Tom Thumb is a character of English folklore. The History of Tom Thumb
was published in 1621, and was the first fairy tale printed in
English. Tom is no bigger than his father's thumb, and his adventures
include being swallowed by a cow, tangling with giants, and becoming a
favourite of King Arthur. The earliest allusions to Tom occur in
various 16th-century works such as Reginald Scot's Discovery of
Witchcraft (1584), where Tom is cited as one of the supernatural folk
employed by servant maids to frighten children.
Lincolnshire, England, reputedly has the home and grave of Tom
Aside from his own tales, Tom figures in Henry Fielding's play Tom
Thumb, a companion piece to his The Author's Farce. It was later
expanded into a single piece titled The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the
Tom Thumb the Great.
In the middle 18th century, books began to be published specifically
for children (some with their authorship attributed to "Tommy Thumb")
and, by the middle 19th century, Tom was a fixture of the nursery
library. The tale took on moral overtones and some writers, such as
Charlotte Yonge, cleansed questionable passages.
Dinah Mulock however
refrained from scrubbing the tale of its vulgarities. Tom Thumb's
story has been adapted to several films.
2.1 Later narratives
4 Similar tales and characters
5 See also
8 External links
Tom Thumb in Tattershall, Lincolnshire.
Tom Thumb may have been a real person born around 1519, as there is a
grave purporting to be his. It is set into the floor adjacent to the
font of the main chapel in Holy Trinity Church at Tattershall,
Lincolnshire, UK. The inscription reads: "T. THUMB, Aged 101 Died
1620". The grave measures just 16" (40 cm) in length.
The tale of
Tom Thumb is the first recorded English fairy
tale. The earliest surviving text is a 40-page
booklet printed in London for Thomas Langley in 1621 entitled The
History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed,
King Arthur's Dwarfe: whose Life and adventures containe many strange
and wonderfull accidents, published for the delight of merry
Time-spenders. The author is presumed to be Londoner Richard Johnson
(1579–1659?) because his initials appear on the last page. The only
known copy is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
Tom was already a traditional folk character when the booklet was
printed, and it is likely that printed materials circulated prior to
Johnson's. It is not known how much Johnson contributed to Tom's
character or his adventures.
William Fulke referred to Tom in 1579 in
Heskins Parleament Repealed, and
Thomas Nashe referred to him in 1592
in his prose satire on the vices of the age Pierce Penniless, His
Supplication to the Divell.
Reginald Scot listed Tom in his Discoverie
of Witchcraft (1584) as one of the creatures used by servant maids to
frighten children, along with witches, dwarfs, elves, fairies, giants,
and other supernatural folk.
Title page Coryat's Crudities
Tom was mentioned by James Field in
Coryat's Crudities (1611): "Tom
Thumbe is dumbe, until the pudding creepe, in which he was intomb'd,
then out doth peepe." The incident of the pudding was the most popular
in connection with the character. It is alluded to in Ben Jonson's
masque of the Fortunate Isles: "Thomas Thumb in a pudding fat, with
Richard Johnson's History may have been in circulation as early as
this date because the title page woodblock in the 1621 edition shows
great wear. Johnson himself makes it clear in the preface that Tom was
long known by "old and young... Bachelors and Maids... and Shepheard
and the young Plow boy".
The tale belongs to the swallow cycle. Tom is swallowed by a cow, a
giant, a fish, and by a miller and a salmon in some extensions to
Johnson's tale. In this respect, the tale shows little imaginative
development. Tom is delivered from such predicaments rather crudely,
but editors of later dates found ways to make his deliverance more
seemly and he rarely passed beyond the mouth.
Tom's tale was reprinted countless times in Britain, and was being
sold in America as early as 1686. A metrical version was published in
1630 entitled Tom Thumbe, His Life and Death: Wherein is declared many
Maruailous Acts of Manhood, full of wonder, and strange merriments:
Which little Knight liued in King Arthurs time, and famous in the
Court of Great Brittaine. The book was reprinted many times, and two
more parts were added to the first around 1700. The three parts were
reprinted many times.
Frontispiece The Tragedy of Tragedies
William Wagstaffe published A Comment upon The History of Tom
Thumbe. In 1730, English dramatist
Henry Fielding used
Tom Thumb as
the central figure of a play by that name, which he rewrote in 1731 as
the farce The Tragedy of Tragedies, or the History of
Tom Thumb the
Great. The play is filled with 18th-century political and literary
satire and is intended as a parody of heroic tragedies. The title of
"The Great" may be intended as a reference to politician Sir Robert
Walpole who was often called "The Great."
Henry Fielding's tragedy
Tom Thumb was the basis for an opera
constructed by Kane O'Hara. Fielding's Tom is cast as a mighty warrior
and a conqueror of giants, despite his stature, as well as the object
of desire for many of the ladies at court. The plot is largely
concerned with the various love triangles amongst the characters, who
include Princess Huncamunca, giantess Glumdalca, and Queen Dollalolla
(Arthur's wife in this version). Matters are complicated when Arthur
awards Tom the hand of Huncamunca in marriage which results in
Dollalolla and the jealous Grizzle seeking revenge. Eventually, Tom
dies when swallowed by a cow, but his ghost returns. At the
conclusion, Tom's ghost is killed by Grizzle and most of the cast kill
each other in duels or take their own lives in grief.
Fielding's play was later adapted into a spoof on opera conventions
called The Opera of Operas; or
Tom Thumb the Great by playwrights
Eliza Haywood and William Hatchett. This version includes a happy
ending in which Tom is spat back out by the cow and the others are
resurrected by Merlin's magic. This is considered to be a satirical
comment on the unlikely and tacked-on nature of many happy endings in
literature and drama.
Children's edition, 1888
In the middle 18th century, books began appearing specifically for
children, and Tom was cited as the author of titles such as Tommy
Thumb's Song Book (1744) and Tommy Thumb's Little Story Book (c.
1760). In 1791,
Joseph Ritson remarked that Tom's popularity was known
far and wide: "Every city, town, village, shop, stall, man, woman, and
child, in the kingdom, can bear witness to it."
Tom's story was originally intended for adults, but it was relegated
to the nursery by the middle-19th century. Vulgar episodes were
sanitized, and moralizing colored the tale. In Charlotte Mary Yonge's
1856 adaptation, Tom resists his natural urges to play impish pranks,
renounces his ties to Fairyland, and pronounces himself a Christian.
As Mordred's rebellion wears on in the last days of Arthur's reign,
Tom refuses to return to Fairyland, preferring to die as an honorable
In 1863, Dinah Maria Craik Mulock refused to cleanse the tale's
questionable passages and let the story speak for itself. She adds
material, and Tom has adventures that again involve being swallowed by
a miller and a salmon, being imprisoned in a mousetrap, angering King
Thunston and his queen, and finally dying from the poisonous breath of
a spider. Tom's tale has since been adapted to all sorts of children's
books with new material added and existing material reworked, but his
mischievous nature and his bravery remain undiminished.
The Queen of the Fairies attends the birth of Tom Thumb
Richard Johnson's The History of Tom Thumbe of 1621 tells that in the
days of King Arthur, old Thomas of the Mountain, a plowman and a
member of the King's Council, wants nothing more than a son, even if
he is no bigger than his thumb. He sends his wife to consult with
Merlin. In three months time, she gives birth to the diminutive Tom
Thumb. The "Queene of Fayres" and her attendants act as midwives. She
provides Tom with an oak leaf hat, a shirt of cobweb, a doublet of
thistledown, stockings of apple rind, and shoes of mouse's skin.
Tom cheats at games with other boys and because of his many tricks,
the boys will not associate with him. Tom retaliates by using magic to
hang his mother's pots and glasses from a sunbeam. When his fellows
try the same, their pots and glasses fall and are broken. Thereafter,
Tom stays home under his mother's supervision. At Christmas, she makes
puddings, but Tom falls into the batter and is boiled into one of
them. When a tinker comes begging, Tom's mother inadvertently gives
him the pudding containing her son. The tinker farts while crossing a
stile, but Tom calls out about the farting and the frightened tinker
drops the pudding. Tom eats himself free and returns home to tell his
mother and father of his adventure.
His mother thereafter keeps a closer watch upon him. One day, he
accompanies her to the field to milk the cows. He sits under a
thistle, but a red cow swallows him. The cow is given a laxative and
Tom passes from her in a "cowturd." He is taken home and cleaned.
Another day, he accompanies his father for the seed sowing and rides
in the horse's ear. Tom is set down in the field to play the
scarecrow, but a raven carries him away. His parents search for him,
but are unable to find him.
The raven drops Tom at the castle of a giant. The cruel giant swallows
the tiny boy like a pill. Tom thrashes about so much in the giant's
stomach that he is vomited into the sea. There, he is eaten once more
by a fish which is caught for King Arthur's supper. The cook is
astonished to see the little man emerge from the fish. Tom then
becomes King Arthur's Dwarf.
Tom becomes a favorite at King Arthur's royal court, especially among
the ladies. There is revelry; Tom joins the jousting and dances in the
palm of a Maid of Honour. He goes home briefly to see his parents,
taking some money from the treasury with the king's permission, then
returns to court. The Queene of Fayres finds him asleep on a rose and
leaves him several gifts: an enchanted hat of knowledge, a ring of
invisibility, a shape-changing girdle, and shoes to take him anywhere
in a moment.
Tom falls seriously ill when a lady blows her nose, but is cured by
the physician to King Twaddell of the Pygmies. He takes a ride in his
walnut shell coach and meets Garagantua. Each boasts of his many
powers. When Garagantua threatens to harm Tom, he is cast under an
enchantment and Tom hurries home to safety.
King Arthur listens with
amazement to Tom's many adventures.
Richard Johnson's 1621 narrative ends here, but he promised his
readers a sequel that has never been found, if published at all. In
1630, a metrical version in three parts was published that continues
Other versions paint a different picture to Tom's end. Dinah Mulock
continued the tale and noted that Tom exhausted himself with jousting
but recovered in Fairyland. When he returned to Arthur's court, he
accidentally landed in a bowl of the king's frumenty. Tom enrages the
cook and is threatened with beheading. He seeks refuge in the mouth of
a passing slack-jawed miller. Sensing tiny voices and movements within
him, the man believes he is possessed. He yawns and Tom emerges, but
Miller is so angry he tosses Tom into a river where he is
swallowed by a salmon. The fish is caught, taken to the King's
kitchen, and Tom is found and kept in a mousetrap until King Arthur
Tom Thumb rides a butterfly.
The court goes hunting and Tom joins them upon his steed, a mouse. A
cat catches the mouse and Tom is injured. He is carried to Fairyland
where he recovers and dwells for several years. When he returns to
court, King Thunston now reigns. Charmed by the little man, the king
gives Tom a tiny coach pulled by six mice. This makes the queen
jealous as she received no such gifts and she frames Tom with being
insolent to her. Tom attempts to escape on a passing butterfly, but is
caught and imprisoned in a mousetrap. He is freed by a curious cat and
once more wins back the favor of King Thunston. Sadly, he does not
live to enjoy it as he is killed by a spider's bite. Tom is laid to
rest beneath rosebush and a marble monument is raised to his memory
with the epitaph:
Here lies Tom Thumb, King Arthur’s knight,
Who died by a spider’s cruel bite.
He was well known in Arthur’s court,
Where he afforded gallant sport;
He rode at tilt and tournament,
And on a mouse a-hunting went;
Alive he fill’d the court with mirth
His death to sorrow soon gave birth.
Wipe, wipe your eyes, and shake your head
And cry, ‘Alas!
Tom Thumb is dead.
Tom Thumb is the subject of several films. In 1936, a short animated
version directed by
Ub Iwerks was released, and in 1940 another
animated version by
Chuck Jones called
Tom Thumb in Trouble. In 1958,
George Pal directed a live action musical, tom thumb (rendered in
lowercase to denote the character's small size) starring Russ Tamblyn,
based on the Brothers Grimm's story Thumbling. Also in 1958, although
not released in the U.S. until 1967 in a dubbed version, a Mexican
Tom Thumb (originally titled Pulgarcito) was made based
loosely on Charles Perrault's "Le petit Poucet". A darker, modernized
film version using stop motion animation called The Secret Adventures
Tom Thumb was released in 1993, and
Tom Thumb Meets
the 2002 direct-to-DVD animated movie, The Adventures of
Tom Thumb and
Thumbelina brought together the two most famous tiny people of
literature, with Tom voiced by Elijah Wood.
Text stories and later comic strips based on the
Tom Thumb character
appeared in the anthology comic
The Beano from the first issue in 1938
until the late fifties.
Similar tales and characters
There are many thumb-sized characters around the world: Le petit
poucet (France), Der kleine Däumling (Germany), Little One
Issun-bōshi (Japan), Thumbikin (Norway),
Pollicino (Italy), Piñoncito (Chile), Липунюшка -
Lipunyushka (Russia), Palčić (Serbia),
Patufet (Catalonia), The
Hazel-nut Child (Bukovina), Klein Duimpje and Pinkeltje (Netherlands),
Hüvelyk Matyi (Hungary), and others.
General Tom Thumb
^ "Tom Thumb's grave,
Tattershall church". Geograph.org.
^ a b c d e Opie 1992 pp. 30–2
^ a b c Halliwell 1860, p. 6
^ a b Bauer
^ MacDonald 1993, p.
Bauer, Susan. "The History of Tom Thumb". The camelto pronect at the
University of Rochester.
Halliwell, J.O. (1860). The Metrical History of
Tom Thumb the Little.
MacDonald, Margaret Read (1993). The Oryx Multicultural Folktale
Series: Tom Thumb. Oryx Press. ISBN 0-89774-728-3.
Opie, Iona; Opie, Peter (1992) . The Classic
Fairy Tales. Oxford
University Press. ISBN 0-19-211559-6.
Works related to
Tom Thumb at Wikisource
Media related to
Tom Thumb (fairy tale) at Wikimedia Commons
"The History Of Tom Thumb" (Project Gutenberg)
"Tom Thumb" from The
Fairy Book by Miss Mulock
Tom Thumb in the Arthurian Tradition
Tom Thumbe, His Life and Death Complete 1630 metrical text
Hans Christian Andersen's "Thumbelina" (1835)
The Daydreamer (1966)
The Adventures of
Tom Thumb and
Thumbelina: A Magical Story (1992 Japanese anime)
King Arthur and the Matter of Britain
Lady of the Lake
Morgan le Fay
Knights of the
Elyan the White
Hector de Maris
Ywain the Bastard
Elaine of Astolat
Elaine of Corbenic
Battle of Badon
Battle of Camlann
King Arthur's family
Historicity of King Arthur