Grimm 037. Thumbling

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Fairy Tales & Myths

Not Thumbelina, but the German answer to the English Tom Thumb. You may well know the gist of this one.

Source: The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Knickerbocker Edition)


A lonely peasant couple wishes for a child. A boy is born to them, but he’s only as tall as a thumb, so they call him Thumbling. They are delighted to have him.

One day a pair of thieves discover Thumbling and offer to buy him from his father. Thumbling tells his dad to take the money and goes with the thieves. They want to rob the local pastor, and Thumbling agrees to help, but once he’s inside he shouts until the maid is awakened and the men flee. Thumbling goes to sleep in some hay.

He is then eaten by a cow.

When he calls out from the bovine stomach the pastor thinks the cow is possessed and disembowels it. A wolf then eats the stomach.

But, the wolf is sentient (unlike the cow?), and Thumbling (inside two stomachs now) convinces it to go to his parents’ house where there’s lots to eat in pantry. The wolf goes and eats its fill, becoming too fat to escape. Thumbling’s parents finally realize there’s a wolf in their larder and prepare to kill it. They hear Thumbling in time to not chop him in half, too, but rescue him from the dead wolf’s belly.

Thumbling decides it is better to stay at home. The end.


This is a strange little story and seems a roundabout way of teaching kids that the world is scary and it’s better to stay with your parents. I’m aware that when the Grimms first put together their collection these weren’t looked on as stories specifically for children, but they were meant to teach.

What’s really odd is that there’s no insight into Thumbling’s thoughts. He seems to be a schemer, but is he wicked or adventuresome? More importantly, is he ever scared? There’s a lot of room for interpretation. I’m sure many a young boy saw this as more of a How To guide.

It’s not always clear what Thumbling’s motives are. Did he sell himself into slavery to help his parents, planning to escape? I think so, but it’s but confirmed. Why does he agree to help the thieves rob the pastor when he could have sent them to his parents, who are clearly handy with blades? Would threatening or even killing the thieves be too immoral for this kindly couple?

Inquiring minds (me) want to junk know!

WTF scale: Huh?

I mean, eaten by a cow? Really? I think a cow would notice. And then to be able to speak from inside…and inside TWO stomachs… yeesh.

No, a normal sized couple giving birth to a thumb sized person doesn’t break my suspension of disbelief, but stomach acid does. Let’s be reasonable, here.

This story has the feel of either someone pulling ideas our if their ass (and then they…went to buy apples!) or several existing stories being patched together.

That’s very possible since…


This story is closely resulted to England’s Tom Thumb stories, which are apparently really freaking old!

The earliest surviving text is a 40-page booklet printed in London for Thomas Langley in 1621 entitled The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthur’s Dwarfe: whose Life and adventures containe many strange and wonderfull accidents, published for the delight of merry Time-spenders. (Wikipedia: Tom Thumb)

I had no idea this had been around so long. I can see the appeal, as he’s sort of a personification of The Little Folk, or a singular representative. Who happens to love and be loved by humans, rather than pranking then all the time. Of course, going by the title of that book, it’s also possible that this was some warping of the deeds of a person with dwarfism, either real or Arthurian. Which kind of puts a damper on things.

Tom Thumb’s adventures include being eaten by a cow (Again?) as well as being part of King Arthur’s court.

Final Thoughts

Thumb-sized people as a genre are weird. They get into trouble in ways you wouldn’t necessarily think of, like letting themselves be sold off. Even being eaten by the cow is more in line with Things Very Tiny People Would Have Trouble With.

I suppose it’s a fascination with anything different.

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