On a well-known fairy tale
‘The Princess and the Pea’ is one of the shortest of the classic fairy tales. It also manages to be simultaneously one of the most straightforward and one of the most baffling. It’s straightforward because its plot is so simple, but it’s almost too simple. What are we to make of this tale of royal oversensitivity to bed-dwelling vegetables? Does the fairy tale (if it even is strictly a fairy tale at all) have any discernible moral?
It is easy to summarise ‘The Princess and the Pea’: a prince wishes to marry a princess, but he wants to make sure she is a real princess, rather than one of the dozens of royal pretenders who appear to inhabit the realm. He goes on an extensive search to find his royal bride, but he cannot be completely sure that any of the women he meets are bona fide princesses. This pickiness when it comes to courting looks set to end in perpetual bachelorhood, until one day, on a dark and stormy night, a young woman arrives at his castle, asking to take shelter inside until the storm has passed. The woman claims to be a princess, so the prince’s mother takes a pea and places it under twenty mattresses in the bed where the princess is to spend the night.
In the morning, her hosts ask the young princess whether she slept well, and she tells them she passed a rotten night because there was something hard underneath her in the bed, and her body was black and blue by the time the morning came. She hardly got a wink of sleep all night. The prince and his mother take this as proof that this young woman is a real princess, since only someone of truly royal blood could be so tender and sensitive to have been troubled by a pea concealed under twenty mattresses. The prince and the princess duly get married, the pea is put on display in a museum, and that’s the end of this strange little tale.
The story was first written down in 1835 by Hans Christian Andersen, who claimed to have heard it in his childhood. But we find earlier versions of this tale in other literature. Iona and Peter Opie, compilers of what is still the definitive edition of the best tales, The Classic Fairy Tales, mention a notable Indian precursor to Andersen’s tale, in Book XII of the Kathāsaritsāgara of Somadeva (11th century), in which three brothers vie for the title of the most fastidious, with the winner (if that is quite the word) being the one who claims he is a sensitive sleeper. This brother spends the night sleeping on seven mattresses, but is found dead when morning comes, a crooked red mark along the side of his body. When his bed is examined, a single hair is found at the bottom of the mattresses – presumably the cause of the deadly wound.
The Opies also record that ‘The Princess and the Pea’ was translated into English by a man with the unfortunate name of Charles Boner, who found the idea of a princess – however sensitive – being able to feel a solitary pea beneath twenty mattresses somewhat far-fetched. Boner duly altered, not the number of mattresses, but the number of peas, taking it up to three, that magical number in fairy tales.
But enough of the background to this curious little fairy tale. What does it all mean? This question is made more relevant by the story’s existence, in slightly different form, before Andersen’s ‘Princess and the Pea’ version from the nineteenth century. A story that goes back to India almost a thousand years ago (and that’s only the earliest one we know about: many fairy tales have the ring of oral culture about them, and oral literature is notoriously good at getting itself lost down the centuries) surely has more importance than warnings about maintaining a tidy valance or laughter about how the royals are a bunch of pernickety wusses farther removed from the sufferings of ordinary people than a Martian holidaying on Pluto. But what, then, might the true meaning of the tale be?
One explanation is that the story is about the importance of a prince making a good marriage, to a woman of royal blood who came from good ‘stock’. Before paternity or DNA tests, and in an age when kings – fathers of princesses, in other words – found it as easy to get themselves killed in battle as to sire a daughter, it was probably a tricky business trying to ascertain your bride-to-be’s credentials in the blue-blood department. Some other ‘test’ had to be invented. Of course, this doesn’t explain the male figure in the Indian tale, who is neither royal nor female, so this cannot be the full explanation (or perhaps any explanation) of ‘The Princess and the Pea’. Perhaps instead, then, the fairy tale is intended to be a mockery of those occupying a comfortable position in society, whether royal or aristocratic, and their over-sensitivity to small details which the great unwashed (i.e. the rest of us) don’t have time even to notice, let alone be bothered by. This would explain the exaggeration in both, about not only the lightness of the object detected (a pea, a hair) but also the number of mattresses (twenty, seven).
In the last analysis, then, perhaps ‘The Princess and the Pea’ is meant to ridicule those people who are incapable of understanding true suffering. This is seen as a sign of one’s nobility and good breeding – the three brothers in the Indian tale fight over the right to be crowned the most fastidious one – but, to the rest of us, it is more likely to arouse derisive laughter rather than quiet admiration.