Pretty much, right? I mean, the story only worked out because the princess not only couldn’t get to sleep because there was a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, but complained about it the next morning. Isn’t that rather ungrateful when a royal family gives you a place to stay during a stormy night?
We’ll get back to that, but first a little background on the fairy tale. It was the work of our old friend Hans Christian Andersen, although he said he’d gotten the basic idea from a story he’d heard in his youth. There are some other stories of aristocrats being uncomfortable when sleeping on straw and an Indian prince who thinks a hair in his bed makes it feel like he’s sleeping on a wooden board, which seem to belong to the same general type of tale. Andersen’s direct inspiration, however, was likely to have been a Swedish story that has the same general premise, but an animal telling the girl about the presence of the pea. Andersen gives us a princess who figures that out on her own, and hence is legitimate.
So what does it mean that a princess is unable to sleep because of a pea under her mattresses? It doesn’t sound like a good thing, and some interpretations of the tale, most notably that by Jack Zipes, do indeed suggest that it’s meant to make fun of the aristocracy. Maria Tatar suggests, however, that the princess’ physical sensitivity could be symbolic of emotional sensitivity, a trait that would definitely be desirable in a monarch. Or it could just be another example of fairy tales promoting delicacy in women, like Cinderella’s tiny feet.
It seems that the idea of princesses being the perfect women is a large part of what our society has taken from fairy tales. George MacDonald’s statement about every boy or girl being a prince or princess until they do something no prince or princess would do comes to mind. Anyone who’s studied history knows that princes and princesses would do just about anything, up to and including impaling victims and having their own wives beheaded. Even in fairy tales, royals can be good, evil, or anywhere in between. Somehow, however, the princess ideal is what sticks with a lot of people. I don’t think Disney started that, but rather picked up on an existing trend. So remember, little girls, you might be a princess too if you complain about free room and board!
Incidentally, when I first heard of Once Upon a Mattress, I thought the title made it sound really dirty, and wondered how students could have performed it in high school. I later learned it was just a musical version of “The Princess and the Pea,” but I can’t help but suspect the double-entendre was fully intentional.