In the days of the great King Arthur, a poor beggar was tramping through the countryside of England. One evening, when his feet were sore, and his bones were weary, he knocked on the door of a ploughman and begged a bite to eat.
The countryman welcomed the stranger into his humble cottage, while his wife fetched some milk in a wooden bowl, and some brown bread and cheese on a plate. Little did this this good-hearted couple realise that their humble guest was, in fact, none other than Merlin, the greatest and most skillful wizard who ever lived.
Merlin was touched by the kindness of the ploughman and his wife, and he could not help noticing that although everything was neat and comfortable in the cottage, they both seemed to be less than perfectly happy. He asked them some subtle questions about their lives, and he soon learned that they were full of regrets because they had no children.
The poor woman said, with tears in her eyes, “I should be the happiest creature in the world if I had a son. Even if he was no bigger than my husband’s thumb, I would be satisfied.”
Merlin was so much amused with the idea of a boy no bigger than a man’s thumb, that he decided to grant the poor woman’s wish. The following year, the ploughman’s wife had a son, who, wonderful to relate, was not a bit bigger than his father’s thumb.
Even the queen of the fairies was bursting with curiosity to see him. She came in at the window while the mother was sitting up in the bed admiring him. The queen kissed the child, gave him the name of Tom Thumb, and sent for some of the fairies, who dressed her little godson according to her orders:
“An oak leaf hat he had for his crown; His shirt of web by spiders spun; With jacket wove of thistle’s down; His trousers were of feathers done. His stockings, of apple-rind, they tie With eyelash from his mother’s eye His shoes were made of mouse’s skin, Tann’d with the downy hair within.”
Tom never grew any larger than his father’s thumb, which was only of ordinary size. As he got older he became very cunning and full of tricks.
In those days, children used to play at rolling cherry stones like marbles. When Tom was old enough to play with other boys, and had lost all his own cherry stones, he used to creep into the bags of his playfellows and fill his pockets.
One day, however, as he was coming out of a bag of cherry stones, where he had been stealing as usual, the owner of the bag spotted him. “Ah, ah! My little Tommy,” said the boy, “I have caught you stealing my cherry stones at last, and you shall be punished for your thievish tricks.” On saying this, he gave the bag such a hearty shake that poor little Tom became so dizzy that he could hardly stand when he was eventually let out again.
A short time afterwards his mother was making a batter-pudding. Tom, being very anxious to see how it was made, climbed up to the edge of the bowl, but his foot slipped and he plumped over head and ears into the batter – plop! His mother, who did not notice this, stirred him into the pudding-mixture.
The batter filled Tom’s mouth, and prevented him from crying, but he kicked and struggled so much in the pot, that his mother thought that the pudding was bewitched and she hurled it outside the door. A poor tinker, who was passing by, lifted up the pudding, put it into his basket, and walked off. As Tom now had his mouth cleared of the batter, he began to cry aloud, which so frightened the tinker that he flung down the pudding and ran away. Tom crept out of the pudding, covered all over with the batter, and walked home. His mother, who was very sorry to see her darling in such a woeful state, put him into a teacup, and soon washed off the batter. Then she kissed him, and put him to bed.
Soon after the adventure of the pudding, Tom’s mother went to milk her cow in the meadow, and she took him along with her. As the wind was very high she tied him to a thistle with a piece of fine thread to stop him from being blown away. The cow soon saw Tom’s oak leaf hat, and took poor Tom and the thistle in one mouthful. While the cow was chewing the thistle, Tom was afraid of her great teeth, which threatened to crush him in pieces, and he roared out as loud as he could, “Mother, mother!”
“Where are you? Tommy, my dear Tommy?” Said his mother.
“Here, mother,” replied Tom, “in the red cow’s mouth.”
His mother began to cry and wring her hands, but the cow, surprised at the odd noise in her throat, opened her mouth and let Tom drop out. Fortunately his mother caught him in her apron as he was falling to the ground, or he would have been dreadfully hurt.
One day when he was out in the fields, being very careful to avoid the cows, a raven who was flying overhead spotted him. She swooped down, picked him up in her beak, and flew away with him. Poor terrified Tom was screaming and wriggling, but the bird only let go of her captive when she was over the sea. Down-down-down he tumbled into the water. A moment after he was in the sea, a large fish swallowed him up.
Very soon after that, the fish was caught and bought for the table of King Arthur. When the cook opened the fish, everyone in the kitchen was astonished to find such a little boy, and Tom was quite delighted at being free again. They carried him to the king, who made Tom his miniature jester. Very soon, he became a great favourite at court – for by his tricks and games he not only amused the king and queen, but also all the knights of the round table.
It is said that when the king rode out on horseback, he often took Tom along with him, and if a shower came upon them, he used to creep into His Majesty’s waistcoat pocket, where he slept until the rain was over.
King Arthur one day asked Tom about his parents, wishing to know if they were as small as he was, and whether they were well off. Tom told the king that his father and mother were as tall as anybody about the court, but rather poor. On hearing this, the king carried Tom to his treasury, and told him to take as much money as he could carry home to his parents, which made the little fellow caper with joy. Tom rushed to fetch his purse, which was made out of a water bubble, and then returned to the treasury, where he found a silver threepenny coin to put into it.
Our little hero had some difficulty in lifting the weight of his treasure, but he at last managed to pick up the purse, and he set out on his journey. In two days and two nights he reached his father’s house in safety with a huge silver piece on his back. He was almost tired to death, when his mother ran out to meet him, and carried him into the house.
Tom soon returned to Court. As Tom’s clothes had suffered much in the batter-pudding, and the inside of the fish, his majesty ordered him a new suit of clothes, and he mounted as a knight on a mouse.
Of Butterfly’s wings his shirt was made, His boots of chicken’s hide; And by a nimble fairy blade, Well learned in the tailoring trade, His clothing was supplied. A needle dangled by his side; A dapper mouse he used to ride, Thus strutted Tom in stately pride!
It was certainly very amusing to see Tom in this dress and mounted on the mouse, as he rode out a-hunting with the king and nobility, who were all ready to die with laughter at Tom and his fine prancing charger.
The king was so charmed with his tiny knight that he ordered a little chair to be made, in order that Tom might sit upon his table, and also a palace of gold, a foot high, with a door an inch wide, to live in. He even gave him a coach, drawn by six small mice.
The queen was so enraged at the honours conferred on Sir Thomas that she resolved to ruin him, and told the king that the little knight had been rude to her.
The king sent for Tom, but he was fully aware of the danger of royal anger, and he crept into an empty snail shell, where he lay for a long time until he was almost starved with hunger. At last he ventured to peep out, and he saw a fine large butterfly on the ground. He crept close to it and jumped onto its back. The Butterfly carried him up into the air and flew with him from tree to tree and from field to field, until at last returned to the court, where the the knights and ladies all did their best to catch him in a net. At last poor Tom fell from his seat into a water pot, where he almost drowned.
When the queen saw Tom back again, she was in a rage, and said he should be beheaded. He was again put into a mouse trap until the time of his execution. In those days a mouse trap was like a little cage. Now the cat, when he saw something alive in the trap, patted it about until the wires broke, and set Thomas free.
It was only then, after his many adventures, that King Arthur’s tiniest knight returned to his rightful place at the round table, and sat down in his little chair among the likes of Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot.