“The Princess and the Pea” is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, about a young woman whose royal identity is established by a test of her physical sensitivity. The tale was first published with three others by Andersen in an inexpensive booklet on 8 May 1835 in Copenhagen by C. A. Reitzel.
Andersen had heard the story as a child, and it likely has its source in folk material, possibly originating from Sweden, as it is unknown in the Danish oral tradition. Neither “The Princess and the Pea” nor Andersen’s other tales of 1835 were well received by Danish critics, who disliked their casual, chatty style and their lack of morals.
The story tells of a prince who wants to marry a princess, but is having difficulty finding a suitable wife. Something is always wrong with those he meets, and he cannot be certain they are real princesses because they have bad table manners or they are too fat or thin or not beautiful. One stormy night a young woman drenched with rain seeks shelter in the prince’s castle. She claims to be a princess, so the prince’s mother decides to test their unexpected, unwitting guest by placing a pea in the bed she is offered for the night, covered by 20 mattresses and 20 feather-beds. In the morning, the guest tells her hosts that she endured a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard in the bed that she is certain has bruised her. The prince rejoices. Only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through such a quantity of bedding, so the two are married.
The story ends with the pea being placed in a museum, where according to the storyteller it can still be seen today, unless someone has removed it.
In his preface to the second volume of Tales and Stories (1863) Andersen claims to have heard the story in his childhood, but the tale has never been a traditional one in Denmark. He may as a child have heard a Swedish version, “Princess Who Lay on Seven Peas”, which tells of an orphan girl who establishes her identity after a sympathetic helper (a cat or a dog) informs her that an object (a bean, a pea, or a straw) had been placed under her mattress.
Andersen deliberately cultivated a funny and colloquial style in the tales of 1835, reminiscent of oral storytelling techniques rather than the sophisticated literary devices of the fairy tales written by les précieuses, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and other precursors. The earliest reviews criticized Andersen for not following such models. In the second volume of the 1863 edition of his collected works Andersen remarked in the preface: “The style should be such that one hears the narrator. Therefore, the language had to be similar to the spoken word; the stories are for children, but adults too should be able to listen in.”
Although no materials appear to exist specifically addressing the composition of “The Princess and the Pea”, Andersen does speak to the writing of the first four tales of 1835 of which “The Princess on the Pea” is one. New Year’s Day 1835, Andersen wrote to a friend: “I am now starting on some ‘fairy tales for children.’ I am going to win over future generations, you may want to know”, and in a letter dated February 1835 he wrote to the poet, Bernhard Severin Ingemann: “I have started some ‘Fairy Tales Told for Children’ and believe I have succeeded. I have told a couple of tales which as a child I was happy about, and which I do not believe are known, and have written them exactly the way I would tell them to a child.” Andersen had finished the tales by March 1835 and told Admiral Wulff’s daughter, Henriette: “I have also written some fairy tales for children; Ørsted says about them that if The Improvisatore makes me famous then these will make me immortal, for they are the most perfect things I have written; but I myself do not think so.” On 26 March, he observed that “[the fairy tales] will be published in April, and people will say: the work of my immortality! Of course I shan’t enjoy the experience in this world.”
“The Princess and the Pea” was first published in Copenhagen, Denmark by C.A. Reitzel on 8 May 1835 in an unbound 61-page booklet called Tales, Told for Children. First Collection. First Booklet. 1835. (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Første Hefte. 1835.). “The Princess and the Pea” was the third tale in the collection, with “The Tinderbox” (“Fyrtøiet“), “Little Claus and Big Claus” (“Lille Claus og store Claus“), and “Little Ida’s Flowers” (“Den lille Idas Blomster“). The booklet was priced at twenty-four shillings (the equivalent of 25 Dkr. or approximately US$5 as of 2009), and the publisher paid Andersen the equivalent of about US$450 as of 2009. A second edition was published in 1842, and a third in 1845. “The Princess and the Pea” was reprinted on 18 December 1849 in Tales. 1850. with illustrations by Vilhelm Pedersen. The story was published again on 15 December 1862, in Tales and Stories. First Volume. 1862.
The first Danish reviews of Andersen’s 1835 tales appeared in 1836, and were hostile. Critics disliked the informal, chatty style, and the lack of morals, and offered Andersen no encouragement. One literary journal failed to mention the tales at all, while another advised Andersen not to waste his time writing “wonder stories”. He was told he “lacked the usual form of that kind of poetry … and would not study models”. Andersen felt he was working against their preconceived notions of what a fairy tale should be and returned to writing novels, believing it to be his true calling.
Charles Boner was the first to translate “The Princess and the Pea” into English, working from a German translation that had increased Andersen’s lone pea to a trio of peas in an attempt to make the story more credible, an embellishment also added by another early English translator, Caroline Peachey. Boner’s translation was published as “The Princess on the Peas” in A Danish Story-Book in 1846. Boner has been accused of missing the satire of the tale by ending with the rhetorical question, “Now was not that a lady of exquisite feeling?” rather than Andersen’s joke of the pea being placed in the Royal Museum. Boner and Peachey’s work established the standard for English translations of the fairy tales, which, for almost a century, as Wullschlager notes, “continued to range from the inadequate to the abysmal”.
Wullschlager observes that in “The Princess and the Pea” Andersen blended his childhood memories of a primitive world of violence, death, and inexorable fate, with his social climber’s private romance about the serene, secure and cultivated Danish bourgeoisie, which did not quite accept him as one of their own. The nervousness and humiliations Andersen suffered in their presence were mythologized by the storyteller in the tale of “The Princess and the Pea”, with Andersen himself the morbidly sensitive princess who can feel a pea through twenty mattresses.
Maria Tatar notes that, unlike the folk heroine of his source material for the story, Andersen’s princess has no need to resort to deceit to establish her identity; her sensitivity is enough to validate her nobility. For Andersen, she indicates, “true” nobility derived not from an individual’s birth but from their sensitivity. Andersen’s insistence upon sensitivity as the exclusive privilege of nobility challenges modern notions about character and social worth. The princess’s sensitivity, however, may be a metaphor for her depth of feeling and compassion.
“The Princess and the Pea” was not uniformly well received by critics. Toksvig wrote in 1934, “[the story] seems to the reviewer not only indelicate but indefensible, in so far as the child might absorb the false idea that great ladies must always be so terribly thin-skinned.” Tatar notes that the princess’s sensitivity has been interpreted as poor manners rather than a manifestation of noble birth, a view said to be based on “the cultural association between women’s physical sensitivity and emotional sensitivity, specifically, the link between a woman reporting her physical experience of touch and negative images of women who are hypersensitive to physical conditions, who complain about trivialities, and who demand special treatment”.
Researcher Jack Zipes notes that the tale is told tongue-in-cheek, with Andersen poking fun at the “curious and ridiculous” measures taken by the nobility to establish the value of bloodlines. He also notes that the author makes a case for sensitivity being the decisive factor in determining royal authenticity and that Andersen “never tired of glorifying the sensitive nature of an elite class of people”.
In 1927, German composer Ernst Toch published an opera based on “The Princess and the Pea”, with a libretto by Benno Elkan; the music as well as the English translation (by Marion Farquhar) were praised in a review in Notes. The story was adapted to the musical stage in 1959 as Once Upon a Mattress, with comedian Carol Burnett playing the play’s heroine, Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. The musical was revived in 1997 with Sarah Jessica Parker in the role. A television adaptation of “The Princess and the Pea” starred Liza Minnelli in a Faerie Tale Theatre episode in 1984. The story has been adapted to two films, one full-length animation film in 2002, and a six-minute IMAX production in 2001.
The tale was the basis for a story in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, in which the prince decides to slip a bowling ball underneath one hundred mattresses after three years of unsuccessful attempts with the pea. In the morning, the princess comes downstairs and tells the queen, “This might sound odd, but I think you need another mattress. I felt like I was sleeping on a lump as big as a bowling ball.” which satisfies the king and the queen. The princess gets married to the prince, and they live happily, though maybe not completely honestly, ever after. American poet Jane Shore published a poem, “The Princess and the Pea”, in the January 1973 issue of Poetry, in which a close dependency between princess and pea is posited: “I lie in my skin as in an ugly coat: / my body owned by the citizens / who ache and turn whenever I turn / on the pea on which so much depends”. Russian writer Evgenii Shvarts incorporates the story, with two others by Andersen, in his Naked King.