I was thinking about miscarried babies (as you do) and into my head popped an image of a tiny girl sleeping in a walnut shell, and then my mind exploded a little! I realised that I was thinking of an illustration from a Thumbelina picture book that I had as a child. It made me wonder; could Thumbelina be a story about pregnancy loss? Could western culture hold miscarriage stories and traditions hidden within our art and literature?
The story of Thumbelina starts with a woman who very much wants to have a child but is unable to do so. The woman goes to a fairy and is given a seed which she takes home and grows into a flower. When the flower blooms there is a tiny little girl sitting inside it. The mother exclaims, "what a pretty little child!" and names her Thumbelina.
The story takes a dark turn when sleeping Thumbelina is stolen by an ugly toad who wants Thumbelina to marry his ugly toad son. Luckily for Thumbelina, some little fishes take pity on her and nibble away at the stem of the lily pad that she is trapped on. Thumbelina then ties her sash around a friendly butterfly and speeds off downstream, further and further from her mother. But Thumbelina isn’t free for long before a stag beetle snatches her and flies up into a tree - leaving the poor butterfly to its inevitable death tied to the lily pad. Thumbelina grieves for her friendly butterfly. Luckily other beetles in the tree cause her captor to doubt whether Thumbelina is quite so beautiful as he had originally thought and he discards her back down on the ground.
Thumbelina spends a time fending for herself, drinking nectar from flowers and sleeping under a leaf. But when winter arrives, and snow begins to fall, she finds refuge from the cold in the burrow of a kind field mouse. All winter long Thumbelina nurses back to health a poor cold swallow who has fallen into the burrow with an injured wing. The field mouse is visited by a pompous mole who decides that he wants to marry Thumbelina. Thumbelina doesn’t want to marry the mole because, although he knows a lot of things, he knows nothing of flowers and sunshine and would want to keep Thumbelina under the earth with him. Just as the wedding day looms, Thumbelina’s friend the swallow offers Thumbelina a ride to a better place.
Away they fly, far away, over mountains, into warmer countries, where the sun shines more brightly; where it is always summer; where citrus trees grow; where the air smells of myrtle and orange blossom, and where the flowers bloom in greater beauty. They come to a blue lake, and by the side of it, shaded by trees of the deepest green, stands a palace of dazzling white marble, built in olden times. The swallow sets Thumbelina down on a flower amongst the fallen pillars of the old white palace. And there, Thumbelina meets the handsome king of all the flowers and she joyfully marries him, with the sweet song of her friend the swallow, for their wedding song. Thumbelina is embraced by the pretty little flower people and is gifted wings and a new name; Maia.
Since thinking about this story in relation to miscarriage, it seems like Thumbelina and her emergence from the flower could be a representation of the miscarriage of a tiny baby girl, born too beautiful and too fragile for this world. All of the ugly creatures who try to steal Thumbelina for themselves serve as embodiments for the mysterious forces that come in the night and steal away our babies. They are the harsh, cruel realities of life. Thumbelina becomes cold in the winter, as she would in death, and finds a new home underground. The mole wanting to confine Thumbelina beneath the earth is like a metaphor for death and being buried. But there is great hope in the story too because Thumbelina’s sweet, innocent self could never remain buried, her spirit flies free on the wings of a swallow. Ancient Roman's believed that swallows were an embodiment of the lost souls of children who died during childbirth, or that they were the transporters of the souls of lost babies to heaven. The swallow takes Thumbelina to a better place that sounds a lot like heaven, and perhaps smells like it too. Myrtle is sacred to the Greek goddess, Aphrodite, and traditionally a symbol of everlasting love, and in Jewish custom, myrtle is both the symbol and scent of Eden. Orange blossom is a symbol of innocence, purity and good fortune, and is one of the few plants that blooms and bears fruit at the same time giving it a symbolic association with fertility. Thumbelina finds her place in a special garden of flowers for all the lost babies where they all live happily together, perhaps this is reference to their parents planting flowers for them? Thumbelina is renamed, Maia, by the flower people; a name which derives from Maia the Greek goddess of nursing mothers.
So perhaps Thumbelina is the story of a little lost baby. A baby who was stolen from her mother but ultimately found a place of peace where she could be happy and loved. Could there be more popular stories like Thumbelina that are told year after year without any of us noticing their meaning? I know that I will be looking out for them now!
Illustrations by John Patience for Peter Haddock LTD. and Gustaf Tenggren for Western Publishing Company Inc.