Thumbelina | The Life and Death of Tom Thumb (An English Tale)

The following is an annotated version of the fairy tale. I recommend reading the entire story before exploring the annotations, especially if you have not read the tale recently.

The Bodleian Library.


IN Arthur's court Tom Thumb did live,
A man of mickle might;
The best of all the table round,
And eke a doughty knight.
His stature but an inch in height,
Or quarter of a span:
Then think you not this little knight
Was proved a valiant man?

His father was a ploughman plain,
His mother milk'd the cow,
Yet how that they might have a son
They knew not what to do:

Until such time this good old man
To learned Merlin goes,
And there to him his deep desires
In secret manner shows.

How in his heart he wish'd to have
A child, in time to come,
To be his heir, though it might be
No bigger than his thumb.

Of which old Merlin thus foretold,
That he his wish should have,
And so this son of statue small
The charmer to him gave.

No blood nor bones in him should be,
In shape, and being such
That men should hear him speak, but not
His wandering shadow touch.

But so unseen to go or come,--
Whereas it pleas'd him still;
Begot and born in half and hour,
To fit his father's will.

And in four minutes grew so fast
That he became so tall
As was the ploughman's thumb in height,
And so they did him call--

TOM THUMB, the which the fairy queen
There gave him to his name,
Who , with her train of goblins grim,
Unto his christening came.

Whereas she cloth'd him richly brave,
In garments fine and fair,
Which lasted him for many years
In seemly sort to wear.

His hat made of an oaken leaf,
His shirt a spider's web,
Both light and soft for those his limbs
That were so smally bred.

His hose and doublet thistle-down,
Together weaved full fine;
His stockings of an apple green,
Made of the outward rind;

His garters were two little hairs
Pull'd from his mother's eye,
His boots and shoes, a mouse's skin,
Were tann'd most curiously.

Thus like a lusty gallant, he
Adventured forth to go,
With other children in the streets,
His pretty tricks to show.

Where he for counters, pins, and points,
And cherry-stones did play,
Till he amongst those gamesters young
Had lost his stock away.

Yet could he soon renew the same,
Whereas most nimbly he
Would dive into their cherry-bags,
And their partaker be,

Unseen or felt by any one,
Until this scholar shut
This nimble youth into a box,
Wherein his pins he put.

Of whom to be reveng'd he took,
In mirth and pleasant game,
Black pots and glasses, which he hung
Upon a bright sun-beam.

The other boys to do the like
In pieces broke them quite;
For which they were most soundly whipt;
Whereat he laughed outright.

And so Tom Thumb restrained was, 
From these his sports and play;
And by his mother after that,
Compell'd at home to stay.

Whereas about a Christmas time,
His father a hog had kill'd;
And Tom would see the puddings made,
For fear they should be spill'd.

He sate upon the pudding-bole,
The candle for to hold;
Of which there is unto this day,
A pretty pastime told:

For Tom fell in, and could not be
For ever after found,
For in the blood and batter he
Was strangely lost and drown'd.

Where searching long, but all in vain,
His mother after that,
Into a pudding thrust her son,
Instead of minced-meat.

Which pudding of the largest size,
Into the kettle thrown,
Made all the rest to fly thereout,
As with a whirlwind blown:

For so it tumbled up and down,
Within the liquor there,
As if the devil had been boil'd, --
Such was his mother's fear,

That up she took the pudding straight,
And gave it at the door
Unto a tinker, which from thence
In his black budget bore;

But as the tinker climb'd a stile,
He nearly tumbled back:
Now gip, old knave! out cried Tom Thumb,
A-hanging on his pack.

At which the tinker 'gan to run,
And would no longer stay;
And cast both bag and pudding down,
And thence hied fast away.

From which Tom Thumb got loose at last,
And home return'd again;
Where he from following dangers long,
In safety did remain:

Until such time his mother went 
A-milking of her kine;
Where Tom unto a thistle fast
She linked with a twine.

A thread that held him to the same,
For fear the blustering wind
Should blow him hence, -- that so she might
Her son in safety find.

But mark the hap! a cow came by,
And up the thistle eat;
Poor Tom withal, that, as a dock,
Was made the red cow's meat.

Who, being miss'd, his mother went
Him calling 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:
The which into her fearful heart,
Most careful dolours put.

Meanwhile the cow was troubled much,
And soon releas'd Tom Thumb;
No rest she had till out her mouth,
In bad plight he did come.

Now after this, in sowing time,
His father would him have
Into the field to drive his plough,
And thereupon him gave --

A whip made of a barley-straw,
To drive the cattle on;
Where, in a furrow'd land new sown,
Poor Tom was lost and gone.

Now by a raven of great strength,
Away he thence was borne,
And carried in the carrion's beak,
Even like a grain of corn,

Unto a giant's castle top,
In which he let him fall;
Where soon the giant swallowed up
His body, clothes, and all.

But soon the giant spat him out,
Three miles into the sea;
Whereas a fish soon took him up,
And bore him thence away.

Which lusty fish was after caught,
And to king Arthur sent;
Where Tom was found, and made his dwarf,
Whereas his days he spent

Long time in lively jollity,
Belov'd of all the court;
And none like Tom was then esteem'd,
Among the noble sort.

Amongst his deeds of courtship done,
His highness did command,
That he should dance a galliard brave
Upon his queen's left hand.

The which he did, and for the same
The king his signet gave,
Which Tom about his middle wore,
Long time a girdle brave.

How, after this, the king would not
Abroad for pleasure go
But still Tom Thumb must ride with him,
Placed on his saddle-bow.

Whereon a time when, as it rain'd,
Tom Thumb most nimbly crept 
In at a button-hole, where he
Within his bosom slept.

And being near his highness' heart,
He crav'd a wealthy boon,
A liberal gift, the which the king
Commanded to be done.

For to relieve his father's wants,
And mother's, being old;
Which was, so much of silver coin
As well his arms could hold.

And so away goes lusty Tom,
With threepence on his back,
A heavy burthen, which might make
His wearied limbs to crack.

So travelling two days and nights,
With labour and great pain,
He came into the house whereat
His parents did remain;

Which was but half a mile in space
From good king Arthur's court,
The which, in eight and forty hours,
He went in weary sort.

But coming to his father's door,
He there such entrance had
As made his parents both rejoice,
And he thereat was glad.

His mother in her apron took
Her gentle son in haste,
And by the fire-side, within
A walnut-shell him placed;

Whereas they feasted him three days
Upon a hazel-nut,
Whereon he rioted so long,
He them to charges put;

Through eating too much meat,
Which was sufficient for a month
For this great man to eat.

But now his business call'd him forth
King Arthur's court to see,
Whereas no longer from the same
He could a stranger be.

But yet a few small April drops
Which settled in the way,
His long and weary journey forth
Did hinder and so stay.

Until his careful father took
A birding trunk in sport,
And with one blast, blew this his son
Into king Arthur's court.

Now he with tilts and tournaments
Was entertained so,
That all the best of Arthur's knights
Did him much pleasure show:

As good Sir Lancelot du Lake,
Sir Tristam, and Sir Guy;
Yet none compar'd with brave Tom Thumb
For knightly chivalry.

In honour of which noble day,
And for his lady's sake,
A challenge in king Arthur's court
Tom Thumb did bravely make.

'Gainst whom these noble knights did run,
Sir Chinon and the rest,
Yet still Tom Thumb, with matchless might,
Did bear away the best.

At last Sir Lancelot du Lake
In manly sort came in,
And with this stout and hardy knight
A battle did begin.

Which made the courtiers all aghast,
For there that valiant man,
Through Lancelot's steed, before them all,
In nimble manner ran.

Yea, horse and all, with spear and shield,
As hardy he was seen,
But only by king Arthur's self
And his admired queen;

Who from her finger took a ring,
Through which Tom Thumb made way,
Not touching it, in nimble sort,
As it was done in play.

He likewise cleft the smallest hair
From his fair lady's head
Not hurting her whose even hand
Him lasting honours bred.

Such were his deeds and noble acts
In Arthur's court there shone,
As like in all the world beside
Was hardly seen or known.

Now at these sports he toil'd himself,
That he a sickness took,
Through which all manly exercise
He carelessly forsook.

When lying on his bed sore sick,
King Arthur's doctor came,
With cunning skill, by physic's art,
To ease and cure the same.

His body being so slender small,
This cunning doctor took
A fine perspective glass, with which
He did in secret look --

Into his sickened body down,
And therein saw that Death
Stood ready in his wasted frame
To cease his vital breath.

His arms and legs consum'd as small
As was a spider's web,
Through which his dying hour grew on,
For all his limbs grew dead.

His face no bigger than an ant's,
Which hardly could be seen;
The loss of which renowned knight
Much grieved the king and queen.

And so with peace and quietness
He left this earth below;
And up into the fairy-land
His ghost did fading go.

Whereas the fairy-queen receiv'd,
With heavy mourning cheer,
The body of this valiant knight,
Whom she esteem'd so dear.

For with her dancing nymphs in green,
She fetch'd him from his bed,
With music and sweet melody,
So soon as life was fled;

For whom king Arthur and his knights
Full forty days did mourn;
And, in remembrance of his name,
That was so strangely born--

He built a tomb of marble gray,
And year by year did come
To celebrate ye mournful death
And burial of Tom Thumb.

Whose fame still lives in England here,
Amongst the country sort;
Of whom our wives and children small
Tell tales of pleasant sport. 

Halliwell-Phillips, James Orchard. Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales. London: John Russell Smith, 1849.


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