Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | The Princess and the Pea | Summary



The prince is determined to marry only a genuine princess: nothing less will do. When he returns home from his search without success, a bedraggled young woman shows up at the palace in a terrible storm claiming to be a real princess. The royal family gives her a place to stay for the night, but the old queen decides to test the truth of the young woman's royal claim by placing a pea under 20 mattresses and 20 eiderdown feather beds. On this the alleged princess must sleep. The next morning she reports she could not sleep a wink because of a lump in her bed. The queen is satisfied: only a true princess would be so sensitive that she could feel a pea under so much padding, and the prince marries the young woman. The pea is placed in a national museum.


This tale is one Andersen claimed to have taken from the Danish folktale "The Cat Prince." Disney Productions released an animated version of Andersen's story in 2005, and the Broadway musical Once upon a Mattress (1959) based on the story remains a popular choice for community and educational theater productions.

Eiderdown comes from the breast feathers of a female eider, a large migratory sea duck of Northern Europe. These feathers are extremely light, warm, and soft, and so are highly prized as stuffing for comforters and pillows. Such bedding is the most expensive in the world. Today, a comforter filled with this type of feather can cost more than $17,000.

The comment at the end of the story about the pea being placed in a museum is a storyteller's joke to bring attention to the readiness of both children and adults to accept something they're told as truth. Other variations on this type of narrative device are comments like "they celebrated for weeks, and if they haven't stopped, they're probably still celebrating," and "you can read about it in all the newspapers." Andersen enjoyed exploring blurred boundaries between truth and fiction. He suggests the best stories are nonfictions that are hard to believe—or fictions with a basis in fact.

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