Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Thumbelina | Summary



A delightful little girl named Thumbelina, who is no bigger than a thumb, is stolen by an ugly old toad to become her son's bride. With the help of some sympathetic wildlife, Thumbelina makes her escape, only to be captured by a mayfly. The other mayflies ridicule her, whereupon she runs off to live by herself in the forest. When winter comes, Thumbelina finds shelter with a field mouse who advises her to become betrothed to a wealthy mole who is enamored of her. But the only reason she goes to the mole's home is to nurse a freezing swallow back to health.

When spring comes again, the swallow invites her to escape with him, but Thumbelina is afraid to fly on the swallow's back until summer's end, when the swallow must leave for the southern countries. Once there the swallow puts her down into a large white flower. The flower's spirit is a tiny and perfectly charming king, just the size of Thumbelina, who asks her to marry him.


Andersen claims this story is a true one told him by the swallow. Tiny humans who survive perilous adventures are not uncommon in folktales and fairy tales and express the idea of resourcefulness overcoming brute strength, as in the biblical story of David and Goliath. Like his English counterpart Lewis Carroll (1832–98), whose Alice changed size with alarming suddenness in Through the Looking-Glass (1872), Andersen here explores the relationship between size and power—one of which young children are forced to be aware, but usually forget when they are grown up. The direct relationship between size and power can be mitigated, however, through courage, patience, resourcefulness, and compassion.

As Jean Hersholt states in his introduction to one edition of Andersen's stories, the character of Thumbelina was inspired by the real-life dwarf Henriette Wulff. Her death on a burning ship when Andersen was 50 caused him to burst into tears.

Andersen also makes a point regarding gender and power in "Thumbelina," as he does in such other tales as "The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweep." Marriageable young women in his own time were frequently married off to wealthy—and often old and unattractive—suitors. Fortunately for her, Thumbelina has the courage to escape a forced marriage to the toad's son and the mole, both of whom have mansions underground, locked away from sunlight. Andersen may also have been referring to the legend of Persephone, who in having been forced to accept the love of Hades must live underground with him during the winter months. Andersen contrasts harsh, long Scandinavian winters with brief but life-giving summers, filled with sunlight, in this and other stories, such as "The Snow Queen."

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