Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Obscure Fairy Tale: Thumbelina

Today's fairy tale is Thumbelina. Subtitles for this fairy tale include "Why Feminism Is Important" and "Hans Christian Andersen Has Issues That Shine Through, Even In Stories That Don't Involve the Protagonist's Death."

Thumbelina (from Hans Christian Andersen)

A woman asks a witch how she can have a child. The witch tells her to plant some barley. The barley sprouts into a flower. The woman kisses the flower petals. The petals open to reveal a very small, very pretty little girl in the middle of the flower.

Sounds a lot more pleasant than labor or a c-section.

By day, Thumbelina entertains herself by rowing across a plate of water on a tulip leaf. At night, she sleeps in a walnut shell with a rose petal for a blanket. She's happy.

Okay, yes, this story has many disturbing elements, which we'll get to in just a sec, but how can you not love the walnut shell bed and the rose petal blanket? I want a rose petal blanket. Admittedly, not so comfy when it wilts, but still...

One night, an ugly toad kidnaps her to be a bride for her ugly toad son. When Thumbelina meets the toad son, he is so stunned by her beauty that he can only croak.

Scintillating conversationalist.

The toad mother imprisons Thumbelina on a lilypad in the middle of a stream to wait while she prepares a bridal suite under the mud.

Disturbing plot element #1: bridal suite with a toad. Ewww.

Fish take pity on Thumbelina and chew through the roots of the lilypad. She floats free.

I am suddenly picturing Blanche DuBois: "I have always depended on the kindness of fish..."

A butterfly, entranced by Thumbelina's beauty, alights on the lilypad, and Thumbelina ties the butterfly to the lilypad so he will pull her across the water.

Ah-hah! Ingenuity from our heroine! Much applause!

She travels happily for some time until a large beetle thinks she's pretty and kidnaps her. She mourns the poor butterfly.

Disturbing plot element #2: the butterfly is left to die, tied to the lilypad. Off-hand, I can't think of another fairy tale where the heroine enslaves and then is ultimately responsible for the death of her helper. Not so common. Cinderella didn't lose a single singing mouse. Even Snow White, who was so dumb that I doubt she could even count to seven, made it to the end with all her dwarves... though, to be fair, a deer did die in her stead. And the evil queen ate its heart.

The other bugs convince the kidnapper-bug that Thumbelina is ugly because she lacks antennae and only has two legs. The kidnapper-bug decides they must be right and tells her she's free to leave. She leaves, but she's upset that the bugs think she's ugly.

Disturbing plot element #3: instead of rejoicing at her freedom, she lets her kidnappers determine her self-image. Sounds a bit like Stockholm syndrome. Poor girl needs a therapist, preferably one that won't accidentally squash her.

She lives by herself in the forest for the summer and fall, sleeping on a bed of grass underneath a clover leaf, but in winter, she begins to starve. She knocks on the door of a field mouse and begs for some food.

Field mice have doors? (Okay, fine, I suppose they don't talk much either. Not sure why the mouse door bothers me more than the talking mouse herself, or the thumb-sized girl born from a flower... Maybe I just feel sorry for the poor mouse trying to work a doorknob. No opposable thumbs.)

The field mouse invites her to live with her, if she will clean the mouse's den and tell her stories. Thumbelina agrees and lives happily for a time.

Break here for singing, dancing, and house-cleaning routine involving cheerful woodland creatures.

One day, the mouse's neighbor, a blind mole, comes to visit, enjoys Thumbelina's singing, and decides to marry the tiny girl. She doesn't want to -- he despises sunlight and summer and all the things she loves and plans to lock her in his dark tunnel with him for the rest her life.

At least the mole is attracted to her because she can sing and tell great stories, not because of her beauty. Yay for a heroine who can do more than look pretty!

But the field mouse insists because the mole is rich.

If anyone is keeping score, this is the THIRD male that is about to be forced on Thumbelina. And she never gets to see her mother again. This is not a nice story.

While the wedding is being planned, Thumbelina find a sparrow near death and nurses him back to life. Right before the wedding, the now-healthy sparrow offers to fly Thumbelina away from there. She agrees.

If she has to marry anyone, I kind of think she should marry the bird. For one thing, he's the first character who offers her a choice. He's also the first one who offers her something she actually wants. And he can fly. In the list of desirable traits, I'd rate "ability to fly" right up there with "great sense of humor" and "can tolerate a Jane Austen movie."

They fly south and find a field of flowers. The flowers open to reveal fairies, as small and beautiful as Thumbelina. She marries the handsome fairy prince, is given wings as a wedding present, and lives happily ever after.

Best part of this ending: she gets wings! Now why didn't I add that to my wedding registry?

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.