In the days when King Arthur ruled in Merrie England, and Merlin the Magician cast his spells and worked his magic, there lived a ploughman and his wife close to the royal palace.
These two good people were very unhappy, for they had no children, and, as the years passed by, they longed so greatly for a child, that at last the ploughman went to seek the aid of the great Magician Merlin.
"Great master," he pleaded, "help us with thy wondrous magic art. We long with all our hearts to have a son, even if he be no bigger than my thumb."
Then Merlin smiled, for it pleased him to think how curious such a tiny child would look. But he promised the ploughman that he should have what he asked for. And so it happened that the magic baby was born.
He was the tiniest child that ever was seen, and though he began to get fatter and bigger every day, still he never grew taller than his father's thumb.
The Fairy Queen herself came to his christening, and clapped her hands with delight when she saw how small he was.
"He shall be called Tom Thumb," she cried, "and I will be his Fairy Godmother."
Then she gave him a tiny shirt, spun from a spider's web, and a little suit made of finest thistle-down. His hat she made of a russet oak-leaf, all daintily cocked up on one side. His stockings she chose should be of apple-green, which was taken from the thinnest of the outside rind, and, to keep them trim and neat upon his little legs, she tied them round with garters, made of two eyelashes borrowed from his mother's eyes. His shoes were made of mouse-skin, nicely tanned and with soft grey fur inside, and when he was dressed he strutted about, the gayest little gallant that ever was seen.
Tom soon grew old enough to go to school and play with the village children, but he was so nimble and quick that no one had a chance of winning when Tom was in the game. And when they played for cherry-stones and all Tom's store was lost, he had only to creep into somebody else's bag and steal as many cherry-stones as he wanted.
But one day two great fingers caught poor Tom just as he had slipped into a neighbour's bag, and they thrust him in and shook him up for punishment, until he thought that all his bones were broken.
"Let me out, let me out!" he cried. "I will never steal your cherry-stones again, and I will show you my prettiest new trick."
So they opened the bag and out Tom hopped. The boys all gathered round to see the trick, and Tom Thumb took an ink-pot from the desk and hung it on a sunbeam which was sending its golden shaft across the room.
This, of course, was quite an easy trick for Tom to do, because he was a magic child, but when the other boys tried to hang their inkpots up, alack! they fell with a crash to the floor, and all the ink was spilt.
Then in walked the angry schoolmaster, cane in hand, and as the blows fell thick and fast, Tom danced with glee and laughed out loud.
But when his mother heard the tale, she said it was only naughty boys that played such tricks, and that he now should stay at home until he had learnt to behave better.
"Oh! I will gladly stay at home," Tom cried, "and then I can help you cook, dear mother." And he climbed up on to the edge of the big bowl in which she was making a batter pudding.
But Tom never stayed quiet for a moment, and he was so anxious to see what was in the pudding, that he leaned too far over, and before his mother noticed what he was doing, he tumbled in, head over heels, and was swallowed up in the batter. She never saw even the soles of his feet, but went on stirring busily until it was ready. Then she put it into a basin, and tied it up in a cloth, and dropped it into a pot of boiling water.
Now as soon as Tom felt the heat of the boiling water, he began to hop and jump about in the batter, until the pudding bounced up and down, and round about, as if it was caught in a whirlwind.
"What can be the matter?" cried the poor woman. "The pudding is surely bewitched." And she seized it in great haste and threw it out on to the road.
Just then a tinker happened to be passing, and when he saw the steaming pudding he caught it up and hid it under his red cloak. But he had not gone further than the stile when he felt the pudding begin to shake, and a little voice cried out, "Oh, let me out, let me out!"
In a terrible fright the poor tinker dropped the pudding and climbed over the stile as fast as he could.
"It must be an evil spirit," he cried in terror.
But as the pudding fell, the bowl was broken and the cloth became untied, so Tom Thumb poked his little head out, all covered with batter, and shouted with laughter when he saw the tinker running away.
After this adventure Tom stayed quietly in the house until one day when his mother took him out with her to milk the cows. She was determined to be very careful this time, and so she took a strong thread and tied him safely to the top of a thistle.
"There you will stay until I am ready to take you home," she said. "I have tied you tightly so that the wind may not blow you away."
She thought he was quite safe now, but, alas! before very long, a red cow came wandering past, munching and licking up the grass. Tom's oak-leaf hat looked good to eat, and before he could cry out, he and the thistle were sliding down the cow's throat.
"Tom, Tom, where are you?" cried his mother when she turned round to find neither the thistle nor her precious son where she had left them.
"I'm here, mother," cried a little voice which sounded as if it came from the inside of the red cow, which was peacefully munching close by.
And just then Tom began to kick with all his might until the poor cow felt as if she had swallowed a reaping-machine. She opened her mouth and gave a mighty roar of pain, and out jumped Tom and flew into his mother's arms.
"I will take better care of you after this," cried his mother as she put him carefully into a corner of her pocket, and carried him home.
But the very next day, when his father went out to plough, Tom begged to go too, and as usual he got his own way. He sat behind the horse's ear and cracked his whip, which was made of a barley straw, and was driving along right merrily, when down swooped a great black raven and seized him in her beak.
She carried him off as easily as if he had been a grain of corn and then flew far over the hills until she came to the Giant's castle. There she stopped, and, as she opened her beak, down dropped Tom Thumb right into the bowl of porridge which the Giant was eating for breakfast.
Now the Giant did not notice Tom at all. He only thought there was a black speck in his porridge, and so poor Tom was swallowed up in the next spoonful. But very soon the Giant felt most uncomfortable, for something seemed to pinch and tickle his throat. He coughed a good deal, and at last gave such a mighty sneeze that Tom was sneezed right out into the middle of the sea.
"Aha! here is a tadpole for my dinner," cried a big fish when he spied Tom floating on the waves. Then, with one gulp, poor Tom was swallowed once again.
But that was the last meal that the fish ever had, for at that very moment he was caught in a net and carried ashore to be sold in the market.
"This is a very fine fish," said the Court cook, who was out buying King Arthur's dinner.
So he bought the fish and carried it to the palace. But what was his surprise when he cut it open to see a tiny head poked out, followed by a funny little body and a nimble pair of legs! "This will make a fine present for the King," said the cook, delighted with his luck. So Tom Thumb was carried off and set down before King Arthur.
" 'Tis the gayest little gallant that ever came to Court," cried the King. "We will keep him here among our knights, and he shall make sport for us."
Then indeed began a merry time for Tom! He had all that he could wish for, and was the favourite of all King Arthur's Court. He even danced a minuet upon the Queen's right hand, and showed such grace and quickness that every one cried "Bravo," and the King pulled off his royal signet-ring and gave it to the little dancer.
Now this ring was just large enough to make a girdle for Tom Thumb, and so he slipped inside it and wore it ever after, with great pride.
Such a favourite did Tom Thumb become that the King would go nowhere without his little knight. He sat on the royal saddle-bow when the King went riding, and if the rain came on, or if the wind blew chill, Tom would creep through a buttonhole and nestle close to the great King's heart. And being there he would often ask a favour of the kind heart, which was granted as soon as asked.
"Your Majesty," said Tom one day, "I pray you give me as much silver as I can carry, that I may take it back to my good father and mother, for they are very poor."
Then the King ordered that Tom should be taken to the treasury and allowed to take all that he could carry. It seemed a great load to Tom, but, truth to tell, it was only three silver pennies, and off he set, staggering under the heavy weight.
Tom's father and mother lived but half a mile from the royal palace, but that seemed a terrible journey to Tom Thumb. For the silver pennies were heavy to carry, and his little legs were short, and it took him full two days to reach his home.
Never were two happier or prouder people than Tom Thumb's father and mother when the door opened and their little son walked in. They could not do enough to welcome him home. His mother put a walnut shell by the fireside for him to rest in, and they feasted him for three days upon a hazel nut.
But now it was time to return to Court. So Tom said good-bye to his father and mother, and was just setting out when several drops of rain began to fall. That looked very serious, for one big drop alone was enough to drown Tom Thumb. So his father thought of a better plan, and he took down his horn and blew such a mighty blast upon it that Tom was blown right into King Arthur's Court.
Then began the tilts and tournaments, and Tom earned such honour and renown that all the Court was ringing with his fame. Even Sir Lancelot himself was no match for this small knight, for he was so nimble and moved so quickly that it would have been much easier to fight a midge. Sometimes the Queen would take a ring off her fair finger and hold it out, and then Tom Thumb would run and jump clean through it, so gracefully and lightly, that he never even touched it.
But, alas! one day the little knight fell ill, and though the doctors came and looked at him through a magnifying glass, they could not cure him, but only sadly shook their heads. Then the Queen of the Fairies came with all her dancing, green-robed nymphs, and with gentle hands they lifted Tom Thumb and carried him off to Fairyland.
But King Arthur and all the Court mourned many days for their little favourite. And still to-day in Merrie England the children have not forgotten him. For when the moon shines clear upon the fairy rings, and the green-robed nymphs get ready to dance, we tell the story of little Tom Thumb, and we wonder if the Fairy Queen will one day bring him back to us from Fairyland.