes Maia, and accompanies her new diminutive husband on his travels from flower to flower.
‘Thumbelina’ was translated into English twice in 1846: by Mary Howitt, who got rid of the old witch at the beginning of the story because she disliked its superstitious flavour; and by the wonderfully named Charles Boner, who renamed Thumbelina, for some reason, ‘Little Ellie’. Madame de Chatelain made her into ‘Little Totty’, while another translator called her ‘Little Maja’. A Victorian editor gave her the English name under which she is now most familiar, Thumbelina.
In terms of analysis, we can say that ‘Thumbelina’ contains many of the classic tropes of fairy tales: a kindly but lonely heroine, a frog suitor, a prince with whom the heroine lives happily ever after. Loneliness is a common theme in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, but it is there in many older fairy stories too: think of Cinderella being snubbed by the Ugly Sisters, or Rapunzel imprisoned in her tower. As with these stories, Thumbelina is finally given a break and offered a chance at true happiness.
Curiously, Andersen underscored (if not undermined) the happy ending of the story by appending a short final section, in which a bluebird (symbol of melancholy, of course) has been watching Thumbelina from afar throughout the story, and has fallen (hopelessly) in love with her. When Thumbelina marries the prince, the bluebird flies off to a house, where it tells the story of Thumbelina to a man (presumably Andersen himself).
But Andersen is, we might say, the bluebird as much as he is the man: his biography reveals a man who knew the pain of hopeless and unrequited love (he was infatuated with the opera singer Jenny Lind, for one), and it was a stroke of genius to add such depth and complexity of mood to the ending of what is otherwise a fairly traditional fairy-tale narrative.