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Annotations for Princess and the Pea

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Hans Christian Andersen
Father of the Modern Fairy Tale 
by Terri Windling


The annotations for the Princess and the Pea fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Princess and the Pea Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Princess and the Pea to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

1. Real Princess: Andersen implies that real princesses are different from any other person with their sheer physical sensitivity in his story. Delicacy in women was assumed and appreciated in women during Andersen's lifetime.
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2. Not quite right about the ladies: As one of the shortest fairy tales, one is always left to wonder what isn't "quite right" about the other women. Details are not given in the traditional tales although modern interpretations have given various reasons, from lack of physical beauty to lack of sensitivity.

An Italian version of the tale, "The Most Sensitive Woman," offers three highly sensitive women, but the prince chooses the one with the highest sensitivity. The first has suffered agonies from the pulling of one single hair from her head while brushing it. The second is in pain from sleeping on a wrinkle in her sheets. The third and final woman, the most sensitive, has a serious injury from a jasmine petal falling onto her foot.
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3. Fearful tempest: It is a dark and stormy night when the princess arrives, a harbinger of change and climax in this short tale.

While the first reading of the story might lead one to believe the princess is passive and delicate. She in fact is not passive, but braves a storm and finds her future mate during her travels, a feat the prince has failed to do in his previous searches.
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4. Queen-mother: It is interesting that the Queen-mother devises and administers the test. The implication is that the prince is unaware of the test until the next morning. While his inability to find a wife and produce an heir is probably frustrating to the parents, they seem to support his search for a true princess through their actions. The father allows the princess admittance into their home. The mother tests the princess' sensitivity.
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5. Three little peas: In the more familiar versions of the tale, Andersen uses only one pea. The three peas were introduced by Charles Boner in his English translation of the tale found in A Danish Story-Book (1846) upon which this version of the tale is based (Opie 1974).
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6. Twenty mattresses: The number of mattresses varies with versions of the story, but Andersen used the combination of twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. The most popular other number used is seven instead of the twenty.
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7. Twenty feather beds: The enormous bed with its mound of bedding is a favorite image of illustrators. While all of the 40 pieces of bedding are not usually included in the illustrations, the bed is often accompanied by a high ladder for the princess to climb to the top. An example of some illustrations can be found in the Princess and the Pea Illustration Gallery.
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8. "Oh, very badly indeed!": Most versions of the tale previous to and after Andersen's version have a woman of low rank pretending to have slept badly to prove she is a princess. Often an animal helper has warned her of the test so she is able to provide an appropriate response in the morning. In other stories, the princess sleeps soundly despite her status and simply pretends a bad night's rest after being warned by her helper.

Andersen, on the other hand, wanted to believe in the "real princess" and adapted his story accordingly. His instincts were great since his version is the best-known today.
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9. Black and blue: The idea that the princess has actually been bruised by the pea(s) is a haunting image of her sensitivity. Some modern writers have explored the sado-masochist possibilities of this story element, wondering why the prince would want to marry a woman with such physical sensitivity.
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10. None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling: While the modern implication of such a princess would be a "high maintenance" woman, another possible interpretation is that the woman is full of compassion.

Also note that this princess must prove her nobility through her physical sensitivity, not through her ability to fit a ring or slipper like her Donkeyskin and Cinderella counterparts. The test is a physical one, but quite unlike the other well-known tests of fitting into articles of clothing.
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11. The three peas were however put into the cabinet of curiosities, where they are still to be seen, provided they are not lost: The voice of Andersen's storyteller is playful throughout the story, but this last line gives the story an air of truth and whimsy.
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The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen : A New Translation from the Danish by Jeffrey Frank

The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen edited by Maria Tatar

©Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales
Page created 11/2002; Last updated 11/11/11