Tom Thumb is a very obscure character in the Arthurian legends. In fact, many people who have heard of him do not even realise that he has anything to do with King Arthur.
He is often viewed as more of a fairy-tale character with his own, unique, fictional world. In this article, we are going to examine what the stories really say about Tom Thumb.
We are going to see:
- Who his family was
- What adventures he had
- What connection he had to King Arthur
- Some of the different versions of his story
Also don’t forget to check out our Arthurian Hub for a lot more articles like this one.
Who Was Tom Thumb?
First of all, who was Tom Thumb in a basic sense? He was a young boy who got up to all sorts of misadventures during King Arthur’s reign and was known for his incredibly small size.
He was no larger than his father’s thumb, hence his name ‘Tom Thumb’.
After several adventures, Tom meets King Arthur and becomes part of the royal court.
As well as his size, Tom Thumb was special in a few other ways. For one thing, he had the ability to perform magic.
Also, later on in his life, he was given an enchanted hat of knowledge, special shoes that would take him anywhere he wanted, a ring of invisibility, and a shape-shifting girdle.
Story of Tom Thumb
There are several different versions of the tale of Tom Thumb, since it is a story that has been told since at least the 16th century.
With that in mind, this section will look at the key parts of the most significant versions of his story.
The birth of Tom Thumb is an important part of the story because it reveals why Tom Thumb was so small in the first place.
There is an old man named Thomas of the Mountain. He is a ploughman, but he is also a member of King Arthur’s council. He and his wife greatly wish for a son.
Their desire is so strong that they go so far as to say that they would be happy with a son even if he was no larger than the husband’s thumb.
At this, the husband sends his wife to see Merlin to see if he can help them bear a son. In another version, they happen to feed a begger, who is really Merlin in disguise.
In any case, Merlin blesses them and just three months later, their child is born. Since he is so small, they affectionately name him ‘Tom Thumb’.
The Queen of the Fairies gives him several gifts, since she and her attendants are his midwives. The gifts all reflect Tom’s remarkably small size. They are:
- A shirt made of cobwebs
- A hat made from an oak leaf
- A doublet (a type of jacket) made of thistledown
- Shoes made of a mouse’s skin
- Socks made of the skin of an apple
Cheating at Games
Tom Thumb is rather mischievous. When playing with other boys, he tends to cheat at their games. Because of this, the other boys do not like him, so they do not want to play with him anymore.
To get back at the boys for rejecting him, Tom decides to play a trick on them. He has some magical abilities (which presumably come from the nature of his birth).
Using these magical abilities, he suspends his mother’s pots and glasses in the air on a sunbeam. The other boys see this and try to copy him, but obviously it does not work in their case.
The pots and glasses of the other boys’ parents fall and break on the ground. Because of this mischief that he has got into, Tom has to stay home, where he can be watched closely by his mother.
The Tinker and the Christmas Pudding
At Christmas, Tom Thumb’s mother makes some puddings. While trying to get a closer look at the mixture, Tom falls into the bowl.
His mother, not realising that he is there, continues making it into a pudding and then gives it to a tinker (a person who travels around repairing household items as a job).
As the tinker is walking into a field, Tom cries aloud (because he has only just managed to get his lips free of the mixture). This frightens the tinker and caused him to drop the pudding.
Tom then manages to free himself and returned home.
Swallowed by a Cow
Tom Thumb’s mother is now determined to not let him out of her sight, although he cannot be near her while she is cooking.
She takes him with her to milk some cows. While in the field, she ties him to a thistle so that he cannot be blown away by the wind. Or, in another version, he simply sits under the thistle.
However, at this point a red cow comes along and swallows Tom. In one version of what happens next, Tom thrashes around inside the cow’s throat, causing it to spit him out.
In a less-pleasant version of what happens next, the cow is given a laxative and Tom comes out with the cow’s faeces. In either case, he is saved and taken home.
The Giant’s Castle
Another day, Tom Thumb goes with his father to work in the field. In one version of the story, they go to sow seeds there. While his father handles the seeds, Tom acts as a scarecrow.
In another version of the story, they are ploughing the field and Tom is given a whip of barley straw with which to drive the oxen.
In either case, what happens next is most important. A bird (a raven or an eagle, depending on the version) swoops down and picks Tom up, carrying him far away.
Tom is carried all the way to a castle where a giant lives. The giant picks him up and puts him in his mouth.
One version explains that Tom thrashes about inside the giant’s stomach, causing him to vomit him out.
Another version explains that Tom holds on tightly to one of the giant’s teeth, eventually annoying him so much that the giant picks him out and throws him away.
Whatever the version, Tom ends up landing in the sea.
Swallowed by a Fish
Tom Thumb’s adventures continue when he is swallowed by a fish in the sea he has just been thrown into.
Tom eventually notices that the fish appears to be being drawn upwards, and he realises that it must have been caught by a fisherman.
While Tom is still inside, the fish is indeed caught and is taken to be prepared as food. The recipient of this food is none other than King Arthur!
King Arthur’s Court
The fish begins to be cut open in the kitchen in preparation for King Arthur to eat, but then Tom Thumb emerges from inside, giving everyone a fright.
The court tailor quickly makes a tiny suit for Tom, and then he is brought before the king. King Arthur is delighted by Tom, and he decides to make him his official dwarf.
He soon becomes a very popular character at the royal court. His mischievous behaviour is a source of great entertainment for Arthur and his wife, as well as for all of Arthur’s knights.
In some versions, Tom Thumb actually becomes one of Arthur’s knights himself, even participating in jousting competitions. He is too small to ride a horse, of course, so he rides a mouse instead.
It was also said that he would often travel with Arthur whenever he rode somewhere on horseback. When it rained, Tom would climb inside Arthur’s waistcoat pocket.
One day, Arthur enquires as to Tom’s parents and learns that they are poor. He then shows Tom the royal treasury and lets him take to his parents as much money as he can carry.
Being so small, Tom can only carry a single coin. Nonetheless, he is very happy to take this to his parents.
Gifts From the Queen of the Fairies
Tom Thumb returns to Arthur’s court after giving his parents the money.
One day, he falls asleep on a rose, where he is found by the Queen of the Fairies. She gives him a number of useful gifts. They are:
- An enchanted hat of knowledge
- A ring of invisibility
- A shape-shifting girdle
- Shoes that can take him wherever he wants in an instant
Honour Bestowed by King Arthur
Because King Arthur likes Tom Thumb so much, he bestows him with many honours. As well as his special suit and his mouse on which he rides, Arthur gives him many other things.
Arthur commissions a special chair to be made especially for Tom so that he can sit at the Round Table with the rest of the knights.
Tom is also given his own coach, made of a walnut shell and driven by six mice. Arthur even has a palace of gold made for Tom. It is, of course, only small. It is about nine inches tall and has a door one inch wide.
Meeting the Giant Garagantua
One day, while Tom is riding in his walnut-shell coach, he comes across a giant named Garagantua. The giant boasts about his powers, and Tom boasts in return.
The giant threatens to harm Tom, so Tom casts the giant under a spell to restrict it, allowing Tom to return to Arthur’s court safely.
Jealousy of the Queen
Because of all these gifts that Arthur has given to Tom, the queen becomes very jealous. She accuses Tom of indecency towards her, which brings the wrath of the king.
Tom hides in an empty snail-shell for days to avoid being captured by Arthur. Eventually, he sees a butterfly land right outside, so he rushes out and jumps on it.
The butterfly flies to various trees and to various fields, and then it eventually returns to Arthur’s court. There, it flies all around with everyone trying to catch it.
Tom finally falls from the butterfly and lands in a pot of water, where he almost drowns. He is then caught and placed in a mousetrap until his execution.
A cat comes across Tom in the mousetrap and starts patting away at it. The metal wires of the trap finally break, setting Tom free.
Tom Thumb’s Death
At this point, Arthur decides to pardon Tom. However, Tom does not get to enjoy being in the king’s favour again for very long.
Shortly after this, Tom is attacked by a large spider. He fights it courageously with his sword, but the spider manages to kill him. One version says that this was due to the spider’s poisonous breath. Another version presents it as being due to the spider’s bite.
In any case, the spider kills Tom and sucks up all his blood.
Arthur and his court grieve greatly at this loss. They give Tom an honourable burial, placing a marble monument over his grave. On the monument is the epitaph:
“Here lies Tom Thumb, King Arthur’s knight,
Who died by a spider’s cruel bite.
He was well known in Arthur’s court,
Where he afforded gallant sport;
He rode at tilt and tournament,
And on a mouse a-hunting went;
Alive he fill’d the court with mirth
His death to sorrow soon gave birth.
Wipe, wipe your eyes, and shake your head
And cry, ‘Alas! Tom Thumb is dead”
SOURCES FOR THE TALE OF TOM THUMB
References to the tale of Tom Thumb are found at least as early as the 16th century. For example, William Fulke referred to the character in 1579.
In 1584, Reginald Scot wrote a work entitled Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which he argued against the existence of genuine witches. There, he referred to Tom Thumb as a character used to frighten children. He placed him in the same category as witches, elves, fairies, and giants.
The earliest reference to a tale involving Tom Thumb appears to be Coryat’s Crudities, written by James Field in 1611. Here, we find a reference to Tom Thumb being ‘entombed’ in a pudding.
However, the earliest full account of the story of Tom Thumb comes from the 1621 publication The History of Tom Thumbe, thought to be written by Richard Johnston.
This publication is very useful and contains the vast majority of the stories outlined in this article.
Numerous other versions were developed throughout the subsequent centuries, with most of them bearing little resemblance to each other beyond the basic premise.
Charlotte Mary Yonge created an adaptation in 1856 with a large focus on moralising the tale. She portrayed Tom Thumb as resisting his urge to play pranks on others and as converting to Christianity.
A version that is more faithful to the original is the version by Dinah Maria Craik Mulock, written in 1863. This version adds the episodes about the jealousy of the queen and the threat of execution.
TOM THUMB IN MODERN MEDIA
Tom Thumb has appeared in numerous pieces of media through the 20th century, beyond just children’s books that retell the basic original story. Here are some examples:
- A ComiColor Cartoons short about Tom Thumb was released in 1936 by Iwerks Studio.
- The Beano featured numerous stories about Tom Thumb from its very first issue, which was published in 1938, until the 1950s.
- A Merrie Melodies short about Tom, called Tom Thumb in Trouble, was released in 1940 by Warner Bros.
- The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, a stop-motion animation film, was released in 1993. It presents a much darker version of the tale, based in modern times.
- Le petit poucet, a French film, was released in 2001 by director Olivier Dahan.
- The Adventures of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina was released in 2002 by Miramax Films. It features Tom Thumb meeting another character of his stature, Thumbelina.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT TOM THUMB
WHO WERE TOM THUMB’S PARENTS?
Tom Thumb was the son of a ploughman named Thomas of the Mountain and his housewife, usually unnamed. Although poor, the father was a member of Arthur’s council.
HOW DOES THE STORY OF TOM THUMB END?
Tom Thumb ends up as a knight in Arthur’s court. He becomes very popular, but he is tragically killed by a large spider.
WHY IS HE CALLED TOM THUMB?
He is called Tom Thumb because he is incredibly small, only the size of his father’s thumb.
IS TOM THUMB A BROTHERS GRIMM STORY?
The story of Tom Thumb long predates the Brothers Grimm. However, one of their tales is very similar to Tom Thumb.
The tale is called ‘Thumbling’ (in English) and is about a poor couple who wish for a son, no matter how small. A thumb-sized boy is born, who then goes on a number of adventures, during which he gets eaten several times.
But beyond the basic premise, which evidently was taken from the tale of Tom Thumb, there are not many similarities here.
See our complete list of Arthurian characters for more entries like this one.
- Norris Lacy, Geoffrey Ashe, Debra Mancoff – The Arthurian Handbook (Second Edition)
- Alan Lupack – The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend
- Ronan Coghlan – The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Arthurian Legends
- Anonymous – Lancelot-Grail, the French Vulgate
- Sir Thomas Malory – Le Morte d’Arthur
See also my ever-expanding list of primary and secondary sources.