THUMBELISA – a Summary of the Fairy Tale

By Hans Christian Anderson  (1805 – 1875)

Story first published in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1835


I chose to summarize fairy tale for no particular reason other than it is one of the few from my childhood book that still has an illustration.  But it is a typical tale of ups and downs, challenges and conquests, beauty and fear, and even a few fairies.

The story begins with Thumbelisa’s mother, who was unable to conceive a baby, an age-old problem.  Desperate and having no fertility clinics available in those days, she sought the help of a witch or a fairy, depending on which translation you believe.

She was sold a barleycorn and told it would solve her problem.  She planted it in a flowerpot, as instructed.  A tulip-like flower bud immediately sprouted, so beautiful that the hoping-to-be mother kissed it.   When she kissed the bud, it blossomed into a flower and upon opening, the mother could see a tiny, beautiful little girl inside.   It was Thumbelisa, her daughter.  Her miniature baby girl never grew to be more than 1 inch high.  (That’s 2.54 centimeters.)

They had a happy life.  The mother had fulfilled her dream of motherhood and the child was happy and did not realize she was tiny as she had no contact with other children. Thumbelisa’s mother taught her to sing, and also about nature, knowledge that would serve her well in the future when she would need survival skills.

Her need for survival skills came sooner rather than later.  One night a horrible toad hopped into their home.  The toad was also a mother and had plans for her own child.  When she saw Thumbelisa sleeping under a rose petal she knew the girl would make a perfect wife for her son.  She grabbed the tiny girl and hopped off into the marsh where she lived with her son, a boy-toad who couldn’t find his own wife.  The young toad was thrilled, although all he could do to express himself was to croak a few unintelligible noises.  The mother and son kept Thumbelisa prisoner on a water lily leaf in a stream near where they lived in the mud.  Doesn’t this part of the tale sounds a lot like modern serial killer movies?

Thumbelisa, stranded in the middle of water, just couldn’t stop crying.  After a time, the fish in the stream heard her and lifted their heads out of the water to see where the noise was coming from.  The story goes that, seeing she was so pretty, they took pity upon her, sending young readers a message that yes, looks sometimes do count.

Those fish, working as a team, began to chew the roots of the leaf, and finally set it free. A beautiful white butterfly landed on the leaf, and using her sash, Thumbelisa tied the butterfly to the leaf to act as a sail, and also for company.  They floated away, on top of the leaf, far from the toad mother-in-law and her ugly, sedentary son.

Maybe she would have freed the butterfly, and maybe the butterfly was happy to help her, but we will never know.  Before anything like that could happen, a beetle saw her and, thinking she was pretty, flew down and captured her, carrying her off to his beetle community high up in a tree.   Thumbelisa was beginning to learn that beauty can sometimes be a drawback.

The beetle who kidnapped her was quite attracted to her, and was happy feeding her and admiring her. But then other beetles came to see what their friend had brought into their community, and they told him that Thumbelisa was extremely ugly, in part because she looked like a miniature human, and in part because she had no feelers.  The beetle that had captured gave in to peer pressure and took her down into a forest, where he left her abruptly.

That’s when she learned about depression.  Rejected by the beetle society, she lost her self-confidence and began to think that she was unfit to live with others.  This part of the story teaches young readers how fragile our psyche is when we are distanced from our comfort zones.  But on the up side, it was summer and she survived by drinking dew and sucking honey from the flowers, listening to the songs of birds to calm herself, and sleeping under a mint leaf.

But then autumn came and her life got more challenging.  Autumn was followed by winter, and her food sources disappeared under the snow.  The snow was heavy on her tiny body and the few withered leaves that remained were so dry that she couldn’t wrap herself in them.

Struggling to stay alive, she found her way to the door of a field mouse’s home. She hadn’t had anything to eat in two days, and begged him for a kernel of corn.  The mouse took pity on her, and invited her to winter with him.  To pay for her room and board, she kept his home clean and told stories to amuse him.  It was working well until a neighbor, a mole, came to visit.

The mole was wealthy and learned, but blind, and so he did not appreciate beautiful things as Thumbelisa did, because he had never seen them.  When this story was written we humans thought all moles were blind, but nowadays we know that they are not blind, they just don’t like light.

But this blind mole was quite attracted to Thumbelisa, and the mouse began to encourage a relationship between them, probably hoping to put his wealthy neighbor in a position of owing him a favor.  Thumbelisa and the blind mole began to take long walks through the network of tunnels that he and the mouse had dug.

Thumbelisa was happy to be warm and protected during the winter, but not at all enthusiastic about an engagement to a blind mole, especially since she was an outdoorsy person and he was not only a decidedly indoor being, but also an underground one.

During one of their walks, they came upon a white swallow, apparently dead from the cold.  The mole kicked the bird aside, remarking that birds were horrible creatures, usually “crying” incessantly.

But Thumbelisa was moved by the body of the bird, and thought it might have been one of the birds that had sung to her and kept her company the summer before.   Unable to sleep that night, she stole a bit of hay from the mouse, wove a blanket and returned to the swallow to cover it.  As she was saying farewell to the bird, she heard its heart begin to beat again.  She spent the rest of the winter living dangerously, nursing the swallow back to health.

Her winter was tense, but the mole and the mouse never found out about her secret project.  Spring came, and the swallow, who turned out to be from Denmark, told her it was time for him to fly away.  He offered to drop off Thumbelisa in the forest, which was green again.

Thumbelisa sadly refused, thinking she owed the mouse for his hospitality.  The mouse, also affected by spring, accelerated his plans for a wedding between the tiny girl and the disagreeable mole, and even hired four spiders to spin her trousseau.  He set the wedding date for fall.

Poor Thumbelisa knew that if she married the mole she would live deep underground where the sun never shone and never see the light of day again.  Things looked pretty hopeless for her.

But sometimes coincidences do happen, especially in fairy tales and saccharine movies.  Fall came, and Thumbelisa was at the door of the mouse’s tunnel, saying goodbye to the sun, the wind and the sky for the last time, when the swallow she had saved suddenly appeared.  He had returned for the summer, and was about to leave for warmer territory again.

She told him of her upcoming marriage and he sympathized and again offered to fly her away.  This time she accepted his offer.  The swallow took her to a beautiful warm land where he kept a nest, a land filled with flowers.  He placed her on a flower in the ruins of a magnificent marble palace.

There in the flower was a tiny man just her size, with a golden crown on his head.  He was the angel of the flowers, and king of all the fairies that lived in the flowers.

It was love at first sight.  He asked her to marry him, that very same day and in that very same flower.  She accepted (it was a no-brainer, considering her previous suitors, the toad, the beetle, and the mole, had been forced upon her) and he removed the crown from his head and placed it on hers.

At that moment, a tiny lady or a tiny gentleman stepped out of every flower, each bearing a gift for her.  The best gift of all was a pair of wings that, fastened to her back, allowed her to fly like a fairy from flower to flower.

It goes without saying that Thumbelisa and the king lived happily ever after, but no one ever dared to explain the fate of the beautiful white butterfly that Thumbelisa tied to her water lily leaf to use as a sail.  That part has always worried me.

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