Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales | Annotated Tale

Note that only the "Fireside Nursery Stories" section of this book has been included in the database comprising 19 tales. COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in November 2018 with all known ATU Classifications.

Tom Thumb

IN THE merry days of good King Arthur, there lived in one of the counties of England a ploughman and his wife. They were poor, but as the husband was a strong workman, and his partner an able assistant in all matters pertaining to the farmhouse, the dairy, and poultry, they managed to make a very good living, and would have been contented and happy, had Nature blessed them with any offspring. But although they had been married several years, no olive branch had yet appeared, and the worthy couple sadly lamented their hard lot.

               There lived at this period, at the court of Arthur, a celebrated conjuror and magician, whose name was Merlin, the astonishment of the whole world, for he knew the past, present, and future, and nothing appeared impossible to him. Persons of all classes solicited his assistance and advice, and he was perfectly accessible to the humblest applicant. Aware of this, the ploughman, after a long consultation with his "better half," determined to consult him, and, for this purpose, travelled to the court, and, with tears in his eyes, beseeched Merlin that he might have a child, "even though it should be no bigger than his thumb."

               Now Merlin had a strange knack of taking people exactly at their words, and without waiting for any more explicit declaration of the ploughman's wishes, at once granted his request. What was the poor countryman's astonishment to find, when he reached home, that his wife had given birth to a gentleman so diminutive, that it required a strong exercise of the vision to see him. His growth was equally wonderful, for—

In four minutes he grew so fast,         
     That he became as tall       
As was the ploughman's thumb in length,         
     And so she did him call.

               The christening of this little fellow was a matter of much ceremony, for the fairy queen, attended by all her company of elves, was present at the rite, and he formally received the name of Tom Thumb. Her majesty and attendants attired him with their choicest weeds, and his costume is worth a brief notice. His hat was made of a beautiful oak leaf; his shirt was composed of a fine spider's web, and his hose and doublet of thistle-down. His stockings were made with the rind of a delicate green apple, and the garters were two of the finest little hairs one can imagine, plucked from his mother's eyebrows. Shoes made of the skin of a little mouse, "and tanned most curiously," completed his fairy-like accoutrement.

               It may easily be imagined that Tom was an object of astonishment and ridicule amongst the other children of the village, but they soon discovered that, notwithstanding his diminutive size, he was more than a match for them. It was a matter of very little consequence to Tom whether he lost or won, for if he found his stock of counters or cherrystones run low, he soon crept into the pockets of his companions, and replenished his store. It happened, on one occasion, that he was detected, and the aggrieved party punished Tom by shutting him up in a pin-box. The fairy boy was sadly annoyed at his imprisonment, but the next day he amply revenged himself; for hanging a row of glasses on a sunbeam, his companions thought they would follow his example, and, not possessing Tom's fairy gifts, broke the glasses, and were severely whipped, whilst the little imp was overjoyed at their misfortune, standing by, and laughing till the tears run down his face.

               The boys were so irritated with the trick that had been played upon them, that Tom's mother was afraid to trust him any longer in their company. She accordingly kept him at home, and made him assist her in any light work suitable for so small a child. One day, while she was making a batter-pudding, Tom stood on the edge of the bowl, with a lighted candle in his hand, so that she might see it was properly made. Unfortunately, however, when her back was turned, Tom accidentally fell in the bowl, and his mother not missing him, stirred him up in the pudding "instead of minced fat," and put the pudding in the kettle with Tom in it. The poor woman paid dearly for her mistake, for Tom had no sooner felt the warm water, than he danced about like mad, and the pudding jumped about till she was nearly frightened out of her wits, and was glad to give it to a tinker who happened to be passing that way. He was thankful for a present so acceptable, and anticipated the pleasure of eating a better dinner than he had enjoyed for many a long day. But his joy was of short duration, for as he was getting over a stile, he happened to sneeze very hard, and Tom, who had hitherto remained silent, cried out, "Hollo, Pickens!" which so terrified the tinker, that he threw the pudding into the field, and scampered away as fast as ever he could go. The pudding tumbled to pieces with the fall, and Tom, creeping out, went home to his mother, who had been in great affliction on account of his absence.

               A few days after this adventure, Tom accompanied his mother when she went into the fields to milk the cows, and for fear he should be blown away by the wind, she tied him to a thistle with a small piece of thread. While in this position, a cow came by, and swallowed him up:

But, being missed, his mother went,         
     Calling him everywhere:       
Where art thou, Tom? where art thou, Tom?         
     Quoth he, Here, mother, here!

Within the red cow's stomach, here         
     Your son is swallowed up;       
All which within her fearful heart         
     Much woful dolour put.

               The cow, however, was soon tired of her subject, for Tom kicked and scratched till the poor animal was nearly mad, and at length tumbled him out of her mouth, when he was caught by his mother, and carried safely home.

               A succession of untoward accidents followed. One day, Tom's father took him to the fields a-ploughing, and gave him "a whip made of a barley straw" to drive the oxen with, but the dwarf was soon lost in a furrow. While he was there, a great raven came and carried him an immense distance to the top of a giant's castle. The giant soon swallowed him up, but he made such a disturbance when he got inside, that the monster was soon glad to get rid of him, and threw the mischievous little imp full three miles into the sea. But he was not drowned, for he had scarcely reached the water before he was swallowed by a huge fish, which was shortly after captured, and sent to King Arthur by the fisherman for a new-year's gift. Tom was now discovered, and at once adopted by the king as his dwarf;

Long time he liv'd in jollity,         
     Belov'd of the court,       
And none like Tom was so esteem'd         
     Amongst the better sort.

               The queen was delighted with the little dwarf, and made him dance a galliard on her left hand. His performance was so satisfactory, that King Arthur gave him a ring which he wore about his middle like a girdle; and he literally "crept up the royal sleeve," requesting leave to visit his parents, and take them as much money as he could carry:

And so away goes lusty Tom         
     With threepence at his back,       
A heavy burthen, which did make         
     His very bones to crack.

               Tom remained three days with the old couple, and feasted upon a hazel-nut so extravagantly that he grew ill. His indisposition was not of long continuance, and Arthur was so anxious for the return of his dwarf, that his mother took a birding-trunk, and blew him to the court. He was received by the king with every demonstration of affection and delight, and tournaments were immediately proclaimed:

Thus he at tilt and tournament         
     Was entertained so,       
That all the rest of Arthur's knights         
     Did him much pleasure show.

And good Sir Launcelot du Lake,         
     Sir Tristram and Sir Guy,       
Yet none compar'd to brave Tom Thumb         
     In acts of chivalry.

               Tom, however, paid dearly for his victories, for the exertions he made upon this celebrated occasion threw him into an illness which ultimately occasioned his death. But the hero was carried away by his godmother, the fairy queen, into the land of Faerie, and after the lapse of two centuries, he was suffered to return to earth, and again amuse men by his comical adventures. On one occasion, after his return from fairy-land, he jumped down a miller's throat, and played all manner of pranks on the poor fellow, telling him of all his misdeeds, for millers in former days were the greatest rogues, as everybody knows, that ever lived. A short time afterwards, Tom a second time is swallowed by a fish, which is caught, and set for sale at the town of Rye, where a steward haggles for it,—

Amongst the rest the steward came,         
     Who would the salmon buy,       
And other fish that he did name,         
     But he would not comply.

The steward said, You are so stout,         
     If so, I'll not buy any.       
So then bespoke Tom Thumb aloud,         
     "Sir, give the other penny!"

At this they began to stare,         
     To hear this sudden joke:       
Nay, some were frighted to the heart,         
     And thought the dead fish spoke.

So the steward made no more ado,         
     But bid a penny more;       
Because, he said, I never heard         
     A fish to speak before.

               The remainder of the history, which details Tom's adventures with the queen, his coach drawn by six beautiful white mice, his escaping on the back of a butterfly, and his death in a spider's web, is undoubtedly a later addition to the original, and may therefore be omitted in this analysis. It is, in fact, a very poor imitation of the first part of the tale.


Thumb stories are common in German and Danish, and the English tale comprises much that is found in the Northern versions. A writer in the Quarterly Review, xxi. 100, enters into some speculations respecting the mythological origin of Tom Thumb, and records his persuasion, in which we agree, that several of our common nursery tales are remnants of ancient μυθοι. Sir W. Scott mentions the Danish popular history of Svend Tomling, analysed by Nierup, "a man no bigger than a thumb, who would be married to a woman three ells and three quarters long." This personage is probably commemorated in the nursery rhyme,

I had a little husband         
No bigger than my thumb:       
I put him in a pint-pot,         
And there I bid him drum.

               According to popular tradition, Tom Thumb died at Lincoln, and a little blue flagstone in the pavement of the cathedral used to be pointed out as his monument.

               "It was my good fortune," says Dr. Wagstaffe, "some time ago, to have the library of a schoolboy committed to my charge, where, among other undiscovered valuable authors, I pitched upon Tom Thumb and Tom Hickathrift, authors indeed more proper to adorn the shelves of Bodley or the Vatican, than to be confined to the retirement and obscurity of a private study. I have perused the first of these with an infinite pleasure, and a more than ordinary application, and have made some observations on it, which may not, I hope, prove unacceptable to the public, and however it may have been ridiculed and looked upon as an entertainment only for children and those of younger years, may be found perhaps a performance not unworthy the perusal of the judicious, and the model superior to either of those incomparable poems of Chevy Chase or the Children in the Wood. The design was undoubtedly to recommend virtue, and to show that however any one may labour under the disadvantages of stature and deformity, or the meanness of parentage, yet if his mind and actions are above the ordinary level, those very disadvantages that seem to depress him add a lustre to his character."—A Comment upon the History of Tom Thumb, 1711, p. 4.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Tom Thumb
Tale Author/Editor: Halliwell, James Orchard
Book Title: Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales
Book Author/Editor: Halliwell, James Orchard
Publisher: John Russell Smith
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1849
Country of Origin: England
Classification: ATU 700: Thumbling

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