“The Princess and the Pea” is a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a young woman whose royal identity is established by a test of her physical 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. 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.
In 1959 “The Princess and the Pea” was adapted to the musical stage in a production called Once Upon a Mattress starring Carol Burnett.
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. One stormy night (always a harbinger of either a life-threatening situation or the opportunity for a romantic alliance in Andersen’s stories), a young woman drenched with rain seeks shelter in the prince’s castle. She claims to be a princess, 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 20 featherbeds. In the morning the guest tells her hosts—in a speech colored with double entendres—that she endured a sleepless night, kept awake by something hard in the bed; which she is certain has bruised her. The prince rejoices. Only a real princess would have the sensitivity to feel a pea through such a quantity of bedding. The two are married, and the pea is placed in the Royal Museum.