There was once a woman who so much wanted to have a tiny child who was all her own, but she had no idea where she could get one from; so she went off to an old witch and said to her: ‘I so desperately want to have a tiny child, can’t you tell me where I might possibly get one from?’
‘Oh yes, I’m sure we can work something out!’ the witch said. ‘Here’s a barleycorn for you, it’s not a bit like the kind that grows in the farmer’s field, or that’s given the hens to eat, just place it in a flower pot and you’ll see something happen all right!’
‘Thank you so much!’ the woman said and gave the witch twelve pennies, then went home, planted the grain of barley, and immediately a lovely large flower started to grow, it looked just like a tulip, but its petals were tightly folded, as if it was still in bud.
‘It’s a most pretty flower!’ the woman said, and kissed its beautiful red and yellow petals, but just as she kissed it, the flower gave a loud crack, and opened out. It was a real tulip, that was plain to see, but right in the middle of the flower, on a green chair, there was a tiny little girl, so fine and fair, she was no taller than a thumb-joint, and so she was called Thumbelina.
She was given a finely lacquered walnut shell as a cradle, blue violet petals were her mattresses and a rose petal her duvet; there she would sleep at night, but during the day she would play on the table, where the woman had placed a plate around which she had laid a whole garland of flowers whose stems dipped into the water; here a large tulip petal floated, and on it Thumbelina was allowed to sit and sail from one side of the plate to the other; she had two white horse-hairs to row with. It looked just delightful. She was also able to sing, with oh such a beautiful voice the like of which no one had ever heard. –
One night, as she lay in her lovely bed, a hideous toad hopped in through the window – a pane in it was broken. The toad was so ugly, large and wet, it hopped straight down onto the table where Thumbelina lay, and hopped off with her through the window, down into the garden.
There was a large, wide river there; but down on its banks it was boggy and muddy; here the toad lived with her son. Ugh! he too was vile and ugly, looked just like his mother: ‘grug, ug-gug, ribbit-ribbit!’ was all he could say when he saw the pretty little girl in the walnut shell.’
‘Don’t talk so loud, or you’ll wake her up!’ the old toad said, ‘she could still run away from us, for she’s a light as swansdown! We can put her out in the river on one of the broad water-lily leaves, since she’s so light and tiny, it will be like being on an island! and then she won’t be able to run off while we make the best parlour ready under the mud, where you are both to dwell!’
Out in the river a great many water lilies grew with broad green leaves that look as if they are floating on the surface; the leaf that was farthest out was also the largest of them; the old toad swam out to it and there it placed the walnut shell with Thumbelina.
The poor tiny creature woke up quite early the next morning, and when she saw where she was, she began to cry bitterly, for there was water on every side of the large green leaf and she was completely unable to reach dry land.
The old toad said down in the mud and decorated her parlour with reeds and yellow water lilies – it was to look really nice for her new daughter-in-law – then she swam out with her ugly son to the leaf where Thumbelina stood, they wanted to fetch her nice bed, it was to be placed in the bridal chamber before she herself was taken there. The old toad dropped a deep curtsey in the water in front of her and said: ‘Here you have my son, he is to be your husband, and you are to live so delightfully down in the mud!’
‘Grug, ug-gug, ribbit-ribbit!’ was all the son could say.
They then took the nice little bed and swam off with it, but Thumbelina was left completely alone on the green leaf, weeping because she did not want to live with the nasty toad or have his ugly son as her husband. The small fishes swimming down in the water had seen the toad and heard what she said, so they stuck their heads out of the water so as to see the little girl. As soon as they caught sight of her, they found her so nice and pretty, and it pained them to think that she was to go down to the ugly toad. No, that must never happen. Down in the water, they all crowded round the green stalk that held the leaf she was standing on, and gnawed through it with their teeth, and then the leaf floated off down the river, off with Thumbelina, far off where the toad could not come.
Thumbelina sailed past so many places, and the small birds sat in the bushes, saw her and sang ‘what a pretty little maid!’. The leaf with her on it swam further and further away; and so it was that Thumbelina started her travels.
A lovely small white butterfly kept on fluttering around her, finally settling on the leaf, for it liked Thumbelina so much, and she was so pleased, for now the toad couldn’t reach her and where she was sailing was so delightful; the sun shone on the water, it was like the finest gold. Then she took off her waistband, tied one end round the butterfly, and fastened the other end to the leaf; it now slid much faster through the water, as did she, for she was standing of the leaf.
Just then a large cockchafer came flying past, it caught sight of her and immediately seized her round her slim waist with its claw and flew up into the tree with her, but the green leaf carried on down the river and the butterfly likewise, for it was tied to the leaf and could not free itself. Good Lord, what a fright this gave poor Thumbelina when the cockchafer flew up into the tree with her, but most of all she was saddened by the thought of the beautiful, white butterfly she had fastened to the leaf; since now it was unable to free itself and would surely starve to death. But the cockchafer didn’t care anything about that. It settled with her on the largest green leaf in the tree, fed her nectar from the flowers and said that she was so pretty, despite the fact that she didn’t resemble a cockchafer in the slightest. Then all the other cockchafers that lived in the tree came along and paid a visit; they looked at Thumbelina, and the lady cockchafers twitched their feelers and said: ‘but she’s only got two legs, it’s a pitiful sight.’ ‘She hasn’t any feelers!’ another one said. ‘She’s so thin around the waist, ugh! she looks just like a human! How ugly she is!’ all the females said, and this about Thumbelina, who was so pretty; as the cockchafer who had taken her had also felt, but when all the others said she was ugly, he finally thought the same and didn’t want to have anything more to do with her – she could go wherever she pleased. They flew down from the tree and placed her on a mayweed; there she wept, because she was so ugly that the cockchafers would have nothing to do with her, even though she was the prettiest thing imaginable, as fine and clear as the loveliest rose petal.
Throughout the summer poor Thumbelina lived completely on her own in the large wood. She plaited a bed out of blades of grass for herself and hung it under a large butterbur leaf so that the rain would not fall on her; she lived on the nectar from the flowers, and drank the dew that stood on the leaves every morning; thus did summer and autumn pass, but now winter came – the cold, long winter. All the birds that had sung so beautifully for her flew away, the trees and the flowers withered, the large butterbur leaf she had lived under, crumpled and turned into nothing more that a yellow, withered stalk, and she was so terribly cold, for her clothes were in rags and she herself was so fine and small – poor Thumbelina, she was sure to freeze to death. It started to snow and every snowflake that fell on her was just as if a whole scoopful had been hurled at us, for we are big and she was only an inch tall. So she wrapped herself up in a withered leaf, but it provided no warmth, she shivered with the cold.
Just outside the wood into which she had come lay a field of corn, but the corn was long since gone, only the bare, dry stubble stuck up out of the frozen earth. For her it was like a whole forest to walk through, oh, how she froze with the cold! Then she came to a field mouse’s door. It was a small hole under some stalks of stubble. In there the field mouse kept nice and warm, her living room was full of grain, there was a lovely kitchen and a larder. Poor Thumbelina stood outside the door like some poor beggar girl and asked for a piece of a grain of barley, for she hadn’t had anything to eat for two days.
‘You poor wee thing!’ the field mouse said, for deep down she was a kind, old field mouse, ‘just you come into my warm living room and share some food with me!’
‘Since she happened to like Thumbelina, she said: ‘You can stay with me for the winter if you like, but you must keep my room clean and tidy and tell me stories, for I’m very fond of them,’ and Thumbelina did as the kind, old field mouse requested and had a very good time of it.
‘We’ll soon be having a visitor!’ the field mouse said, ‘every day of the week my neighbour comes to visit me. He’s an even better home than I have; has large rooms and has such a lovely black velvety coat! If only you could get him for a husband, you would be well provided for; but he is unable to see. You must tell him the nicest stories you know!’
But Thumbelina wasn’t at all keen about this, she didn’t want to take the neighbour at all, for he was a mole. He paid visits in his black velvety coat, he was so wealthy and so wise, the field mouse said, his apartment was also more than twenty times as large as that of the field mouse, and he had great knowledge, but he didn’t like the sun and beautiful flowers at all, said bad things about them because he had never seen them. Thumbelina had to sing for him, and she sang both ‘Fly, cockchafer, fly!’ and ‘The monk’s in the meadow’, and then the mole fell so in love with her because of her lovely voice, but he didn’t say anything, he was such a sober-minded fellow. –
He had recently dug himself a long passage underground from his to their house, the field mouse and Thumbelina were allowed to take walks in it whenever they wanted to. But he asked them not to be frightened by the dead bird that lay in the passage; it was an entire bird, with feathers and beak, that had died only recently, when the winter started, and now lay buried precisely where he had dug his passage.
The mole took a piece of touchwood in his mouth as a torch, for it gleams like fire in the dark, and lit the way for them in the long, dark passage; when they came to the spot where the dead bird lay, he placed his broad snout against the ceiling and pushed up the soil so that a large hole appeared that the light could shine down through. In the middle of the floor lay a dead swallow, its beautiful wings clamped to its sides, its legs and head pulled in under its feathers; the poor bird had certainly died from the cold. Thumbelina felt so sorry for it, she was so fond of all small birds, they had sung and chirped throughout the summer for her, but the mole prodded it with his short legs and said: ‘It’s not twittering any more now! It must be pitiful to be born a small bird! Thank heavens none of my children will be; such a bird has nothing besides its twittering and is bound to freeze to death when winter comes!’
‘Yes, as a sensible man you’re bound to say that,’ the field mouse said. ‘What good does all the bird’s twittering do it when winter comes! It’s bound to starve and freeze to death; but that too is considered quite grand, I imagine!’
Thumbelina didn’t say anything, but when the other two turned their backs on the bird, she bent down, pushed the feathers aside that hid its head, and kissed its closed eyes. ‘Perhaps it was the one that sang so beautifully for me in summer,’ she thought, ‘how much happiness it gave me, the dear, lovely bird!’
Now the mole filled in the hole that the daylight shone through, and accompanied the ladies back home. But that night Thumbelina was completely unable to sleep, she got out of her bed and plaited a large, lovely coverlet out of hay, and took it down and spread it round the dead bird, placed soft cotton wool she had found in the field mouse’s room along its sides, so that it could lie warm there in the cold earth.
‘Farewell, you beautiful little bird!’ she said, ‘Farewell and thank you for your lovely song last summer, when all the trees were green and the sun shone so warmly on us!’ Then she placed her head up close to the bird’s breast, but at the same time got such a fright, for it was as if something was beating inside it. It was the bird’s heart. The bird was not dead, it was in a winter torpor, and now it had been warmed through and come back to life again.
In autumn all the swallows fly away to warmer countries, but if one of them gets left behind, it freezes in such a way that it falls down dead, remains lying where it fell, and the cold snow covers it up.
Thumbelina shook violently, she had been so scared by this, for the bird was such a large, large creature compared to her single inch, but she plucked up courage, placed the cotton wool closer around the poor swallow, and fetched a mint leaf she herself had used as a duvet, and placed it over the bird’s head.
The next night she stole down to it once more, and now it was quite revived, but so tired, it could only open its eyes for a brief moment and see Thumbelina, standing there with a piece of touchwood in her hand, for she had no other kind of light.
‘Thank you so much, you dear sweet child!’ the swallow said to her, ‘I’ve been so deliciously warmed through! Soon I will recover my strength and be able to fly again, out into the warm sunshine!’
‘Oh!’ she said, ‘it’s so cold out there, with snow and ice! Just you stay in your warm bed, I will take care of you!’
She brought the swallow water in a flower petal, and it drank and told her how it had torn one of its wings on a thorn bush and was therefore unable to fly as strongly as the other swallows, who then flew off to warmer countries. Finally, it had fallen down to the ground, but it was unable to remember anything after that, and had no idea how it had ended up here.
It stayed down there all winter, and Thumbelina was kind to it and was so fond of it; neither the mole nor the field mouse got to know anything about this, because they didn’t even like the unfortunate poor swallow.
As soon as spring came and the sun started to warm the earth, the swallow said farewell to Thumbelina, who opened the hole that the mole had made in the ceiling. The sun shone down so delightfully on them, and the swallow asked it she would like to accompany it, she could sit on its back, they would fly deep into the green wood. But Thumbelina knew that it would make the old field mouse feel sad if she left her in such a way.
‘No, I can’t do that!’ Thumbelina said. ‘Farewell, farewell! You good, kind girl!’ the swallow said and flew out into the sunshine. Thumbelina gazed after it, and tears came to her eyes, for she was so fond of the poor swallow.
‘Chirrup, chirrup!’ the bird sang and flew off into the green wood. –
Thumbelina was so sad. She was not allowed to come out into the warm sunshine at all; the corn that had been sown in the field above the field mouse’s home, also grew tall, it was a huge dense forest to the poor little girl who was only a thumb-joint long.
‘This summer you must sew your trousseau!’ the field mouse said to her, for now the neighbour, the tedious mole in the black velvety coat, had proposed to her. ‘You shall have both woollens and linenware! You shall have something to both sit and lie on when you become the mole’s wife!’
Thumbelina had to turn the spindle, and the field mouse hired four spiders to spin and weave night and day. Every evening the mole paid a visit and then he always spoke of when summer would come to an end and the sun would not bake the earth nearly as much, for it almost turned into stone; yes, when summer was over, the wedding would take place with Thumbelina; not she was not in the least happy about this, for she had no kind feelings about the tedious mole. Everything morning, at sunrise, and every evening, at sunset, she would slip out the door and when the wind divided the heads of corn above her, so that she could catch a glimpse of the blue sky, she would think of how bright and beautiful it was out there, and she so fervently wished that she might get to see the dear swallow once again; but it never returned, it was sure to be flying far off in the lovely green wood.
By the time autumn came, Thumbelina had all her trousseau ready.
‘In four weeks’ time you’re to be married!’ the field mouse said to her. But Thumbelina wept and said that she didn’t want to have the tedious mole.
‘Fiddlesticks!’ the field mouse said, ‘don’t you get obstreperous, for then I’ll bite you with my white teeth! It’s a fine husband you’ll be getting! Not even the queen can rival his black velvety coat! Both his kitchen and cellars are well-stocked. Just you thank the Good Lord for him!’
The time for the wedding had come. The mole had already arrived to fetch Thumbelina; she was to live with him deep underground, never get out into the warm sun, for he didn’t like it. The poor child was so miserable, she was now going to have to say farewell to the beautiful sun which, while she lived with the field mouse, she had been allowed to gaze at from the doorway.
‘Farewell, you bright sun!’ she said and stretched her arms up high in the air, standing just outside the field mouse’s house; for now the corn had been harvested, and here only the dry stubble stood. ‘Farewell, farewell!’ she said and threw her arms round a tiny red flower that stood there. ‘Greet the little swallow from me, if you happen to see it!’
‘Chirrup, chirrup!’ she suddenly heard above her head; she looked up, it was the little swallow that just came past. As soon as it saw Thumbelina it was so delighted; she told it how unwilling she was to have the nasty mole as a husband, and that she would have to live deep underground where the sun never shone. She couldn’t help crying as she told this.
‘Now the cold winter is coming,’ the little swallow said, ‘I am flying far away to warmer countries – will you join me? You can sit on my back! Tie yourself on with your waist-band, and we’ll fly away from the nasty mole and his dark abode, far away over the mountains to warmer countries when the sun shines more beautifully than it does here, where it is always summer and lovely flowers. Just fly with me, sweet little Thumbelina, who saved my life when I lay frozen in the dark cellar of the earth!’
‘Yes, I will come with you!’ Thumbelina said, and got up onto the bird’s back, with her feet on its outstretched wings, fixed her belt to one of its strongest feathers and then the swallow soared high into the air, above woods and lakes, high above the great mountains where there is always snow, and Thumbelina froze in the cold air, but then she crept in under the bird’s warm feathers and only her tiny head peeped out to see all the marvellous sights below her.
Then they came to warmer countries. There the sun shone much more brightly than here, the sky was twice as high and in the stone walls and waysides there grew the loveliest green and blue grapes. In the woods lemons and oranges hung, here there was the scent of myrtle and mint, and out in the country roads the nicest children were out playing with large, many-coloured butterflies. But the swallow flew even further, and it got more and more beautiful. Beneath the green trees down by the blue lake there stood a gleaming-white marble castle from olden times, the vines twined upwards round the tall pillars; and highest up there were many swallow’s nests, and in one of these lived the swallow that was carrying Thumbelina. –
‘Here’s my house!’ the swallow said, ‘but you will now choose for yourself one of the superb flowers that grow down there, so I will land with you there and you will be as well off as you could possibly imagine!’
‘How delightful!’ she said, and clapped her small hands.
Down there lay a large white marble column that had fallen over and broken into three pieces, but between these grew the loveliest large white flowers. The swallow flew down with Thumbelina and placed her on one of the large petals – but how amazed she suddenly was! There sat a tiny man in the middle of the flower, so white and transparent as if he was made of glass; he had the finest gold crown on his head and the loveliest clear wings on his shoulders, and he himself was no larger than Thumbelina. He was the flower’s angel. In each flower there lived such a tiny man or woman, but this one was king over all of them.
‘My oh my, how handsome he is!’ Thumbelina whispered to the swallow. The little monarch was so frightened at the sight of the swallow, for it was a huge bird compared with him, who was so tiny and fine, but when he caught sight of Thumbelina, he was so glad, she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. So he took his gold crown off his head and placed it on hers and asked her what her name was and if she would be his wife, then she would be queen over all the flowers! Yes, this was indeed a husband, something completely different from the toad’s son and the mole with the black velvety coat. So she said yes to the handsome prince and from each flower there came a lady or gentleman, so charming it was quite delightful, each brought Thumbelina a present, but the best one of all was a pair of beautiful wings from a large white fly, they was attached to Thumbelina’s back and now she too could fly from flower to flower; everyone was so happy and the little swallow sat up in her nest and sang for them as best she could, although in her heart she was sad, for she was so fond of Thumbelina and never wanted to be parted from her.
‘You’re not to be called Thumbelina!’ the flower’s angel said to her, ‘that’s a horrible name, and you are so beautiful. We will call you Maia!’
‘Farewell! farewell!’ the little swallow said, and flew off from the warmer countries once more, all the way back to far-off Denmark; there it had a small nest above the window where the man lives who can tell fairytales, for him it sang ‘chirrup, chirrup!’ and from this we have the whole story.