Tolovaj is a small publishing house that specializes in children's literature. We especially love to explore fairy tales.
The fairy tale Hop o' My Thumb is known by several other titles: Seven-League Boots, Little Thumb or Little Poucet (after original Le Petit Poucet). Several collectors, editors, and translators confused it with somehow similar, yet different tale Tom Thumb with a completely different message. By the way - the name Hop o' My Thumb comes from the phrase "Hop on my thumb!" highlighting the small statue of the title character.
While this story is not particularly popular anymore and many parents avoid it due to several unpleasant themes presented through the development of the tale, it's still one of the masterpieces of literature for children due to solid dramatic structure, convincing general moral, and several positive messages that can be picked-up through listening or reading. It's part of our culture and collective consciousness as well.
There was a poor woodcutter who lived with his wife and seven boys, all born within four years. Their situation was so desperate he decided to take the kids in the wood and leave them. Hop 'o My Thumb, who was the youngest but the smartest of his sons, heard his plan and loaded his pockets with white pebbles.
When the family departed in the wood, he marked the way back and boys, despite being abandoned, safely returned home before the night. Unfortunately, his father still wanted to get rid of the boys, and Hop o' My Thumb failed to get the stones. Instead, he got only bread crumbs with him and the birds ate them, so the brothers couldn't find the way home.
They wandered through the forest for some time before finding a cottage. A woman opened them just to warn the boys not to stay there because her husband, a man-eating ogre, should return home. Kids convinced her to let them in and hid. The ogre found them anyway. He told them they can stay the night and gave each one a cap. Then they were sent into the sleeping room where one large bed was still empty and seven daughters of the ogre already slept in the other.
Hop o' My Thumb noticed the girls were wearing crowns. When everybody fell asleep he changed the caps of his brothers and the crown of ogre's daughters. Soon after the ogre entered and by palpitating checked which kids are his own and which should be slaughtered. Thanks to the crowns on boys' heads their lives were spared, but the daughter all died.
Hop o' My Thumb woke his brothers so they could escape before the ogre notices his mistake. They managed to make some distance before the ogre starts his pursuit.
Thanks to seven-league boots he was approaching very fast and boys had to hide. This time he didn't find them. Being tired he decided to take a nap. Hop o' My Thumb sent his brothers home while himself stole ogre's magic boots.
He used them to become a special messenger of the king of the country and earned a fortune. His family was never hungry again.
Themes of the Story
Child abandonment is one of the scariest themes in literature for kids. In times of Perrault, it wasn't fiction at all. There was great famine across Europe and people were so starved many were forced to left children at wealthier relatives (if lucky), sold them (their future was very shady in such cases), or simply abandon them in lonely places as woods. Many of these decisions were illegal but people were desperate and often forced to balance between two extremely bad options.
Even the cannibalism, another eerie theme in the story about Little Thumb, was not so rare. While Perrault (living in the 17th century) symbolically pardoned the parents, brothers Grimm (writing Hansel and Gretel at the beginning of the 19th century) punished the character of the mother twice!
Mother in Hansel and Gretel is presented as a step-mother who wants to get rid of the kids and as the witch in the ginger house who wants to eat them. Such dualism can be found in Perrault's Hop o' My Thumb too (see analysis).
An important theme in Hop o' My Thumb is forgiving. Parents are willing to leave their children in the wood where they would die of hunger if not being eaten by the beast. They got a second chance and yet they insist on leaving the kids but they are still happy to return home and continue living with them apparently with no hard feelings at all.
Such generosity is not an exception at Perrault's tales. His Cinderella forgives her stepsisters and arranges them, two handsome noblemen, as grooms while Grimms' Cinderella ends in blood with both step-sisters mutilated and blinded.
Analysis and symbolism
The polarization of the characters in the fairy tale is obvious. Father can't take care of his children, so he tries to leave them in the wood. They tried to stay with him and even return home after his first attempt. From a logical point of view, this is simply stupid.
We won't start with subconscious effect on kids' minds because the story was not written for kids and the same is true for its predecessor Ninnillo and Nennella from Pentamerone. We need logic in structure and content at least on a symbolic level.
So let's define a problem for the listener. He identifies himself with Little Thumb. Each one of us was in a somehow similar situation - smaller, weaker than others, a victim of circumstances, not powerful enough to solve a problem, ...
Hop o' My Thumb has parents who are planning his death. They are dangerous and they need punishment. On the other hand, they are the biggest positive forces in his life. They are his mom and dad after all. They provided food and shelter to him and his brothers for all their lives. The situation is conflictual. Too complicated, especially for a kid.
The story offers a solution in the second part - in the form of the ogre who wants to eat the boys. The parallel between hunger killing the woodcutter's family and gluttony threatening to kill the children is obvious. There are two parents in the cottage in the wood too - active and dangerous father and passive mother who can't protect the boys (same is true for her daughters). There are even seven girls as the counterpart for seven boys who die instead of them just to satisfy the primitive aspect of universal justice.
How about the father? Is he punished? Ogre is punished by losing a good meal, having his daughters killed, and being robbed of his precious seven-league boots. The reader's (or the listeners') sense for justice on a subconscious level is satisfied. Hop o' My Thumb becomes a proud owner of seven-league boots, a magical object giving him the powers of grown-ups.
He got the boots by his patience and his wit, not by force, which suggests he can deal with problems and challenges in the world of adults. This is further confirmed by the fact he earns a lot of money that is sent to his family. He becomes the provider for his parents and his brothers what symbolically puts him in the role of the father, or - if you want - the head of the family. He already showed a lot of reason and responsibility, so there is no need for further tests.
The story may end right here. We have a happy ending!
What is your opinion?
Variations of Hop o' My Thumb
We have already mentioned Hansel and Gretel. The theme of lost children in the wood is also present in The Babes in the Wood, Brother and Sister, Snow White, and other well-known fairy tales.
The idea of changing places to prevent one's life and punish the villain by the fact he (or she) kills his offspring instead of the protagonists can be found in a less-known fairy tale by Brothers Grimm Sweetheart Roland (aka Darling Roland, Roland and May-Bird).
The motif of stealing a symbol of power is also present in the famous Jack and the Beanstalk with another thrilling scene of pursuit.
It's fair to mention Molly Whuppie, a Scottish fairy tale where a girl (Molly) rescues her two sisters just like Little Thumb rescues his six brothers. There is more emphasis on the pursuit and her cunning skills, she needs to return to ogre's home two more times, yet, it's essentially the same story.
Very similar is Danish Esben and the Witch where Esben saves his eleven (!) brothers with the same trick of exchanging caps. He also needs to return to witch's hut. There is also a subplot with a witch's twelfth daughter who is pushed into the oven what brings us back to Hansel and Gretel.
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© 2020 Tolovaj Publishing House
Did you learn something from Hop o' My Thumb?
Tolovaj Publishing House (author) from Ljubljana on April 16, 2020:
Thanks, Marie Flint, for your comment. As I said, Hop o' My Thumb (Le Petit Poucet) if Perrault's tale, not Grimms', but many collections used the same or very similar titles for different stories about people of small statues. Tom Thumb as an English folktale is one of them and Thumbelina as Andersen's variation of Tom Thumb is probably most known of all.
But this one is more of Hansel and Gretel type - about abandoned kids who are forced to survive on their own, dealing with mighty powers.
It's a very good point comparing these stories with 'telephone'!
Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on April 16, 2020:
I have never heard of this version. In the family heirloom of Grimm's, Hop-O'-My-Thumb is the first tale. The couple are poor peasants with no children. In fact, the version I have is more like Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen.
It is interesting how these tales get changed with oral tradition. It reminds me of the elementary school game of "telephone."