By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story or ‘history’ of Tom Thumb is the oldest English fairy story that we have in printed form. Other fairy tales may well be older – indeed, almost certainly are if we trace the antecedents of stories such as ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ back some 4,000 years – but the oldest extant printed copy of a fairy tale is Richard Johnson’s The History of Tom Thumbe, printed in London in 1621. Only one copy of this original printing is thought to survive.
However, it’s quite possible that the 1621 printing was a reprinting, making ‘Tom Thumb’ even older. And however old the printed story of Tom Thumb is, the (oral) legend of Tom Thumb is older, with numerous references to the story being made in texts from the sixteenth century.
History of Tom Thumb: summary
‘The History of Tom Thumb’ might be summarised thus.
In the time of King Arthur, in Britain, a ploughman named Thomas married in the hope of having children. But his wife was unable to bear him children, so he urged her to go and visit the wizard Merlin, to see if Merlin could use magic to bring them a child – even if the child was no bigger than his thumb, he would be contented.
The wife goes to Merlin, who works his magic and tells the ploughman’s wife that in three months, she will give birth to a boy who will indeed be no bigger than her husband’s thumb.
Three months later, the wife gives birth to the boy, who is named Tom Thumb on account of his diminutive size. He is dressed in tiny clothes, and starts playing with the other (fully-grown) children in the streets, often winning at games because he can use his small size to sneak into their pockets and cheat. On one occasion, this backfires when he gets locked inside the box carried by one of the local boys.
Because of these scrapes, Tom Thumb’s mother keeps him at home where she can keep an eye on him. However, even under her watch he isn’t safe, on account of his diminutive size. One Christmas, he falls in the pudding batter when his mother is making Christmas puddings, and, unaware her son is inside, gives one of the puddings to a tinker. Thankfully, the tinker is alerted to Tom’s presence in the pudding before he can eat it, and Tom Thumb returns home.
Next, Tom Thumb was swallowed by a cow while he was with his mother in a field while she was milking cows. The cow ‘passes’ Tom out through its body, and Tom is taken home – for a jolly good bath, one imagines.
Tom Thumb doesn’t fare any better when his father is looking after him (or meant to be). He is carried off by a raven when out in a field with his father; the raven drops Tom into a giant’s castle. The giant eats him, before vomiting him out after Tom kicks up a fuss (as well one might). He is vomited into the sea, however, where a fish eats him.
However, when the fish is caught and a cook is about to prepare the fish at the royal court – of King Arthur, no less – the cook spots Tom Thumb in the belly of the fish, and he is once again free (if in need of a wash).
This turns out to be Tom Thumb’s ‘rags to riches’ moment – or at least, the moment where his fortunes are transformed. For Tom Thumb then becomes King Arthur’s Dwarf to entertain him at court.
Tom is well-liked by the women at court, and sometimes visits home to see his parents and take them money. During one journey, a Queen of the Fairies finds him asleep on a rose and leaves him some magical items. In most versions of the Tom Thumb tale, these include an enchanted hat of knowledge, a ring of invisibility, a shape-changing girdle, and shoes that allow him to travel anywhere in an instant.
Later adventures featuring Tom Thumb usually include going for a ride in a tiny walnut shell coach. Tom Thumb meets the giant, Garagantua, and they compare their powers with each other. Tom uses his magic abilities to save himself when Gargantua squares up to him and tries to harm him.
History of Tom Thumb: analysis
The Opies, in their definitive edition of fairy tales, The Classic Fairy Tales, call this fairy tale ‘a glorious idea rather than a glorious story’. Indeed, they go on to suggest that ‘Tom Thumb’ may in some way served as a prototype, being one of the earliest English fairy tales to be printed and thus setting the trend for the narratives and plots of later tales.
Indeed, in place of a clear, coherent narrative we get a string of episodic adventures, although Tom Thumb’s journey does mirror the traditional fairy tale arc in that he ends up being popular and successful.
As well as being famed and admired (especially by the women at the royal court) for his diminutive size, he also acquires magical charms which enable him to protect himself against the ‘bigger boys’ (such as Gargantua, from French folklore) who would seek to hurt him. He learns to cope with his smallness and to thrive and survive, despite the early brushes with danger (many of them involving being eaten).
The Opies also argue that the name of Tom Thumb ‘was more employed in nursery literature than that of any other national hero’, with books such as Tommy Thumb’s Song Book (1744) and Tommy Thumb’s Little Story Book (c. 1760) springing up in the eighteenth century and beyond. ‘Tom Thumb’, in other words, and to mix one’s metaphors, had legs.