All right. A break from Beauty and the Beast today, since I’m starting to run out of steam. A couple hours ago I watched Don Bluth’s Thumbelina, so I thought that would be a good fairy tale to talk about.
It’s weird; I thought I remembered this movie very clearly from my childhood, but it was almost completely unfamiliar. Thumbelina, the character, was exactly as I remembered her. But there were so many things I didn’t recognize at all, and specific things I thought I remembered, like Thumbelina’s mother (younger in my memories) and the ending scene (dozens of fairies emerging from flowers), weren’t there.
So I don’t know what I was remembering. I did some quick research, and there don’t seem to have been any other Thumbelina movies I may have confused it with.
Anyway. This, like The Princess and the Pea and The Snow Queen, is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s few straightforwardly happy stories. I reread it just now, so I haven’t had a chance to really process my thoughts yet; this’ll be a little rambly.
One thing I wasn’t expecting is that Thumbelina’s mom specifically asked for a tiny child. (And got her from a witch for 12¢.) Why would you specifically want a Polly Pocket daughter? She’d be so easy to hurt. You could step on her or knock her off a shelf. You could set a glass on top of her or vacuum her right up.
And, like, what kind of life is this poor kid gonna have? It’s gotta be hard making friends with people 12 times your size. And forget about romantic relationships. This whole story made a lot more sense before I realized that Thumbelina’s size was her mom’s idea.
Everyone wants to marry this tiny girl. A frog, then a mole. Why would they want to marry a tiny human? What’s wrong with other frogs and moles?
I’m a little concerned that Thumbelina never made it back to her mom. Everything starts when she’s taken in the night by a frog to be her son’s bride. Thumbelina escapes that and winds up stuck with a May-fly, until he decides she’s ugly because she doesn’t look like a May-fly. She spends an entire summer on her own in the forest, gets taken in by a field mouse , and spends the entire winter and following summer with her.
That’s a bit of a pattern for Andersen, actually—it happens in The Snow Queen, too. Girl with apparently loving parents takes off, goes on an adventure that takes literal years, no big.
Anyway, she’s supposed to be marrying the field mouse’s neighbor the mole, but ends up running off with a swallow, then meeting a fairy prince just her size and marrying him. And then he changes her name from Thumbelina to Maia. I don’t know what that’s about, exactly, and I haven’t been able to find any analysis in a cursory internet search. A project for another day, I suppose.
Thumbelina was published two years before The Little Mermaid. I’ve talked about The Little Mermaid before, here and here. Specifically, I’ve talked about how Andersen was depressed and felt like an outsider, in part because of his sexuality. Now, Thumbelina and The Little Mermaid are both about young women who are outsiders. But there’s a significant difference.
Thumbelina is desired for her strangeness. A frog, a bug, and a mole all want to be with her, because she is different and beautiful. For a while it seems as if she might agree to marry the mole, who can provide for her and isn't a bad person, exactly, just very, very different from her. But ultimately she chooses to go back out into the sun, and wait for the person she truly belongs with.
The Little Mermaid falls in love, makes incredible physical changes for the man she loves, and still isn't enough. She never finds love or acceptance, and eventually chooses to die rather than hurt the man she loves in order to return home.
So I wonder what happened to Andersen in those two years. He wrote a story about someone who was different and celebrated for it, who persevered and eventually found love. And then he wrote a story about someone who was different, tried and failed to fit in, and died alone.
Overall, I definitely prefer the message in Thumbelina.
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