It was great to have the opportunity to present at the REPURPOSED: Reclaiming Past Objects, Knowledge, and Narratives Interdisciplinary Conference.
If you missed it here is my presentation.
Repurposing Tom Thumb: An Early Modern Arthurian Hero
The story of medieval folk character Tom Thumb, a man of mystical birth, no larger than his father’s thumb, continues to appear in popular culture today. However, what is unfamiliar too many, is his transition from a mystical curiosity to an established knight of the round table. Richard Johnson’s 1621 chapbook, The History of Tom Thumbe, was the first fairy-tale to be published in English and established Tom within the Arthurian world. However, this was not the origin of Tom’s story.
Tom Thumb was a popular transnational figure of oral lore who also appeared in numerous English texts such as Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft in 1584 and Thomas Nashe’s 1592, Pierce Penniless. The induction of this improbable fantastical medieval folk character into the Arthurian world was perceived to be a sign of a decline in the status of King Arthur during the early modern period. Indeed, James Merriman has argued that the addition of Tom Thumb to the Arthurian stable was due to the reputation of King Arthur falling so low during the seventeenth century, that he was ‘relegated to the nursery.’
This paper considers how new and existing characters were added to the malleable fable from as early as the twelfth century, expanding the world and forming the legend into its more recognisable composition. Established figures of folklore such as Tristan and Isolt, and characters from classic mythology like Britomartis were added to the Arthurian world. Therefore, the repurposing of the Tom Thumb tale into Arthurian mythology was a continuation of the traditional development of the legend and not a unique early modern feature representing a decline in the respectability of King Arthur.