This Hans Christian Andersen story begins with casual magic and happily granted wishes, which means disaster must be soon to follow. A lonely woman goes to a witch for advice on how to obtain a child of her own, and the witch is all, “Nothing easier!” On the payment of twelve shillings, the woman is provided with a kernel that sprouts into a beautiful red and yellow bud, and when she kisses it, the petals unfurl to reveal a tiny girl at the heart of the flower. The witch misinterpreted what her customer meant when she asked for a ‘little child’ of her own, but the woman is too delighted with her adoptive daughter to care. She names her Thumbykin.
And it turns out she’s a great mum. She makes a bed out flower petals for her little girl, and a tulip leaf boat to be paddled about in a dish of water. Thumbykin spends her days singing and happily messing about in her miniature lake. Dream childhood! Which is, like I said before, a sure presentiment for tragedy in an Andersen fairy tale. Sure enough, one night a toad creeps in through the window and kidnaps the girl to be a wife for her son. Afraid Thumbykin will escape before the marriage can take place, the toad then strands her on a lilypad that is, to Thumbykin, the size of an island. Let me say it again, let me say it loud: ABDUCTION IS NOT A PROPOSAL.
Thumbykin wakes up, realises all of this is not a dream, and bursts into a storm of tears. In the midst of her misery, the toad returns to explain the situation, bringing with her the brainless toad boy she intends to be Thumbykin’s husband. Thumbykin cries harder than ever. Her distress catches the attention of some good-natured fishes, who comes to the rescue by nibbling away at the lilypad’s stalk until it breaks. The leaf sails away downstream, taking Thumbykin with it.
On the plus side: no wedding! Unfortunately, there’s also no getting home. And Thumbykin has caught the attention of another suitor – this time a cockchafer, who snatches her up and returns to his tree to show her off to his friends. They are not terribly impressed. “Why, she has only two legs! How ugly that looks!” “She has no feelers, how stupid she must be!” Most crushingly of all: “She looks just like a human being.” The cockchafer caves to the peer pressure and dumps Thumbykin on the nearest daisy.
So, to summarise, she has been kidnapped twice, cast out by her second kidnapper’s friends for being human, and abandoned in utterly unfamiliar territory. Somehow she survives the summer, living off nectar and dew, but as the weather grows colder the flowers disappear and Thumbykin is left homeless, friendless and without any source of food. As she searches for somewhere to shelter, she chances across the door of a field mouse hidden in the stubble of a cornfield. The mouse takes pity on her and invites her in. In exchange for housework and stories, Thumbykin is allowed to stay all winter.
But that looks too much like good luck, which means it’s time for a third suitor to force his way into her life. He is the mouse’s neighbour, a wealthy and sour-tempered mole who, despite being blind and unable to see Thumbykin, falls for her pretty voice. He is also more cunning than the toad or the cockchafer, and let’s face it, more civilised. His first step in courtship is to dig a tunnel between the mouse’s house and his own, so that it will be easier to go back and forth.
On their first trip through the new passage, the trio come across a body of a dead swallow. The mole, who thinks of the world above ground as vulgar and pointless, shoulders past disdainfully and the mouse follows his lead, but Thumbykin loves birds and is so upset that she later returns with a rug of hay to cover the corpse. When she lays her head against his chest, however, she hears a heartbeat and realises the bird is only mostly dead, numbed by the cold. That, she can do something about. Tucking him in with coverlets, she visits him secretly with food and water throughout the winter, and when the spring comes, widens a hole in the ceiling of the tunnel to allow in a wash of warm sun. By then the swallow is strong enough to fly. He asks Thumbykin to come with him, but she is too grateful for the kindness of the field mouse to abandon her now.
Her reward is to be shoved into an arranged marriage with the sneaky mole. The field mouse sees this as a big step up both socially and financially and overall an excellent match; the girl sees it as entombment. Though she obediently spins and weaves to make her wedding clothes, she takes whatever chance she can to slip outside, trying to catch a glimpse of blue sky through the distant canopy of summer corn. By autumn, her trousseau is ready and Thumbykin is so NOT. She tries to protest to the mouse, who threatens to bite her if she doesn’t go through with it. So much for kind.
On the wedding day itself, Thumbykin is permitted to go as far as the door to make her goodbyes to the sun and sky. As she fills her eyes with one last look at the world above ground, she is startled by a familiar cry – the voice of a swallow, her swallow, who has swooped in like the gallant hero to rescue her from a disastrous marriage. Thumbykin leaps onto his back and they soar away south, to a beautiful wood and a ruined castle where the swallows build their nests. For Thumbykin, there is a garden of flowers from which to choose a new home, but to her amazement the one she approaches is already occupied. A man the same size as herself – only with wings and a crown – comes out to greet her, and introduces himself as the king of the flower-elves.
It is love at first sight – for Thumbykin, particularly, this is nothing short of miraculous. Finally, a suitor of the same species! Also handsome, a monarch, and a big fan of flowers! He proposes on the spot, she says yes, and the whole court emerges from the surrounding flowers to welcome her with presents, including her own pair of wings. She is Thumbykin no longer; the king calls her Maia, Queen of the Flowers.
Look, I’m not sure this relationship is going to work out. Not to ruin a very pretty ending or anything, but Thumbykin isn’t exactly at her most emotionally stable just then and marrying the first man you find attractive is not really the best of policies. On the other hand, WINGS. Whatever happens to her now, she can escape if she has to. I wish her mother had been given similar resolution. The swallow could have easily delivered a message; instead, he goes off to sing Thumbykin’s tale to the world. I can’t say I think much of his priorities.