The Princess and the Pea
story by Hans Christian Andersen

Title: The Princess and the Pea
Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale

Alternate titles:

  • The Real Princess
  • The Princess on the Pea

Danish title:

  • Prinsessen på ærten

The Princess and the Pea summary: (Jump to the fairy tale.)

A prince is looking for a real princess to marry and has searched all over the world to no avail. (One wonders where he was looking!) He returns home to his parents' castle.

One stormy night, there is a knock on the door. The king himself answers, and finds a bedraggled girl seeking shelter. She claims to be a princess...a real one.

The queen is skeptical, but she has a test. She puts a pea (or three, depending on the telling), beneath an incredible amount of bedding. A real princess would feel the pea.

The girl not only spends a fitful night, she is rendered black and blue by the offending pea(s).

And so the prince marries her!

The Princess and the Pea - Notable:

Hans Christian Andersen wrote during an era when delicacy was esteemed in women. I'm not sure a modern prince would search out such an over-sensitive mate.

Note the distinction Andersen makes between princesses and real princesses. It's up to the reader to determine what that might mean.

The most familiar English translation of the story (appearing below) is actually translated from a translation. The intermediate translator changed the one pea in Andersen's original to three peas, and changed the title to The Real Princess.

The story surprises some with its brevity, because they're familiar with adaptations of The Princess and the Pea that feature more contestants for the prince's hand in marriage.

Inset: from 'Andersens Sproken en vertellingen,' Alfred Walter Bayes illus. Main: Stories from Hans Andersen, Edmund Dulac illus. (Images cropped)

When I teach creative writing workshops, I often invite participants to take the first paragraph of this story - the one where we're told that the prince has been searching out real princesses - and ask the writers to expand on it, to figure out how to show the prince trying and failing in his quest. Try it!

The Princess and the Pea - Magical:

As fairy tales go, this one can seem pretty light on the supernatural. I would note that the princess feels the pea(s) through 40 mattresses and feather beds, and also that she arrives on a (perhaps) supernaturally stormy night.

What's a real princess doing out and about on a night like this?

Other versions of The Princess and the Pea

Carol Burnett's Once Upon a Mattress is probably the most famous.

Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (reviewed on this site) features a spoof entitled, The Princess and the Bowling Ball.

The Princess and the Pea
(The Real Princess)

Fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen

Translated by Charles Boner from a German translation

There was once a Prince who wished to marry a Princess; but then she must be a real Princess. He travelled all over the world in hopes of finding such a lady; but there was always something wrong. Princesses he found in plenty; but whether they were real Princesses it was impossible for him to decide, for now one thing, now another, seemed to him not quite right about the ladies. At last he returned to his palace quite cast down, because he wished so much to have a real Princess for his wife.

One evening a fearful tempest arose, it thundered and lightened, and the rain poured down from the sky in torrents: besides, it was as dark as pitch. All at once there was heard a violent knocking at the door, and the old King, the Prince's father, went out himself to open it.

It was a Princess who was standing outside the door. What with the rain and the wind, she was in a sad condition; the water trickled down from her hair, and her clothes clung to her body. She said she was a real Princess.

"Ah! we shall soon see that!" thought the old Queen-mother; however, she said not a word of what she was going to do; but went quietly into the bedroom, took all the bed-clothes off the bed, and put three little peas on the bedstead. She then laid twenty mattresses one upon another over the three peas, and put twenty feather beds over the mattresses.

Upon this bed the Princess was to pass the night.

The Princess and the Pea

The next morning she was asked how she had slept. "Oh, very badly indeed!" she replied. "I have scarcely closed my eyes the whole night through. I do not know what was in my bed, but I had something hard under me, and am all over black and blue. It has hurt me so much!"

Now it was plain that the lady must be a real Princess, since she had been able to feel the three little peas through the twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling.

The Prince accordingly made her his wife; being now convinced that he had found a real Princess. The three peas were however put into the cabinet of curiosities, where they are still to be seen, provided they are not lost.

Wasn't this a lady of real delicacy?

The End

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