“I’m always the bride, and never the bridesmaid.”
– Our heroine’s fourth wall-leaning lament
The idea of tiny people going on huge adventures is nothing new in fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen took most of his inspiration for today’s story from the seventeenth-century English tale of Tom Thumb, but his own flourishes make Thumbelina a slightly original creation. It was published in 1835 as part of the second fairy tale collection Andersen released that year, which included The Princess and the Pea. It received the same criticisms, namely the lack of clear morals, informal chatty nature and passive characters. Discouraged, Andersen returned to novel writing for a full year before trying his hands at fairy tales again.
Now, it’s no secret that Andersen used most of his stories to vent his own insecurities and frustrations. Thumbelina is no exception, though he’s a bit subtler about it this time around. It’s been theorized that Thumbelina’s platonic relationship with the swallow was a “distant tribute” to a confidante named Henriette Wuff, though there’s little evidence to support it. There’s also the beetle who admires Thumbelina’s beauty but changes its tune when he shows her off to his fellow bugs and they deem her “ugly”; an on-the-nose critique of his fickle audience if ever there was one. What’s certain, however, is that while studying in Slagelse, Zealand, Andersen was tutored by a short, stout, balding, contemptuous classics teacher named Simon Meisling who frequently abused his pupil. “You’re a stupid boy who will never make it,” he once berated him in front of the entire class. Meisling is all but confirmed to be the inspiration for the odious Mole, which proves the adage of never pissing off the writer.
Then there’s the story’s lesson, which is…complicated. On the one hand, Thumbelina bouncing around from one miserable suitor of differing species to another until she finds someone exactly like her can come across as “stick to your own kind”, which borders on yikes. On the other, when Thumbelina finally meets her fairy prince, she’s not pressed into marrying him. She chooses to marry him. Thumbelina is really a story about a woman running away from futures she has no say in to charter her own course in life, an empowering message for women in Andersen’s time – and even today, when put in the right hands.