Navigate the waters of "growing up girl" with Thumbelina as she thwarts the plans of everyone who tries to make her fit into their world. This little girl is meant for great things, just like you!
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Lost and Found: Stories of Displaced Female Identity - Episode 2
“Thumbelina: Dearie, Don’t Marry the Mole!”
Welcome to Lost in the Woods: Finding Your Way as God’s Daughter Through Fairy Tales ™. I’m your host, Autumn Woods, and I’m so excited you’re here. Last time, we talked about learning to rediscover your identity as a daughter of God by building your faith in quiet moments with the Lord, in spite of your circumstances. Our next Lost Woman Story explores what happens when you have a firm grasp of who you are, and are forced to battle a world that tries to make you conform to its idea of who you should be. How do you not get weary? What do you stubbornly hold onto that prevents you from being swept away by the current? What is it that stops you short from taking less than you are destined for?
Few fairy tale spinners and folklorists captured this struggle in a body of work better than Hans Christian Andersen, whose stories will be making many appearances throughout this podcast. This time, we will be focusing on “Thumbelina,” one of my absolute favorites. We’re taken on her journey with her as she encounters adventure and danger, kindness and cruelty, and battles with the shape-shifting monster that is the ignorant agenda of those who would try to control her.
So, let’s get lost, as we read the story of (Thumbelina).
There once was a woman who wanted so very much to have a tiny little child, but she did not know where to find one. So she went to an old witch, and she said:
"I have set my heart upon having a tiny little child. Please could you tell me where I can find one?"
"Why, that's easily done," said the witch. "Here's a grain of barley for you, but it isn't at all the sort of barley that farmers grow in their fields or that the chickens get to eat. Put it in a flower pot and you'll see what you shall see."
"Oh thank you!" the woman said. She gave the witch twelve pennies, and planted the barley seed as soon as she got home. It quickly grew into a fine large flower, which looked very much like a tulip. But the petals were folded tight, as though it were still a bud.
"This is such a pretty flower," said the woman. She kissed its lovely red and yellow petals, and just as she kissed it the flower gave a loud pop! and flew open. It was a tulip, right enough, but on the green cushion in the middle of it sat a tiny girl. She was dainty and fair to see, but she was no taller than your thumb. So she was called Thumbelina.
A nicely polished walnut shell served as her cradle. Her mattress was made of the blue petals of violets, and a rose petal was pulled up to cover her. That was how she slept at night. In the daytime she played on a table where the woman put a plate surrounded with a wreath of flowers. Their stems lay in the water, on which there floated a large tulip petal. Thumbelina used the petal as a boat, and with a pair of white horsehairs for oars she could row clear across the plate-a charming sight. She could sing, too. Her voice was the softest and sweetest that anyone ever has heard.
One night as she lay in her cradle, a horrible toad hopped in through the window-one of the panes was broken. This big, ugly, slimy toad jumped right down on the table where Thumbelina was asleep under the red rose petal.
"Here's a perfect wife for my son!" the toad exclaimed. She seized upon the walnut shell in which Thumbelina lay asleep, and hopped off with it, out the window and into the garden. A big broad stream ran through it, with a muddy marsh along its banks, and here the toad lived with her son. Ugh! he was just like his mother, slimy and horrible. "Co-ax, co-ax, brek-ek-eke-kex," was all that he could say when he saw the graceful little girl in the walnut shell.
"Don't speak so loud, or you will wake her up," the old toad told him. "She might get away from us yet, for she is as light as a puff of swan's-down. We must put her on one of the broad water lily leaves out in the stream. She is so small and light that it will be just like an island to her, and she can't run away from us while we are making our best room under the mud ready for you two to live in."
Many water lilies with broad green leaves grew in the stream, and it looked as if they were floating on the surface. The leaf which lay furthest from the bank was the largest of them all, and it was to this leaf that the old toad swam with the walnut shell which held Thumbelina.
The poor little thing woke up early next morning, and when she saw where she was she began to cry bitterly. There was water all around the big green leaf and there was no way at all for her to reach the shore. The old toad sat in the mud, decorating a room with green rushes and yellow water lilies, to have it looking its best for her new daughter-in-law. Then she and her ugly son swam out to the leaf on which Thumbelina was standing. They came for her pretty little bed, which they wanted to carry to the bridal chamber before they took her there.
The old toad curtsied deep in the water before her, and said:
"Meet my son. He is to be your husband, and you will share a delightful home in the mud."
"Co-ax, co-ax, brek-ek-eke-kex," was all that her son could say.
Then they took the pretty little bed and swam away with it. Left all alone on the green leaf, Thumbelina sat down and cried. She did not want to live in the slimy toad's house, and she didn't want to have the toad's horrible son for her husband. The little fishes who swam in the water beneath her had seen the toad and heard what she had said. So up popped their heads to have a look at the little girl. No sooner had they seen her than they felt very sorry that anyone so pretty should have to go down to live with that hideous toad. No, that should never be! They gathered around the green stem which held the leaf where she was, and gnawed it in two with their teeth. Away went the leaf down the stream, and away went Thumbelina, far away where the toad could not catch her.
Thumbelina sailed past many a place, and when the little birds in the bushes saw her they sang, "What a darling little girl." The leaf drifted further and further away with her, and so it was that Thumbelina became a traveler.
A lovely white butterfly kept fluttering around her, and at last alighted on the leaf, because he admired Thumbelina. She was a happy little girl again, now that the toad could not catch her. It was all very lovely as she floated along, and where the sun struck the water it looked like shining gold. Thumbelina undid her sash, tied one end of it to the butterfly, and made the other end fast to the leaf. It went much faster now, and Thumbelina went much faster too, for of course she was standing on it.
Just then, a big May-bug flew by and caught sight of her. Immediately he fastened his claws around her slender waist and flew with her up into a tree. Away went the green leaf down the stream, and away went the butterfly with it, for he was tied to the leaf and could not get loose.
My goodness! How frightened little Thumbelina was when the May-bug carried her up in the tree. But she was even more sorry for the nice white butterfly she had fastened to the leaf, because if he couldn't free himself he would have to starve to death. But the May-bug wasn't one to care about that. He sat her down on the largest green leaf of the tree, fed her honey from the flowers, and told her how pretty she was, considering that she didn't look the least like a May-bug. After a while, all the other May-bugs who lived in the tree came to pay them a call. As they stared at Thumbelina, the lady May-bugs threw up their feelers and said:
"Why, she has only two legs-what a miserable sight!"
"She hasn't any feelers," one cried.
"She is pinched in at the waist-how shameful! She looks like a human being-how ugly she is!" said all of the female May-bugs.
Yet Thumbelina was as pretty as ever. Even the May-bug who had flown away with her knew that, but as every last one of them kept calling her ugly, he at length came to agree with them and would have nothing to do with her-she could go wherever she chose. They flew down out of the tree with her and left her on a daisy, where she sat and cried because she was so ugly that the May-bugs wouldn't have anything to do with her.
Nevertheless, she was the loveliest little girl you can imagine, and as frail and fine as the petal of a rose.
All summer long, poor Thumbelina lived all alone in the woods. She wove herself a hammock of grass, and hung it under a big burdock leaf to keep off the rain. She took honey from the flowers for food, and drank the dew which she found on the leaves every morning. In this way the summer and fall went by. Then came the winter, the long, cold winter. All the birds who had sung so sweetly for her flew away. The trees and the flowers withered. The big burdock leaf under which she had lived shriveled up until nothing was left of it but a dry, yellow stalk. She was terribly cold, for her clothes had worn threadbare and she herself was so slender and frail. Poor Thumbelina, she would freeze to death! Snow began to fall, and every time a snowflake struck her it was as if she had been hit by a whole shovelful, for we are quite tall while she measured only an inch. She wrapped a withered leaf about her, but there was no warmth in it. She shivered with cold.
Near the edge of the woods where she now had arrived, was a large grain field, but the grain had been harvested long ago. Only the dry, bare stubble stuck out of the frozen ground. It was just as if she were lost in a vast forest, and oh how she shivered with cold! Then she came to the door of a field mouse, who had a little hole amidst the stubble. There this mouse lived, warm and cozy, with a whole store-room of grain, and a magnificent kitchen and pantry. Poor Thumbelina stood at the door, just like a beggar child, and pled for a little bit of barley, because she hadn't had anything to eat for two days past.
"Why, you poor little thing," said the field mouse, who turned out to be a kind-hearted old creature. "You must come into my warm room and share my dinner." She took such a fancy to Thumbelina that she said, "If you care to, you may stay with me all winter, but you must keep my room tidy, and tell me stories, for I am very fond of them." Thumbelina did as the kind old field mouse asked and she had a very good time of it.
"Soon we shall have a visitor," the field mouse said. "Once every week my neighbor comes to see me, and he is even better off than I am. His rooms are large, and he wears such a beautiful black velvet coat. If you could only get him for a husband you would be well taken care of, but he can't see anything. You must tell him the very best stories you know."
Thumbelina did not like this suggestion. She would not even consider the neighbor, because he was a mole. He paid them a visit in his black velvet coat. The field mouse talked about how wealthy and wise he was, and how his home was more than twenty times larger than hers. But for all of his knowledge he cared nothing at all for the sun and the flowers. He had nothing good to say for them, and had never laid eyes on them. As
Thumbelina had to sing for him, she sang, "May-bug, May-bug, fly away home," and "The Monk goes afield." The mole fell in love with her sweet voice, but he didn't say anything about it yet, for he was a most discreet fellow.
He had just dug a long tunnel through the ground from his house to theirs, and the field mouse and Thumbelina were invited to use it whenever they pleased, though he warned them not to be alarmed by the dead bird which lay in this passage. It was a complete bird, with feather and beak. It must have died quite recently, when winter set in, and it was buried right in the middle of the tunnel.
The mole took in his mouth a torch of decayed wood. In the darkness it glimmered like fire. He went ahead of them to light the way through the long, dark passage. When they came to where the dead bird lay, the mole put his broad nose to the ceiling and made a large hole through which daylight could fall. In the middle of the floor lay a dead swallow, with his lovely wings folded at his sides and his head tucked under his feathers. The poor bird must certainly have died of the cold. Thumbelina felt so sorry for him. She loved all the little birds who had sung and sweetly twittered to her all through the summer. But the mole gave the body a kick with his short stumps, and said, "Now he won't be chirping any more. What a wretched thing it is to be born a little bird. Thank goodness none of my children can be a bird, who has nothing but his 'chirp, chirp', and must starve to death when winter comes along."
"Yes, you are so right, you sensible man," the field mouse agreed. "What good is all his chirp-chirping to a bird in the winter time, when he starves and freezes? But that's considered very grand, I imagine."
Thumbelina kept silent, but when the others turned their back on the bird she bent over, smoothed aside the feathers that hid the bird's head, and kissed his closed eyes.
"Maybe it was he who sang so sweetly to me in the summertime," she thought to herself. "What pleasure he gave me, the dear, pretty bird."
The mole closed up the hole that let in the daylight, and then he took the ladies home. That night Thumbelina could not sleep a wink, so she got up and wove a fine large coverlet out of hay. She took it to the dead bird and spread it over him, so that he would lie warm in the cold earth. She tucked him in with some soft thistledown that she had found in the field mouse's room.
"Good-by, you pretty little bird," she said. "Good-by, and thank you for your sweet songs last summer, when the trees were all green and the sun shone so warmly upon us." She laid her head on his breast, and it startled her to feel a soft thump, as if something were beating inside. This was the bird's heart. He was not dead- he was only numb with cold, and now that he had been warmed he came to life again.
In the fall, all swallows fly off to warm countries, but if one of them starts too late he gets so cold that he drops down as if he were dead, and lies where he fell. And then the cold snow covers him.
Thumbelina was so frightened that she trembled, for the bird was so big, so enormous compared to her own inch of height. But she mustered her courage, tucked the cotton wool down closer around the poor bird, brought the mint leaf that covered her own bed, and spread it over the bird's head.
The following night she tiptoed out to him again. He was alive now, but so weak that he could barely open his eyes for a moment to look at Thumbelina, who stood beside him with the piece of touchwood that was her only lantern.
"Thank you, pretty little child," the sick swallow said. "I have been wonderfully warmed. Soon I shall get strong once more, and be able to fly again in the warm sunshine."
"Oh," she said, "It's cold outside, it's snowing, and freezing. You just stay in your warm bed and I'll nurse you."
Then she brought him some water in the petal of a flower. The swallow drank, and told her how he had hurt one of his wings in a thorn bush, and for that reason couldn't fly as fast as the other swallows when they flew far, far away to the warm countries. Finally he had dropped to the ground. That was all he remembered, and he had no idea how he came to be where she found him.
The swallow stayed there all through the winter, and Thumbelina was kind to him and tended him with loving care. She didn't say anything about this to the field mouse or to the mole, because they did not like the poor unfortunate swallow.
As soon as spring came and the sun warmed the earth, the swallow told Thumbelina it was time to say good-by. She reopened the hole that the mole had made in the ceiling, and the sun shone in splendor upon them. The swallow asked Thumbelina to go with him. She could sit on his back as they flew away through the green woods. But Thumbelina knew that it would make the old field mouse feel badly if she left like that, so she said:
"No, I cannot go."
"Fare you well, fare you well, my good and pretty girl," said the swallow, as he flew into the sunshine. Tears came into Thumbelina's eyes as she watched him go, for she was so fond of the poor swallow.
"Chirp, chirp!" sang the bird, at he flew into the green woods.
Thumbelina felt very downcast. She was not permitted to go out in the warm sunshine. Moreover, the grain that was sown in the field above the field mouse's house grew so tall that, to a poor little girl who was only an inch high, it was like a dense forest.
"You must work on your trousseau this summer," the field mouse said, for their neighbor, that loathsome mole in his black velvet coat, had proposed to her. "You must have both woolens and linens, both bedding and wardrobe, when you become the mole's wife."
Thumbelina had to turn the spindle, and the field mouse hired four spiders to spin and weave for her day and night. The mole came to call every evening, and his favorite remark was that the sun, which now baked the earth as hard as a rock, would not be nearly so hot when summer was over. Yes, as soon as summer was past he would be marrying Thumbelina. But she was not at all happy about it, because she didn't like the tedious mole the least bit. Every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset, she would steal out the door. When the breeze blew the ears of grain apart she could catch glimpses of the blue sky. She could dream about how bright and fair it was out of doors, and how she wished she would see her dear swallow again. But he did not come back, for doubtless he was far away, flying about in the lovely green woods.
When fall arrived, Thumbelina's whole trousseau was ready.
"Your wedding day is four weeks off," the field mouse told her. But Thumbelina cried and declared that she would not have the tedious mole for a husband.
"Fiddlesticks," said the field mouse. "Don't you be obstinate, or I'll bite you with my white teeth. Why, you're getting a superb husband. The queen herself hasn't a black velvet coat as fine as his. Both his kitchen and his cellar are well supplied. You ought to thank goodness that you are getting him."
Then came the wedding day. The mole had come to take Thumbelina home with him, where she would have to live deep underground and never go out in the warm sunshine again, because he disliked it so. The poor little girl felt very sad that she had to say good-by to the glorious sun, which the field mouse had at least let her look out at through the doorway.
"Farewell, bright sun!" she said. With her arm stretched toward it she walked a little way from the field mouse's home. The grain had been harvested, and only the dry stubble was left in the field. "Farewell. farewell!" she cried again, and flung her little arms around a small red flower that was still in bloom. "If you see my dear swallow, please give him my love."
"Chirp, chirp! Chirp, chirp!" She suddenly heard a twittering over her head. She looked up and there was the swallow, just passing by. He was so glad to see Thumbelina although, when she told him how she hated to marry the mole and live deep underground where the sun never shone, she could not hold back her tears.
"Now that the cold winter is coming," the swallow told her, "I shall fly far, far away to the warm countries. Won't you come along with me? You can ride on my back. Just tie yourself on with your sash, and away we'll fly, far from the ugly mole and his dark hole-far, far away, over the mountains to the warm countries where the sun shines so much fairer than here, to where it is always summer and there are always flowers. Please fly away with me, dear little Thumbelina, you who saved my life when I lay frozen in a dark hole in the earth."
"Yes, I will go with you!" said Thumbelina. She sat on his back, put her feet on his outstretched wings, and fastened her sash to one of his strongest feathers. Then the swallow soared into the air over forests and over lakes, high up over the great mountains that are always capped with snow. When Thumbelina felt cold in the chill air, she crept under the bird's warm feathers, with only her little head stuck out to watch all the wonderful sights below.
At length they came to the warm countries. There the sun shone far more brightly than it ever does here, and the sky seemed twice as high. Along the ditches and hedgerows grew marvelous green and blue grapes. Lemons and oranges hung in the woods. The air smelled sweetly of myrtle and thyme. By the wayside, the loveliest children ran hither and thither, playing with the brightly colored butterflies.
But the swallow flew on still farther, and it became more and more beautiful. Under magnificent green trees, on the shore of a blue lake there stood an ancient palace of dazzling white marble. The lofty pillars were wreathed with vines, and at the top of them many swallows had made their nests. One nest belonged to the swallow who carried Thumbelina.
"This is my home," the swallow told her. "If you will choose one of those glorious flowers in bloom down below, I shall place you in it, and you will have all that your heart desires."
"That will be lovely," she cried, and clapped her tiny hands.
A great white marble pillar had fallen to the ground, where it lay in three broken pieces. Between these pieces grew the loveliest large white flowers. The swallow flew down with Thumbelina and put her on one of the large petals. How surprised she was to find in the center of the flower a little man, as shining and transparent as if he had been made of glass. On his head was the daintiest of little gold crowns, on his shoulders were the brightest shining wings, and he was not a bit bigger than Thumbelina. He was the spirit of the flower. In every flower there lived a small man or woman just like him, but he was the king over all of them.
"Oh, isn't he handsome?" Thumbelina said softly to the swallow. The king was somewhat afraid of the swallow, which seemed a very giant of a bird to anyone as small as he. But when he saw Thumbelina he rejoiced, for she was the prettiest little girl he had ever laid eyes on. So he took off his golden crown and put it on her head. He asked if he might know her name, and he asked her to be his wife, which would make her queen over all the flowers. Here indeed was a different sort of husband from the toad's son and the mole with his black velvet coat. So she said "Yes" to this charming king. From all the flowers trooped little ladies and gentlemen delightful to behold. Every one of them brought Thumbelina a present, but the best gift of all was a pair of wings that had belonged to a large silver fly. When these were made fast to her back, she too could flit from flower to flower. Everyone rejoiced, as the swallow perched above them in his nest and sang his very best songs for them. He was sad though, deep down in his heart, for he liked Thumbelina so much that he wanted never to part with her.
"You shall no longer be called Thumbelina," the flower spirit told her. " That name is too ugly for anyone as pretty as you are. We shall call you Maia."
"Good-by, good-by," said the swallow. He flew away again from the warm countries, back to far-away Denmark, where he had a little nest over the window of the man who can tell you fairy tales. To him the bird sang, "Chirp, chirp! Chirp, chirp!" and that's how we heard the whole story.
Let’s take a second for the fans of the Don Bluth movie to stop singing “Let Me Be Your Wings,” and jump into the analysis. Don’t wander away from the campfire. We’re about to shed some light on the incredible treasure hidden in this story.
We begin with the longing of a woman to have a child against the odds, and a miraculous birth. Think Hannah. Think Mary. Think nearly any named Old Testament matriarch and you’ll recognize the connection. When there is a struggle to produce a child, it means that unborn person has a significant destiny before them. Every one of these women had to have a divine visitation or actively seek their answers about conception from the Lord. I’m not going to dwell on the fact that the story says Thumbelina’s mother went to a witch for answers. Some versions of the story say witch, some say good fairy, two even have her aid an old beggar woman who gives her the barley corn seed as a “thank you.” Regardless of how she comes by the seed, the point is that, like the women mentioned above, Thumbelina’s mother goes out of her comfort zone to find a solution to her problem and make her desire a reality. In short, she takes a leap of faith. She is told to plant the special seed in a flower pot and “see what she shall see.” Once again, we have a woman who must wait in hope for her faith to produce fruit, in this case, a tulip-like flower containing her long-awaited child.
God loves it when His children come to him with seemingly impossible desires, because it gives Him a chance to demonstrate how much He loves us. Our relationship with Him is deepened by more experiences of His goodness in the face of adversity to share with others. Sometimes this means He mercifully withholds what we ask for, and sometimes this means He makes the crazy dreams we confess to Him a reality, because He put them inside us in the first place.
Eager to see her heart’s desire come to pass, the woman plants the barley corn seed as soon as she gets home. The swiftly sprouting plant produces what appears to be a large tulip bud, tightly shut against the outside world. Encouraged by the mother’s kiss, the flower opens up, revealing our heroine in all her glory. Although she is smaller than her mother may have anticipated, Thumbelina is born with many wonderful gifts. She is lovely, sings beautifully, and has a spirit of adventure. Her mother does an excellent job of tailoring Thumbelina’s environment to suit her child’s needs and help her be successful. Rather than expecting her to make do and adapt to the conditions expected for a normal child, the mother creatively fashions furniture and playtime to suit the needs of her unique offspring. I especially love the lake she makes for her daughter to row across, not just because it demonstrates her love and creativity, but because it reveals that our heroine is more than just a pretty face. She makes a boat and oars out of the objects around her. She rows herself “clear across” the little lake. In this brief anecdote, we learn that Thumbelina is resourceful, clever, strong-willed, and adventurous.
Even though not everyone is blessed with earthly parents who have the time or desire to do this for us, our Heavenly Father delights in placing us in situations and seasons that allow us to grow and thrive with Him, developing the gifts and traits He has given us without fear. We build our foundation on Him and come to trust what He is able to do through us so that when disaster strikes, we do not crumble. We have hope because we remember how safety feels and where we belong.
Thumbelina’s test of character comes almost as soon as she develops one. She has had barely any time with her loving parent before her secure little world is violated by an invader. Sounds like Eden, doesn’t it? Except this incident involves an amphibian rather than a reptile. The “horrible toad” kidnaps the sleeping girl in her walnut shell cradle, determined to drag her down to the marsh to marry her half-wit son, who can’t even manage more than a croak in response to the arrival of his unwilling bride. Several mentions are made of the ugliness of the toads to show the inappropriateness of the match, but their appearance can also be seen as a physicalization of the inner despicableness of their natures. What is the character of someone who kidnaps a child and forces them to serve in unnatural ways? Selfish. Cruel. Demonic.
One of Satan’s favorite games is damaging someone in childhood by whatever means he deems will be effective, in hopes that they will become broken enough to turn away from God, or never turn to Him at all. Murdering innocence has been his M.O. from the beginning, according to John 8:44. Chapter ten, verse ten tells us that he “comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.” He encourages isolation from other believers, as this makes it easier for him to attack our minds and hearts until we are so weary, we cannot refute his whispered lies, and begin to accept them as truth. Similarly, the toads plot to strand Thumbelina on a large lily pad so that she cannot escape them and their plans for her. The pilfering of the walnut cradle when the toads haul it off to their home is a symbol of stolen innocence. Thumbelina is forced to grow up quickly as the last remnant of her loving home and carefree childhood is torn from her, and she must come to terms with the world around her. Not everyone means her well, and she must be on guard against those who would spitefully use her.
Upon being informed that she will marry the toad’s son, she bursts into tears. This simple action is a visceral refusal of the fate the wicked toads would thrust upon her. Sometimes, a gut-punching refusal of the evil spoken over you is all it takes to thwart the schemes of the enemy. Because Thumbelina cries out and does not accept the forced marriage, she attracts the attention of the little fishes, who help her escape. When we are faced with something bigger than us, the smartest thing we can do is cry out to God because He is greater than our adversary. He is the commander of legions of angels ready to battle for His children upon request. Psalm 91 says that they will lift us up in their hands so that our feet do not strike against a stone. Like the angels, the fish hear of Thumbelina’s circumstances and rush in to help, chewing her lily pad loose and sending it swiftly floating down the river, “far away where the toad cannot catch her.”
Rather than bemoaning her separation from home, Thumbelina joyfully becomes a traveler, sailing down the river and meeting all kinds of wonderful creatures. She rejoices knowing that she cannot be caught and dragged back to the marsh, and makes friends with the birds and a butterfly. She even has the bright idea of tying the butterfly to her leaf so that they may travel more quickly together. As her childlike happiness is restored, her creativity and ingenuity begin to work again. After a season of testing comes one of respite and recovery. Even Jesus was ministered to by angels after surviving an onslaught of temptation from the Devil at the start of His ministry. I feel the slap on my own cheek as I tell you that it is important to take the allotted time to recuperate so that you can be ready for the next battle.
Thumbelina’s next obstacle comes crashing into her beautiful new adventure all too soon. A May-bug zooms by, sees her, snatches her, stuffs her into his car and speeds away. Wrong story? Not really. His behavior is not much different than that of a wild teenage boy or a man who never grew up and learned to appreciate women. Ooh, pretty! I want! I get! And he doesn’t care who he hurts. Not Thumbelina, not her friend, the butterfly, who cannot free himself from the lily pad without help. All he cares about is getting his claws around Thumbelina’s tiny waist and getting her up in his tree house. He buys her dinner and tells her she’s pretty, but let’s not lose focus—he kidnapped her. He has no more right to decide her future than the slimy toads. Actually, he doesn’t have the right to make any decisions at all, because he lets peer pressure do the thinking for him.
All the other May-bugs in the tree come to see the strange new creature living among them, and the women immediately begin tearing her apart. They cut Thumbelina down because she does not look like them, insisting that she is hideously ugly. Their cruel words are so potent that the May-bug and even Thumbelina herself begin to agree with them. Notice that Andersen reminds us that the girl is “as pretty as ever;” she does not transform into a beast simply because of the vicious comments made by the lady May-bugs. But she is wounded inside. It doesn’t matter that up till now, all Thumbelina has heard from anyone is how beautiful she is. In the face of a cattle-minded crowd, the truth often seems to be in the mouths of the majority, even when their truth is, in reality, a bald-faced lie. If so many people are saying it with such vehement conviction, it must be true. That’s what we say to ourselves when people speak out against us.
I honestly struggle hard with this myself. I’m a words person. When someone comes after me verbally, it takes me a few days to chew on what they’ve said and bounce back. Sometimes, it takes longer. I’m in no position to give advice about this because I’m still there, and it will probably take until the renewal of all things for me to be truly healed. But I will share something that one of my best friends repeats to me every so often. When I talk to her about the words that are destroying me, she immediately asks, “Who told you that?”. It forces me to stop in my tracks. Of course, I’m going to come back with a sarcastic answer, but in that brief space of coming up with a defense, I’m arrested by the knowledge that I need to immediately discern and confess which camp the words came from, the Lord’s, or the enemy’s. Then I have to decide who I’m going to agree with and if I’m going to get up off the floor and keep fighting.
By the way, have you ever seen a May-bug? They’re basically furry roach beetles! Check out the link in the show notes to see what I’m talking about. They may have cute faces, but those big, hairy bodies are kind of unnerving. Really? The furry roach is the final authority on beauty? As outsiders looking in, it’s easy for us to tell Thumbelina, “forget the haters! They’re just jealous!”. Not everyone has the same taste because we are all created differently. It’s alright if you aren’t adored by everyone. You might be doing something wrong if you are!
But Thumbelina doesn’t have anyone to encourage her and help her become her old self again after the May-bugs drop her on a daisy and fly away. Just like Cinderella’s outfit changes reflect her budding confidence, the flower changes in Thumbelina’s story reflect her inner struggles with self-worth. In fact, they illustrate the struggle experienced by most women over the course of a lifetime.
She was born from a magical tulip, representing the love of a mother who wanted her and gave her a happy, secure childhood. For many of us, early childhood is not a time of turmoil, and we don’t have to think about whether or not we are secure or loved. Delight is taken in us and we are confident in our ability to inspire others. It may be the time when, without knowing it, we are closest to God and how he sees us.
Then our first tragedy strikes, represented here by the bloomless lily pad of isolation. It comes sooner for some than others, and when it does, we are forced to come to terms with the reality that not everyone means us well, and that our suffering may mean the happiness of others. Our implicit trust in people shatters, and we begin to question the actions, words, and motives of those closest to us. The toughest cases may be incidents that are not our fault at all, but we have made a false agreement in our hearts regarding them that we are to blame for what happened to us. This is not to say that we don’t make mistakes and learn from them. I’m referring to the atrocities committed against our young hearts engineered by the kingdom of darkness with the sole intention of doing us harm.
If we do not learn to cope effectively with the lessons of childhood wounds and discern the difference between truth and lies, the scars can easily be torn open again in adolescence by people just as broken as we are. It’s hard to think of anyone who triumphs in their mistreatment of you as broken in the heat of the moment, or in the moments of brooding after, but if you spend time listening to the still small voice after the storm has passed, you will find that this is true. Until then, rejection can make you absolutely miserable. You may start to see yourself as less valuable and vibrant than you really are as a result of someone’s ill treatment of you. While daisies are pretty flowers, they are generally considered more common and less gorgeous and vibrant than others. Thumbelina rests on a daisy because the vicious words of the May-bugs make her feel like a plain wallflower: diminished, worthless and common. She cries because this is painful, but again, it is a visceral reaction of her soul rejecting the lies spoken over her and her destiny. Despite her anguish, deep down, some part of her knows that she has much to give in this world, and that she must journey on to a place where she can regain her bearings and joy.
Not every healing experience is the same. Sometimes, we know the bliss of others encouraging us as we sail through, and sometimes we are left entirely alone to see what we are really made of. Sometimes, we have to get lost in the woods before we find ourselves again. Thumbelina lives alone in the woods for the rest of the summer, occasionally visited by songbirds. Ever industrious and creative, she builds a bed and shelter for herself out of the leaves around her, which, like the traveling lily pad, represent transitional healing. Even if the words of the May-bugs continue to haunt her, she is able to remember that you do not have to be outwardly beautiful to be strong and resourceful, for those traits are beautiful in themselves. Once again, she is able to experience some form of restoration before her next big challenge.
This time, she is not pitted against a creature of nature, but nature itself. The final, deathly caresses of fall rot her leafy home. The frigid blasts of winter shove her out of the forest, pelting her with snow. Thumbelina attempts to wrap the tattered leaf she lived beneath around her for warmth, but it is so ravaged by the elements that she cannot get any comfort from it. We are not meant to become complacent or cling to the old things we once found comfort from forever. We are designed by God to continue to explore and pursue. If we stay in the same place too long, He will allow things to get very uncomfortable for us so that we will begin to call on Him and continue to grow as we set out for our next destination.
Thumbelina will not have a flower again until the end of the story. Her current circumstances are highlighted by stillness, death, and darkness. She wanders from the woods to a harvested field of grain, reduced to a dormant forest of stubble now that its fruit has been gathered. Thumbelina herself will not be able to produce fruit until she is shaken out of her complacency and reminded of her value in this world. It takes an interesting combination of kindness and harsh circumstances to refine Thumbelina’s determination and set her on the right course for her life. Once, she adored being free in the sunshine under the open sky. Now, she is practically imprisoned underground, where no light breaks through. She is denied the things that delight her the most until she finally rises to the occasion and asserts once again that she is worthy of her own, free existence and identity.
While in the field mouse’s care, Thumbelina is told that in exchange for room and board, she is to help the kind creature keep the house tidy and tell her stories. This is an extension of Thumbelina’s summer rehabilitation, as it allows her to exercise the gifts of her voice and creativity in addition to the soothing monotony of manual labor. She is given time to think and sort out what has become of her life while being a productive member of the underground community, and comes to enjoy her time there very much.
Until the mole burrows his way into her life. Just like Thumbelina is not made for the marsh and has no business in the May-bug tree, she is most certainly not suited for a subterranean existence like the mole. The body of a mole is designed to be more tolerant of the air conditions underground. Their large, shovel-like hands help to aerate the soil with each tunnel they dig. Their eyes are small and weak, so they have no natural use for sunlight most of the time. Scientifically, it makes sense that Mr. Mole cares nothing for sunshine, flowers, and birdsong, but the point of emphasizing his disdain for these so called “frivolities” is to set him aside as another inappropriate match for Thumbelina. For all his intelligence and wealth, he does not regard as necessary the things that are lifeblood to Thumbelina.
We are meant to lump the mole in with that fascinating group of people that does not view the arts as having any practical value. They decry the choices of those around them who devote their lives to so fickle and unstable a career path—until they turn on the radio on their commute home, watch their favorite television program, and read a new book before going to bed. Each of us is designed by God to thrive and succeed and glorify Him in the environment He sets us in, using the gifts and talents He has given us. The body is made of many parts, and no part should despise another or discount itself as less important, according to 1 Corinthians 12. Verse twenty-two tells us that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” We should not look down on anyone because of their occupation, or seeming lack thereof. We don’t know who that person may have been designed to reach.
It is frustratingly hypocritical that the mole falls in love with Thumbelina’s singing voice, and then criticizes the poor, frozen swallow for having nothing more than his voice to get by in the world. In reality, swallows are as valuable to an ecosystem as moles. They control insect populations and raise the young of other birds whose eggs turn up in their nests. But the mole does not care about that. He simply reduces the swallow to the one aspect he cannot understand about the creature. It is this cruel assertion, affirmed by the field mouse, that snaps Thumbelina to attention. She already does not care for the mole and bristles at the mouse’s suggestion that she should marry him, but their words are just as illuminating as the sunlight bursting through the new hole in the tunnel. She is known for her voice, and she immediately identifies with the gentle bird before her. Perhaps it was he who sang to her during her wanderings and in the dark days of her seclusion. Perhaps his voice encouraged her and renewed her strength when she felt hopelessly weak and alone. No one could be useless who could do something like that.
The kind-hearted girl rejects the opinion of the mouse and mole, and returns to the tunnel to tend the swallow. She weaves a coverlet from hay and tucks it around the bird with some thistledown to keep his body warm, performing last rites the best she can with what she has. This scene reminds me of the women going to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning to anoint his body with spices. It was the best thing they could think to do to show respect to the one they loved. Imagine their surprise when they were given the good news that our Savior lives! Thumbelina, too, is rewarded for her devotion when she discovers that the swallow is not dead but sleeping. She is a bit frightened of the large bird, just as Mary Magdalene was uneasy at her first glimpse of the resurrected Jesus, whom she mistook for a gardener, but Thumbelina pushes past her fear and continues her gentle ministrations toward the swallow.
The symbolic connection is strengthened when the swallow thanks Thumbelina for her kindness and explains that his wing caught on a thorn bush, causing him to fall below the earth. Like Jesus ministering between His resurrection and ascension, the swallow remains with Thumbelina for a season, spending time with her and encouraging her as she continues to bless him with her care and friendship. Her decision would not be endorsed by the mouse or the mole, but she does not let them stop her from cultivating this treasured relationship. Many people do not understand our devotion to the Lord, and have no desire to dive below the surface with us when we want to share Him with them. Jesus says in John 15:18-25 that if the world hates us, it is because it hated Him first, and because we love Him, we should not expect to be treated differently than He is. It is important that we cling fast to Him despite the objections of those around us. We know the truth, and the truth has made us free.
When it is at last time for the swallow to fly out into the spring sunshine, he asks Thumbelina to come with him. He cares deeply for her, and knows that she does not belong in this subterranean prison any more than he does. Paralyzed by guilt at the thought of what the field mouse would think, Thumbelina denies her desires, telling her friend that she cannot go with him, and the swallow departs. This can be likened to our Christian walk in two ways. The first is that God always wants us to draw nearer to Him, but in our human nature, we do not always choose Him. We often keep ourselves from Him out of shame or distraction, driving a wedge into the relationship. We were not told we could only come so far, but made the decision on our own, despite invitations from our Heavenly Father. The good news is that this problem is fixable on our end. We can make the choices necessary to let God into our mess and love Him back because He loved us first.
The second similarity, we have no control over. Jesus promised that He would return for us, and encouraged us to always be watchful for His coming, because “no man knows the day nor the hour” of the return of the King (Matthew 24:36). We cannot make Him come any faster than God has planned. All we can do is watch and pray. Like a faithful believer, Thumbelina watches every day in hope that the swallow will return to take her away with him. This hope intensifies as she is presented with the final assault on her destiny: marriage to the mole.
Forbidden to go outside into the free air and bullied into a marriage she has no interest in, Thumbelina at first seems to be in a fugue state, aiding in the production of her trousseau as an act of defeated surrender because no other options seem available to her. She takes less than what she deserves for the sake of keeping peace with the field mouse. It has become a bitter joke for me that when I am tempted to take the option touted by the majority of people around me as the safest and best, but it doesn’t actually benefit my well-being in the long run, I whine, “I don’t WANNA marry the mole!”. And I say the same to you. If you are torn between decisions and you haven’t gotten confirmation yet as to what you should do, in the meantime, “Dearie, [DON’T] marry the mole!”. Don’t take less than what God has promised you or believe less in your value than God does. I know, my cheek hurts too!
Sometimes it takes being trapped in uncomfortable conditions to realize what it is you are meant to do. Or not do. The mole badgers Thumbelina nightly about how the sun’s power will soon diminish and they will be married. His tedious visits and disparaging remarks about the things she loves push her to rebel against his rotten plan, and pursue her true path. At sunrise and sunset, she steals out the door of the mouse’s house, waiting for the wind to part the growing stalks of grain so that she can catch a glimpse of the clear blue sky. She allows herself to dream about the wild world and hope for the swallows return. If you cannot imagine anything beyond your prison cell, you will never get out of it. The thoughts you nurture fuel your mind, words, and actions. It’s the difference between miraculously overcoming a disease or succumbing to it before beginning to fight. It’s the difference between playing it safe and boldly walking in your Godly calling, regardless of your circumstances.
By the time fall arrives, Thumbelina is bold enough to refute the mouse’s insistent declaration that she will marry the mole in a month. But she is bullied back into submission by physical threats and a needling lecture of guilt from the field mouse. As often as she talks about the virtues of the mole, I always wondered why the field mouse never tried to pursue him herself. Maybe she’s old fashioned. She must be since she tells Thumbelina to be grateful for getting such a wealthy husband without taking love into account. She doesn’t even consider that Thumbelina is ill-suited for life underground without her beloved, life-giving sun. It’s all about security and obedience and making the rich man happy. One thing I can tell you for sure is that Jesus is not like that. He wants us to come to Him of our own free will and choose Him for life. Yes, we should be grateful that He chose us first and made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could be with Him forever, but He does not want a bride who grovels at His feet all the time. He wants intimacy and relationship with us. It’s hard to have that with someone who can’t look you in the face because they are too busy feeling guilty. Guilt comes from fear, and perfect love casts out fear, 1 John 4:18.
Meanwhile, Thumbelina’s well has run dry. There is nothing left to encourage her when her long-dreaded wedding day arrives. She is able to convince the field mouse to let her say good-bye to the sun before she must be parted from it forever. One lonely red flower remains in the field to give her comfort. Red for love, red for redemption. Arms open wide, she walks out into the light, unwittingly taking her first steps away from the house of sadness. As she mournfully bids farewell to the sun and the sky, we see by the state of the cleared grain field that it is once again harvest time. Time for the Bride of Christ to be caught up with Him in the air and journey with Him to His Kingdom that never ends. Locked in her embrace with the red flower, Thumbelina asks it to remember her to the swallow. Little does she know, today she will go with him to paradise. Startled by the sound of chirping overhead, Thumbelina gives a cry of joy as her friend, the swallow calls her to fly away with him “to the warm countries where the sun shines so much fairer than here…where it is always summer, and there are always flowers.”
This time, Thumbelina doesn’t have to think twice. She climbs on her friend’s back and soars into the air, far away from the “ugly mole and his dark hole.” As they travel, she basks in the sunshine and covers herself with the swallow’s feathers in the cold. Once they arrive in the breathtakingly beautiful kingdom of the warm countries, the position of Christ figure shifts to the King of the Flower Spirits. Upon seeing Thumbelina in his lovely, white flower, he rejoices and places his crown on her head. He gives her his hand in marriage, the queenship of the flower spirits, a new name, and a pair of glorious wings, so that she may fly “from flower to flower,” never again to be limited by what she lacks or made to comply with anyone who would attempt to control her destiny. In Hebrew, Thumbelina’s new name, Maia, means “close to God.” Greek translations tie it to spring, and May. I think all the facets of her new name suit her perfectly.
When we are called to be with the Lord forever, we too will be given a new name and rule by the side of our King. The things that were stolen from us on earth, He will joyously restore as He makes all things new. He has told us that a place is being prepared for us with Him, and if it were not so, He would have told us. In the meantime, we must do the work of love given to us, and watch and hope eagerly for the return of the King. Thanks for stopping by. I’m Autumn Woods, and I can’t wait to see you on the path next time you get Lost in the Woods.