Tom Thumb

The Tiny Courtier

Tom Thumb

CharactersBackground Essay Author: Susan Bauer
The legend of Tom Thumb began as a folktale of unknown ancient origins that is almost certainly based on an oral tradition. The novelty of Tom's adventures has clearly captured the imagination of people throughout the ages and across cultures, as demonstrated by the multicultural versions, as well as English adaptations to the tale. A significant number of retellings in the English traditions link the story to the Arthurian legend such as Merlin's role in Tom's birth, and the knighting of Tom by King Arthur. The evolution of the English legend can be traced back to seventeenth-century chapbooks that were published primarily for the entertainment of adults. By the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, playwrights adapted it for theatrical performance, and by the middle of the nineteenth century the story had moved into the realm of children's literature, where it remains today.

The earliest known prose version published in English, appears in a seventeenth-century chapbook entitled The History of Tom Thumbe, the Little, for his small stature surnamed, King Arthurs Dwarfe: Whose Life and adventures, containe many strange and wonderful accidents, published for the merry time-spenders (1621), written by Richard Johnson (listed only as R.I. on the title page). While King Arthur is a central figure in the tale, Johnson adds his own twist to the plot by including magical gifts given to Tom by his godmother, the Fairy Queen, his encounter with the giant, Gargantua, and his captivity in the giant's castle.

A later adaptation of Johnson's version is found in the chapbook, Tom Thumbe, His Life and Death: Wherein is declared many Maruailous Acts of Manhood, full of wonder, and strange merriments: Which little Knight lived in King Arthur's time,...

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