The Princess and the Pea

Informant KK is a USC freshman originally from Pasadena California. KK first heard this tale as a young child from his mother.  


“So there’s this prince in a castle who still has his mother and father, the king and queen, who tell him he needs to find a princess to marry. Women from all over the kingdom offer their hand to become the prince’s wife, but the queen has a test for them. She places a pea under their mattress to see if they’ll notice it, and none of them do. Because none of them do, the queen says that none of them can marry the prince. Then, one night, a girl wearing rags knocks on the castle’s gates in a heavy thunderstorm, and the queen is hesitant to invite her in. But, the prince is adamant that she be let into the castle because it is unfair to let her be outside in the storm. So they let her in and she asks for a place to stay. The prince allows this, so the queen, wanting to make sure the girl can’t pass the test, places 100 mattresses on a bed with the pea at the very bottom, and says to the girl, ‘This is your bed for the night.’ The next morning, when they have all woken up, the queen asks the girl how she slept, and she said, ‘I slept terribly, there was something under the mattress that was bothering me so much, and when I lifted up the mattress, there was a pea there!’ By the order of the game, she became the princess and married the prince. I like how it’s kind of absurd, like how could someone feasibly sleep on a mountain of 100 mattresses, for one thing, and secondly, how would they be able to sense a pea at the very bottom?” 


“Some of the variations of the story are like, the prince tests them, or sometimes there’s no competition, it’s just that the queen wants to test her. Sometimes the number of mattresses changes. I believe there’s one version where the queen first tried one mattress, then she passed the test, then the queen asked her to try again on 100 mattresses. My mom told me the first version, and I learned later about the other variations. I believe she told me a very simple version because I was very small.”

As an additional note, the Princess and the Pea is known as ATU 704 from the Aarne-Thompson-Uther tale type index.


This tale has many characteristics from Axel Olrik’s 1921 book, Epic Laws of Folk Narrative research, such as the limitations to two characters to a scene — either the lady and the prince, the lady and the queen, or the queen and the prince — and the repetition of threes, presumably in the number of potential brides which offered their hand in the challenge, which is a common motif in tales. Presumably, the tale carries the moral that a person is not defined by their financial status. The queen wanted to find a “real” and “worthy” princess, so she made it difficult for the lady with the rags to win the challenge, yet she ultimately won in the end, showing she had the value all along inside of her heart — a good lesson to teach a child.