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History of Thumbelina

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Hans Christian Andersen
Father of the Modern Fairy Tale 
by Terri Windling


In Danish, Hans Christian Andersen's original tale is known as "Tommelise." It is one of Andersen's earliest tales and was published in 1835 in Copenhagen. The earliest English translations of the story did not use the name of Thumbelina, the name it is best known as today. Early names included "Little Ellie," in 1846 by Charles Boner, and "Little Totty" by Madame de Chatelain in 1852. According to the Peter and Iona Opie, "Thumbelina" was first used by H. W. Dulcken in 1864 (Opie 1974.)

Andersen used a typical fairy tale naming convention since Thumbelina's name reflects her size, one of her physical attributes, just like Hop O' My Thumb and Tom Thumb in similar fairy tales. Other fairy tale heroines have names that reflect their physical attributes, such as Snow White and Beauty.

The Franks write: "The figure of a tiny girl also appears in Andersen’s prose fantasy, Journey on Foot to Amager ... (1828). Andersen was familiar with Gulliver’s Travels (1726), with its six-inch Lilliputians, and Voltaire’s short story “Micromégas” (1752), which also plays on the contrast between huge beings and tiny ones" (76).

According to Jackie Wullschlager, the tale was inspired by Tom Thumb [and its similar tales] and Meister Flak by E. T. A. Hoffmann (162). It was the first of his tales to "dramatize the sufferings of the outsider who is different and therefore an object of mockery". It was also the first to use an identification or presence of the swallow "the migratory bird whose pattern of life his [Andersen's] own traveling days were coming to resemble". Oscar Wilde would borrow the image (163).

When using the animals in the story, ". . . Andersen was the first to play on the details of their human/animal duality, and so initiated a popular strain in children's books . . .". He is the forerunner of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, for example (163).

Special thanks to Christine Ethier, an adjunct teacher of English writing at both Community College of Philadelphia and Camden County College, for providing the material by Jackie Wullschlager.


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Thumbelina illustrated by Brad Sneed

Thumbeline illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen : A New Translation from the Danish by Jeffrey Frank

©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 1/2005; Last updated 7/3/07