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Literature / Tom Thumb

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Tom Thumb is a traditional hero in English folklore who is no bigger than his father's thumb. Most commonly used as a stock Fairy Tale character in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Stories involving Tom Thumb include typical fairy tale plot lines such as killing giants, wooing various women and embarking on innumerable other tasks in order to achieve/gain/prove something. These tasks are further complicated by the size of Tom Thumb, though he inevitably manages to utilize his tiny size to overcome obstacles in his way in roundabout ways. With unsettling frequency, Tom gets eaten by various animals and escapes by various means, including cutting his way out, yelling so that a nearby parson thinks the animal is possessed, and just getting pooped out.

The origin of Tom Thumb is often cited as a poor, childless couple in the days of King Arthur allowing an old beggar (secretly the magician Merlin) to take refreshment in their home. The couple longs for a son and would be content even if he was no bigger than a thumb. Amused by this notion, Merlin casts a spell which resulted in the birth of the diminutive Tom Thumb. The tiny child is blessed by the fairy queen.

The most notable Tom Thumb stories include Richard Johnson's The History of Tom Thumbe published in 1621. A 1730 play by English dramatist Henry Fielding by the same name name, and which he rewrote in 1731 as The Tragedy of Tragedies. A 1958 movie musical stars Russ Tamblyn as Tom. Chuck Jones did two radically different cartoons based on the story for Warner Bros., decades apart: the Disneyesque "Tom Thumb In Trouble," and the Pythonesque "I Was a Teenage Thumb."

The Aarne Thompson type is 700; see Thumbelina for the Distaff Counterpart. Full text here; there are similar tales in many countries.

Tropes associated with the character of Tom Thumb:

  • Alliterative Name: The protagonist's name is Tom Thumb.
  • The Casanova: Tom becomes very popular with the ladies in King Arthurs Court.
  • Downer Ending: Dinah Mulock's version ends with Tom Thumb being killed by a spider. Henry Fielding's tragedy play ends with him being digested by the cow that swallowed him. His ghost comes back, and dies again, after getting embroiled in a Love Triangle.
  • Getting Eaten Is Harmless: Tom gets Swallowed Whole several times by various creatures (a cow, a giant, a fish, etc). But he manages to survive and escape each time.
  • Incredible Shrinking Man
  • Improvised Clothes: To an extent - Tom's wardrobe gets pretty imaginative, with a needle for a sword. There's even a touch of Garden Garment with a leaf for a hat, a thistledown jacket, and stockings made out of apple rinds.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility
  • Lilliputian Warriors: In many of the tales, Tom is quite the badass.
  • Literal Genie/Jackass Genie: Oddly enough, Merlin can seem to be this in many versions giving the childless couple such a tiny child out of amusement. Though it worked out well.
  • Nice Mice: Tom rides a mouse and has a carriage drawn by mice.
  • Ribcage Stomach: Implied in one version. After being Swallowed Whole by a fish, Tom fashions a sword from one of the fish's ribs while he's inside its stomach.
  • Sewing Needle Sword: In some variants of the story, the titular character is knighted by a king during his adventures or sets off on his own. He chooses a small needle to function as his sword.
  • Swallowed Whole: Happens to Tom with a fish, a cow and a giant. Modern versions usually tone it down to simply being stuck in the cow's mouth.
  • The Trickster: Tom shows shades of this early in the story, cheating at marbles. This probably derives from an earlier oral version, because many Thumblings in folklore tend to be trickster figures.
  • Wonder Child