In the introduction to Hansel and Gretel, Tatar suggests that the Tom Thumb type Hansel and Gretel stories “offer comic relief in the form of spunky adventurers who use their wits to turn the tables on adversaries with daunting powers” (Tatar, 1999, p. 183). Perrault’s “Little Thumbling” is just one of those tales.
But if we take fairy tales as social commentary of the times, we are also moved to look at how the number of children affects the tone of a household. The townspeople in “Little Thumbling” are amazed that the family “had so many children in so short a time,” (Perrault in Tatar, 1999, p. 199). It is clear that while the parents (or at least the father) love their children, having so many takes a toll on the family finances. We learn that “these people were very poor. [And] having seven children was a great burden, because not one of them was able to earn his own living” (Perrault in Tatar, 1999, p. 199). If famine, or hard times even, are taken into account, this becomes a tale about what can happen when a family overproduces offspring.
In Virginia Hamilton’s collection of American Black folktales called The People Could Fly, there is a tale called “John and the Devil’s Daughter.” The ogre’s “seven-league boots” are similar to the boots of the devil character in this folk tale. The Hansel and Gretel story formula doesn’t apply to “John and the Devil’s Daughter,” but Hamilton, in her notes on the story, discusses motifs, the motif of “the girl as helper in the hero’s fight” and “obstacle flight” that are applicable to our readings (Hamilton, 1985, p. 114-115).
In “Little Thumbling,” the hero receives help from the ogre’s wife. In many of the American Black supernatural tales, the hero received help from the ogre’s daughter. In that there is a variation, but there is similarity in the motif. Also, the boys from “Little Thumbling” engage in an obstacle flight, as their passage from the house of the ogre is not simple. First, the hero keeps the boys from being killed, then they are chased by the ogre in his seven-league boots. Finally, the hero steals the ogre’s boots and secures his family’s well-being by stealing from the ogre.
So not only do we see these motifs in European and Anglo-American versions of fairy tales, but in the African American fairy tales as well.
Hamilton, V. (1985). The People Could Fly. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Tatar, M. (1999). The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.