unsettling wonder

Reading the Grimms

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 illus-202t Thumbling as Journeyman

his story is like unto this story, which you and I have discussed before. But it’s different, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you like it better. I did.

What if a trickster is three inches high? In a world of giant, absent-minded grown-ups, of kings and cattle and criminals? Of people ready either to take advantage or simply ignore someone as small as a miniscule trickster?

You get this story, that’s what. If this isn’t a variant of the tale you’re familiar with, I urge you to go and read it.

The story draws much of its humour from the inconsistencies and perils that the world holds for the small. In a burlesque katabasis, Thumbling gets swallowed by a cow and remains mostly unharmed, although ‘[d]own below […] it pleased him ill, for it was quite dark, neither was any candle burning.’ He eventually comes out the other end (more or less), in a welter of what seem to be puns. And when, in the great tableau of the trickster tale, he falls in with a gang of thieves, they greet saying, ‘Thou giant Goliath, wilt thou go to the treasure-chamber with us?’ The humour and ribaldry of this scene progresses as Thumbling manages to rob the king’s treasury without disturbing the locks, bolts, or sentries. He goes on to confound the guards by shouting from corners of the room, convincing them they’re being robbed by a disembodied voice.

The nameless protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Punch (Vertigo, 1994) says of his childhood: ‘I lived in a land of giants in those days. All children do.’ If ‘Thumbling as Journeyman’ can be said to be about anything, then it’s about that. Thumbling is the grotesque child, reduced in smallness to the point of Otherness; he is at one point mistaken for a spider. The feelings of affection that small children usually elicit are inverted into revulsion. Similarly, his decrease in stature increases his wits. Rather than an innocent child-hero, he becomes the trickster and Master Thief, outwitting or avoiding both justice and natural laws.

In this sense, it seems that this is a story perhaps not about being a child, but remembering childhood, about trying to understand and perhaps explain growing up. There’s something of a parent’s wistfulness and wonder and heartache, and the eternal transience of childhood, in the most poignant moment in the tale, when physical law and magic are blur as Thumbling sets off:

“Mother, what is there to eat to-day?” “See for thyself,” said his mother. So Thumbling jumped on to the hearth, and peeped into the dish, but as he stretched his neck in too far the steam from the food caught hold of him, and carried him up the chimney. He rode about in the air on the steam for a while, until at length he sank down to the ground again. Now the little tailor was outside in the wide world…

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