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The Princess and the Pea

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The Princess and the Pea
by Hans Christian Andersen
Edmund Dulac - Princess and pea.jpg
1911 Illustration by Edmund Dulac
Original titlePrinsessen paa Ærten
TranslatorCharles Boner
Genre(s)Literary fairy tale
Published inTales, Told for Children. First Collection. First Booklet. 1835.
Publication typeFairy tale collection
PublisherC.A. Reitzel
Media typePrint
Publication date8 May 1835
Published in English1846 in A Danish Story-Book
Full text
The Princess and the Pea at Wikisource

"The Princess and the Pea" (Danish: "Prinsessen paa Ærten"; direct translation: "The Princess on the Pea")[1] is a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a young woman whose royal ancestry is established by a test of her 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.[1] 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.[2]

The tale is classified in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index as ATU 704, "The Princess and the Pea".[3]


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 not his type. One stormy night, a young woman drenched with rain seeks shelter in the prince's castle. She claims to be a princess, but no one is really believing her because of the way she looks, so the prince's mother decides to test their unexpected guest by placing a pea in the bed she is offered for the night, covered by 20 mattresses and laid them upon the pea and placed twenty eider-down beds on top of the mattresses.

In the morning, the princess tells her hosts that she endured a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard in the bed that she is certain has bruised her. With the proof of her bruised back, the princess passes the test and the prince rejoices happily, for only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through such a quantity of bedding. The two are happily married, and the story ends with the pea being placed in a museum, where, according to the story, it can still be seen today unless someone has stolen it.


In his preface to the second volume of Tales and Stories (1863), Andersen claims to have heard the story in his childhood,[4][5] but the tale has never been a traditional one in Denmark.[6] He may as a child have heard a Swedish version, "Princess Who Lay on Seven Peas" ("Princessa' som lå' på sju ärter"), 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.[1]


Andersen in 1836

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."[4] 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. On 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."[7] 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."[7]


"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),[4] and the publisher paid Andersen 30 rixdollars (US$450 as of 2009).[7] A second edition was published in 1842 and a third in 1845.[4] "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,[2] 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.[8]

English translation[edit]

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.[9] Boner's translation was published as "The Princess on the Peas" in A Danish Story-Book in 1846.[6] 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.[9] 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".[10]

An alternate translation to the title was The Princess and the Bean, in The Birch-Tree Fairy Book.[11]


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. Researcher Jack Zipes said that Andersen, during his lifetime, "was obliged to act as a dominated subject within the dominant social circles despite his fame and recognition as a writer"; Andersen therefore developed a feared and loved view of the aristocracy. Others have said that Andersen constantly felt as though he did not belong, and longed to be a part of the upper class.[12] The nervousness and humiliations Andersen suffered in the presence of the bourgeoisie 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 20 mattresses.[13] 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.[1]

While a 1905 article in the American Journal of Education recommended the story for children aged 8–10,[14] "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."[15] 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".[1]

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".[16]

“The Princess and the Pea” spurred on positive criticism, as well. In fact, critic Paul Hazard pointed out the realistic aspects of the fairy tale that make it easily relatable to all people. He believed that "the world Andersen witnessed—which encompassed sorrow, death, evil and man's follies—is reflected in his tales," and most evidently in "The Princess and the Pea." Another scholar, Niels Kofoed, noticed that “since they involve everyday-life themes of love, death, nature, injustice, suffering and poverty, they appeal to all races, ideologies, classes and genders.” Moreover, Celia Catlett Anderson realized that one of the things that makes this story so appealing and relatable is that optimism prevails over pessimism, especially for the main character of the princess. This inspires hope in the readers for their own futures and strength within themselves.[17]


In 1927, German composer Ernst Toch published an opera based on "The Princess and the Pea", with a libretto by Benno Elkan.[18] Reportedly this opera was very popular in the American student repertoires;[19] the music as well as the English translation (by Marion Farquhar) were praised in a review in Notes.[18] 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 three films, a six-minute IMAX production in 2001, one full-length animation film in 2002 and the 2005 feature length movie featuring Carol Burnett and Zooey Deschanel.[1] The tale was the basis for a story in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka[20] and Lane Smith, wherein 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." satisfying the king and the queen. The princess marries the prince and they live happily, though maybe not completely honestly, ever after.[21] 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" (13-16).[22] Russian writer Evgeny Shvarts incorporates the story, with two other Andersen stories, in his Naked King.[23] In 2019, Simon Hood published a contemporary version of the story with animated illustrations.[24] Both the language and the illustrations modernised the story, while the plot itself remained close to traditional versions.

Similar tales[edit]

The Princess and the Pea in the Danish floral park Jesperhus

Tales of extreme sensitivity are infrequent in world culture but a few have been recorded. As early as the 1st century, Seneca the Younger had mentioned a legend about a Sybaris native who slept on a bed of roses and suffered due to one petal folding over.[25] Also similar is the medieval Perso-Arabic legend of al-Nadirah.[26] The 11th-century Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva tells of a young man who claims to be especially fastidious about beds. After sleeping in a bed on top of seven mattresses and newly made with clean sheets, the young man rises in great pain. A crooked red mark is discovered on his body and upon investigation a hair is found on the bottom-most mattress of the bed.[6] An Italian tale called "The Most Sensitive Woman" tells of a woman whose foot is bandaged after a jasmine petal falls upon it. The Brothers Grimm included a "Princess on the Pea" tale in an edition of their Kinder- und Hausmärchen but removed it after they discovered that it belonged to the Danish literary tradition.[1]

A few folk tales feature a boy discovering a pea or a bean assumed to be of great value. After the boy enters a castle and is given a bed of straw for the night he tosses and turns in his sleep, attempting to guard his treasure. Some observers are persuaded that the boy is restless because he is unaccustomed to sleeping on straw and is therefore of aristocratic blood.[1] In the more popular versions of the tale, only one pea is used. However, Charles Boner added in two more peas in his translation of the story upon which Andersen based his tale. Other differences amongst versions can be seen in various numbers of mattresses as well as feather beds. Versions of the story differ based on whether or not the character of the helper is included. The helper, in some cases, tells the princess to pretend as though she slept badly. In other versions, the helper does not appear at all and the princess decides to lie all on her own.[27]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Tatar (2008), pp. 70–77
  2. ^ a b Wullschlager (2000), pp. 159–160
  3. ^ Haase, Donald. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: Q-Z. Greenwood Publishing Group. 2008. p. 798.
  4. ^ a b c d de Mylius (2009)
  5. ^ Holbek, Bengt (1990), "Hans Christian Andersen's Use of Folktales", Merveilles et Contes, 4 (2): 220–32, JSTOR 41380775
  6. ^ a b c Opie & Opie (1974), p. 216
  7. ^ a b c Wullschlager (2000), p. 144
  8. ^ Andersen (2000), p. 135
  9. ^ a b Wullschlager (2000), p. 290
  10. ^ Wullschlager (2000), pp. 290–291
  11. ^ Johnson, Clifton. The Birch-tree Fairy Book: Favorite Fairy Tales. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1906. p. 28=32.
  12. ^ Dewsbury, Suzanne, "Hans Christian Andersen- Introduction", Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale Cengage, retrieved 3 May 2012
  13. ^ Wullschlager (2000), p. 151
  14. ^ "Readings from Andersen", The Journal of Education, 61 (6): 146, 1905, JSTOR 42806381
  15. ^ Toksvig (1934), p. 179
  16. ^ Zipes (2005), p. 35
  17. ^ Dewsbury, Suzanne, "Hans Christian Andersen—Introduction", Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale Cengage, retrieved 3 May 2012
  18. ^ a b Cohen, Frederic (1954), "The Princess and the Pea. A Fairy Tale in One Act, Op. 43 by Ernst Toch", Notes, Second series, 11 (4): 602, doi:10.2307/893051, JSTOR 893051
  19. ^ "Obituary: Ernst Toch", The Musical Times, 105 (1461): 838, 1964, JSTOR 950468
  20. ^ Sipe, Lawrence R. (1993), "Using Transformations of Traditional Stories: Making the Reading-Writing Connection", The Reading Teacher, 47 (1): 18–26, JSTOR 20201188
  21. ^ Scieszka, John and Lane Smith (1992), The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Viking Press, ISBN 978-0-670-84487-6
  22. ^ Shore, Jane (January 1973), "The Princess and the Pea", Poetry, 121 (4): 190, JSTOR 20595894
  23. ^ Corten, Irina H.; Shvarts, Evgeny (1978), "Evgenii Shvarts as an Adapter of Hans Christian and Charles Perrault", Russian Review, 37 (1): 51–67, doi:10.2307/128363, JSTOR 128363
  24. ^ "The Princess And The Pea". Sooper Books. 2021-07-13.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  25. ^ A Bed of Roses
  26. ^ Donzel, E. J. Van (1994). Islamic Desk Reference. BRILL. p. 122. ISBN 9789004097384.
  27. ^ Heiner, Heidi Anne, "History of The Princess and the Pea", SurLaLune Fairy Tales, retrieved 3 May 2012


Further reading[edit]

  • Bataller Català, Alexandre. (2018). «La princesa i el pèsol» (ATU 704): de les reescriptures escolars a la construcció identitària. Estudis de Literatura Oral Popular / Studies in Oral Folk Literature. 27. 10.17345/elop201827-46.
  • Shojaei Kawan, Christine. (2005). The Princess on the Pea : Andersen, Grimm and the Orient. Fabula. 46. 89-115. 10.1515/fabl.2005.46.1-2.89.

External links[edit]