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.



At 8:16 AM, Blogger Q said...

Thumbelina isn't nearly as disturbing as The Juniper Tree.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

I love it! Wouldn't it be great to have a rose petal blanket?

At 11:27 AM, Blogger holly cupala said...

Hee hee! Thanks for the morning laugh - especially at the Blanche DuBois nod.

At 1:15 PM, Blogger Elenatintil said...

I enjoy these so much! It makes me happy every time I log on and see that you've written another one! You could do a book full of would sell!!!

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Anne Leigh said...

Oh thats it, I'm so telling everyone to get me fairy wings for my wedding >D

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Sarah Rettger said...

You know all those blog-to-book deals we've been hearing about? I think Obscure Fairy Tales would get at least as much attention as I Can Has Cheezburger.

At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love these. I just discovered this one (look at the time). When I did, I went and told my sister, went into my bathroom, locked the door, and screamed until I was sure both St. Peter and Satsn could here it. Also, did you upload this because of my idea? If so, I need to scream again once my voice returns. You should upload these things sooner! Quoting my fave author (you): "Just sayin'".

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS. The next one you upload should be a Beastly-Enchanted-Husband Type one. Like East of the Sun and West of the Moon, or The Enchanted Serpent.

At 11:05 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Q: Agreed! Although one thing that I think makes Thumbelina extra-disturbing is that no one expects it to be problematic because of all the cute Barbie-esque images of Thumbelina in various picture books and animated movies… (If anyone is curious, here’s the link to Juniper Tree:

Beth: Yes! Probably wouldn’t last long, but for the first five minutes, it would be so nice.

Holly Cupala: Glad you liked it. Hope all is going well with your book!

Elenatintil: Thanks so much! *blush*

SavyLeartist: Everyone needs fairy wings.

Sarah Rettger: Thanks!! I didn’t realize I Can Has Cheezburger was going to be a book. That site totally amuses me.

Lucas: Yes, you were the one who suggested Thumbelina. Thanks so much for the recommendation! Great idea!

At 9:25 PM, Blogger AnnaDee said...

these stories always make me smile. i totally want wings! i used to watch the movie version so this was very fun.
thumbelina has always been a fave of mine though :)
i was telling a friend about these( and quoting some of your commentary, i hope you don't mind)my friend requested the link- making me happy.
( i LOVE i can haz cheezburger too- makes my mornings on the school computers so very fun)

At 2:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another good story is "Iron Hans" (known in America as "Iron John", or "John the Iron Giant"):

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another really odd tale is "The Swan Maidens":

At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another great fairy tale is "The Golden Root":

It is awesome! It has money trees, golden-monkey-servants, handsome guys, and gemstone pegasuses. Or is is just pegasus. Or Pegaki.

At 8:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, strike that! My blog address is:

At 9:38 PM, Blogger AndraRossana said...

Good fairies, I'm so happy other people have issues with this story!
I could NOT stop crying for hours whenever this story was read to me as a small child (which happened often ,because my parents are disturbed sadists who thought I was cute when I teared up :P ).
The part about the dead bird in the mole's tunnel...I rather think it would get me now as well.

:D The only thing that put me into happy state would be another fairytale, namely Peau D'Ane (Donkey Skin or The Hen Caretaker, the one about the princess who is forced to marry her father because she's the only one to fit her dead mother's shoe,but she escapes with the coolest wardrobe known to mankind and ends up marrying a prince.

What is it about clothes that makes everything better?:D

At 4:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shortly after midnight: My kids were in bed, my husband was asleep in his recliner, and I was bored. For absolutely no reason in particular I decided to google "obscure fairy tales" which, of course, led me here. I was laughing hysterically (with tears!) for at least an hour before I realized that not only did I wake up my husband, but he was staring at me like I was insane. I haven't laughed this hard in FOREVER. Hubby has since trundled off to bed without me, I just realized it's after 3am(!), and I'm debating waking my 11-year-old to see if she has your books. (I'll wait. I promise I'll wait.) If not, I'll be buying them tomorrow (but I call dibs on reading them first). Thank you for making my day (well, middle of the night...).

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

AnnaDee: I don't think I've seen the movie version. Hope your friend likes the commentary too! Thanks for sharing the link!

Lucas: All excellent tales. Thanks for sharing the links.

AndraRossana: Have you read Deerskin by Robin McKinley? It's based on a variant of Donkeyskin. Excellent book, but it still gives me nightmares and it's been years since I read it.

Gigi Rose: So glad you found my blog! Your comment made my day. Glad you enjoyed the tales, and hope you enjoy the books!

At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need a Riddle ASAP! i know this sounds extreamly werid but i need a riddle. Dont ask why just give me something!! thanks!

[url=]the day the earth stood still[/url]

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Vicky said...

This version of Thumbelina was actually made into a movie.

here's the IMDb link

is always been a favorite of mine Charo does the voice of the mother frog, Gilbert Gottfried does the voice of the beetle, Carol Channing is the field mouse and Jodi Benson (of Disney's the Little mermaid fame) is Thumbelina

At 10:25 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

Anonymous: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Vicky: I've never seen that one. I'll have to check it out. Thanks! *makes note*

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Emma said...

its hans chistian anderson what you exect?

At 12:24 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This was one of my favorite movies as a kid, didn't know it was obscure.


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