This retelling of Tom Thumb from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


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.

In 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.

Merlin 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.

Merlin 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."

Merlin 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.

Very 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 anymore.

While 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,
His shirt it was by spiders spun:
With doublet wove of thistledown,
His trousers up with points were done;
His stockings, of apple-rind, they tie
With eye-lash pluck'd from his mother's eye:
His shoes were made of a mouse's skin,
Nicely 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 infant.

Tom 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.

For 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.

Here's 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.

By now 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.

One day 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.

"Where are you, Tommy, my dear Tommy?" his mother answered.

Tom called back, "Here, mother! I'm in the red cow's mouth!"

Tom's 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.

A 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.

The 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 sea.

A 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.

Some 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. It's 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.

The king 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.

The 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.

Tom 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!

Back 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.

The wind 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.

The cook dropped the bowl.

"Oh dear! Oh dear!" Tom Thumb cried out.

"Murder! 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.

What is 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.

Yes, Tom 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.

When 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.

"So 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.

A 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 knighted him.

"His shirt was made of butterflies' wings,
His boots were made of chicken skins;
His coat and breeches were made with pride:
A tailor's needle hung by his side;
A mouse for a horse he used to ride."

Astride 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.

This 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,

"My name is Tom Thumb,
From the Fairies I come;
When 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?"

The 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.

Now, 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.

Tom 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.

The 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.

"He fell dead on the ground where late he had stood,
And the spider suck'd up the last drop of his blood."

When he 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:

"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.'"

Retelling by J. Kearns based on the Dinah Maria Mulock Craik story.

Copyright 1999 j m Kearns

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