Thursday, January 18, 2018

The secret identity of the Princess with the Pea (Folklore Thursday)

Well, the Princess, specifically. If you want to know the secret identity of the pea, you'll be disappointed. It's a pea.

This is me, showing my work.

Full disclosure: I have never really liked Andersen's literary fairy tales, and doing some research on this one didn't really change my opinion of him. I wasn't even going to go into it, but I found some bread crumbs researching another folktale, and followed it all the way to some literature that talked about the possible folktale-origins of The Princess and the Pea. Sure, I knew that over-sensitivity is an existing motif (I have a tale of three over-sensitive men in my folktale collection), but I was intrigued when I found out that the "original" version was actually numbered ATU 545A - the female-hero variant of Puss in Boots.

See, Andersen claimed that he heard the story as a child. Researchers have already pointed out that there is no Danish version of such a folktale - but it is very popular in the Swedish tradition, which, when it comes to how stories travel... is close enough. I kept running into the same claim: There is a Swedish folktale, titled The Princess that Lay on Seven Peas, which includes a girl, a cat, and some pea-related shenanigans. Sadly, I could not locate the actual story anywhere, because nobody cited it.

So I eventually figured out that the claim came from Georg Christensen, who published an article on the origins of Andersen stories in Danske Studier in 1906. Since my Danish is nonexistent, I painstakingly fed the article into Google Translate, until I managed to find the citations he DID put in there. Which led me to a Swedish folktale collection, where I finally located the story. It is actually titled The Palace that Stood on Golden Pillars.
Close enough, huh.

So, now I had a text, in Swedish. Obviously, I would have to find someone to actually translate it, but as far as getting an idea of the tale went, I once again turned to Google Translate. Apart from some delightful results such as "The cat noticed, and put the mathematics on his mother-in-law", I could figure out what the story really was about.


ATU 545A is also known as The Cat Palace - and, as I have mentioned before, it is basically a genderbent version of Puss in Boots. A poor girl loses her parents, and inherits a cat (her brother gets the cow, obviously). She sets out, and the cat helps her pass as a lost and robbed princess, so that she gets invited to stay with a royal family. However, the mother-in-law is suspicious of her behavior (she's a peasant girl, after all), and decides to put her to the test. She puts things in her bed to see if she really is a refined lady, but the cat sees her, warns the girl, and helps her fake her way through the pea thing (and the bean thing, and the straw thing, and various other food items the queen puts under the sheets).
Eventually, the queen changes tactics: She sends a gorgeous silken dress for the girl to wear, and invites her for a walk. The girl keeps dragging the dress in the mud - but when questioned, she claims that she doesn't feel sorry for it, because she has much better dresses back at home, in Kattenborg. The queen has no more arguments left.

The rest of the story is pretty much the same as Puss in Boots: Time comes to visit the princess' imaginary castle, and the cat runs ahead to arrange it all, kill a giant, get a palace, etc.

Conclusion No. 1: If Andersen really heard this tale as a child, he managed to grasp the least exciting part of it. 
Go figure.
We have a girl, and a helpful, smart (occasionally sassy) animal helper. Most often a cat, BUT the tale also exists in variants where the helper is a dog, which makes it especially dear to my dog-person heart. Also, the girl is not actually as sensitive as Andersen suggests - she is simply faking it, in order to pass as "proper" royalty, and go through the mother-in-law's ridiculous tests (gotta give it to the woman, though, her suspicions were right). She blunders sometimes - says things she shouldn't say, or drags her expensive dress in the mud. And yet, the prince falls in love with her.
This is not a tale about a princess who can't sleep on a pea. This is a tale about a girl who is faking it until she makes it.


Oh yeah, about the title.

Conclusion No. 2: The Princess in this story is actually the Marquise de Carabas. 



  1. Excellent. I've always loved Puss in Boots, which is a popular tale in Spain, and like you find Hans Christian Andersen way too masochistic for my tastes. eg the one of the girl who treads on a loaf to keep her new shoes clean, sinks into hell's waiting room, and is tormented by the burning tears of her dying mother dripping on her head?

  2. I have always liked this tale, but that's because I still picture Carol Burnett's Once Upon A Mattress. In fact, I did a monodrama thing of the Burnett version in high school, telling the story through Winifred and the Queen. People loved it.

  3. Yeah, not a fan of Andersen myself. I love this version!

  4. Thanks for your efforts to deeply research stories,always respected and appreciated. And your writing style is always a joy to experience!

  5. wonderful job! Thank you so much. Just to add to this, there is a Greek version of the tale where a young and very poor man (which is closer to the "puss in boots" versions) BUT HE have to sleep on a chick pea to prove that he is of the noble. Great work thank you again

  6. Impressively thorough research - and a delightful take on an otherwise less-than-scintillating tale. Thanks for sharing your work!

  7. Love this insightful piece. Seems true to life A prep tale told to peasant daughters by those Kardashian Moms of Yore.

  8. missed your finds for so long. was thinking about you, as i was studying some Greek mythology... as always, your blog is like a whiff of fresh air from long long ago ...

  9. Thanks for your determination, complex effort and explanation. Lots to chew on here, including peas.

  10. The original is nice, but too much like Puss in Boots. I love Andersen and his version is hilarious. There's no reason to assume he was told the complete story as a child. And you have to be pretty dense to think it's about an actual "princess" who can't sleep on a pea. Go figure...