“According to Hindu belief, a thumb-sized being known as the innermost self or soul dwells in the heart of all humans and animals.”1
Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” is believed to be an original tale, inspired by “Tom Thumb.” The tiny girl is not heroic in the sense that Tom Thumb is; he battles an ogre, and she succeeds because of her compassionate nature. And yet, despite the fact that humility, beauty, and openness are her main attributes, she, too, is determined to live life on her terms.
Andersen’s story of the tiny girl is a soul journey and an early representation of the heroine’s journey, which has emerged nearly 200 years after “Thumbelina’s” publication in 1835.
Thumbelina’s tale goes like this:
An old woman longs for a tiny child and turns to a witch for help. She is given a special barley seed, from which emerges a flower containing a tiny girl inside its folded petals. The old woman names her child and treats her well. One night, a slimy toad hops through a broken window and kidnaps Thumbelina. She is to be the bride of the old toad’s son. When the tiny girl awakens, she is alone on a lily pad with nothing but water on all sides. Soon, the toad arrives with her son, and introduces him to Thumbelina as her groom. When they leave her alone, Thumbelina’s sobs are overheard by some fishes, who chew on the lily pad’s stems until it is free. Thumbelina floats downstream and far away from the toads. A little white butterfly flies near and remains close.
The fish can be seen as elements of the girl’s own unconscious mind, which are removing the block and carrying her forward on the waters of life. The butterfly symbolizes Thumbelina’s innocence, the freedom of her journey, her soul, and foreshadows a glorious future.
As the lily pad continues to move downstream, Thumbelina ties one end of her sash to it and the other end to the butterfly. The lily pad moves quickly; Thumbelina rides the lily pad standing up, until she is snatched by a large beetle. The girl grieves the double loss: the butterfly is lost to her, and the butterfly has lost his own freedom.
Thumbelina is disconnected from the butterfly and the water, both of which represent aspects of her soul.
The beetle takes the tiny girl to a tree where more of his kind dwell. They keep her alive with food and drink, but the other beetles don’t take to the stranger. The beetle eventually puts Thumbelina on a daisy and leaves her to her fate. All through the summer and into the fall, Thumbelina thrives. Not until the arrival of winter, when food and companionship are scarce, and her thin clothes can’t keep her warm, does she seek help from a nearby field mouse. Thumbelina enters the underground home of the mouse where she is put to work for her keep.
Thumbelina is entombed, literally and figuratively. She is the chrysalis that will one day emerge fully formed.
Thumbelina lives with and works for the mouse all winter. She is introduced to the mouse’s friend mole, a wealthy gentleman who soon falls in love with the girl and proposes marriage.
“Like Hades, the mole is cloaked in black and lives underground, preferring darkness and gloom to sunshine and light.”2
The mole digs a passage between his home and that of the mouse. One day, mole, mouse, and girl find a dead swallow in the passage. The bird is dismissed as something worthy of disgust by all but Thumbelina, who returns to properly cover its body. The swallow is warmed and returns to life. For the rest of the winter, the girl secretly ministers to the bird, who rewards her in the summer by flying her away from the mole and the mouse, rescuing her from a life underground as the mole’s wife. The swallow carries Thumbelina away to a warmer land where she finds a community of fairies and marries their prince. She is renamed Maya.
The revival of the swallow parallels the natural revival above ground, the return of spring. It symbolizes Thumbelina’s hope and potential to achieve a life of joy and strength. In the end, she finds her people and a position of honor among them.
Another way to see Thumbelina’s tale is to view her as a motherless daughter on a journey toward wholeness.
She comes into being by the wish of one woman and the magical power of another and soon finds herself, not only motherless, but in demand as a wife and potential mother to others.
Too often this is the situation for women: we barely have our needs met, our needs are met with scorn, or we haven’t developed a sense of even having needs.
From The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness by Maureen Murdock:
In examining how this split from the feminine [rejection by the mother] has affected my life I am aware that I have overridden my body, ignored its needs, and pushed it beyond exhaustion to illness. I have taken for granted the skills that come to me easily; I have ignored my intuition. I have felt guilty about taking time to relax or incubate. I have expected struggle instead of ease and have not fully enjoyed this precious gift of life.3
Thumbelina’s journey is a search for soul.
“This period is often filled with dreams of dismemberment and death, of shadow sisters and intruders, of journeys across deserts and rivers, of ancient goddess symbols and sacred animals.”4
A tiny girl/woman like Thumbelina is, perhaps, an ideal figure with which to portray the heroine’s journey, the search for soul, for self, for a place in the natural world. Her vulnerability is magnified; her challenges come from seemingly ordinary creatures and events (a toad; floating along a stream that would be harmless to a normal-size person).
A woman’s trials often come in every-day form: meeting the needs of children/lovers/friends before her own. A woman’s descent into the underworld can be as subtle as a desire to hide under her bed covers. But every step toward wholeness requires an understanding of her needs, as well as the time and space for reflection.
Thumbelina’s prosaic sojourn is a perilous search for self. She is a tiny woman on a giant quest.
Pioneer animator Lotte Reiniger made the first cinematic adaptation of “Thumbelina,” a soul-stirring paper silhouette version that portrays the girl’s vulnerability and her strength. Enjoy!
1. Andersen HC. 2008. The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen. Tatar M, editor. New York (NY): W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Thumbelina; p. 194.
2. Andersen HC. 2008. The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen. Tatar M, editor. New York (NY): W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Thumbelina; p. 203.
3. Murdock M. 2013. The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Boston & London: Shambhala. e-Book.
4. Murdock M. 2013. The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. Boston & London: Shambhala. e-Book.