Return to the fairy tales - book two
A retelling by J. Kearns
Fairyland grants a couple a diminutive, magickal child who undergoes great adventures. I read that in Hinduism the soul was once believed to be the size of a thumb, and that one's heartbeat was the soul dancing in one's heart, and that this passed into European folklore.
n the days of King Arthur, there lived a
magician whose name was Merlin. He was the most learned enchanter of
his time. But this is not a story very much about Merlin, even though
he too appears in it.
was on a journey, and being weary from his journey he stopped at the
cottage of a ploughman to ask for something to eat and drink. The
ploughman's wife immediately brought Merlin some milk in a wooden
bowl, and some brown bread on a wooden platter. Though, for all they
knew, their visitor was only a poor beggar, the ploughman and his wife
treated him with the best hospitality they could offer.
was a person who noticed things, and made observations about things,
and he rightly observed that the ploughman and his wife were honest,
good people. He observed that though the ploughman and his wife were
poor, their cottage was kept nice and clean and tidy. He also observed
that the ploughman and his wife seemed to be very sad. While he was
eating, Merlin casually questioned the couple as to why they were
melancholy, and the ploughman and his wife told him their story about
how they were sad because they had no children.
The ploughman's wife said, "We would be the
happiest people in the world if we had a son, though he be no bigger
than his father's thumb."
thanked the couple for their hospitality and went on his way. As he
traveled along, he thought about what the ploughman's wife had said,
and was amused with the notion of a boy no bigger than a man's thumb.
As soon as he had completed his journey and returned home, he sent for
the fairy queen and told her all about the ploughman and his wife and
how they had wished to have a son though he only be the size of his
father's thumb. The fairy queen agreed that the wish of the ploughman
and his wife should be granted, and no sooner was it decided than it
was a certainty the ploughman's wife would have a child.
soon thereafter, the ploughman's wife felt the child's heart beat
inside her. Indeed it seemed as if the child was dancing in her heart,
and she and her husband were delighted for they knew their wish had
been granted. When the ploughman's wife gave birth, it was to a tiny
little boy who within a couple of minutes grew to be the size of his
father's thumb, at which point he stopped growing and never did grow
the happy mother was sitting up in bed admiring her new child, the
fairy queen appeared, and kissed the infant and announced, "Here
is a boy who shall be very unique in the history of little boys. He
will grow no larger than his father's thumb, so his name shall be Tom
Thumb." She then summoned fairies from Fairyland and had them
clothe the infant in just this way:
"An oak-leaf hat he had for his crown,
shirt it was by spiders spun:
doublet wove of thistledown,
trousers up with points were done;
His stockings, of apple-rind, they
eye-lash pluck'd from his mother's eye:
His shoes were made of a mouse's
tann'd with hair within."
It may sound peculiar to have a shirt made of a spider's web, a
doublet woven of thistledown, stockings of apple-rind, and shoes made
of a mouse's skin, but these were special gifts from fairy land, and
just the very things a baby Tom Thumb's size should have to wear.
These things were made to fit him just so, and he was a very handsome
grew up in the way that infants grow up into toddlers and then little
children, but he remained the size of his father's thumb. He turned
out to be a smart boy, and as he grew older he also became very
cunning. Some said it was because his parents didn't discipline him
enough, and perhaps he shouldn't have been quite so cunning, for it
often got him in a number of difficulties.
instance, little boys used to play with cherry stones, the pits that
are inside cherries, and when Tom was old enough and learned how to
play with other boys for cherry-stones, if he lost all his own he
would creep into the other boys' bags, steal out some stones, and
begin to play again. (I wish I could tell you what this game played
with the cherry-stones was, but I don't know, and can only wonder if
it was a little like how boys play with marbles.) One day when Tom was
stealing some cherry stones from a boy's pocket, he was caught
red-handed just coming out of the bag in which the boy kept his
stones. The boy exclaimed, "Ah-ha, my little Tom Thumb, I have
caught you up to your bad tricks at last. Now, see what reward you get
for thieving." Then the boy did something very cruel, I think.
Tom's head was sticking out of the bag of stones, and the boy drew the
string of the bag tight around Tom's neck. He shook the bag hard so
that the cherry-stones inside bounced all over Tom, bruising his legs
and body terribly. Tom begged to be let out, and promised never to
pull such a trick again.
something else that Tom Thumb did, and not too long after he'd been
caught stealing the cherry-stones. His mother was making a
batter-pudding, and hoping for a little taste of the batter before it
was cooked, while his mother was gazing out the window while mixing
the pudding, Tom climbed up on the edge of the bowl in order to reach
in and get a little batter off the side. His foot slipped and he fell
into the bowl. His mother, not noticing this, stirred him right into
the pudding, then put the bowl in a pot of water and put the pot of
water over the fire, for the fire would heat the water in the pot to
boiling, which would cook the pudding in its bowl. My, didn't it start
to get hot, and Tom so vigorously kicked and struggled to get out that
it looked like the pudding was jumping up and down. This frightened
Tom's mother, who thought the pudding was bewitched. She put it
outside. A tinker happened to be passing by and saw the pudding. He
wrapped up, with a cloth, the pudding that was still in its bowl. Then
he put the pudding in his knapsack and walked on.
Tom had been able to get the batter out of his mouth, and he began to
cry out, "Help me! Help! Mother, your poor Tom Thumb is caught in
the pudding! Get me out!" This so frightened the tinker, that a
pudding possessed a spirit and could talk, that he flung the pudding
over the hedge by Tom's parents' cottage, and ran away. Tom freed
himself from the pudding, then ran home to his mother who had been
searching the kitchen frantically for him. She gave him a kiss and put
him to bed for Tom was exhausted from his adventure.
when Tom's mother was going out to milk their cow, Tom asked to go
with her, which is something he often did because he liked to have a
drink of the milk fresh, while it was still warm from the cow. This
day it happened to be very windy, so Tom's mother tied him with a
needleful of thread to a thistle so that he wouldn't be blown away,
then she went about her business of milking the cow. Tom was out of
the cow's reach, but when his mother got up to chase away a cat that
was after the milk, the cow stepped forward, and smelling Tom's
oak-leaf hat and liking it, she took him and the thistle up in one
mouthful. While the cow chewed the thistle, Tom Thumb, terrified at
her great teeth, which could easily crush him to pieces, roared, "Mother,
mother!" as loud as he could bawl.
are you, Tommy, my dear Tommy?" his mother answered.
called back, "Here, mother! I'm in the red cow's mouth!"
mother cried out and grabbed the cow's jaws and tried to pry them
open. The cow did open its mouth, but not because of Tom's mother. The
cow was startled by the odd noises in her throat Tom was making; she
was so surprised that she opened her mouth and let him drop out. Tom's
mother grabbed him up in her apron, cleaned him off, and ran inside
the house with him.
little time passed and one day Tom went out with his father when he
was ploughing a field. Tom wanted to imitate his father, so Tom's
father made him a whip of a barley straw with which he could pretend
to drive the cattle. While Tom's father guided the cattle along,
ploughing the field, Tom walked along behind, snapping his little whip
at the cattle. Tom was having great fun when he slipped into a deep
furrow that his father had just ploughed, and into which he had sowed
corn as he went along. Tom yelled out, but his father didn't notice,
nor did he see the raven which flew down, picked Tom up with a grain
of corn, and carried him away.
raven flew with Tom to the top of a giant's castle by the seaside. He
had just placed Tom down on the turret wall, when the giant came out
for a breath of fresh air. Seeing Tom sitting there on the wall, the
giant picked him up. If the giant had possessed any imagination, he
would have taken Tom inside and kept him as a curiosity, for he had
never seen a human so small. But this giant, like most, was only
concerned with his stomach, and though Tom was no bigger to him than a
pill he swallowed him. Tom struggled so mightily in the giant's throat
that the giant coughed him back out, and, irate, threw him into the
fish swam up to Tom which was every bit as large to Tom as a whale is
to a regular man. Just like that, the fish swallowed him, but, unlike
the giant, the fish didn't cough Tom back out.
fisherman soon caught the fish and delivered it to the cook at King
Arthur's castle, for King Arthur was to have fish for dinner. When the
cook cut the fish open, Tom Thumb was discovered in the fish's
stomach, and though Tom was a little shaken by his stay in the fish's
stomach, he was otherwise just fine as he hadn't been in the fish's
stomach very long.
not every day one cuts open a fish and finds a wee little boy in it,
and of course the cook took Tom Thumb to King Arthur and told him of
how he'd found Tom in the fish. This strange occurrence delighted
everyone in the court, and when everyone saw and spoke with Tom they
were that much more delighted for he was such a fun little boy. The
king made him a member of his court, and he was a favorite as his
merry pranks greatly amused the queen and King Arthur's knights. The
king, when he rode on horseback, frequently took Tom along to ride
with him. If it rained, Tom would creep into the king's
waistcoat-pocket and sleep there till the rain was over.
questioned Tom about his parents and where he came from, for he
thought that surely Tom must have been borne of parents every bit as
small as their little son. Tom Thumb told his majesty all about the
poor ploughman and his wife, and about how, on the contrary, they were
perfectly normal-sized people who lived in King Arthur's kingdom.
king led Tom into his treasury and told him he should pay his parents
a visit, and take with him as much money as he could carry. Tom got
himself a nice purse and put a threepenny piece in it, which to Tom,
because it was so large in comparison to him, seemed like it must be
worth a great amount. With much labor and difficulty he got the purse
on his back, and after travelling two days and nights he arrived at
the house of his parents. He was almost tired to death, for in
forty-eight hours he had traveled almost half a mile with the huge
silver threepence on his back, but he was quite proud as he thought
that certainly his parents would now have more than enough money to
live on for the rest of their lives. Tom's parents wept with joy when
they saw him, for they thought they had lost him forever, and placed
him in a walnut-shell by the fireside where he rested and recuperated
from his journey. He feasted for three days on a hazelnut, and though
the milk of the hazelnut was thought to be very good for children,
this nut made him sick, for a whole nut usually was food enough for
him to last a month.
got well and said he should return now to King Arthur's court.
However, it had rained which meant that Tom couldn't travel, for any
little puddle in the road was almost as big to him as a sea. So, his
mother took him in her hand, and with one great puff she blew him into
King Arthur's court. What a ride he had!
at court, Tom Thumb entertained the king, queen, and nobility at tilts
and tournaments. Nobody quite realized how hard he worked to
entertained them, or how he overexerted himself. His efforts taxed him
so much that they brought on a fit of sickness, and his life was
despaired of. (Perhaps he hadn't quite got his strength back from
those two days and nights he had spent carrying the silver threepence
to his parents.) Everyone was preparing themselves for the worst, when
at court arrived the queen of fairies in her chariot, drawn by flying
mice. Her mission was an urgent one, so she spoke to no one, but
immediately placed Tom by her side and drove off through the air, nor
did she stop until they arrived back at her palace. The fairy queen
treated Tom tenderly, devoting all her attention to him, and giving
him magical medicines. Soon, Tom was restored to health, and the fairy
queen let him enjoy all the gay diversions of Fairyland for a little
while, so that he laughed all the day long. When the fairy queen was
certain Tom had all his strength back, she called up a fair wind, and,
placing Tom before it, blew him straight to the court of King Arthur.
slowed when Tom reached the courtyard of the castle. Tom was preparing
to alight off the wind, just as one would get off a horse, when the
cook passed by with a great bowl of furmenty he was carrying to King
Arthur. "Oh my!" cried out Poor Tom Thumb as he fell right
in the middle of it, splashing the hot furmenty into the cook's eyes.
dropped the bowl.
dear! Oh dear!" Tom Thumb cried out.
Murder!" bellowed the cook (though I don't know why, for it seems
a strange thing to say), and he took the bowl of hot furmenty, with
Tom Thumb in it, and poured it into the dogs' kennel. Then the cook
went to complain to King Arthur about what had happened.
furmenty? It's also called frumenty, and is a dish of hulled wheat
boiled in milk, and seasoned with sugar, cinnamon and raisins, and
King Arthur loved furmenty so he wasn't any too pleased to hear how it
had been ruined. The cook was a red-faced, cross fellow, and he swore
to the king that Tom had ruined the furmenty out of mere mischief.
was in the dog house in more ways than one. The next thing he knew, he
was tried and sentenced to be beheaded! Everyone who heard this was
astonished by the cruel sentence, and a miller who was very near Tom
stood with his mouth agape because he could scarcely believe what he
heard. Tom glanced about to make sure no one was looking, then he took
a great spring and jumped down the miller's throat, unperceived by
all. Not even the miller noticed.
it was seen that Tom was lost, the court broke up, and the miller went
to his mill. Tom didn't leave him long at rest, but began to roll and
tumble about in the miller's stomach. The miller was certain he was
bewitched and sent for a doctor. When Tom heard the doctor had
arrived, Tom began to dance and sang, and the doctor was as frightened
by what was going on in the miller's stomach as the miller. The doctor
sent for five more doctors, as well as twenty learned men. The doctors
and the learned men, debating with each other over what to do, went on
so long and were so tedious that the miller began to yawn. When Tom
saw this, he made another jump, right out of the miller's throat, and
landed in the middle of the table.
it's you who have been tormenting me!" the miller cried out when
he saw Tom. Furious, he caught hold of Tom and threw the poor boy out
the mill's window and into the river.
salmon was swimming by in the river, and when the salmon saw Tom it
snapped him up. Soon thereafter, the salmon was caught and carried to
market to be sold, where it was purchased by a steward of a lord. When
the lord saw the salmon, he thought it such a fine, exceptional
specimen, that he had the salmon sent to the king as a gift. The king
said he would have it for dinner and sent the salmon to his cook. When
the cook cut open the salmon, who should he see but poor Tom! "Look
what came out of the fish!" the cook exclaimed, and ran to the
king to offer Tom up to him, but when he got there he found the king
was busy with political matters. The king asked that Tom be brought in
another day; so, the cook, resolving to keep Tom safely in custody
(for Tom was quite good at giving people the slip), clapped him in a
mouse-trap. For a whole week Tom was left to peep out the wires of the
mouse-trap cage. Then the king sent for Tom. When Tom was brought into
him, the king must have realized how harsh his judgement had been and
had second thoughts about it, for he forgave Tom for causing the cook
to drop the furmenty. He even ordered new clothes for Tom, and
"His shirt was made of butterflies' wings,
His boots were made of chicken skins;
His coat and breeches were made with pride:
tailor's needle hung by his side;
A mouse for a horse he used to ride."
his mouse, dressed up in his new clothes, Tom went out to hunt with
the king and nobility, who all laughed heartily at Tom Thumb and his
fine, prancing steed. They were passing by a farmhouse when a cat
jumped out from behind the door, seized the mouse and little Tom, and
began to devour the mouse. Caught in the cat's jaws, Tom boldly drew
his sword and attacked the cat, which let him fall. Quickly, the king
and his nobles went to Tom's assistance, and one of them caught Tom in
his hat. But poor Tom was sadly scratched, and his new clothes were
torn by the cat's claws. He was carried home and placed in a bed of
down that was made for him in a little ivory cabinet. He was only
there for a little while however, for the queen of the fairies soon
appeared and carried Tom off again to Fairyland.
time, the queen of the fairies kept Tom in fairyland for some years.
One fine day, the fairy queen had Tom dressed in bright green. Then,
calling up a fair wind, she placed Tom before it and sent him flying
once more through the air back to earth. When Tom alighted off the
wind, he learned that King Arthur and his court were no more, that's
how much time had passed while he had been in fairy land. King
Thunstone now reigned over the land, and Tom Thumb was carried before
him by the people who came from far and near to see this boy was only
as tall as a thumb. King Thunstone asked Tom who he was, and from
where had he come, to which Tom answered,
name is Tom Thumb,
the Fairies I come;
King Arthur shone,
This court was my home.
In me he delighted,
By him I was knighted;
Did you never hear of
Sir Thomas Thumb?"
king was charmed by Tom's rhyme. He ordered a little chair to be made,
in order that Tom might sit on his table, and, for Tom to live in, had
a palace built for him that was all of gold, a span high, with a door
an inch wide. He even gave Tom a coach drawn by six small mice.
Thunstone's queen was enraged as she hadn't been given a new coach as
well, and, resolving to ruin Tom, she complained to the king that Tom
had behaved insolently toward her. This infuriated the king, and when
Tom heard of it, in order to escape the king's fury he crept into an
empty snail-shell. Poor little Tom Thumb, he lay in the snail shell
until he was almost starved. Finally, almost too weak to walk, Tom
peeped out of the snail shell, and what should he see settling on the
ground but a beautiful butterfly. Tom climbed onto the butterfly,
which flew off into the air with little Tom on its back. Away, away,
away the butterfly flew, from field to field, from tree to tree, until
at last it flew into the king's court, where the king, queen, and all
the nobles tried to catch the butterfly but could not.
Thumb, riding the butterfly without a bridle or saddle, was finally
too weak to stay on the butterfly anymore. From off the butterfly's
back, he fell into a watering-pot, where he was found almost drowned.
queen ordered that Tom be guillotined, and he was put into a
mouse-trap cage where he was to be held while the guillotine was being
made ready. A cat came by, and seeing something stir in the cage, and
supposing it was a mouse, patted the trap about with her paw until she
broke it. Poor Tom had been sitting and contemplating his fate, but
here, it seemed, was his chance for liberty, and he escaped from the
trap. A spider, taking him for a fly, made for him. Tom drew his sword
and fought valiantly, but the spider's poisonous breath overcame him.
fell dead on the ground where late he had stood,
the spider suck'd up the last drop of his blood."
was found, there was a great grieving for Tom Thumb. King
Thunstone--despite the grievance he had with Tom, which the queen had
falsely forged--mourned for him, as did his whole court. They buried
him under a rosebush, and raised a nice white marble monument over his
grave, with the following epitaph:
lies Tom Thumb, King Arthur's knight,
died by a spider's cruel bite.
was well known in Arthur's court,
he afforded gallant sport;
rode at tilt and tournament,
on a mouse a-hunting went;
he fill'd the court with mirth,
death to sorrow soon gave birth.
wipe your eyes, and shake your head,
cry, 'Alas! Tom Thumb is dead.'"
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Retelling by J. Kearns based on the Dinah Maria Mulock Craik story.
Return to the fairy tales - book two