Reading Grimms’ Household Tales
his tale is perhaps better known in other versions. Joseph Jacobs collected it as ‘Tom Thumb’ in English Fairy Tales. He drew from the same English tale that Fielding used for his play of the same title. Hans Christian Anderson transmuted it to ‘Thumbelina’, demonstrating (if proof were needed) his fondness for female protagonists. Perrault called it ‘Hop o’ My Thumb’. And here we have the Grimms’ ‘Daumesdick’, or ‘Thumbthick’.
The tale itself is really delightful. You can read it here. It balances two disparate and striking elements which may be essential to the fairy tale as a genre. I’m not entirely sure on this point—it’s a concept I’m working with—but the harmony or dissonance or dialectic or call it what you will seems to be a continual thread through most of these tales: the tension between threat and play.
Play is evident throughout the story—a delight in and facility of words and events. Thumbling is a perpetual child, living, as Neil Gaiman says, in a world of giants. Everything is a potential game—work, law enforcement, trade. Thumbling occupies the amoral place of play; the world is his game, and he bends the rules according to his whim. And when he can’t bend the world, he bends the game to encompass his circumstances. One thinks that for Thumbling the world is an uproarious joke. Surely, the world is a perilous place when you’re only two inches tall, but the writer, readers, and Thumbling himself take endless delight from exploring the world form that vantage.
Threat, however, eats away at the edges of the tale. Anthony Minghella drew this out in his masterful collaboration with Jim Henson, ‘Hans My Hedgehog’ (1987). In that story, when the mother speaks the wish for a child, the narrator cautions against such speech—you never know, he says, who might be listening. This sort of taboo, the unspoken fear of something Other, strange sicknesses and deformed children, lurks in the backdrop. Thieves break in and steal. Wolves break in and devour. One feels that the, although everyone is too prudent to say so, the Good Folk are more or less at the back of the whole tale. The world is a perilous place, whether you’re tall or not.
Neither one of these elements lets up throughout the story. The threat seems, well, a fun sort of threat. The play seems alarming, almost frightening (as much good play does). If, indeed, we concede a folkloric origin for the literary fairy tale, this makes a great deal of sense. These tales are older—older than the languages they’re told in, probably—and the lore that makes up their background was once dangerous and believed. But they are the work of competent writers, with imaginations full of wonder, who choose to dwell in the shadow of that lore and walk for a while in the twilight. Perhaps the art of the fairy tale is in some senses playing in the ominous eaves of the Perilous Realm.
So, what do you think of the tale?